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Just Looking To Fit In

May 26, 2003|Mark Arax, Daniel Hernandez, Robert J. Lopez and Jennifer Mena | This story was reported and written by Times staff writers Mark Arax, Daniel Hernandez, Robert J. Lopez and Jennifer Mena.

The war in Iraq drew attention to the growing number of noncitizens in the U.S. military -- about 37,000. Ten were killed during the war, seven from California. Most were Latino. This is the second of four portraits of Green Card Marines who gave their lives.


The snapshot came straight from the deck of the Navy ship Ponce as it sailed toward Iraq.

He was wearing his Marine fatigues, shiny black boots and the baddest pair of sunglasses. With a pistol in his right hand, he had never looked so menacing.

Toshia Hooven, his girlfriend back home, wondered if it was all a charade.

Only two weeks earlier, on a car ride near Camp Lejeune, Jose Garibay had talked a mile a minute about dying. He had told Hooven he was having nightmares again about the fighting to come in Iraq. He had promised he'd keep his head down but told her that, if a bullet found him, he wanted his casket open.

She knew that all his life -- in a tiny village in Mexico, in his home in Costa Mesa and in the Marine camp in North Carolina where he was known as Gummi Bear -- he had taken on different personas as a way to get by.

Over the years, he had hidden his Mexican heritage, separating himself from his family to find his way in America. Like a chameleon, he had melted into the landscape of the other side.

Now, on the eve of battle, 22-year-old Jose had steeled himself with a new identity. "We are freedom's answer to fear," he wrote to Hooven. "We do not bargain with terror. We stalk it, corner it, take aim and kill it."

It was a voice she did not recognize.

On the fifth day of the war, he was in Nasiriyah and encountered a group of Iraqis pretending to be something they weren't. Caught by surprise in an ambush by enemy soldiers making gestures of surrender, Jose died with six other Marines.

Several weeks ago, at his funeral in Costa Mesa, people from the different parts of his life honored him: a surfer, an Internet friend, a high school football teammate, his teenage sister with two children, his mother who works as a hospital maid and the postal worker who took him in when he left home at 16.

Among the mourners was Toshia Hooven's mother, the manager of a KFC in North Carolina. The Jose she knew, she said, was a boy named Joe who had fallen in love with her daughter, a heavyset girl with bleached hair and hard luck and a 15-month-old son by another man.

Joe liked nothing more than eating chicken at Ruby Tuesday's and shopping at Wal-Mart, Debbie Caudill said. He never uttered a word of Spanish or hungered for the taste of a tortilla. He got so good at fitting in that her daughter, in eulogizing him, said he had made her forget that he was Mexican.

"I think he felt he had to be whatever everyone else wanted him to be," Caudill said.

There is no one place to find Jose Angel Garibay. He left a footprint in Mexico, where he was born, and a footprint in Iraq, where he died, and a footprint in Costa Mesa, where he grew up.

It was in Costa Mesa, just a few miles from the beach, the malls and Disneyland, where he began shedding the old Jose and creating a new Joe. He was not unlike other immigrants who have chosen to embrace American culture with a fervency that leaves little room for the past. But by the time he was done reinventing himself, he blended in so thoroughly that some of his closest friends were people who felt contempt for Mexicans, even as they regarded Jose as the exception.

His death at such a young age prevented him from discovering what so many immigrants eventually do: that there is room in one man's life for two countries, two languages, two cultures.

As he prepared to walk onto the battlefields of Iraq, he seemed to be struggling with the price of erasing his roots. In a last batch of letters home, it is possible to glimpse a young man on the brink of one of life's most defining moments, trying to puzzle out what was genuine in his life. The young soldier, forever an outsider, would cross a last border not knowing who he was, afraid of dying before he could find out.

Dividing Lines

No matter where he stood, the lines never vanished: dividing Mexico from America, Orange County's rich from poor, white kids from brown kids. The trick was getting over to the other side. It became the game of his life.

He was only a few months old when his mother, Simona Garibay, standing on the Mexican side of the border, placed him in the arms of an Orange County couple and pretended to be their nanny. The son she called Angel crossed into the United States without a fuss, as if he belonged to them.

Documents or not, he had a claim to this side. It was during a stay with her boyfriend in Costa Mesa that Simona Garibay had conceived him a year earlier. Only after returning to Jalisco did she learn she was pregnant. Her boy was born in a free clinic on the grounds of an elementary school in the tiny town of Los Tecomates.

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