Jorge Mariscal -
The 2000 census teaches us two interesting facts about the way in which Latinos are contributing to the changing face of the United States. First, more legal immigrants arrived in the decade of the 1990s than in any previous decade in our history. The economic boom (or bubble) of the Clinton years attracted large numbers of people from around the world. Second, the majority of these immigrants came from Latin America (approximately 51%; 26% are from Asian countries). For the most part, the new arrivals are workers searching for a better life, without much education, and deeply attracted by the promise of economic opportunity north of the border. The overwhelming majority of them will work hard, their children will become educated, and they will make significant contributions to our society.
Because these new immigrants have yet to experience the disconnection between the promise of democracy and equality in this country and what the country has actually delivered to working people of color over time, many of them will adopt an uncritical view of current events. If local and national authorities proclaim that war against Iraq is necessary and the mass media reinforces that message, many new arrivals will accept it as fact. Some will even join the armed forces or encourage their children to join. What better way, they ask, to show our gratitude to the United States? What better way to prove our patriotism and show that we too are real Americans?
Add to this scenario the fact that Mexican American or Chicano/a youth — that is, the children of families who have been in the U.S. for many decades, if not centuries — continue to have a relatively limited range of life opportunities. More than one-third of all Latinos are under 18 years of age. With a high school dropout rate around 40% and high rates of incarceration (in California, Latinos are 36% of the prison population but only 32% of the state population), many Latino youth see little hope for the future. The cost of a college education in California is rising sharply. Even at community colleges, where most Latino college students are found, there are proposals to double the fees. Among high school graduates attending graduate and professional programs, Latinos make up only 1.9% (compared to 3% Black, 3.8% Whites, and 8.8% Asian).
Across the board, conditions for Latinos have deteriorated since the 2000 election. After four consecutive years of increases, the median household income for Latinos decreased between 2000 and 2001. Although Latinos have a high rate of participation in the labor force, over 11% of Latino workers live in poverty. About 7% of Latinos with full-time jobs were still living below the poverty line in 2001 (compared to 4.4% of African Americans and 1.7% for Whites). What is clear from this data is that Latinos and Latinas are working extremely hard but are trapped in minimum-wage jobs. Many hold multiple jobs at low wages.
Military recruiters are well aware of this situation and have targeted Latino youth as the primary objective for their efforts in coming years. A recent "Strategic Partnership Plan for 2002-2007" written by the U.S. Army Recruiting Command notes: "The Hispanic population is the fastest growing demographic in the United States and is projected to become 25% of the U.S. population by the year 2025." The plan goes on to state: "Priority areas are designated primarily as the cross section of weak labor opportunities and college-age population as determined by both [the] general and Hispanic population."
Given the overall economic context and the military's continued interest in Latino youth — a trend initiated by Secretary of the Army Louis Caldera, who once declared that the Army could "provide the best education in the world" — we can be sure that the enlisted ranks will fill up with increasing numbers of Latinos and Latinas. (Very few Latinos make it into the officers' ranks. Among all Latinos in today's Marine Corps, for example, only 3% are officers.)
Visit any high school with a large Latino population and you will find JROTC units, Army-sponsored computer games, and an overabundance of recruiters, often more numerous than career counselors. Recently, at Roosevelt High School in East Los Angeles, a group of students was so appalled at the intrusive behavior of recruiters that they formed "Students not Soldiers" and demanded that real job counselors be hired.
Such acts of resistance to the ongoing militarization of U.S. culture, however, are rarely reported, so many Latino students and parents will fall prey to a limited range of opportunity and the Pentagon's propaganda blitz. As progressives involved in counter-recruitment work, we must struggle to understand the pressures on Latino communities. It will not be enough to shake our heads in disapproval at their displays of uncritical patriotism.
With war looming in the Middle East, Latino communities are slowly awakening to the fact that a permanently militarized economy and culture will not benefit them or their children. Our message to them should be that they can serve their country by excelling in work and study, by speaking out for peace and equality, and by joining the struggle to bring economic justice to all people.
Jorge Mariscal is a UC San Diego professor, a Vietnam veteran, and a member of the counter-recruitment organization Project YANO.
This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (www.comdsd.org)