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Iraq War Shows Growing Latino Role In US Military…Latinos Gave Their Lives To New Land

Iraq War Shows Growing Latino Role In US Military.

By Pablo Bachelet

April 3, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Reuters Ltd. All rights reserved.

WASHINGTON April 3 (Reuters) - The last Samuel Rocha heard of his son was a terse e-mail last week from his commanding officer in the Army's 299th Engineer Company: "All the 299 is doing well. We are safe."

Rocha and his son, Samuel Rocha Jr., are Colombian. The son signed up as an Army reserve member five years ago to help pay for college. Now he is part of the forward units of the 3rd Infantry Division pushing toward Baghdad.

"He likes the military discipline," said his father, who lives in a Washington, D.C., suburb.

Rocha Jr., who came to the United States when he was 2 years old, isn't the only Hispanic member of his company. The unit also includes a Bolivian, a Puerto Rican and an Argentine-Peruvian.

Their participation in the U.S. armed forces underscores the growing role of Latinos in the American military. Some, like Rocha Jr., are not U.S. citizens but legal residents.

According to the Pentagon, 122,500 Hispanics are enrolled in the armed forces, about 8.7 percent of the total force. Almost 50,000 are of Mexican descent.

And those numbers have increased in recent years. In 1983, just 4 percent of new recruits were Latinos. By 2000, that number had jumped to 11.3 percent.

The trend mirrors their increasing numbers in the United States population as a whole. Hispanics have overtaken African-Americans as the United States' largest minority group with a population of 37 million, or 13 percent overall.

The role of Hispanics in the Iraq conflict also highlights barriers faced by poorer immigrants, who are less likely to hold officer rank and fill coveted highly skilled postings such as Air Force pilots.

Guatemala-born Cpl. Jose Gutierrez was a typical example of Latinos on the front lines and the dangers they face in Iraq. Gutierrez jumped a train to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in 1997. He later joined the Marines as a legal resident. He was killed in the Umm Qasr port in Iraq on March 21, one of the first U.S. combat casualties.

Seven Hispanics are listed by the Pentagon among the killed in action in Iraq and four as missing.


Anxiety over the Iraq conflict has caused many Mexicans to reach out to friends and family in the United States, even though the Mexican government opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and a chill persists on an official level.

President Vicente Fox of Mexico sent his condolences to the family of Mexico-born Jose Angel Garibay, a U.S. Marine killed in the Iraq conflict.

Yellow ribbons are fluttering in towns south of the U.S.-Mexican border as Mexicans show support for friends and relatives among the U.S. troops fighting in Iraq.

One Mexican-American, Edgar Hernandez, is a prisoner of war. He was shown on Mexican television in Iraqi custody last week, his face badly bruised and beaten. His family came from the Mexican border city of Reynosa where residents say yellow ribbons are fluttering in the plaza downtown and at City Hall.

More than 400 people from Reynosa and nearby Mission, Texas, turned out for a mass and prayer vigil last week for Hernandez, captured with other members of the 507th Maintenance Company near the town of Nasiriyah.

"The war is thousands of miles from us, but here everybody knows everybody," said Yoli Martinez, who works at Junior's Mini-Super convenience store in Reynosa.

Still, the risks of war do not seem to worry hundreds of Mexicans who have contacted the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City every day since the war in Iraq began, offering to enroll in the U.S. military in the mistaken belief that they can win U.S. residency rights or citizenship for enlisting, embassy officials say. Military service does shorten the waiting time for legal residents to gain U.S. citizenship.


"These immigrants that are fighting for our country," said said Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, a Texas Democrat and member of the Hispanic caucus in Congress. "It's important for part of the (U.S.) population that is anti-immigrant to know that there are people fighting out there for the country despite the fact that they haven't become citizens."

Marine Staff Sgt. Christopher Olivares, a Marine recruiter in Los Angeles, said one of the reasons Mexicans legally living in the United States join the military is the opportunity for advancement.

"The Marines have given me opportunities I never would have had. At 26, I've purchased two houses, been to 16 different countries and gone to college," said Olivares, the son of a poor Mexican immigrant mother.

Despite their growing presence, Latinos' participation in the military still lags their overall 13.3 percent presence in the civilian population aged between 18 and 44, according to Census Bureau numbers.

One problem is that many Latinos do not have the high school diploma needed to enroll in the armed forces.

"Many Latinos drop out of school, and it is not because of academics, but pregnancies, or economic reasons," said Rep. Rodriguez.

According to a recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center, only 8.2 percent of the Latino population aged 18 to 44 meets the dual requirements for military service of completing a high school degree and holding permanent residency status.

Also, there are fewer Hispanics in the higher ranks of the military. Hispanics make up only 4 percent of the officer corps, and in the Air Force, which has higher entry standards than the other services, Latinos make up only 2.5 percent of the officer ranks.

"You won't see a lot of Latinos flying airplanes over Iraq," said Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center.

