By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Jorge Mariscal, a Vietnam veteran who is director of the Chicano/Latino Arts and Humanities Program at the University of California, San Diego, and has been one of the most outspoken leaders in the national counter-recruitment movement, says he's seen similar abuses and is critical of the military's focus on Latinos. "They know Latino youth are emerging as their largest target market, and they also know we have very low college attendance rates," he says. "There's a lot of people who say if they don't join the military they're gonna be in gangs, but that's a sad commentary on how we settle for the status quo. If the government wants to provide money for kids to go to college, that's great, but it should be a college fund, not asking people to risk their lives."
Of the recruiters, he says, "Some believe they're really providing opportunities for people, others are just salesmen trying to make quotas."
Such comments leave Corporal Leal visibly irritated. "If one recruiter does something, we all get blamed," he says. When he started the job, parents would say, "Recruiters are liars, how can I trust you?" Perhaps because of such experiences, he's careful to explain the fine print. "If they ask for $70,000 for college like the ads say, I tell them OK, but you have to qualify for it—I'll tell you what you have to do to get it, but I won't make any promises.
"You can say we're preying on them, but those kids are our majority enlistment—they're the ones we can provide a better future for. We've gone to Highland Park a few times. What can we offer those kids that they want? You talk to most people in the service, they say, 'I'm from the Bronx, I'm from Compton, I'm from Brooklyn.' Looking at them you wouldn't know that, because they've made something of themselves."
Salas' table is covered with Army brochures and bumper stickers that say "Yo Soy el Army." A woman walks by with a boy who looks about 8, and Salas hands him a black rubber bracelet that says "Army of One." They smile and walk on.
"Most people who want information aren't residents, so I can't really do anything with them," says Salas, a husky 35-year-old from an immigrant family in McAllen, Texas. "But at least we're getting the name of the Army out there, and maybe they have friends or something."
Salas is the oldest of five, and he grew up doing migrant farm work to help his parents pay the bills. The first of his family to graduate from college, he joined the Army at 18 when he saw his peers get drawn into gangs and drugs. "I realized there was only a few things that would happen to me if I stayed at home," he says. "I'd either end up in jail or dead. I wanted something better."
Two young men in button-up shirts walk up. The younger one wears an iPod Nano dangling around his neck along with a strand of black rosary beads. Salas shakes their hands. "You got any questions about the Army?" he asks. They shake their heads. "Why not?" The brothers from Guanajuato explain that they'd like to join, but their visas have expired. One is studying engineering at Tarrant County College; the other is a junior at Trimble Tech High School. Salas recommends they go to the local immigration office for visa renewal forms.
Now it's the turn of an adolescent in a red fleece and glasses. "Will the Army pay for your college?" he asks. "Yep," Salas responds. "College is free, as long as you're in the military. So it doesn't matter what college you want to go to—Harvard, West Point..."
Actually, no one is guaranteed entrance or funding for a particularly expensive or selective institution. Soldiers can count on at least $38,000 under the GI Bill, but additional funds—such as the "up to $70,000 for college" often advertised—depend on application and acceptance to various programs based on individual qualifications.
A few minutes later, an exasperated-looking middle-aged woman tells Salas about her nephew. "Right now he's not doing anything but staying at home, and the longer he stays at home, the harder it is to get him to go out and go back to school or get a job," she shouts over the blasting cumbia music. The boy was apparently planning to join the Army until a friend had a bad experience. Salas hands the woman a card. "I can sit down with him," he tells her. She takes it and thanks him.