September 12, 2003

An American Hero From South of the Border

By Jorge Mariscal

One of the most eloquent voices speaking out against the folly of George W. Bush, Inc.’s invasion and occupation of Iraq is Fernando Suarez del Solar. An average-sized man with large eyes and a serene expression, Mr. Suarez speaks imperfect English and often apologizes to his audiences. But what he has to say in his native Spanish is nothing less than one of the most intelligent, powerful, and absolutely riveting analyses of why Bush and Co. must be stopped.

Last March 27, Mr. Suarez’s son, Marine Lance Cpl. Jesus Alberto Suarez del Solar Navarro died in Iraq when he stepped on an unexploded U.S. cluster bomb. Because his unit was not informed about the presence of the tiny bombs, Jesus and his fellow soldiers entered the heavily mined field. Mr. Suarez’s eyes wander off when he recounts the story of how his injured son was left alone for over two hours because the commanding officer would not allow other marines to return to the scene of the accident.

“Another Mexican hero/brought home/Under the Stars and Stripes”

– María Herrera Sobek

The Suarez family buried Jesus, and Mr. Suarez, who privately had opposed the war before it began, decided he must speak out for peace. Throughout U.S. history, Mexican immigrants have been reluctant to take public political positions for fear of reprisal. Often marked as “foreign” and subject to personal and individual acts of racism even after they become U.S. citizens, these new arrivals prefer to maintain a low profile. But Fernando Suarez de Solar is not a typical immigrant.

If the vast majority of Mexican immigrants come to the U.S. with low levels of education and pressing economic needs, Mr. Suarez arrived with neither. Born in Mexico City in 1955, his father was a prominent politician who sent his son to study first with the LaSalle Catholic fathers and then in a military academy affiliated with the Mexican army. For over two and a half years, Mr. Suarez was exposed to the rigors of military life. By the late 1990s, Mr. Suarez, his wife Rosa and their four children, Karla, Olivia, Jesus, and Claudia, had joined millions of other migrants and had taken up residence in Mexico’s fastest growing city—Tijuana, Baja California.

Once settled in Tijuana, Mr. Suarez quickly rose to become one of the leading grass-roots activists working on behalf the poor. He tirelessly organized neighborhood committees that petitioned local and federal officials for basic needs such as running water and sewer systems. In 1995, he received a “Civic Service” award as outstanding citizen of the year. With an acute mind and a gift for public speaking, Mr. Suarez seemed destined for a successful political career.

“He pasado la vida/explorando otras tierras/para darles a mis hijos/un mañana mejor.”

- Los Tigres del Norte

Two years later, the Suarez family moved across the border into the United States and the city of Escondido northeast of San Diego. The reason for the move was unusual and would have dramatic consequences. As young adults who had grown up along the U.S.-Mexico border, Olivia and Jesus wanted to make a contribution toward improving society. The corridos (ballads) they heard on the radio captured what they saw on a daily basis in Tijuana—the pernicious influence of el narco-tráfico (drug traffic). Together Olivia and Jesus convinced their father to move to the United States so that they could join the U.S. military to help in the war on drugs.

The rationale for the move now rings hollow after the loss of the family’s only son in the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Mr. Suarez has learned a great deal about Mexico’s powerful neighbor to the north. When he first arrived and began to see military recruitment ads on television, he mistakenly thought they were part of a special ad campaign. Only later did he understand that such ads are a permanent part of the U.S. cultural landscape. As he recently told me: “After a while I realized that the government has a non-stop campaign to recruit youth into the military, one that goes beyond what I would consider healthy… It is ironic that money is diverted toward military recruitment while there are insufficient funds for schools. I have the impression that the government feels it is more important that young people be soldiers than university students. It seems as if the government wants a militarized rather than a civilian, educated, and cultured society.”

Mr. Suarez is an especially perceptive observer of the patriotic fervor that overran the United States after September 11. “In the United States,” he points out, “to be a patriot for most people is to support the president no matter whom he is and to put a flag on your car or house. In Mexico, on the other hand, patriotism is part of every action taken by a citizen. It can be assuming a critical stance toward the government’s policies or simply fighting to survive economically… It can be calling the government to account when its actions trample on basic rights.”

“Es mejor morir de pie
que vivir de rodillas.”

—Emiliano Zapata

For the last several months, Mr. Suarez has endured a crash course in the gross insensitivity of the American media and the blind patriotism typical of a large sector of the Latino community in the United States. At the “Bring them home now” press conference held in Washington, D.C. on August 13, a reporter posed the question: “But Mr. Suarez, these families have sons and daughters in Iraq and your son was already killed. What are you doing here?”

The inanities of the media pale before the harsh criticism Mr. Suarez often receives from some members of the Latino community. His in-laws oppose his public criticism of the Bush administration, and immigrants often denounce him for being an “ingrate” who does not show enough gratitude to the country that according to them “gave you a decent place to live and educated your children.” For these people whose lives in Mexico were infinitely more difficult, the American Dream trumps whatever injustice they may now encounter.

In one Spanish-language chat room, right-wing Cuban Americans are especially cruel. They accuse him of hating the United States, and suggest that only religious or psychological help will cure him of his need to speak truth to power. But Mr. Suarez refuses to remain silent. His reply to his Latino critics is simple: “I hate no one and I do not hate this country. I and my children and my grandchildren are part of this beautiful country with its diverse inhabitants… I respect your opinions but I don’t agree.”

“We are convinced that nonviolence is more powerful than violence.”

—César E. Chávez

Mr. Suarez is a new kind of American, i.e., americano, hero. A Mexican by birth, his message of peace is directed to every young person in the Americas. Despite what most “Americans” in this country believe, America extends far beyond the borders created for the United States less than two hundred years ago. America extends from the Andes to the Rockies, the Amazon to the Caribbean basin and north to the Bering Strait.

Mr. Suarez is one of the first of a twenty-first century breed of immigrants that has traveled north from America to “America” to pursue the “American Dream” only to have his family plunge in tragic fashion into the wide gap that separates the promise of “American democracy” from the daily reality faced by working-class people.

He considers himself an ordinary citizen compelled to expose without bitterness the lies and injustices perpetrated by the current regime. His most immediate goals are to assist immigrant families who have children returning from war and to educate Latino youth about how they can create a better world. Undaunted by the pain of his loss and the obstacles that confront him, Fernando Suarez del Solar continues his journey for peace. He has no doubt that his son Jesus would be proud.

Return to the Frontpage