‘They Kill Alex’ September 6, 2010Posted by rogerhollander in Immigration, Iraq and Afghanistan, Latin America, Peace, War.
Tags: ales arredondo, anti-war, carlos arredondo, chris hedges, immigrants, Iraq war, latinos, military, military recruiters, military recruiting, peace, roger hollander, veterans for peace, war
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by Chris Hedges
Carlos Arredondo, a native Costa Rican, stands in a parking lot of a Holiday Inn in Portland, Maine, next to his green Nissan pickup truck. The truck, its tailgate folded down, carries a flag-draped coffin and is adorned with pictures of his son, Lance Cpl. Alexander S. Arredondo, 20, a Marine killed in Iraq in 2004. The truck and a trailer he pulls with it have become a mobile shrine to his boy. He drives around the country, with the aid of donations, evoking a mixture of sympathy and hostility. There are white crosses with the names of other boys killed in the war. Combat boots are nailed to the side of the display. There is a wheelchair, covered in colored ribbons, fixed to the roof of the cab. There is Alex’s military uniform and boots, poster-size pictures of the young Marine shown on the streets of Najaf, in his formal Marine portrait, and then lying, his hands folded in white gloves, in his coffin. A metal sign on the back of the truck bears a gold star and reads: “USMC L/CPL ALEXANDER S. ARREDONDO.”
“This is what happens every week to some family in America,” says Carlos. “This is what war does. And this is the grief and pain the government does not want people to see.”
Alex, from a working-class immigrant family, was lured into the military a month before Sept. 11, 2001. The Marine recruiters made the usual appeals to patriotism, promised that he would be trained for a career, go to college and become a man. They included a $10,000 sign-on bonus. Alex was in the Marine units that invaded Iraq. His father, chained to the news reports, listening to the radio and two televisions at the same time, was increasingly distraught. “I hear nothing about my son for days and days,” he says. “It was too much, too much, too much for parents.”
Alex, in August 2004, was back in Iraq for a second tour. In one of his last phone calls, Alex told him: “Dad, I call you because, to say, you know, we’ve been fighting for many, many days already, and I want to tell you that I love you and I don’t want you to forget me.” His father answered: “Of course I love you, and I don’t want-I never forget you.” The last message the family received was an e-mail around that time which read: “Watch the news online. Check the news, and tell everyone that I love them.”
Twenty days later, on Aug. 25, a U.S. government van pulled up in front of Carlos’ home in Hollywood, Fla. It was Carlos’ 44th birthday and he was expecting a birthday call from Alex. “I saw the van and thought maybe Alex had come home to surprise me for my birthday or maybe they were coming to recruit my other son, Brian,” he says. Three Marine officers climbed out of the van. One asked, “Are you Carlos Arredondo?” He answered “yes.”
“I’m sorry, we’re here to notify you about the death of Lance Cpl. Arredondo,” one of the officers told him. Alex was the 968th soldier or Marine to be killed in the Iraq war.
“I tried to process this in my head,” Carlos says. “I never hear that. I remember how my body felt. I got a rush of blood to my body. I felt like it’s the worst thing in my life. It is my worst fear. I could not believe what they were telling me.”
Carlos turned and ran into the house to find his mother, who was in the kitchen making him a birthday cake. “I cried, ‘Mama! Mama! They are telling me Alex got killed! Alex got killed! They kill Alex! They kill Alex! They kill Alex!” His mother crumbled in grief. Carlos went to the large picture of his son in the living room and held it. Carlos asked the Marines to leave several times over the next 20 minutes, but the Marines refused, saying they had to wait for his wife. “I did this because I was in denial. I think if they leave none of this will happen.” Crazed and distraught with grief, the father went into his garage and took out five gallons of gasoline and a propane torch. He walked past the three Marines in their dress blues and began to smash the windows of the government van with a hammer.
“I went into the van,” he says. “I poured gasoline on the seats. I pour gasoline on the floor and in the gas tank. I was, like, looking for my son. I was screaming and yelling for him. I remember that one day he left in a van and now he’s not there. I destroy everything. The pain I feel is the pain of what I learned from war. I was wearing only socks and no shoes. I was wearing shorts. The fumes were powerful and I could not breathe no more, even though I broke the windows.”
As Carlos stepped out of the van, he ignited the propane torch inside the vehicle. It started a fire that “threw me from the driver’s seat backwards onto the ground.” His clothes caught fire. It felt “like thousands of needles stabbing into my body.” He ran across the street and fell onto the grass. His mother followed him and pulled off his shirt and socks, which were on fire, as he screamed “Mama! Mama! My feet are burning! My feet are burning!” The Marines dragged him away and he remembers one of them saying, “The van is going to blow! The van is going to blow!” The van erupted in a fireball and the rush of hot air, he says, swept over him. The Marines called a fire truck and an ambulance. Carlos sustained second- and third-degree burns over 26 percent of his body. As I talk to him in the Portland parking lot he shows me the burn scars on his legs. The government chose not to prosecute him.
