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Three for the List of U.S. Heroes

March 30, 2003|Frank del Olmo | Frank del Olmo is associate editor of The Times.

Years from now, three young Marines from the Los Angeles area will be remembered, and honored, for being among the first casualties of the second Persian Gulf war, and not because of their ethnicity.

But for now, the sad deaths of Lance Cpl. Jose Gutierrez, 22, Cpl. Jose Angel Garibay, 21, and Cpl. Jorge A. Gonzalez, 20, are noteworthy not just because they shared roots in the Southland but because they also shared immigrant backgrounds. One wonders what will be made of that by the American xenophobes whose anti-immigrant paranoia has been in full fury since 9/11. Many of them dishonestly lump Latinos and other hard-working immigrants in with the foreign terrorists who threaten the nation's security. Perhaps the loss of such fine young men will undermine that cynical canard once and for all.

Gutierrez was the first of the three to fall in combat, and his immigrant experience was the most dramatic. Orphaned in Guatemala, Gutierrez followed a route taken by other desperate children from Central America, a region still not fully recovered from wars fought there in the 1980s. At 14, he made the risky journey across Mexico, entered this country illegally and made his way to Los Angeles. Here, he was taken in by a foster family, finished high school and went to community college with dreams of becoming an architect.

Garibay's story is more prosaic, but no less touching. He came to this country as an infant from Mexico. His mother settled in Orange County, one of thousands of Mexicans who over two decades have changed the face and the politics of what was once the quintessential white Republican suburb. He wanted to be a police officer.

Gonzalez wanted to be a cop too, and planned to apply for a law enforcement job when his hitch in the Marines was up in a few months. He was the second of six sons born to Mexican immigrant parents in the San Gabriel Valley, and he leaves a wife and a son, born March 3, whom he never saw.

Each of the three was unique, but each was also typical of Southern California's large, youthful Latino population. They were comfortably bilingual and bicultural--playing football and futbol, listening to rock as well as ranchera.

That they all joined the Marines is no surprise. As the most macho of our military services, the Marine Corps has long had a special appeal for young Latinos. Even as other branches of the military saw Latino enlistment drop because some Latino youngsters didn't meet the higher educational requirements of an all-volunteer force, the percentage of Latino Marines has stayed at parity with the percentage of Latinos in the civilian labor force, 13%. (While I'm citing statistics, let it be noted that about 31,000 noncitizens serve in the U.S. military.)

But the most important thing Gutierrez, Garibay and Gonzalez shared is obvious -- although it is the quality overlooked by those who would dismiss, or even demonize, Latino immigrants as "wetbacks" or worse. They were all patriotic and loved the adopted homeland of their families.

And they proved it by making the ultimate sacrifice.

They shared that quality with Latin American immigrants who have served in the U.S. military as far back as the Civil War. The number of Latinos who have fought for this nation has grown most dramatically since World War II, when the children of the first great wave of Mexican migration to this country (refugees of the Mexican Revolution of 1910) did their share of the heavy lifting for what we now call the "greatest generation."

Since then, from Korea to Vietnam to the Gulf War, Latino families have proudly given their best and brightest young people to the service of this country.

As American casualties begin to mount, Latinos mourn all the losses, but most especially those of a community that so badly needs idealistic young leaders to help guide its future.

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