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WAR WITH IRAQ

His New Life in the U.S. Ends in Iraq

March 24, 2003|Jill Leovy and Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writers

Long before he ever traveled to the Persian Gulf, Marine Lance Cpl. Jose Gutierrez was acquainted with perilous and uncertain journeys.

Lanky, quiet and full of ambition, Gutierrez, 22, is believed to be the second U.S. serviceman to die in combat, an American soldier with a distinctive Southern California background: He was among thousands of Central American immigrants who for years have made their way to this state in dangerous personal odysseys.

At age 16, he had traveled by himself from his home in Guatemala, making his way across Mexico into the United States, where he was taken in by an older couple, who later in life had begun sheltering immigrant children.

Gutierrez made the 2,000-mile journey across the continent as one of many young immigrants who come here from Latin America each year, seeking family members or jobs.

Gutierrez made the trip as many of his countrymen do -- by any means, said Hector E. Tobar, a longtime friend of the family who had taken in Gutierrez. On the way, he had hopped aboard at least 14 trains, Tobar said.

But like so many immigrants, Gutierrez's past was eclipsed by his new life as an American and as a would-be architect who was quickly learning English and whose eyes were firmly fixed on his future. His neighbors saw simply a nice, young immigrant: a tall, quiet future soldier who spoke with a Spanish accent.

He was "very helpful and very friendly ... nice and courteous," said Dina Perdue, who has lived near the family since they moved into a white two-story home in Lomita, a city south of Los Angeles, about three years ago.

He left behind a sister in a poor neighborhood of Guatemala City, his official next-of-kin in military records, a Guatemalan government official said.

The family that took him in, Marcelo Mosquera, a Lomita machinist originally from Ecuador, and his wife, Nora, a marketing representative originally from Costa Rica, declined to talk in detail Sunday, citing emotional distress.

Gutierrez was "a very private person" and would have wanted his death publicized first among the local Latin American community, Nora Mosquera said. On KVEA-TV Channel 52, a local Spanish-language station, she said he was a person "who would go after whatever was put in front of him to reach his goal."

Tobar said the family described him as quiet and "extremely intelligent," a young man with a kind demeanor who came to the United States nearly grown, speaking only Spanish, but who within a few years learned English and went to school.

Instead of going on to study architecture, Gutierrez joined the Marines.

Mosquera's adult daughter, Jackie Baker, told KVEA-TV that Gutierrez "wanted to give the United States what the United States gave to him. He came with nothing. This country gave him everything."

Nora Mosquera, said by Tobar to be in her early 60s, had begun taking in immigrant foster children after her own son and two daughters were grown. Jose Gutierrez was one of several such boys she had taken in, Tobar said. A service organization devoted to helping immigrant children helped place him with her, he said.

"She and I have mutual friends, and one of them said to me, 'Is she crazy? Why is she doing this at this age?' " Tobar said, adding, "She is a wonderful person." The Mosqueras had apparently taken to their new calling, he said, recently adopting a baby boy.

Gutierrez was an older brother to his younger siblings. Neighbors said he was often seen playing with them and taking them to the nearby McDonald's restaurant.

Later, he became an infantry rifleman with the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, according to Camp Pendleton officials. He signed up March 25, 2002, and arrived at Pendleton in early September. They did not say when he was deployed to the gulf, and they released no information on his background before he joined the military.

According to a military spokesman in the Middle East, Gutierrez died in battle about 4 p.m. Friday, struck by enemy fire as he fought alongside his fellow Marines near the southern Iraqi city of Umm al Qasr.

His death resounded through Guatemala on Sunday. Every major paper in the capital, Guatemala City, carried stories on Gutierrez, and local radio and TV also covered the story.

In taxicabs and restaurants, people talked of the death of Gutierrez. Some said it was easy to sympathize. Many in this city have relatives in the U.S., and a few talked of having a cousin or a nephew fighting with U.S. forces in the Middle East.

The American Embassy in Guatemala estimates that nearly 1,500 Guatemalans or Guatemalan Americans are in the U.S. military.

Guatemalan officials said little was known of Gutierrez's life in Guatemala. His sister, apparently his sole relative, was said to live in one of the most poverty-stricken and dangerous quarters of the crowded capital.

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