“I wake up in the hospital two days later and I was tied with tubes in my mouth,” he says. “When they take the tubes out I say, ‘I want to be with my son. I want to be with my son.’ Somebody was telling me my son had died. I get very emotional. I kept saying ‘I want to be with my son’ and they think I want to commit suicide.”
He had no health insurance. His medical bills soon climbed to $55,000. On Sept. 2, 2004, Carlos, transported in a stretcher, attended his son’s wake at the Rodgers Funeral Home in Jamaica Plain, Mass. He lifted himself, with the help of those around him, from his stretcher, and when he reached his son’s open casket he kissed his child. “I held his head and when I put my hands in the back of his head I felt the huge hole where the sniper bullet had come out,” he says. “I climbed into the casket. I lay on top of my son. I apologized to him because I did not do enough to avoid this.”
Arredondo began to collect items that memorialized his son’s life. He tacked them to his truck. A funeral home in Boston donated a casket to the display. He began to attend anti-war events, at times flying the American flag upside down to signal distress. He has taken his shrine to the Mall in Washington, D.C., and Times Square in New York City. He has traveled throughout the country presenting to the public a visual expression of death and grief. He has placed some of his son’s favorite childhood toys and belongings in the coffin, including a soccer ball, a pair of shoes, a baseball and a Winnie the Pooh. The power of his images, which force onlookers to confront the fact that the essence of war is death, has angered some who prefer to keep war sanitized and wrapped in the patriotic slogans of glory, honor and heroism. Three years ago vandals defaced his son’s gravestone.
“I don’t speak,” he says. “I show people war. I show them the caskets they are not allowed to see. If people don’t see what war does they don’t feel it. If they don’t feel it they don’t care.”
Military recruiters, who often have offices in high schools, prey on young men like Alex, who was first approached when he was 16. They cater to their insecurities, their dreams and their economic deprivation. They promise them what the larger society denies them. Those of Latino descent and from divorced families, as Alex was, are especially vulnerable. Alex’s brother Brian was approached by the military, which suggested that if he enlisted he could receive $60,000 in signing bonuses and more than $27,000 in payments for higher education. The proposed Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act, is designed to give undocumented young people a chance at citizenship provided they attend college-not usually an option for poor, often poorly educated and undocumented Latino youths who are prohibited from receiving Pell grants-for at least two years, or enlist and serve in the military. The military helped author the pending act and is lobbying for it. Twelve percent of Army enlistees are Hispanic, and this percentage is expected to double by 2020 if the current rate of recruitment continues. And once they are recruited, these young men and women are trained to be killers, sent to wars that should never be fought and returned back to their families often traumatized and broken and sometimes dead.
Alex told Carlos in their last conversation there was heavy fighting in Najaf. Alex usually asked his father not to “forget” him, but now, increasingly in the final days of his life, another word was taking the place of forget. It was forgive. He felt his father should not forgive him for what he was doing in Iraq. He told his father, “Dad, I hope you are proud of what I’m doing. Don’t forgive me, Dad.” The sentence bewildered his father. “Oh my God, how can I forgive you? … I love you, you’re my son, very proud, you’re my son.”
“I thought, when he died, my God, he has killed somebody,” Carlos says quietly as he readied for an anti-war march organized by Veterans for Peace. “He feels guilty. If he returned home his mind would be destroyed. His heart would be torn apart. It is not normal to kill. How can they do this? How can they take our children?”
© 2010 TruthDig.com
Chris Hedges writes a regular column for Truthdig.com. Hedges graduated from Harvard Divinity School and was for nearly two decades a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. He is the author of many books, including: War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, What Every Person Should Know About War, and American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. His most recent book is Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.
Tags: hispanics, immigrants, Immigration, jeffrey rosen, latinos, leslie savan, letterman, luis ramirez, Media, mexicans, new republic, racism, racist violence, scapegoating, severin, sonia sotomayor, supreme court, us
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By Leslie Savan, TheNation.com. Posted May 13, 2009.
Mexicans have recently been the prime target of the most rancid typecasting in the media — can more racist violence be far behind?
