Mexican-Americans, Iraq and the Politics of Immigrant Bashing

At the southern tip of Texas on the Mexican border across from Matamoros lies the city of Brownsville. According to the official visitors’ bureau website: “Brownsville, Texas is a truly international city located in a semi-tropical paradise where two cultures meet to create a unique land of exotic sounds, flavors, history and natural beauty found nowhere else in the U.S.”

Kristian Menchaca was born in Houston but grew up and attended schools in Brownsville. The son of immigrants, he often visited his many cousins on the Mexican side. In Brownsville there are no walls that separate families and cultures. This week family members from both sides of the border will gather to bury Kristian’s remains.

A typical working-class youth, Menchaca had dropped out of high school and obtained a GED. He loved to play basketball, rooted for the Houston Rockets, and worked at a gas station and a Wendy’s before enlisting. But hamburgers were not his favorite food. According to friends, he preferred taquitos de trompo con cilantro y cebolla.

On June 16 insurgents in Iraq abducted Pfc. Menchaca, 23, and fellow soldier Tommy Tucker, 25, at a checkpoint somewhere along the Euphrates ten miles south of Baghdad. Their bodies were found a few days later. A third soldier, David Babineau, 25, died in the initial attack.

On MSNBC’s “Hardball,” Norah O’Donnell introduced Kristian’s uncle Mario Vásquez (“Vaskwez” she said repeatedly) and tried to spin the story: “You know, there’s this debate raging in this country about the troops coming home, but a lot people who have family members over there say we need more troops to make sure we keep the guys safe. I assume that’s what your family believes.”

Tío Mario agreed: “Yes, we believe very strongly that, if we’re going to have our soldiers over there, we should have more soldiers protecting our soldiers of our own country.”

But what O’Donnell failed to report and what was not widely covered in the English-language media was that days earlier Menchaca’s mother, Maria Guadalupe Vásquez, had issued a statement in Spanish: “Estoy en contra de la guerra y me duele mucho lo que pasó a mi hijo” (“I am against the war, and I feel very hurt by what happened to my son”).

The statement was mentioned briefly on June 20 in the Houston Chronicle and quickly disappeared. Several relatives reported that both Vásquez and Julio César, Menchaca’s brother and an Iraq veteran, did not agree with her son’s decision to join the military.

In a mixture of bravado and clarity, Julio César told a local Spanish-language newspaper: “Kristian nunca tuvo miedo de ir a la guerra, aún cuando esta guerra en Irak no es una guerra por la que vale la pena morir” (“Kristian was never afraid to go to war even though this war in Iraq is not a war worth dying for”).

On Monday, Menchaca returned to Brownsville. As poet María Herrera Sobek wrote about the U.S. war in Southeast Asia: “Another Mexican American hero brought home under the Stars and Stripes/Long gone the need to prove his manhood/Long gone the need to prove his red-blooded American genealogy/And only the stars twinkle at our foolish pride.”

While America once again kills its young in a needless war, senators and congressmen in Washington play politics with the issue of immigration and nativists harass Mexican workers on street corners across the country. It is a crushing irony characteristic of Mexican American communities that Kristian Menchaca had joined the Army in hopes of someday becoming a Border Patrol agent.

Later this week in Los Angeles, the Latino youth organization Coordinadora estudiantil de la Raza (Student Coordinating Committee of the People) will attack that irony head on by holding a protest downtown. Building upon an earlier action in which Chicano high school students resigned from their JROTC units, the group brings together two of the most pressing issues in their community–the unchecked stream of Latinos and Latinas into the lowest ranks of the military and the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border.

In their literature they ask the question that might have saved Kristian Menchaca’s life: “If you are thinking about joining the (J)ROTC or the MILITARY consider this: DO YOU WANT TO BE SENT TO IRAQ OR THE BORDER?”

JORGE MARISCAL is a Vietnam veteran and director of the Chicano-Latino Arts and Humanities Program at the University of California, San Diego. He is a member of Project YANO (San Diego). Visit his blog at: jorgemariscal.blogspot.com/ He can be reached at: gmariscal@ucsd.edu



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