May 7, 1999

Commentary

Chicano POWs return home

By Jorge Mariscal

The release of the three POWs in Yugoslavia reminds us of previous homecomings and of those who never made it home. That two of the three men are Mexican Americans will not surprise those familiar with the history of Chicano participation in U.S. wars. Always represented in the military services well beyond their numbers in the general population, often volunteering for the most hazardous duty, recipients of the most Congressional Medals of Honor of any other ethnic group, young men of Mexican descent have fought and died for this country since 1848.

A generation ago, Everett Alvarez, flying air support during the Gulf of Tonkin incident, became the first American POW in the Viet Nam tragedy. "Saving Private Ryan" could just as easily have been "Saving Private Rodriguez," for Chicanos were at D-Day and in the frozen fields of Korea. My own family, immigrants to L.A. from the northern Mexican state of Sonora during the Revolution, has sent sons, cousins, and nephews to every branch in the military—my father a Marine in World War II, my uncles in the Navy and Seebees in the same war, my cousins and I in the Army in Korea and Viet Nam. "Mexicans are good fighters," a general once said, and their communities fiercely patriotic, often to a fault.

Since the Viet Nam era, opportunities in most Chicano communities have not improved. Plagued by the redistribution of wealth upwards during the 1980s, successful roll-backs of the minimal gains of the Civil Rights movement, and declining high-school graduation rates, working and middle-class Chicanos find themselves locked out of California's elite universities and excluded from the state's high tech future. In high schools across the country, young men and women of Mexican ancestry whose families have recently immigrated are especially attracted to Junior ROTC programs in order to prove they are Americans.

Military recruiters are eager to exploit the situation. They know two important facts: 1) that so-called Hispanics tend to stay in the military longer than other groups, and 2) that Latinos will make up the largest pool of available 18-year olds for well into the next century. The Pentagon recently considered revising the military aptitude test in order to admit scores of Latinos who previously had failed the exam. These facts together with diminishing life chances mean that Chicanos will be on the frontlines of every U.S. military intervention for decades to come.

Thirty-five years ago, LBJ's Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara created Project 100,000, a program that lowered physical and "mental" admission requirements for the military, and funneled thousands of poor Black and Latino young men into the killing fields of Viet Nam. In the 1990s, what the Pentagon calls a volunteer army is in fact a thinly disguised economic draft.

This is not to question the patriotism of Mexican American enlistees. It is merely to point out that for many working class people, the military is one of the few ways out of a world of limited opportunity and continuing discrimination. Besides military service, Chicanos will be well-represented in the high-growth industries of state security and law enforcement. Former POW Andrew Ramirez's brother is a police officer; Andrew has expressed an interest in a police career. The parents of Steven Gonzales are prison guards at the maximum security facility in Huntsville, Texas.

Viet Nam was then; Yugoslavia is now. It is never wise to draw historical parallels too closely. Yet the similarities between the current situation and the early years of the war in Southeast Asia are striking—poorly defined objectives, internal debates about bombing vs. ground troops, blind optimism about technological superiority, and a resolute foe with a rich tradition of defeating invading armies. Certainly no one doubts that the current leadership in Belgrade is despicable. But are Americans willing to sacrifice their sons and daughters every time U.S. political and corporate interests demand they do so? How many more black granite walls inscribed with the names of the dead are we prepared to build?

During the late 1960s, Chicanos and Chicanas created their own anti-war movement to protest the destruction being perpetrated by their government. President Nixon took a special interest in the anti-war demonstrations organized by the National Chicano Moratorium Committee in Los Angeles from 1969-71, precisely because it was the first time an ethnic working-class community had opposed the environmental havoc and human genocide that was taking place in Southeast Asia. On August 29, 1970, LAPD and Sheriffs broke up the largest event, killing three people in the process including L.A. Times reporter Rubén Salazar.

The history of Mexican American opposition to senseless wars has been erased from school textbooks and the media; it is not well-known even within Spanish-speaking communities. Unless we revive that history for the next century, there will be many more Chicano POWs and many more Chicano dead. As Chicana poet Maria Herrera Sobek puts it in her poem titled "Silver Medals":

The silver medals
purple hearts
medals of conquering heroes
Hung on Chicano homes
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 genealogy.
And only the stars
Twinkle at our foolish pride.

 

Jorge Mariscal is a professor at University of California, San Diego and the editor of "Aztlan and Viet Nam: Chicano and Chicana Experiences of the War" (University of California Press, 1999).

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