Amid the anti-Mexican media hysteria festering since the outbreak of swine flu, Dave Letterman’s portrayal last week of potential Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor as a hot-blooded Hispanic Judge Judy wasn’t the ugliest stereotyping of Latinos. It was actually weak tea compared to the mouth-foamings of Jay Severin, the Boston radio host who called Mexicans “leeches,” “the world’s lowest of primitives,” and exporters of “women with mustaches and VD.” WTKK-FM has suspended but hasn’t fired Severin, even as some advertisers have bailed.
No, Letterman’s bit was far more mainstream, and more feasibly “acceptable” than, say, the kneeslappers of Betsy Perry, a branding consultant whose Huffpost musings about Mexican “banditos” and “the Mexican help with hands washed in parasite-infested tap water” resulted in Mayor Bloomberg axing her from the New York City Women’s Issues Commission. Clearly, not all Perry’s issues are about women. (She has since apologized.)
With the rightwing smuggling in the lie that immigrants are responsible for swine flu in the U.S. (when, in fact, it’s been spread here primarily by Americans who’ve visited Mexico), Mexicans have been, of course, the prime target of the most rancid typecasting. But once the type has been cast, it has jumped easily to Latinos of any origins. A summa cum laude graduate at Princeton, an editor of the Yale Law Journal, now a judge on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, and a Bronx native raised by her single mom (like Obama), Sotomayor is of Puerto Rican descent, and so this:
Not even a gulp from the Morning Joe gang. Mika laughed, and Willie Geist mumbled something about “fit for the Supreme Court.” We may never learn whether Sotomayor is or isn’t “fit,” because before we or the Senate Judiciary Committee see her in reality, we’ll visualize that hot tamale from the courtroom TV show losing control of her fellow Hispanic hotheads.
This particular ethnic skewering seems out of character for Letterman, who often slices through idiot-think brilliantly. Maybe he was, as conservative blogger Ann Althouse suggests, “mocking the mocking of Sotomayor.” What is up? I asked a Letterman show spokesperson, who answered, “We’re going to decline comment on this.”
Whatever Dave’s intentions, the Sotomayor brand he’s helped put into play seems to have grown out of a controversial post, “The Case Against Sotomayor,” by The New Republic‘s legal correspondent Jeffrey Rosen. Relying primarily on anonymous former law clerks as sources and admitting that he didn’t research Sotomayor’s opinions much, Rosen nevertheless deduced that “the most consistent concern was that Sotomayor, although an able lawyer, was ‘not that smart and kind of a bully on the bench.'” His unnamed sources, he wrote, questioned “her temperament…and most of all, her ability to provide an intellectual counterweight to the conservative justices.” One of the unnamed said another unnamed said, “she’s not the brainiest.” From that, a National Review blogger further deduced that Sotomayor is “dumb and obnoxious.”
Rosen has since backpedaled a bit, and testimonies to Sotomayor’s intellect (“she’d be the kind of justice who could change some minds”) and temperament (“one of the best mentors I’ve ever had”) are coming in from named sources. But, as Media Matters asks, in a terrific, detailed piece, “Where does Sonia Sotomayor go to get her reputation back?” A TPM commenter adds, “It’s this allegation about intelligence that most deeply plays into the hands of anti-‘affirmative action’ conservatives who just love to suggest that this woman, despite graduating summa cum laude at Princeton and so on, isn’t as smart as a white guy.”
Maybe playing fast and loose with Latino caricatures isn’t the best idea in times of plague and economic dislocation. Remember how Jews were blamed for bringing the Black Death to Europe in the 14th century, setting off the mother of all pogroms?
Last week, Maria Hinojosa, senior correspondent for NOW on PBS and managing editor of NPR’s Latino USA, spoke about how swine flu hysteria is hitting home. On New York radio’s The Brian Lehrer Show, Hinojosa said a friend of hers, a domestic worker in Spanish Harlem, told her that she was recently “hassled by groups of women who said, ‘Go ahead, tell them you’re sick.'” Later that same day, she “was hassled again on the bus, and she saw a group of women physically push a Mexican man away.”
“This has very human consequences,” said Hinojosa, who is amazed that “in 2009…all of us here, suddenly we have to protect the lives of Americanos in New York City. It’s crazy.”
Hinojosa also cited the case of Luis Ramirez, a 25-year-old Mexican immigrant who was killed 10 months ago in the predominantly white town of Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, apparently for walking with a white woman.
“A group of teenagers beat him to a pulp, beating his head in till his brains came out,” said Hinojosa. “All of them, last week, just a few hours from here, were found nonguilty, only guilty of lesser charges, and in the courtroom when that was announced there was a crowd of cheers and applause.
“That’s the country that we live in and the area that encompasses all of us.”
Leslie Savan is the author of Slam Dunks and No-Brainers: Language in Your Life, the Media, Business, Politics, and, Like, Whatever.