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Marine's Death Raises Central American Issues

March 29, 2003|Roberto Lovato | Roberto Lovato is a Los Angeles-based writer of Central American descent. E-mail: Robvato63@yahoo.com.

Marine Lance Cpl. Jose Gutierrez became one of the most famous Central Americans to die in war since the 1980 murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero at the outset of El Salvador's civil war.

As one who knows individuals whose lives were transformed by working with Romero, I can see how the sacrifice of the 22-year-old Guatemala-born Marine is changing the story of Central American immigrants.

Like many people in the crowded schools, churches and apartments of Centroamericano Los Angeles, I have a connection to Gutierrez. My godson's grandfather, Hector Tobar Sr., is a close friend of Gutierrez's family. Tobar has been widely quoted in television and newspaper stories about the young orphan who trekked 2,000 miles, hopped countless fences, rode 14 freight trains and survived the Los Angeles Juvenile Court system before dying in battle March 21.

Gutierrez's remarkable story is not that different from those of the millions from Central America who fled their war-torn homelands for the U.S. in the 1980s.

This is a community still swept up by the tragedy and aftermath of dictatorship, war and death.

The attention to Gutierrez's story has helped raise the story of Central American immigrants from the ravages of media stereotypes and silence.

Similarly, the story of Guatemalan immigrants lends dignity to the somewhat canned news stories about Gutierrez.

But the media quotes alone do not do justice to Gutierrez or his community. The public also needs to hear the immigrants' curses at the U.S. government for sponsoring the 1954 coup d'etat that overthrew the democratically elected government of Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz. Americans need to know how the ongoing death and devastation wrought in the 50 years since what U.S. officials termed "Operation Success" might raise thorny questions many Central Americans already have about deaths in "Operation Iraqi Freedom": "Did our kids survive wars in Central America sponsored by the U.S. only to die in wars elsewhere sponsored by the U.S.?"

Instead of just reporting that Gutierrez came to start a "new life in the United States," news media might talk more about how the orphaned Guatemalan fled the devastation and poverty that had been Guatemalan life since the '50s and succeeded anyway. A more complex telling would contrast Gutierrez, who said he wanted to "give back" something to the U.S., with the Spanish-speaking U.S. military members who trained members of Guatemalan death squads and militias that caused so many to flee to places like Los Angeles in the 1980s.

A more complete narration of Gutierrez's story would point out that he was different in that he attained the legal status denied to hundreds of thousands of other Central Americans.

There's been an astounding silence in the U.S. media about the death squad killings, bombings and torture that have occurred in Central America. For many Central Americans, there's a hope that Gutierrez's death will bring to light atrocities that have scarred them for life.

There are more than 200,000 dead and missing Guatemalans as a result of the most recent civil strife there. Though they share physical features with Gutierrez, their images have been little seen and little known beyond the walls of small, poorly funded human rights offices in Guatemala.

Perhaps Gutierrez's death will mark a new phase in the story of Central Americans in the U.S.

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