A GUATEMALAN CITIZEN -
Dr. Hymers' note: The following article appeared on the first page of "Sunday Viewpoint" on March 30, 2003. I have condensed it, and present it here as an example of what it means to be an American. My wife was also born and raised in Guatemala.
When Lance Cpl. Jose Gutierrez set out to do battle against the Iraqi Republican Guard just outside Umm Qasr, he was probably unable to think of much other than the task at hand: freeing a port so humanitarian aid could soon make its way to the oppressed people he and his fellow Marines had come to liberate.
Certainly he didn't expect to become one of the first American servicemen to die in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Nor could he have imagined that he would end up providing the definitive answer to a tired political debate that had for too long divided his countrymen back home.
Sure enough, Gutierrez would end up not only giving his life for his country, but also giving us a lesson on what it means to be an American.
Orphaned before he turned 10, Gutierrez and his older sister had to quit school to earn a living in a Guatemalan steel factory. They became street kids in a war-torn country where such kids typically weren't treated too kindly by the police and soldiers who patrolled the streets.
So nine years ago, like millions of others before him, Gutierrez decided to seek out freedom and a better life by coming to America. Just 16 years old, he made the 2,000-mile journey from Guatemala, through Mexico and ultimately to California, hopping some 14 trains along the way.
He came as an illegal immigrant, but eventually qualified for political asylum and permanent resident status. Yet even when he died in an American uniform, he still hadn't attained American citizenship.
After arriving in the U.S., Gutierrez settled in Lomita, where he was taken in by foster parents Nora and Marcelo Mosquera. In short order, he would learn English, help raise the Mosqueras' younger children and graduate from high school. He sent money and pictures of himself back to his sister in Guatemala, whom he reportedly hoped to bring to the United States.
A gifted artist, his foster family has said, Gutierrez wanted to become an architect but put those dreams and college on hold, instead choosing another path - the Marines.
Gutierrez "wanted to give the United States what the United States gave to him," the Mosqueras' adult daughter, Jackie Baker, told KVEA-TV (Channel 52). "He came with nothing. This country gave him everything."
Soon enough, he would give everything to the country he eagerly served. On March 21, fighting alongside his fellow Marines, he succumbed to enemy fire.
Gutierrez might not have been born to American parents or on American soil, but he embodied Americanism - both before and after going to war.
He embodied Americanism the day he risked his life and set off for this country, looking for freedom and an opportunity to succeed.
He embodied Americanism when he learned the language, then went to school and work.
And he undeniably embodied Americanism on the day he signed up to become a Marine, the day he lost his life in combat and all the days in between.
Some might quibble: He came here illegally; he broke the law.
Fair enough. The rule of law shouldn't be discarded lightly. But then, Gutierrez was 16 years old when he entered this country. American teens break a good many laws every day, but seldom for reasons as compelling.
And whatever debt he may have owed to society for transgressing U.S. immigration policy, he repaid many times over with his own blood.
Gutierrez's only surviving relative is his sister back in Guatemala. She wants to bring his body back to his native land, and there's no begrudging that decision. It's her brother and her grief. Besides, where Gutierrez is buried doesn't matter any more than where he was born. It's his life and his death that tell us all we need to know about his nationality.
Jose Gutierrez was an American, a patriot and a hero - in that order.