"Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one." - Charles Mackay
Monday, April 10, 2006
Not in Our Nombre
By Celina R. De Leon

Yeah, I'm from Mexico, too. That's where I'm from, and look at me now. You can do this, too. -- Oskar Castro

The increased recruitment of young Latinos and Latinas to the armed forces is nothing new. The campaign has been around since President Clinton was in office, when the disproportionately low number of Latinos in the military came to light. But what's new is the rising numbers of Latino counter-recruitment activists across the country.

"Anti-military activists have been having this conversation for the past 10 years and we've never seen this type of activity that we're seeing now," said Oskar Castro, counter-recruitment activist with the American Friends Service Committee of Philadelphia, Pa. "I think it's because [Latino/as are] paying attention more than they ever had. They need to. It's a war, and it's an endless war. It's not just the war in Iraq. It's the so-called war on terror."

Latino counter-recruitment activists have been emerging on both coasts, and in pockets across the country. In big cities like San Diego and Chicago, and in small cities like Hartford, Conn., where Latinos Contra La Guerra (Latinos Against the War) led by Milly Guzman-Young are mobilizing large numbers of youth.

"Latino activists who haven't necessarily always been involved in this conversation, or as involved as in anti-colonialism, anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist, and social justice work, have found [counter-recruitment activism] as compelling and important to their work," says Castro.

Oskar Castro recently became involved in the counter-recruitment movement because of his uncle, who passed away last year. He was a Vietnam veteran enlisted in the Marine Corps.

"When I started there was an impending war, but now we're in that war. And I see a lot of young men and women who are coming back and who are going to be just as challenged, if not more so, than my uncle," said Castro.

"I watched him slowly deteriorate for 37 years, due in large part to his experiences in Vietnam and his association with the military, and all the bad things that happened to him afterwards -- health related and benefits related. The benefits administration wasn't there for him, nor was the military," said Castro. "If I could prevent any one person from not becoming my uncle, then I would have done some good work. And so I continue always with him in mind."

Pulling up in their bright Humvees at playgrounds, car shows, basketball tournaments, Latina sorority parties, and appearing in video games such as "America's Army," and bulletin boards and magazines in Latino communities, the military is determined to wow and win the hearts and minds of Latino youth.

"At these basketball courts, they pull up in their Humvees with the recruitment information translated into Spanish. And a lot of young people of all ages approach the Humvees," said Tomas Alejo, a counter-recruitment activist, and one of the founding members of the Watsonville, Calif., Brown Berets. "They come looking very attractive in their best uniforms. It captures the young people's attention. They see the glitter and the machismo."

The Watsonville Brown Berets was founded in 1994, in reaction to the social issues the Chicanos and Central Americans in the area were facing -- poor school conditions, police harassment, lack of political representation in the City Council and school boards, student harassment, and the large high school dropout rate. The founding chapter of the Brown Berets was formed in 1967 in East Los Angeles for the same reasons -- and the Vietnam War.

Watsonville is a rural, migrant, farming community where just about 80 percent of the residents are Mexican and recent immigrants of Central America. It's a working class community with very impoverished areas, and not a lot of resources. Watsonville is also home to many of the United Farm Workers struggles led by Cesar and Helen Chavez, and the Canary Strikes, led by migrant farm workers, including Alejo's parents.

"We became interested in counter-recruitment activism in the last Iraqi war. We noticed a lot of the recruits out of the Santa Cruz County were from Watsonville," said Alejo. "Recruiters were heavily targeting our schools on a daily basis. They were also at our playgrounds, basketball courts. They had a whole agenda set up for them to be our friend, our mentor."

Alejo, with the Watsonville Brown Berets, and social activism groups from Santa Cruz, held protests and were successful in getting military recruiters out of their schools and their local university.

"They had a large assortment of recruiters from the Navy to the National Guard to the Army," said Alejo. "We were able to pass a resolution in our school board that qualified 'Opt Out' on our emergency cards in our schools. Now parents have the option to opt out the military from having this information."

Showing up in high schools in the forms of Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps (JROTC) and pro-citizenship programs, military recruiters use often unattainable promises to attract youth -- citizenship, money for college, and career training.

"Certainly, in the last few years, one of the promises that we hear in the Latino community is that a recruiter will tell someone, 'I can help you get citizenship,' said Jorge Mariscal, a counter-recruitment activist with the San Diego, Calif. organization Project on Youth and Non-Military Opportunities (YANO), and a Vietnam veteran. "Now, the reality of that is they cannot help you get citizenship -- they can help you apply for it sooner if you enlist. But you're not guaranteed citizenship… We've met Latino kids who actually went to fight in Iraq and who came back and their citizenship was denied for whatever minor legal refraction they might have had when they were a kid."

