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Feature : An army of Juan


American identity in Latino war lit

As San Antonio recovers from its Fiesta hangover, an uncomfortable reality remains: a virtual cottage industry of “Alamo” and “Texican” literature continues to disseminate the notion that Texan slaveholding secessionists were somehow champions of freedom. The nature of the “Texas Revolution” is rendered even more complicated by the fact that the secessionist cause included Latinos. One such figure is Juan Seguin, whose 1858 Personal Memoirs remains virtually unknown.

Seguin, the first mayor of San Antonio, fought alongside the white slave-owners and carpetbaggers. Despite his service to the Texas cause, Seguin was driven out of this city by rampant white bigotry and threats of lynching. He ultimately felt he had no choice but to join his old foe, General Santa Anna, and fight against his former brothers-in-arms in the Mexican-American War from 1846-48.

Juan Seguin’s Personal Memoirs, published in 1858, set the stage for the deep ironies that would confront future American Latino soldiers.

Seguin’s memoirs chronicle these events, and end with the contradictory proclamations, “Compelled to fight my own `Tejano and white` countrymen ... I served Mexico `and` served her loyally and faithfully.” In many respects, Seguin’s narrative prefigured dilemmas that continue to this day: What side should Latinos be on? Do they really have a choice? What can others learn from the Latino war experiences?

As this nation continues to wrestle with the difficult issue of immigration, and as the ongoing war on terror has made “enemy combatants” of some American citizens like alleged “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla, the war narratives by Seguin and other Latinos offer needed insights into the complex, and often contradictory, nature of identity.

It is a truism that most wars are tribal — fought by one group or nation against another. Latino war narratives offer the unique perspective of an insider and simultaneous outsider, which enables a fresh look at the “us-versus-them” binary that undergirds all warfare.

The late Américo Paredes, an Army veteran who served in Asia between 1944 and 1946, imagines other alternatives in short stories and poems about his experiences in the war. In his story, “Ichiro Kikuchi,” a Mexican of Japanese heritage who joined the Imperial Japanese Army is captured by U.S. troops and sentenced to death. He is spared execution by a Mexican-American U.S. Army sergeant who identifies with his enemy because of Kikuchi’s medallion of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint. Both are Catholic, and this otherwise minor coincidence forces the combatants to recognize each other’s humanity.

Chicano author Rolando Hinojosa complicates the theme of cross-racial alliances in a collection of poetry, Korean Love Songs, and a fictionalized memoir, Useless Servants, which is based on his experiences as an officer in the Korean War. In Servants, a Tejano soldier deserts the Army and assimilates himself into Japanese society after realizing that his own commanders considered him as an internal enemy. He had read the now-infamous memo by the Army’s commanding officer, General Walker: “We should not expect the Chinese communists to be committed in force. After all, a lot of Mexicans live in Texas.”


Many veterans recoil at the notion of a Latino deserter, especially given the long and distinguished record of Latinos in this country’s military service. Mexican Americans are renowned for having been awarded the most Medals of Honor per capita than any other ethnic group, including whites.

Memoirs by Latino veterans such as Roy Benavides and Everette Alvarez reaffirm the ultrapatriotic mantra, “Sangre Mexicana, Corazón Americano/Mexican blood, American Heart.” Yet, as Marine combat veteran Carlos Vélez-Ibañez suggests in his book Border Visions: Mexican Cultures of the Southwest United States: “For Mexicans, war is the only way to regain the dignity lost because every other institution suggested a Mexican should not have any.”

San Antonio native Daniel Cano explores class and race contradictions from yet another perspective in his novel Shifting Loyalties, based on the story of a soldier named Peña who defected to the communists. In the novel, a fellow combatant weighs the significance of the defector’s action:

Selected bibliography of Latino war literature still in print:

Daniel Cano, Shifting Loyalties (Arte Público Press, 1995)

Norma Cantú, Canícula: Snapshots of a Girlhood in La Frontera (University of New Mexico Press, 1997)

Jovita Gonzalez and Eve Ralleigh, Caballero (Texas A&M Press, 1996)

Rolando Hinojosa, Useless Servants (Arte Público Press, 1993)

George Mariscal, Aztlán y Viet Nam: Chicano and Chicana Experiences of the War (University of California Press, 1999)

Américo Paredes, The Hammon and the Beans (Arte Público Press, 1990)

Elena Rodriguez, Peacetime: Spirit of the Eagle (Chusma House, 1997)

Joe Rodriguez, The Oddsplayer (Arte Público Press, 1998)

Michael Rodriguez, Humidity Moon (1999)

Juan Seguin, Personal Memoirs, excerpt in Herencia (Nicolás Kanellos, ed., Oxford University Press, 2003)

Alfredo Vea, Gods Go Begging (Dutton, 1999)

“The dude’s got balls. I ain’t never met the guy, but I heard that Peña lived in San Antonio, in some rat hole that he couldn’t afford to buy because the bank wouldn’t lend him the money. So now they send him here to fight for his country, for his land! Wow, what a joke, man.”

