Over a dozen Navy Recruitment Division officers attended a recruiting training session at the Eugene A. Obregon American Legion Post 804 in unincorporated East Los Angeles last Friday. The officers will soon begin their recruitment efforts in East Los Angeles, which has some long-time anti-war activists concerned.
The training session came on the eve of the 42nd Los Angeles Chicano Moratorium, the largest demonstration of Mexican Americans in history against U.S. foreign policy, and the Vietnam War in particular.
For years, Mexican American and other Latino activists have fought to stop military recruitment on local, mostly Latino high school campuses.
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News that Navy recruiters were in East Los Angeles for training does not sit well with Rosalio Muñoz, executive director of the non-profit Chicano Movimiento Resource Center of Los Angeles.
In 1969, Muñoz was among the people strongly opposed to the Vietnam War. He refused to be drafted, and was involved in the anti-war movement and planning the Chicano Moratorium.
Chicanos — mostly Mexican Americans —were being sent to the front lines, he said. The number of young Chicanos being killed overseas was disproportionately high given the size of our population, he explained.
University of California San Diego Professor Jorge Mariscal — who has published books on the Moratorium and recruitment efforts in the Mexican American community—told EGP in an email that Mexican Americans have a long, but overlooked tradition of military service.
Opposition to Vietnam was pivotal to creating awareness of the role Mexican Americans had played in US wars, according to the professor.
“The efforts to stop the war and end the draft was important for a community that had been seen as passive for many decades,” Mariscal wrote in his email.
Today, Muñoz is one of the curators of a multi-media exhibit currently open at the Mexican Culture Institute of Los Angeles chronicling the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 70s. According to Muñoz, the exhibit presents Chicano history in its true form, not the version distorted by the media. Muñoz explained that many of the efforts in the Chicano Movement dealt with civil rights, including the right to a better education—often side-tracked by military recruitment.
“We want the policy to be education for our children, and money to lower the cost of an education,” Muñoz said.
“The cost [to attend college] is so high that kids will go into the service and be recruited with promises that are only partially kept,” he said.
A report on Latino veterans published this month by the Center for American Progress states the percentage of Latinos in the military —13 percent in 2008— is on the rise. The educational scholarships granted through the Post 9/11 GI Bill, are often the reason for enlisting.
But not everyone thinks military service is a bad thing.
Tony Zapata, Commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in East Los Angeles served in Vietnam, following a family tradition of military service. He invited the Navy recruiters to the post and advocates for them going into high school campuses—something Muñoz and Mariscal disapprove.
Like Muñoz and Mariscal, Zapata acknowledges the importance of higher education for local youth.
But he also thinks that students should be exposed to the value and importance of military service. “What I stress to these kids is finish school,” Zapata said. “If possible, first go to college and then think about the military.”
Assistant Chief Recruiter Aaron J. Smith was at the training session last week. He told EGP the Navy offers up to $180,000 in scholarships for college, and simultaneous work experience that can make young people more marketable. He said that while enlisting is not the only way to access an education or a job, it is a way that comes with many benefits, including healthcare, paid vacation and even home loans.
Professor Mariscal, however, contends that the long-term benefits the military claims are deceptive.
“Training received in the military does not always translate to civilian jobs; studies show that people who serve in the military make less money over a lifetime than those who go directly to college or civilian job training,” Mariscal told EGP.
“The funding offered by the military for education is received by very few veterans (and in amounts much smaller than advertised).”
Jose Frank Flores, a Navy recruiter based in Bakersfield, notes that enlisting can help expedite citizenship for enlistees with a green card.
Muñoz says there are better ways to become a citizen.
“Higher education and good jobs [offer] faster access to citizenship than going somewhere where you can be killed, or will be killing innocent people,” Muñoz said.
Smith told EGP that recruiters recognize and respect community opposition to recruiting on school campuses, and the backlash over the benefits offered, but in some cases not received. But he argues that it’s often due to lack of information.
“Either they have a misunderstanding of what we do, or they had a bad experience in military service,” Smith said.
Flores told EGP that misconceptions of equal opportunity in the Navy make it imperative to properly train recruiters to accurately and honestly convey information.
“We have this policy of being honest because the recruiters know they have this stigma of being used car salesmen, and that’s not true,” Flores said.
Holding training sessions at the VFW Post in East L.A. he said, would help “promote awareness of the Navy so that both the past and present get recognized.” He emphasized that recruiters do not enlist young people, but merely offer them information on a possible option that will ultimately come down to their individual decision.
While their views on military recruitment in East Los Angeles may differ, both Zapata and Muñoz agree that too many of the area’s mostly Latino youth are unaware that Chicanos have a long and valiant history of service overseas in the US military and in combat; or for that matter, the Chicano Movement stateside.
Each is doing his part to educate the community.
The nonprofit Chicano Movimiento Resource Center of Los Angeles is working on establishing a permanent exhibit in the city to educate the greater community year-round, according to Muñoz, who visits East Los Angeles schools to help teachers develop ways to teach the history.
Zapata visits schools as well, but also reaches out to immigrant parents to help them understand the significance of the country’s Veterans’ holidays.
“To some, in this community, Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day is just another day for a barbecue,” he said. “What I like to stress is to think about the men and women that have given their lives for this country.”
In a similar vein, Muñoz stresses the significance of past Chicano efforts in laying the groundwork for future generations.
“We’ve shown we can bring together the generations,” Munoz said, “but we have to have the knowledge and confidence of our history.”