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The State | COLUMN ONE

A Cold Shoulder for God

The Lord, it seemed, had never failed to listen to Rosa Gonzalez. But her Marine son's death in Iraq has left her beset with doubt and anger.

August 13, 2003|Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writer

There was a time when Rosa Gonzalez could tell several stories about God granting her blessings, and she expected to tell another one about her son coming home from war.

Don't worry, Rosa wrote to her son, as he prepared in the sands of Kuwait for war in Iraq. God has always pampered me. You will come back.

God, it seemed, had never failed to listen to Rosa. There was the time, years ago, when she stood under a lemon tree in her El Monte backyard and asked God to protect her husband, a long-distance trucker, on the road. On that cold night there wasn't a hint of rain, but lightning flashed and the sky conjured up a warm breeze, sweeping her face.

"I feel you, God. Thank you," Rosa remembered saying. "Everything is going to be fine."

But her second child, 20-year-old Jorge, died in battle, leaving Rosa to ask how God could take away her son. It's a question mothers have always asked in war, and Rosa, 47, is now struggling with her faith, wrestling with God.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday August 14, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Soup name -- An article in Wednesday's Section A about a Mexican immigrant grieving for her son, a Marine who was killed in Iraq, incorrectly spelled the name of a bean soup as frijoles de la hoya. It is frijoles de la olla.

She bristled when parents of other soldiers said in television interviews that they knew why their children had returned safely -- because of God.

"Didn't my prayers mean just as much?" she asked him.

Since Jorge's death, she has questioned her government, questioned the motives for the war. She has questioned the wisdom of leaving Mexico for the United States -- whether her adopted country betrayed her. The cold shoulder, however, she has saved for God.

Rosa Gonzalez's faith has always been tied to family.

She was an only child, raised in Dolores, in the Mexican state of Hidalgo. Her father died when she was a toddler, and her mother, Tanila Hernandez, found work as a house servant in the big city of Durango, coming home only on weekends.

Rosa was raised by her paternal grandmother, whom she called Mama Maria, and her Uncle Miguel. They were attentive and affectionate, but Rosa ached for her mother and father.

She spent time with a large, poor family across the street. They slept in one room and always seemed to be eating frijoles de la hoya, a simple soup of pinto beans with some salt.

But Rosa gladly ate and played with the children. Her eyes devoured the way they joyfully mobbed their father when he came home from work.

Back home, she wept for the father she never knew and asked why he had been taken from her. "Even when I was little," she recalled as an adult, "I was fighting with God."

Mama Maria told her tearful granddaughter that, if she had faith, God would reward her later, that one day she would not be so lonely. The old woman's words came true.

Rosa eventually left Mexico and met Mario Gonzalez, another Mexican immigrant, in El Monte. They married. They had crossed the border as undocumented immigrants, but in time he became a citizen and she a legal resident. Their firstborn was Mario, followed only 11 months later, in 1982, by Jorge, the one who would grow into a strapping Marine.

The couple would have four more children: Ivan, 16; Nancy, 14; Marisol, 9; and Alan, 7. And as the family grew, Rosa's faith grew along with her joy. Life in the United States was a blessing.

"Ay, my God, thank you," she prayed once. "Maybe if you had given me everything I wanted when I was little, perhaps I would never be as happy as I am now."

Years later, she would recall, "We're poor, but we had a treasure. I needed nothing, nothing. As long as I had beans and tortillas on the table, and my children, I was content."

The family did well, and after years of renting and saving and sharing homes with relatives, they bought a small house in Rialto. Her children would grow to be best friends, and Jorge once tried to explain to his mother why he rarely invited friends over.

"This," he said with a smile, "is almost sacred ground."

Jorge's enlistment in the Marines as a 17-year-old had not seemed a blessing to his mother. He convinced Rosa that the family could never afford college, and she consented to let him enlist, even though she worried that he might die or find himself in a spot where he might kill a child.

When he completed boot camp at Camp Pendleton, he showed her the gift she had given him when he graduated from high school. He had asked her not to get him an expensive class ring, so she had bought him a gold medallion bearing the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

"So she can be with you always and look over you," she had said.

But when Jorge showed her the medallion, the Virgin's image had rubbed away. Only the slight rays of light that illuminated her like a nimbus remained.

"Don't worry," she told Jorge. "See, the Holy Spirit stayed with you."

When he deployed for war in January, Rosa walked into St. Catherine of Siena Church in Rialto and told God she would dedicate a Mass to her son every day.

On March 23, Rosa and Mario were watching the news when they saw an Iraqi soldier lift a dead American toward the television camera. They were convinced it was Jorge.

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