Uncle Sam Speaks Spanish

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Image by Flickr user: DonkeyHotey / Creative Commons

As military enlistment numbers continue to plummet, the Pentagon has taken a cue from the salsa, reggaeton, and Tex-Mex “Hispanic marketing” craze that’s hypnotizing corporate America. According to John McLaurin, the U.S. Army’s deputy assistant secretary of human resources, the military hopes to increase Latino enlistment between 10 and 22 percent by 2025.

Besides putting more Spanish-speaking recruiters into the field (some driving customized Hummers), the plan includes a multi-million-dollar media blitz designed by Hispanic ad agencies expert at creating brand loyalty. Bilingual appeals on the Univision television network, its radio division, the Hispanic Broadcasting Corporation, and in publications such as Hispanic and Latina magazines contain promises of a higher purpose, a college education, and, of course, adventure. Above all, the ads often emphasize economic opportunity and equate military values with the family values that are especially resonant in the Latino community.

“War is a business,” explains Fernando Suarez del Solar, who founded the San Diego-based counterrecruitment organization Guerrero Azteca (Aztec Warrior) after his son Jesus was killed in Iraq in March 2003. And the military, he says, “spends millions” to get kids to buy its product. The Department of Defense’s program for joint marketing communications and market research and studies, called JAMRS, has shown specific interest in Latino youth and, according to its Web site, commissioned a study to review “differences in Hispanics of different countries of origin or of different immigration waves, and how both have changed over time.”

The Pentagon has already segmented its Latino recruitment efforts, creating specific programs based on language, sex, immigration status, religious affiliation, class status, and, most disturbing to critics like del Solar, age and grade.

“When it comes to recruiting Latino kids, Mr. Bush really does want ‘no child left behind,'” he says. “They take kids on field trips once a month to places like [Southern California’s] Camp Pendleton. They want to create the addiction to war at an earlier age.”

To help the military’s cause, the Bush administration has required schools with a high concentration of Latinos to provide access for ROTC programs. School administrators have also been forced to divulge detailed information about their students. Massive databases, which include birth dates, Social Security numbers, and class grades, are used to pinpoint particularly susceptible candidates. Since 15 percent of Latinos between the ages of 16 and 19 quit school before graduating from high school (the highest dropout rate in the nation), the military also makes sure to promote the fact that it accepts students who have acquired a GED.

The military first began using aggressive marketing techniques to increase Latino enrollment during the Clinton administration. Under the leadership of Secretary of the Army Louis Caldera, a Latino, the Hispanic Access Initiative laid the groundwork for specific targeting of Latinos by the Pentagon as a whole. A 2003 study by the Pew Hispanic Center shows that while Latinos are underrepresented in the military compared to their employment in the civilian workforce, they are already overrepresented in the ranks of the most life-threatening combat units.

One collateral effect of the Pentagon’s latest recruitment push is the rebirth of a Latino counterrecruitment movement. Across the country, Latino students, parents, and activists have intensified their efforts, staging protests, marches, vigils, and other acts of civil disobedience. Parents and students in Los Angeles have successfully removed ROTC from Carson High School and several other campuses in the L.A. Unified School District (which is 75 percent Latino), and counterrecruitment organizations such as the American Friends Service Committee, the National Network Opposing Militarization of Youth, and the Project on Youth and Non-Military Opportunities either have a special focus on or are led by Latinos.

For his part, del Solar is speaking at universities and at conferences and other events. His organization, Guerrero Azteca, has visited more than 150 high schools and recently started giving $500 scholarships to students who reject enlistment. “We just gave two students–a young woman and a young man–what I hope will be the first of many scholarships,” he says. “We have to help students get out of the culture of war and into the culture of education. We have to if we want to stop living in a dangerous society like this one.”

Project Yano
The Project on Youth and Non-Military Opportunities, located in San Diego, is one of the oldest grassroots counterrecruitment organizations in the country. www.projectyano.org

Ya-Ya Network
Located in New York, this organization trains youth activists and youth allies to do counterrecruitment in high schools. www.yayanet.org

The American Friends Service Committee is a Quaker organization that includes people of various faiths who are interested in peace and justice issues. www.afsc.org

The Coalition Against Militarization of Schools organizes established networks and individuals to oppose recruitment in Southern California schools. www.militaryfreeschools.org

Long focused on supporting folks filing for CO status, the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors is working to keep the military out of public schools. www.objector.org

Roberto Lovato is a New York-based writer with Pacific News Service.

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