JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Eddie and Ruben quarrel.

Eddie's commander orders him to hide his identity, and thus we see how the military is making instrumental use of his Chicano identity.

Eddie waking up in his parents’ L.A. home.

Eddie taking leave of his mother. It is important to Eddie and his family that they be able to recover his body should he be killed.

Eddie trying to get drunk in soldiers club.

The display of flags makes him feel acutely his own "foreigness."

“My fine natural Mexican brown.”

Reuben dies in a Contra uniform and will be buried in foreign soil, unidentified.

Eddie hides his dog tags by ....

... taping them to his leg.

Eddie in Contra uniform.

Eddie captured.

He holds his dog tags in his fist to still maintain his identity.

Eddie arrested. His identity probably will be discovered by the Nicaraguans and publicized internationally.

His last glimpse of Marlena, who is among the residents of El Porvenir.

 

While Eddie's involvement with the people he must fight gets more intense, he becomes increasingly uncomfortable within the social body of the army.[15][open endnotes in new window] The script first marks this alienation by showing his strained relationship with his friend Ruben. Personal doubts about his role in the U.S. military also arise when his commanding officer announces that Eddie and Ruben will lead their fighters in an operation against El Porvenir in Contra uniforms and without identity tags. The officer says the reason for their hiding their identity is to keep political liberals in the United States from raising an alarm over evidence of fallen U.S. soldiers should the operation fail.

Fighting with the Contras openly instrumentalizes Eddie's Mexican American ethnicity because this ethnicity allows him to blend into the group and camouflage his citizenship. Eddie is expected to serve the United States "invisibly," by exactly not looking like a soldier who is white or black and thus easily identified as a member of the U.S. military. Paradoxically, his ethnic identity and soldierly discipline are meant to operate for his country, but at the same time his Armed Forces have personally and militarily "othered" him. This order is a turning point in the narrative for it contradicts Eddie's understanding of his professional role. He considers honorable service for his country to involve service in that country's name, as a body politic identifiable as the United States, even if he is on a secret operation. As Eddie tells the commanding officer to his face:

"This hunk of metal is part of my uniform. It's like a part of my body. I'm not going to do something I'm gonna be ashamed of."

To Eddie, the dog tag symbolizes the military part of his identity, and the film highlights its significance for him by making the tag almost constantly visible. It's there from the moment when Eddie is first seen waking up in his mother's house, tag clearly visible on his chest, indicating how Eddie's military identity has indeed become inseparable from his body and his private life. The waking-up scene also establishes that Eddie 's personal reason to resent the commander's order. Taking his farewell from his mother, Eddie promised her that he would "be back" – but without his tag, she could not even reclaim his body if he were killed. That he is expected to fight and die without proof of his identity troubles Eddie so much that he now decides he'll give up his military career after the two final months of his tour, because his "heart is no longer in it," as he tells Marlena, though those words come too late to save their relationship.

Eventually, the fear that his dead body would go unidentified also awakens Eddie's sense of ethnic discrimination.[16] The official honoring of a soldier's death may be a matter of particular sensitivity for ethnic-minority soldiers, especially if they have seen military service as a way of gaining and/or confirming their status within the nation. Here, for example, the action of Latino takes place less than a year after the dedication of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington in November 1982. Many Hispanic names are inscribed on this monument and their contribution to a U.S. war was a high price for acceptance into U.S. society. As B.V. Olguín  puts it:

"the price for full citizenship for Mexican-Americans is not multicultural fluency, but self-sacrifice, self-effacement, and ultimately Mexican-American blood." (90)

The Vietnam Memorial  would have displayed Eddie's name had he been killed in Vietnam, fighting in his own uniform. The covert nature of the Nicaraguan operation makes this impossible. Thinking about this hiding of his identity, on the night before they depart for action against El Porvenir, a frustrated Eddie, trying to get drunk in a soldiers' club decorated with U.S. flags, gives vent to his new feeling of victimization. He cites the example of a Lieutenant Anderson who was killed in El Salvador and whose body was brought home as a dead hero with military honors and a lot of media attention. Eddie knows neither he nor Reuben would get such honors and thinks they are being treated just like "niggers":

"I want my mom and my family to know it's me in that body bag, not some Private Nobody with no name. If I'm gonna die for my country, I want them to know it's me: Eddie Guerrero who fucking put himself on the line. [....] Part of [the problem] is this: My name is Guerrero, not Anderson. Did you listen to the colonel in the fancy house and white skin talking to us about public relations problems? Here's public relations. Look at my fine natural Mexican brown."

While he speaks the final sentences, Eddie slaps himself on his stomach and thus explicitly points to the "foreignness" of his body within the U.S. army – a foreignness that leads to discrimination and possibly effacement of his name, body and self. In fact, later for Ruben, such an effacement actually takes place. That Latino soldier gets killed in the attack on the cooperative and will be buried as an unidentified Contra fighter, just as his commanding officer intended.

By contrast, Eddie disobeys the general's orders and secretly tapes his identity tag to his leg when he dons the Contra uniform – the furthest he can go without complete insubordination and risking his career. During the attack on the cooperative, he is taken prisoner by Luis, who has now re-identified with El Porvenir's defense forces and decides to protect the co-operative's grain silos from being destroyed. The film then shows a resigned Eddie undressing, leaving it open whether his captor forces nakedness upon him (in revenge for Luis' own naked torture in the Contra training camp), or whether this is an act through which Eddie himself decides to distance himself from the dishonorable operation in which he has taken part. As we see the former proud soldier without uniform, the scene makes a strong statement about Eddie's deconstructed and perhaps also reconstructed identity. Naked, but holding the name tag in his hand and thus asserting his personal identity, Eddie is brought into the cooperative, arrested and taken away on a truck by Sandinista fighters. One of the final shots reveals that Marlena has watched Eddie's arrest without interfering. The only thing Eddie can cling to, at what is possibly the end of his life, is the assurance that, should he be killed, his mother will receive his remains in a body bag. But even though Eddie no longer wears a uniform, his body remains politicized. Significantly, his name tag will eventually reveal his country's involvement in the Nicaraguan war.