Significantly, Peña refused to shoot his old Army buddies after he “switched sides,” precisely because he realized that this war was being fought by poor people against other poor people. To him, all grunts are essentially the same, regardless of their race or nationality.

So, why do many Mexican-Americans continue joining the U.S. military, given this vision of exploitation? Vélez-Ibañez claims that even after the real draft, Latino propensity to join the military arises from a lingering “economic draft.” Accordingly, San Antonio, whose Mexican-American population has one of the poorest per capita incomes in the nation, offers a consistently high pool of Mexican-American recruits.

Author Gregg Barrios, also a Vietnam veteran, offers a more metaphysical analysis: “For me, the military offered everything we didn’t have in real society. Blacks, Latinos and whites were all cut down to a common denominator: same short hair, same ugly green uniform. We were equal, in the most basic sense.”

Trained as an Air Force combat medic, Barrios’ first assignment was to transport soldiers wounded in Vietnam. His poem, “Chale Guerra,” `see sidebar, this page`, arises from this experience. It introduces a composite Chicano everyman, “Charlie Guerra,” who is wounded in combat.

The title of the poem is a play on the Chicano vernacular term “chále,” which roughly means “fuck this.” “Guerra” is a common Spanish surname, and translates as “war.” The poem focuses on the inevitable incapacitation of the male warrior-hero — a real possibility that most young men are not told about by military recruiters.

UTSA professor Norma Cantú’s multimedia memoir, Canícula: Snapshots of a Girlhood in la Frontera, presents one of the most poignant accounts of the cruel trick wherein boys and young men who are taught that being a man is somehow linked to violence. One vignette features a photo of her brother as a child dressed with a toy helmet and rifle. The accompanying prose reads as a moving paean to her brother, who was killed in combat in Vietnam.

Elena Rodriguez explores the topic of masculinity, not only as a lethal deception foisted upon boys and young men, but as an ever-present threat to women. Her novel Peacetime: Spirit of the Eagle, features a multiracial group of working-class women as they go through Army boot camp. Along with obstacle courses, firing ranges, and forced marches, the platoon of women also is forced to navigate the dangers posed by male drill sergeants — of all races — who ceaselessly harass and badger them for sex. Unfortunately, this account has real-world parallels in other branches, as well, as illustrated by the Air Force Academy’s infamous sex-assault scandals. The author says she set out to write a dramatically engaging tale “as a warning” for any young woman contemplating a career in the military.

Jose Zuñiga provides an even more provocative examination of soldiering, citizenship, and manhood. A decorated combat medic from Gulf War I, Zuñiga was named Army Soldier of the Year. Months later, he was forced out of the military — after he came out as a gay man.

Zuniga’s memoir is notable for its exploration of the military’s extensive gay subculture and, equally as important, for his coming to consciousness as an activist. He comes to realize that his victimization due to homophobia made him a natural ally with others who are stigmatized for being different — including the Iraqi Muslims against whom he once fought.

Like Barrios, Cantu, Rodriguez and Zuñiga, many war veterans are now anti-war activists. George Mariscal, a Vietnam combat veteran and editor of the anthology Aztlán and Viet Nam, has become one of the most outspoken critics of the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mariscal is particularly incensed by the military’s use of mass media to disseminate the notion that Latinos form part of a “martial caste” with an inherent disposition for warfare that makes them ideal soldiers.

To counteract what he and other combat veterans see as racist recruitment campaigns, Mariscal has joined Fernando Suarez del Solar, father of a Marine killed in Iraq by “friendly fire,” as part of the Guerrero Azteca Project ( This web-based initiative bills itself as “a place where you will find resources and ways to contribute in helping our youth realize their true potential as peace-seeking future students in higher education,” and provides an equally adept media campaign to educate Latino youth about the realities of military service.

“All I want is for our young people to know the truth,” Suarez del Solar noted at “The Realities of War Tour,” a recent event at UTSA. “I want them to know the truth about how the recruiters will lie to get you to sign up, how the commanders will cover-up the facts of your death, how the military will give you bad health care and cut your benefits once the war is over, and how everyone will forget about you once the politicians create the next war.”

“Find out the truth, he adds, “by reading as much as you can from as many sources as you can find.”

B. V. Olguín is a San Antonio educator currently writing a book on Latino war literature through support of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Gregorio Barrios poem “Chale Guerra”:

Chale Guerra de Corpus Christi came home
With his body broken and crippled and hanging from his neck
He had an AirCom medal, a bronze star, a foreign service
Medal, and a broken purple heart. What else?
Oh, a broken back, a silver plated brace,
A nervous tic, and a stainless wheel chair to race.

Charlie was young once and in his barrio
on Leopard Street he was bien pinche-Chale el jale
as he was known because he loved to party.
Back then he wanted to be a Marine and prove himself
As a real macho and fight for the country that never gave
Him a damn thing except a warped sense of who he was
And what he could do with himself.
And now all the vatos in the barrio talk about poor
Chale and listen to the jukebox in the PASTIME pool hall As "Ya volvió de Vietnam" churns out loud, and Hell
Chale might as well be dead but god would have it that
He spend the rest of his days a freak."

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