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Radical Turn For A Rebel

The war in Iraq drew attention to the growing number of noncitizens serving in the U.S. military -- about 37,000. Seven of the 10 killed were from California. Most were Latino. This is the last of four portraits of Green Card Marines who gave their lives.

May 28, 2003|Mark Arax, Rich Connell, Daniel Hernandez, Robert J. Lopez and Jennifer Mena | This story was reported and written by Mark Arax, Rich Connell, Daniel Hernandez, Robert J. Lopez and Jennifer Mena.

Jesus Gonzalez wore his heritage on his left shoulder.

Etched into his skin was a tattoo: "Hecho en Mexico." Made in Mexico.

His family had come north in 1989; his mother went to work for Cesar Chavez, helping the United Farm Workers organize. As a young teen, Jesus followed his stepfather into the broiling grape fields of the Coachella Valley. At Indio High School, he wore a brown beret and modeled himself after Che Guevara, helping lead a demonstration against Proposition 187 that drew 500 students and got him suspended. He learned how to pray for peace in a Native American sweat lodge and how to welcome the dawn with chants and burning sage.

Jesus Angel Gonzalez seemed, in every way, a radical in the making.

Then in his freshman year at UC Riverside, he took everyone by surprise.

He quit college and joined the Marines.

Years earlier, during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Jesus had marched with his parents to a weapons factory on the outskirts of Coachella. In the 2003 Iraq war, Jesus stormed across the desert in a tank.

He wasn't supposed to be in Iraq. His four-year hitch was to have ended April 4. But he was among the Marines ordered to serve another year because of the war.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday May 30, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Green card Marines -- A photo caption accompanying an article on Marine Lance Cpl. Jesus A. Gonzalez in Wednesday's California section incorrectly stated that Marines were standing at attention at Gonzalez's grave. They were standing at parade rest.

Signing up, he told family and friends, had been a mistake. He wanted to spend his time with his 2-year-old daughter, Delilah.

A week before shipping out, Jesus married Ivonne, the mother of his daughter, at the Indio courthouse. She had just turned 18 and wore a pink floral print dress. He wore his Marine uniform. They celebrated with dinner at the local Sizzler. Afterward, they kissed and he returned to the base.

There was a mix-up on the day Jesus left for Iraq, his wife said. She and Delilah couldn't get a ride to see him off. Jesus waited alone as others hugged their loved ones and said their goodbyes.

He never saw his family again.

In his last letters to Ivonne, he sounded troubled, about his fate, about their marriage. He had dreamed she died in a car accident. While waiting in Kuwait, Jesus wrote how sandstorms had ripped down the shelters they'd put up. "I'm this close to losing my head," he wrote. "Everything's gotten real ugly."

In his last letter, dated March 17, Jesus revealed his despair, "I don't know what's going to happen. I don't know what's going on. I don't know what to tell you."

Jesus and his tank battalion finally rolled into Baghdad to chaos and cheers. His battalion was ordered to guard a sprawling hospital compound. On April 12, a week after completing his four years in the Marines, Jesus was fatally shot outside his tank.

His mother, Silvia Berrones, said she is tormented by her son's decision to join the military. She agonizes over the years she spent organizing field workers up and down California, leaving her family when Jesus was a teenager.

During Jesus' childhood, she had removed the guns from his toy soldiers, restricted time in front of the TV and pointed his attention to schoolwork and the struggle for justice among working people -- all for one reason, she said.

"I wanted him to do something important."

Jesus wanted that, too. But like a lot of young people, he was searching for his own way.

Activist's Roots

Silvia Berrones began her own activism as a teenager, while working as a secretary at the Federal Electricity Commission in Linares, a city in northern Mexico. One day, she said, she read a company contract that crossed her desk and later discovered that workers were being exploited. She spread the word and battled the bosses on the workers' behalf.

After marrying at 18 and giving birth to a daughter, Carla, and then Jesus, Silvia did what most women in Linares would never imagine. She divorced her husband, Jesus Gonzalez Sr. Jesus was 3, Carla, 7.

Relatives said her husband, a bus driver, was often away from home and showed little interest in his family. "From the beginning, it was like she was a single mother," said Jesus Sr.'s mother, Rafaela Sanchez.

Silvia later married a longtime friend, Leopoldo Trevino-Sosa. He was a medical student who also believed in unions and was not afraid to speak his mind.

Jesus and his family lived next to a military barracks. The boy would study the soldiers as they marched out with their rifles and green uniforms. Leopoldo remembered one day when the troops paraded through town, and Jesus tried to dart out to join them. "I had to hold him back," he said.

When Jesus was 6, he moved with his family to the Coachella Valley, eventually settling in Indio.

The six family members shared a one-room studio in a crumbling 1920s motel on the north side of town, not far from the fields kept green by the All American Canal.

After classes at Thomas Jefferson Middle School, Jesus walked nearly a mile to an elementary school where he waited for his younger sisters, Silvia and Yardena, to walk them home.

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