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Más Latinos, más muertes

The military is turning more to Latinos like Carrboro's Misael Martinez

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Misael Martinez
  • Misael Martinez

Among the dozens of people waiting to honor Misael Martinez at Carrboro Town Hall last month was his former eighth-grade French teacher, Ms. Griffith, who thumbed through an old McDougle Middle School yearbook to a black-and-white thumbnail photo of a lanky, grinning, dark-haired boy with glasses. The queue quietly streamed by several long, rectangular casserole dishes covered neatly in foil, past a wall of military commendations, to a small corner table. There was Martinez, in an 8-by-10 frame and in color. He was dressed in a pine-green Army uniform, flanked by the American flag. Beneath the picture lay his Purple Heart and Bronze Star, awarded after his death on Veteran's Day, when he was killed in Ramadi, Iraq, by a roadside bomb. It was his third tour in Iraq. He was 24 years old.

Staff Sgt. Martinez was the first Latino in Orange County to be killed Iraq, and one of 325 U.S. Latinos to return home in coffins. (Another Latino died in the same Nov. 11 attack.) With the Bush administration's recent push for as many as 30,000 additional troops, more American soldiers will die, and many of them will be Latino.

The forces that compel Latinos to join the military are similar to what drives soldiers of all ethnicities and races to put their lives on the line: the promise, although often unfulfilled, of a government-paid education; the lure of civilian job opportunities, which may not pan out; and the chance to prove their meddle as young men.

"He wanted to become a lawyer," Martinez's father, Juan Antonio, said, removing his glasses and wiping his eyes. That evening, the Latino Credit Union established a scholarship fund in Martinez's name. "If one less boy doesn't have to go to war and can get an education.... It will be wonderful for a low-income family to send their son to college. He can stay safe at home, safe around his mama and his papa and his brothers."

Latinos compose 12.8 percent of the U.S. population, and they make up 11 percent of the military deaths in Iraq, according to U.S. Census and Defense Department estimates. Yet Latinos, some of whom may not have the education or English skills to score high on military entrance exams, often receive the most dangerous assignments in combat and infantry, particularly in the Marines, in which nearly one in five casualties is Latino. Martinez, a 2000 Orange County High School graduate, was a combat engineer in the Army's 1st Armored Division, which was responsible for securing some of Baghdad's toughest neighborhoods.

Martinez's parents immigrated to the United States, became U.S. citizens and lived in Dallas, where Martinez was born. They learned English and settled in Carrboro, where Rosalia, the mother, works as a health care aide and Juan Antonio works in restaurant maintenance. Martinez was one of four children, and as a teen he worked nights at Food Lion to supplement the family's income.

"The first generation, that's the group getting trapped," says Jorge Mariscal, a Vietnam War veteran who heads the Chicano studies program at the University of California, San Diego. He also is a member of the Project on Youth and Non-Military Opportunities, which provides alternative viewpoints to students about military enlistment. "In the big picture, it's an education problem. The high school dropout rate is over 60 percent. They don't have a lot of opportunities for good-paying jobs."

North Carolina's Latino population has increased 300 percent over the past decade. Unlike the historically Latino Southwest, which was Mexico until 150 years ago, Latinos are a relatively new presence in North Carolina. Moreover, the state lacks the health, education and social services resources to cope with such a population surge, particularly in public schools. Since 1990, in kindergarten through 12th grade, more than half the state's public school enrollment growth has been Latino children.

"Especially in the Deep South, they're not equipped to deal with Latino kids," Mariscal adds.

However, the military is prepared to capitalize on the Latino youth, in North Carolina and elsewhere. The Army Times reported that Hispanics constituted 22 percent of the military recruiting "market." In Orange County, home to an increasing number of Latinos, a recruiting station opened in November on East Franklin Street. And according to the National Priorities Project, a nonprofit group that analyzes federal policy and spending, Wake County ranks No. 50 in the Top 100 U.S. counties in number of overall recruits.

"The Pentagon's focus on Latinos has changed," Mariscal said. "They're pouring millions of dollars into Hispanic initiatives, specific ad campaigns for Latinos."

In addition to marketing tactics and slogans, such as "Yo soy el Army," to attract Latino citizen recruits, the Bush administration is tapping undocumented immigrants for a hitch in the military. The International Herald Tribune reported in late December that the Pentagon was considering recruiting non-citizens abroad to alleviate the strain on the military.

Already, non-citizens, including undocumented immigrants, can expedite their own citizenship (although not necessarily for their families) under certain conditions: If they came to the United States more than five years ago and were 15 or younger, graduate from high school, and serve two years in the military or complete two years in college. About 30,000 non-citizens now serve in the military, making up 2 percent of the active-duty force; the number of immigrants who have become citizens through the service has increased from 750 to 4,600 since September 2001. But some soldiers, including Lance Cpl. Jose Gutierrez, a former orphan in Guatemala who was among the first serviceman to die in Iraq, have been awarded their citizenship posthumously. One hundred non-citizens in U.S. uniforms have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Many Latino civil rights groups view fast-tracking as a way for undocumented immigrants to become legal more quickly than the current 14-year wait (Immigration, Customs and Naturalization Enforcement is only now reviewing the most popular class of citizenship applications filed in 1993). However, for North Carolina's undocumented immigrants, college is most likely out of the question. The General Assembly let a bill die last session that would have allowed undocumented college students to pay in-state tuition. Without that law, they must pay out-of-state rates, well beyond their financial means.

Nearly a dozen members of Martinez's family attended his memorial in Carrboro, including his siblings and his grandmother, who walks with a cane and had traveled from Dallas. Two uncles flew in from Monterrey, Mexico.

"Individual soldiers are being killed, but there is a big extended family that is devastated," Mariscal says. "Ten, 12 people are being crushed."

The Carrboro Town Council proclaimed Dec. 5, 2006, Misael Martinez Day. "He is here—his soul, spirit, life and smile. It is with us every day," Juan Antonio said.

At the front of the Town Hall Chamber, the words of the national anthem were projected onto a white screen. The family stood in front of it, with the song's verses emblazoned on their faces. In the back row stood U.S. Army Private First Class Israel Martinez, Misael's 22-year-old younger brother, in his green dress Army uniform. He leaves for Iraq this month.

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