The final scenes with Eddie stripped to the bare essentials of his identity show with particular clarity how Latino uses the protagonist's body and name as central sites for negotiating its meaning. Every soldier knows they face harm to the body. The uniform is a marker which indicates both personal identity and the soldier's special status as a body politic. For the minority-ethnic soldier, however, military status is complicated by the fact that his or her body also marks "otherness" – an otherness that may be instrumentalized by the military in the manner shown in Haskell Wexler's film. Latino exposes a relation between the U.S. military and a Mexican-American soldier that is – or rather becomes – uncomfortable and exploitative when the soldier's ethnicity is employed in a manner that goes beyond the degree to which all soldiers must, for reasons of their profession, expect to be used by the country they serve.  If men like Eddie Guerrero see the army as a means of integration, they may well be betrayed.

In the film's last moments, when Eddie casts a final glance at the woman with whom he might have had a good life, the background plays the song, "Voice of America."[18] In an interview in 1986, Haskell Wexler said his film is

"addressed to Americans. We are not asking people to evaluate the policies of the Sandinistas; we are asking people to evaluate the policies of the United States government." (qtd. in Wunsch n.p.)

As Latino shows through its fictional biography, the policies to evaluate are about the tangle of ethnic discrimination within the national body and U.S. activities abroad.

From fiction to facts

The United States' war on terror, in conjunction with recent debates about immigration control (and special focus on the U.S.-Mexican border), lends Latino a renewed topicality. George W. Bush's "Address to the Nation on Immigration Reform" delivered on May 15, 2006, starts out with images of migrants "sneak[ing] across our border" but concludes with a vision of the "preferred" immigrant, exemplified by a soldier of Mexican origin severely injured in the war on Iraq:

"I know many of you listening tonight have a parent or grandparent who came here from another country with dreams of a better life. You know what freedom meant to them, and you know that America is a more hopeful country because of their hard work and sacrifice. As President, I've had the opportunity to meet people of many backgrounds, and hear what America means to them. On a visit to Bethesda Naval Hospital, Laura and I met a wounded Marine named Guadalupe Denogean. Master Gunnery Sergeant Denogean came to the United States from Mexico when he was a boy. He spent his summers picking crops with his family, and then he volunteered for the United States Marine Corps as soon as he was able. During the liberation of Iraq, Master Gunnery Sergeant Denogean was seriously injured. And when asked if he had any requests, he made two: a promotion for the corporal who helped rescue him, and the chance to become an American citizen. And when this brave marine raised his right hand, and swore an oath to become a citizen of the country he had defended for more than 26 years, I was honored to stand at his side."

In the President's rhetoric, fighting and almost losing his life in the U.S. Armed Forces has marked this soldier as a migrant "worthy" of receiving U.S. citizenship. However, acceptance of the non-citizen soldier into the U.S. national body is not as simple a matter as the President's address to the nation makes it appear to be. Master Gunnery Sergeant Denogean was lucky to be able to prove his eligibility and stay alive, but many other non-citizen soldiers were killed in Iraq. Voices from U.S. Hispanic communities – particularly concerned about the issue of non-citizen soldiers – have emphasized that armed service for non-citizen soldiers is generally more risky than for their "citizen" peers. That is, these "ethnic" soldiers have a higher liability of being injured or killed simply because of the positions they are permitted to take in the Armed Forces. Following the Senate's April 2003 bill awarding immediate citizenship to non-citizen soldiers killed in action , the Pacific News Service published a commentary on the "risks and contradictions facing non-citizens in the military and in U.S. society" that "loom large in the minds of Latinos these days." Serving in the military may make it easier to obtain citizenship,

"[y]et it seems that being a non-citizen soldier may put you faster in the line of fire."

According to the Los Angeles Times, of the first ten Californians killed in the war, five were non-citizens. One reason may come from the internal rules of the U.S. Armed Forces. For example, in a recent article in Hispanic Link news service, Sargeant Oscar Villa, a U.S. marine who immigrated from Ecuador at age 14, explains why immigrants in the military wear the same uniform but have "different options":

"Due to national security and many other restrictions, non-citizen members of the military have only a small, select number of Military Occupational Specialities (MOS) to choose from when enlisting or re-enlisting. In all service branches, immigrants and non-citizens are over-represented in the field of infantry... They are most likely to be called first to the front lines."

Villa writes:

"The reason? Non-citizens can't get a security clearance." (Marrero n.p.)

Political and discursive circumstances have undergone significant change since Haskell Wexler's Latino was released two decades ago. In the ideological climate following 9/11, any soldier's death for the United States likely will be acknowledged as a patriotic gesture, irrespective of the soldier's ethnic background. Nevertheless, the controversial issues raised by Latino's fictional biography have not been overcome in U.S. national and international policy. In the U.S. national body, the negotiation of ethnic, national and military identities remain s a matter of special concern to U.S. soldiers of Hispanic origin since their bodies are still more likely to be harmed – even if "rewarded."

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