Elena McCullough immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic when she was sixteen. On the week of her eighteenth birthday, she joined the Coast Guard.
“When I was 18, my family expected me to be self-sufficient,” she says.
McCullough decided to join the military because of the educational benefits and work experience, but she didn’t join solely for her benefit. She chose the military path for sake of her family as well. “It gives you a venue for you to help your family,” she says. “Helping your family is not a burden. It’s part of who we are.”
McCullough’s career in the Coast Guard lasted 24 years. “I loved my career. It was the most wonderful experience,” she says. “I learned to be really strong.”
Alfredo Vargas joined the National Guard for reasons similar. “My parents weren’t going to be able to pay for my college and I didn’t want student loans,” he says. He has now been in the military for almost 13 years and for five and a half of those years, he was in active duty. In 2003, he served in Iraq.
According to Lieutenant Commander Nate Christensen, a Department of Defense spokesman, Hispanics currently comprise 11.4 percent of the active-duty military forces (more than 157,000 people). In 2011, 16.9 percent of all new recruits were Hispanic. Though this shows Hispanics are actually underrepresented in the number of new U.S. military accessions, this does represent a 3 percent increase since 2005. And that number can only rise given that many of the immigration reform proposals include a path to citizenship after serving in the military.
But despite the growing numbers and a long history of service, Amy Lutz, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology at Syracuse University, points out that there has been little research on the extent to which the poor and minorities are disproportionately selected into service and that Latino participation in the armed services has not been thoroughly investigated.
Lutz’s 2008 study “Who Joins the Military?: A Look at Race, Class, and Immigration Status” found that those with lower family income are more likely to join the military than those with higher family income and that a large percentage of Latinos who have served in the armed forces are children of immigrants.
Jorge Mariscal, Ph.D., director of Chicano/a studies and professor of literature at University of California San Diego, has researched Latinos in the military and says that there are three basic reasons Latinos join– the lack of opportunities to pursue other careers since education is being priced out for many working class people, a tradition of military service in many families, and the appealing masculinity attached to serving. He points out that the highest percentage of Latinos is in the Marine Corps, which is often considered “the baddest gang in the world.”
“They are going after our youth in a big way,” Mariscal says.
Vargas says that he has seen the army intentionally uses Latino recruiters in Latino areas, and that to get families on board, recruiters often make home visits, which is very rare in the recruitment of other nationalities.
The immigration angle can also be used to convince some men and women to join. “I’ve heard that some recruiters emphasize immigration benefits,” Lutz says. She says the military can help fill out paperwork and speed up the immigration process.
The documentary “Yo Soy el Army” criticizes the Army’s campaigns geared towards Latinos. The film’s website reads: “Alongside the Spanish-language media campaigns, the false promises and stringent laws that have even resulted in the deportation of non-citizen veterans, the US government is now considering the DREAM Act, legislation that offers a path to citizenship through military service.”
During this recent election, there was a lot of debate about a military version of the DREAM Act, and as Mariscal points out, the military itself has a big hand in creating the current version of the DREAM Act. The version would offer two options for a path towards citizenship — complete two years of college or two years of military service.
“A lot of us are ambivalent,” Mariscal says. “As educators, we support the educational part.”
But Mariscal, like many others, is critical of the military option. “A lot of them are going to take the military and you might get killed in the military.”
Christensen, however, challenges this claim that the military aggressively recruits Latinos. “We have a great record of selecting and promoting people based on their proven performance, not their race, gender, or ethnicity– but we will not rest on our laurels,” he says.
“Our force comes from a diverse populous, and certainly our military is better served when it reflects the nation it serves.”
Erika L. Sánchez is a poet and freelance writer living in Chicago. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Illinois at Chicago, was a recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship to Madrid, Spain, and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Mexico. She is currently the sex and love advice columnist for Cosmopolitan for Latinas and a contributor for The Huffington Post and other publications. You can find her onTwitter, Facebook, or www.erikalsanchez.com