Guatemala – that small republic at the slender waist of the North American continent – is not a place that most Americans know about. If they do, they might know it for contributing thousands of immigrants who brave the violent border separating the United States from Mexico in a search for a better life. Many enter the United States illegally or remain in the country even after their visas expire. They are often found working, for example, in Michigan picking blueberries, in Mississippi working in sawmills or mat fields, or in California picking row crops.
One of these Guatemalans paid the ultimate sacrifice in service to a country that had not yet afforded him citizenship. Born in Guatemala, 22-year-old José Antonio Gutierrez died in a 2003 firefight and was one of the first U.S. military personnel to die in combat in the second Iraq War. Marine Lance Corporal Gutierrez died on March 21, 2003, near the port called Umm Qasr. He was one of the first U.S. casualties of the war.
Rifleman Gutierrez came to the United States at the age of 14. After his parents’ death, he had been left to fend for himself on the streets of Guatemala City. Like many others, he then took the hazardous route from Central America through Mexico by hopping freight trains and travelled north. Immigrants fleeing the poverty and criminal violence of Central America use various means to reach the U.S., paying smugglers to find routes where they can avoid border guards. Like many who cross the border illegally, Gutierrez was detained by immigration authorities who, because he was a minor, did not deport him back to Guatemala.
In Los Angeles, he became a ward of the state and lived with a series of different foster families and group homes. He learned English and finished high school in California, obtaining his legal residency documents and the age of 18.
Rather than pursuing university studies towards his dream of becoming an architect, Gutierrez instead decided to join the Marine Corps. His foster sister later said that Gutierrez was anxious to give the United States what the United States gave to him. He came with nothing, and it was the United States, she said, who gave him everything. He was among the 32,000 Latinos - native-born and immigrants - to serve in the conflict in 2003.
Gutierrez did not become a U.S. citizen until after his death. He was the second Marine to die in the conflict. Ironically, he was killed by friendly fire. His sister, Engracia Sirin Gutierrez, accepted the offer of residency in the U.S. that came only after her brother's sacrifice.
His life was recalled in a 2006 documentary film, 'The Short Happy Life of Jose Gutierrez.'
Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. He is also a freelance translator.