By contrast, Hispanics are proportionately slightly more involved in combat roles. According to the Pew study, 17.7 percent of Latinos are in the infantry, seamanship or gun crew jobs, while that category makes up 16.6 percent of the total enlisted force.


Latinos are also more keen to enroll in the Marines: Some 14.1 percent of that enlisted force is comprised of Hispanics.

"There's no effort by Latinos to avoid military occupations that involve firing weapons," Suro said.

The reason is not machismo, said Raul Duany, chief of media relations for the U.S. Southern Command in Miami and born in Puerto Rico.

Rather, new recruits must take an aptitude test similar to the SAT college entrance exam. A high score gives recruits their pick of the choicest positions. "If English is your second language, then you're not going to do as well and you end up in the infantry units or something like that rather than being at a desk," said Duany.

Latinos Gave Their Lives To New Land


April 4, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved.

MEXICO CITY, April 3 – Lance Cpl. José Gutiérrez, 27, was among the first to die, in a tank battle outside Umm Qasr on March 21.

Cpl. José Ángel Garibay, 21, fell in combat near Nasiriya. Pfc. Francisco Martínez Flores drowned when his tank plunged into the Euphrates River. Lance Cpl. Jesús Suárez del Solar, 20, was killed on Saturday fighting with the First Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion.

They had this in common: they were marines, and they were not Americans. They died for a country not entirely theirs.

Corporal Gutiérrez was an illegal immigrant from Guatemala, an orphan who made his way through Mexico to the promised land of California and into the Marines. His 3 fellow marines were Mexican by birth and citizenship, 3 among roughly 36,000 soldiers in the United States military but not of the United States – green card holders and other legal residents who hope for full legal status as American citizens.

Corporal Gutiérrez's only survivor, his sister, Engracia Cirín, lives in a shack without a telephone on the edge of Guatemala City. "It makes me sad," she told a local reporter in Guatemala, "because he fought for something that wasn't his."

Corporal Gutiérrez and Corporal Garibay will receive citizenship posthumously, military officials said today.

The parents of Private Martínez and Corporal Suárez are unsure of their sons' status as Americans. Private Martínez had filed for citizenship but his application was not complete, military officials said. As for Corporal Suárez, his father, Fernando, who brought him to California six years ago, when he was 14, said he thought his son would remain a Mexican in death.

Although public opinion in Mexico is running strongly against the war in Iraq, dozens of Mexicans have been telephoning, e-mailing and walking up to the American Embassy and its consular offices daily, asking about becoming Americans by becoming soldiers. They are being turned away.

"Unless you are a U.S. citizen or a permanent legal resident, which is what most are interested in becoming, you can't join up," said Jim Dickmeyer, an embassy spokesman.

Hispanics, including those who have obtained legal residency and those who already are citizens, represent about 9 percent of the uniformed military and about 13 percent of the overall population of the United States. Among enlistees in the all-volunteer army, roughly 5 percent have legal residency but not American citizenship.

President Bush signed an executive order in July putting green card holders who enlist in the military on a fast track to becoming Americans. The order eliminated a three-year wait, let the soldiers seek citizenship immediately and applied to anyone on active duty as of Sept. 11, 2001.

There are restrictions for soldiers who are not citizens: they cannot serve in most intelligence units, nor in elite groups the like Green Berets. Nor can they become commanders.

In Mexico and Central America, the story of Corporal Gutiérrez has resonated strongly. He was orphaned with his sister as a child, and worked as a laborer, before being taken in by Casa Alianza, which works with street children in Guatemala. Casa Alianza's files show he studied architecture before leaving for the United States, apparently on foot and by hopping trains, in 1997.

He was arrested by the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service in 1997, records show, but might have lied about his age, claiming he was 16, to win his release. An adoptive family in Lomita, Calif., took him in. He joined the Marines last year and was one of the first two marines killed in combat, on March 21.

"We join Guatemalans in remembering Lance Corporal Gutiérrez, who gave the ultimate sacrifice in service to his adopted country," said John R. Hamilton, the United States ambassador to Guatemala.

Corporal Garibay was born in Guadalajara. He enlisted as a marine three years ago, at 18, and was killed on March 23. "Though he felt Mexican, he also loved the United States, and that's why he enlisted, that's why he went to war," said his sister, Azucena Barragán, in Costa Mesa, Calif. "He said he was coming back a hero."

Private Flores, also born in Guadalajara, came to the United States in 1985, aged 3. He died in combat March 25, apparently after his tank became lost in a sandstorm and overturned into the Euphrates River. His mother, Martha Flores of Duarte, Calif., said he thought his citizenship was coming through in a few weeks. She added, "I only want all this anguish of the mothers of the soldiers to end, to stop the suffering of broken families."

Corporal Suárez, born in Tijuana, came to California in 1997 and died somewhere in Iraq on March 27. "I was a military man in Mexico, and I'm proud of him," said his father, Fernando, of Escondido, Calif. "Hopefully his death was in a good cause and not in a war for oil."

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