Young people have to be legal residents to enlist into the Armed Forces, and technically, they have to show a high school diploma. But since the outstretched U.S. army is struggling to meet its recruitment targets, the Armed Forces has had to take more people without a high school diploma. The Dream Act gives young people who are not documented two options for conditional residency - they have to attend college, or go to the military. Since Latino youth tend to come from low-income families, college is rarely seen as a feasible option.

"The biggest lie recruiters tell in general is the amount of money you'll get for college," said Mariscal. "They're very misleading because very few people get that much money. And there's all this fine print of what you have to do to get that much money. So, if you're in a Latino community, where your parents don't even understand English, it's very easy for recruiters to manipulate all this information."

"And then the third most misleading promise is that they're going to get you a job in the military," said Mariscal. "They only have limited ability to give you the job you want because once you're in, you're given a series of tests. And if you don't test high enough, you might not get some of the jobs you thought you were going to get. So, a lot of Latino kids say they want to go and work on computers and high tech stuff. But then when they take their exams and score low because they come from bad high schools, they're not qualified for those high tech jobs. … And they'll be put in the infantry and be a truck driver."

With an average 12-hour workday in the military, taking classes toward a college degree is nearly impossible. According to Mariscal, studies show that it takes people who enlisted in the military an average of 10 years to earn a B.A.

"They play with the young people's brains, and with their attitudes," said Fernando Suarez del Solar, founder of Proyecto Guerrero Azteca in Escondido, Calif, and a counter-recruitment activist. "Some recruiters say they can give you the opportunity to serve your new country, Or, 'You're Hispanic, your parents don't have good money, your mother cleans bathrooms, your father works in the farms, you come here -- you'll have opportunities for integrity. Community people will respect you.' … A lot of young people go into the military with their eyes closed," Suarez del Solar noted.

Suarez del Solar visits close to 140 schools across the country a year, educating youth about the decision to join the Armed Forces. He started Proyecto Guerrero Azteca after his son, Jesús, was killed after stepping on a U.S. cluster bomb while fighting in Iraq on March 27, 2003.

"Many recruiters often say, 'Don't you want to defend your country?' -- playing on the whole war on terror thing, when trying to recruit youth," said Mariscal. "For immigrant kids, they often draw on this, 'Don't you want to show your gratitude to your new country?' 'Don't you want to get out of your parents' house?' 'You'll have freedom to travel.'"

"Students in community colleges are often told by recruiters, 'Look, you're not going anywhere here,' where I can give you this, this, and that. So, some of them openly discourage going to college. They talk very openly in their literature about how college is their number one competitor," Mariscal added.

As for the difference in tactics used between the sexes, young men can assume to hear that military training and experience will make them more of a man. And young women can expect to hear that they will not just be a girl anymore, they will actually be in charge of men.

And if military recruiters still cannot get the youth to sign up? They get their parents to.

"[The military] recognizes the sociological perspective that Latino families overwhelmingly -- in immigrant communities and nonimmigrant communities -- still keep their children very close to the chest. And as a result, the young person does not have the kind of consciousness or freedom that other members of ethnic minority groups have with regards to being accountable to themselves, and to themselves only," said Castro. "There is a stronger sense of family in Latino communities and the military recognizes this. And so a lot of the marketing and advertising that's been done has been done with the parents of Latinos in mind. The idea that if they can convince parents that this is okay for their child, they will have their blessing."

In addition, many young people and parents in immigrant communities feel the pressure to convince themselves, and the rest of the nation, that they, too, are a part of this country, and that they, too, can serve.

"I would think it would be the same kind of sentiment that the folks in the African American community might or must have had when the military was segregated," said Castro. "They wanted to show that they, too, could fight for their country … Latinos and Latinas are in that next wave of having to prove that they belong here, and that they're on par with other communities. One way to do that is to join the service."

Yet, rather than pushing peace at all costs, many Latino counter-recruitment activists see the movement as being more about educating young people to make informed choices about their futures.

"The first thing we say is we're not against the military," said Mariscal. "The second thing we say is we're not here to tell you what to do. But what we do tell them, as military veterans, is that this is our experience and because we have the latest recruitment documents -- here are the promises made to you, and what promises are not going to be kept. Now that you have both sides, go with your family and make the decision."

Celina R. De Leon is a contributing writer of WireTap based in Brooklyn, New York
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