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Soldier in life but citizen only in death

June 1, 2007 | Page 9

The Short Life of José Antonio Gutierrez, a documentary by Heidi Specogna. Visit for local screenings.

RAGINA JOHNSON and KEVIN CHOJCZAK review The Short Life of José Antonio Gutierrez.

JOSE ANTONIO Gutierrez was the first U.S. military casualty of the Iraq war--yet he was not yet a citizen of the United States. José was granted citizenship posthumously after his flag-draped coffin traveled back to Guatemala and his 29-year-old body was placed in the earth.

José was one of 30,000-plus soldiers serving in Iraq who do not yet have citizenship. Already, the vast majority of people join the military for the opportunity to go to college or have a job. Now, the military has added another incentive--the opportunity to become a U.S. citizen even if you don't live to accept the certificate.

In her film The Short Life of José Antonio Gutierrez, director Heidi Specogna makes connections between Gutierrez growing up during the civil war in Guatemala and then later dying fighting the war in Iraq. And there is also a third war that is unspoken but noticed by anyone who sees this film. This is the war on the poor people of Central America who are forced to flee their countries because of the poverty rained down upon them by the actions of the U.S. government.

During the 1970s and '80s, the U.S. funded and trained right-wing militaries across Central America to crush the popular revolutionary movements. Death squads trained by the CIA unleashed a campaign of terror. Ironically, these same tactics are currently being used in Iraq and Afghanistan under the guise of the "war on terror."

In the 1990s, U.S. aid institutions such as the U.S. Agency for International Development pushed trade policies and established sweatshop "free-trade zones" to further exploit cheap labor in Central America. This is the backdrop to the crushing poverty that Specogna captures as she methodically uncovers the life of José Antonio Gutierrez. She tells this story by interviewing the people who knew him, including social workers who had cared for him both in Guatemala and the U.S.

After his death, Gutierrez was presented in the mainstream media as a hero not for his experiences of traveling thousands of miles from his homeland by foot and train, always worried when he would be sent back to Guatemala. Instead, the military and the media highlighted Gutierrez' courage as an immigrant and a soldier after his death to try to win support for an unpopular war in Iraq. In this way, Gutierrez's story has parallels with the myth-making that was recently exposed around the rescue of Jessica Lynch's rescue and the death of Pat Tillman.

"It's easy to discount talk of the American dream as hyperbole, a cliché carelessly tossed about," commented Brendan Miniter in the April 4, 2003, Wall Street Journal. "But then there are people like Gutierrez, whose whole life proved that the naysayers were wrong. It is possible to escape the oppression of your circumstances. It's no coincidence that he joined the Marines, whose motto is 'semper fidelis.' Gutierrez remained always faithful to the dream that inspires the best within us. And for this he is an American hero."

Specogna's beautiful and honest documentary punches through this hypocrisy as she portrays José's real heroism of fighting to survive under a system that pushed him aside, like so many poor and working people around the world. There are many scenes in the documentary where the connections between immigration and war intersect and weave together in a heart-wrenching way.

The film portrays the real human sacrifice that is made by people whose only desire is to feed their families and live decently. Like José, many people leave on these heroic journeys without saying goodbye to their families in order to avoid causing worry or grief. Migrating people can be robbed, killed or raped as they travel north toward the U.S. border.

At one point in the film, women gather at a location to prepare themselves to jump on freight trains, by doing drills of running and jumping on a fence--like soldiers training in boot camp. In an emotional moment, Specogna interviews the women who talk about leaving their families before Christmas because they didn't have money to buy their kids presents.

The scene then changes to one of the most shocking moments of the film. A room full of young men and women are singing Christmas songs--some of them are in wheelchairs, some are holding crutches, all are missing limbs. You watch thinking this is a room full of veterans who became dismembered while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan--but no, these are the victims of the freight trains. These are the people who didn't make their ultimate destination to the United States.

During the film, the audience gets to know Gutierrez as a gentle and creative human being. José's dream was to become an architect. He joined the military to be able to afford college, like so many others who have joined.

This film will make you downright angry, and it will surely bring you to tears. But ultimately, this film will turn people not only into antiwar activists but into fighters in the struggle for immigrant rights.

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