Latino Students Besieged by Military Recruiters
It seems like every light pole on Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles is draped with the U.S. flag. Every 50 feet there is another.
Can this be the same boulevard that saw the birth of Chicano resistance? Where on Aug. 29, 1970, over 30,000 Chicanos marched against the Vietnam War, and popular Chicano reporter Rubén Salazar was killed by police? Where, for decades, thousands of students have fearlessly walked out of Eastside schools to demand equity and cultural relevance in public education?
One of those schools is Roosevelt High. It remains one of the most underfunded and overcrowded schools in the nation. Today's students face the same bad options as those who came before them: Enlist in the military or apply for the next non-living wage job.
For every college counselor at Roosevelt High, there are five military recruiters. "The recruiters prey on students who feel they have no other options: immigrant students trying to get citizenship, seniors lacking credits to graduate, and anyone who they can persuade that the army will train them for the real world," said Lester García, a Roosevelt graduate and youth organizer. Promises of money for college or citizenship are thrown out like candy.
Between 1992 and 1997, the number of high school ROTC programs more than doubled, from 1,600 to 3,500 nationwide. Many of the programs grew or expanded into inner city schools, especially those with high populations of Latinos. With a "drop-out" rate of over 48 percent and low eligibility rates for college admittance, many Latinos view military enlistment as the only viable opportunity for economic survival. They are wooed with the idea of college money and computer training. And, like car salesmen, military recruiters don't take no for an answer. It's no wonder that today Chicanos make up over 37 percent of all active-duty Marines.
In California, many laws and measures have been created that criminalize the Latino community -- from Prop 187 (denial of social services for the undocumented) in 1994 to the recent Prop 21 (anti-youth crime initiative) in 2000. The imagery of Latino "gang-bangers" and "illegals" have fed into the racist anxieties of many older white conservative voters who fear that they are losing their power in a state that now has a majority of people of color.
Latinos are constantly bombarded with the idea that they do not belong and they are not American. For these reasons, and for lack of economic opportunities, historically, many Latinos have joined the armed forces to support themselves and to prove their patriotism. Since 9/11, Latinos have been forced once again to prove their patriotism. As President Bush said, you either stand with the United States or with the terrorists. So under the pressure of being blamed for economic recessions, "overpopulation," social service overload, and bringing down the "standards" of public education, many Latinos have chosen to bring out the flags and let America know that we are red, white and blue, through and through.
Critical thinking, dissent and questioning are a crucial part of education, especially in a democracy. But in times of war, anyone who questions the program can be isolated and reprimanded. Watching people die by the thousands on national television in a major U.S. city was a traumatic experience. However, many schools in the months since September 11 have completely avoided the issue beyond promoting jingoistic, flag-waving and support-your-troops dialogue.
"Many teachers and students are afraid to question the 'war on terrorism' out of fear of retaliation or isolation," said Elizabeth Lugo, a community organizer with InnerCity Struggle and Youth Organizing Communities. "They feel that their schools dont allow the space for diverse opinions and dialogue. They would rather stay quiet than face the potential consequences."
"Since 9/11, if we don't agree with Bush or we question him publicly at my school or refuse to pledge allegiance, we get sent to the administration and are threatened with suspension," added Nadia Del Callejo, a student at Bell High School in Southeast L.A.
The nationwide trend towards unquestioning patriotism is particularly disturbing when it is juxtaposed with the war against dissent that is raging in our public classrooms. Because few schools provide outlets for serious dialogue about 9/11, youthful feelings of outrage and empathy are too often channeled into negative actions. "The day after 9/11, my friend, who is Lebanese, was verbally attacked for 'her people's actions.' Many of the Middle Eastern students didn't attend school for weeks after the 9/11 incident," said Del Callejo.
On the other hand, military recruiters have been given full access to high schools throughout the inner cities of Los Angeles. Recruiters are trained to channel the hate and revenge felt by many young people into preparedness to kill "the enemy." Young people are encouraged to make their country and their family proud by joining the service.
No other type of outside reps come up to the students and promise them good jobs or entrance into college. But the military recruiters bombard them every day. In a survey conducted by students and community members at Roosevelt High, 40 percent of twelfth grade students at Roosevelt High had received a presentation by military recruiters in their classroom. Yet only 30 percent of the same students had received a college presentation at school. To top it off, Roosevelt High has four bathrooms, eight counselors, and only one college advisor for over 5,000 students.
Recently, students at Roosevelt High have begun a campaign called Students Not Soldiers that opposes the military tracking of their lives. "We hope to rid our school of military recruiters and create a non-military zone. We want funds for college and job training programs, more counselors, and courses in ethnic, womens', and queer studies," said Lester García.
"And we want to create opportunities for young people to grow, to reach their potential, as critical thinkers -- not as gun-toting soldiers who take orders and promote violence," he added.
Luis Sanchez is currently the Associate Director at InnerCity Struggle, a community based organization that is building power in East Los Angeles to fight for social and economic justice. He is also an editor of Another World is Possible, a progressive anthology of writings around 9/11. A version of this article first appeared in War Times.