News and views from the award-winning author of the novels The Skinny Years, America Libre, House Divided and Pancho Land

Monday, May 23, 2011

Why was Latino Former Marine shot 60 times by Arizona SWAT team?

Another Latino has been shot dead in an Arizona home invasion and the national media is once again ignoring the story. It happened on May 5 and the news is only now surfacing outside the Arizona media through citizen journalism on blogs, Twitter, YouTube and Facebook.

According to the Arizona Daily Star...
Jose Guerena, 26, a former Marine, was sleeping after the graveyard shift at Asarco Mission mine about 9:30 a.m. when his wife woke him saying she heard noises outside and a man was at their window. Guerena told his wife to hide in a closet with their 4-year-old son, his wife has said. He grabbed an AR-15 rifle and moments later was slumped in the kitchen, mortally wounded from a hail of gunfire.

Jose was shot 60 times by members of the Pima Regional SWAT team. His bullet riddled body was found by his wife Vanessa and their four-year-old son, Joel.  “Mom, my dad was a bad guy? What did my dad do?'" asked Joel according to Vanessa. Her desperate 911 call to save her husband’s life was recorded on a chilling YouTube video.

The explanation by the Pima County Sheriff’s office for the home invasion has changed since the May 5 shooting. First reports by the Sheriff’s office were that the SWAT team’s mission was to break up a suspected drug ring and that Jose fired his weapon before the SWAT team fired back. That story was later reversed when it was discovered the safety on Jose's AR-15 was still locked. The motive for the SWAT team’s mission was then changed by the Sheriff’s office, which now says that "someone in the home" had been suspected of a connection with a home invasion robbery ring. The search warrant and court documents that would reveal what the SWAT team was looking for in Guerena's home have been sealed by a judge and are unavailable to the public.

No drugs, cash or criminal evidence of any kind were found in the home. Neither Jose nor his wife Vanessa has a criminal record.  In an attempt to discredit Guerena’s character, a lawyer for the AZCOPS law-enforcement union, Michael Storie, told the media that rifles, handguns, body armor and a portion of a law-enforcement uniform were found inside the house where Jose Guerena was shot. However, Storie was forced to admit that if SWAT members had entered the home without incident, those inside "probably ... wouldn't have been arrested."

Ironically, Pima County Sheriff Clarence W. Dupnik was highly critical of right wing talk radio following the Tucson shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords in January, saying that Arizona had become "a mecca for prejudice and bigotry" thanks to the “vitriol” spread by far-right pundits.  Sheriff Dupnik is now stonewalling requests for more details about the case but implied Guerena should not have resisted.

Although virtually ignored by the national media, most Latinos in Arizona know about the 2009 home invasion by Shawna Forde and her Minutemen accomplices posing as Border Patrol agents that led to the shooting death of 9-year-old Brisenia Flores and her father. So it’s not surprising José Guerena would have reached for his rifle to defend his family.

Jose served two tours of duty as a decorated Marine in Iraq. He returned from service no doubt grateful to have survived the firefights in that war-torn nation. In a cruel twist of fate, he would die in a hail of bullets in his own home.

This tragic story is shocking and sad. Sadder still is that this tragedy has found no "bounce" in the national media. Had this two-hitch Iraq veteran been named Grady instead of Guerena, I think it would have made headlines across the country.

No federal investigation of the actions by the Pima County SWAT team is planned at this time. And without any significant national media coverage of this questionable incident, that is likely how it will remain. 

Raul Ramos y Sanchez

A review of “Black in Latin America” Episode Four

Episode four of “Black in Latin America” by Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates, Jr. focuses on the identity and history of those of Sub-Saharan African descent in Mexico and Peru. Like the previous three episodes in this breakthrough series, Dr. Gates takes viewers into new territory for most in the United States.  For those of us who have been swimming against the powerful tide of Latino stereotypes in the U.S. media, the series is a welcome counter-current.

With a focus on Mexico and Peru, episode four of the series traces the African ancestry in two nations where even many Latinos are unaware of the existence of people with African roots. While this episode accomplished its mission in raising awareness of the black presence in these nations, the historical background was covered in very broad strokes and lacked nuance, understandable in a 51-minute documentary.

One of the most salient features of episode four takes place in the Costa Chica region which Dr. Gates reports as Mexico “blackest” population center.  As we watch footage of the locals, it’s much more difficult to find people whose outward appearance indicates Sub-Saharan African ancestry than, say, Brazil or Cuba.  No mention of this phenomenon is made by Dr. Gates nor is any explanation given. This scarcity of African phenotypes seems especially striking as Dr. Gates accurately reports that nearly a half-million African slaves were imported into Mexico until 1833 when slavery was abolished. Here is where a greater insight into Latin American history would have helped.

Spanish colonization of the Americas stands in sharp contrast to that of the English. The Spaniards began colonizing the Americas nearly a century earlier than the English. More significantly, Spaniards were looking for the largest – and wealthiest  concentrations of native people to conquer and convert to their religion. After exploring the Caribbean along with North and South America, the Spanish conquistadores found these prizes in the civilizations of the Aztecs in Mexico and the Incas of Peru. In 1521 Hernan Cortes overthrew the Aztec rulers in Mexico, setting the pattern for a society consisting of large numbers of indigenous people dominated by a minority of Europeans.  Cortes was soon copied by Francisco Pizarro with the Incas in Peru in 1533. These historical facts explain why Sub-Saharan phenotypes are less prevalent in Mexico despite its importation of over 500,000 African slaves. The reason is sheer numbers.

Unlike Cuba, Brazil and other Latin American regions where indigenous populations were sparse (and further decimated by European diseases), the genes of a half-million African slaves were absorbed into the millions of Native American people living in Mexico. Today, the descendants of those Mexican slaves are much more genetically mixed than in many other parts of Latin America.

English colonists, arriving along the coast of North America because it was the shortest route from England across the Atlantic, typically came in family groups from all walks of life. Unlike the Spanish conquistadors who were mostly single men, the English had little use for the indigenous people as sources of brides or labor. What the English wanted most from the natives was their land. As a result, Native Americans were pushed westward through war and treaties by racially-segregated Anglo communities. Later, as lucrative plantation crops like tobacco, rice and cotton increased the demand for cheap labor, the English colonists entered the African slave trade on a large scale. This was the basis of the black-white racial dichotomy that would become the norm in the U.S. until late in the twentieth century. It is against this yardstick that Dr. Gates often measures race relations in Latin America during the series. This preconception is one of the shortcomings of the series.

Another recurring weakness marring “Black in Latin America” is an abundance of mistakes in cultural references. Throughout the series there are errors in indentifying music, places and food. In addition, Dr. Gates often slaughters Spanish pronunciations, something which could have been easily avoided with the help of a consultant. In truth, there are other U.S. scholars of African descent who are fluent in Spanish as well as Portuguese and have a much deeper understanding of Afro-Latino history and culture who might have been better hosts for the series. (Dr. Franklin W. Knight of Johns Hopkins University comes to mind.) 

All the same, “Black in Latin America” is a landmark television event. Dr. Gates has used his considerable media acumen to help enlighten the U.S. public about a topic woefully ignored. I hope the series is the start of a growing awareness and discussion about the diversity of Latinos, our African roots, and the racism that still haunts all the nations of the Americas.

Raul Ramos y Sanchez