Feb. 18, 2022 | Ruxandra Guidi | True Jersey - It’s my third year at Nutley High, the only high school in this northern New Jersey town of fewer than 30,000 people. It’s also my third year living in the United States. Everything still feels new.
One day, my guidance counselor, a soft-spoken Irish-American man whose name I cannot remember, sends a letter to the apartment where my mom and I live. He is tall, like one of the oaks in the park towering over me. It’s time to talk about my future, he tells us.
A week later, we are sitting in his office, facing the school’s courtyard. It’s winter and the weathered greenery outside looks sad and scraggly.
“Your grades are pretty good,” he tells me, pointing out how my favorite subjects must be creative writing and French.
Indeed, I’d been thinking I’d like to become a writer who travels. Or maybe a traveler who writes. I don’t know. The possibilities are so new. But the school counselor isn’t listening. He talks over and past me.
“Have you considered the Army?” he asks, looking at my mom. “It’s a great option for many Hispanics. You’ll get your college paid for and they’ll help you get your citizenship.”
We try to hide our frustration and thank him, shaking his hand goodbye.
I grew up in Venezuela. A nation that welcomed so many exiles fleeing the U.S.-backed Southern Cone dictatorships in the ‘70s. A nation that was a model of democracy in the region for decades. So the idea of joining the U.S. army feels repugnant.
I am the daughter of college-educated hippies who see the American military as one of the worst embodiments of our newly adopted home. This isn’t true only for my family. I dare you to ask for the perspectives of people around the world, especially people from developing countries who have lived with the realities of what happens when a nation exerts its power and influence through military force. The legacy of U.S. imperialism is strong. The trail of the wounded is long.
I’ll never forget a series of graffiti that shared a common saying. I found them on walls throughout Caracas during my childhood. In all angry-looking caps, they read:
“FUERA YANQUIS” — Gringos, get out of Latin America.
Joining the U.S. military was not an option for me. But since at least World War II, it has been an appealing one for so many U.S.-born Latinos and immigrants.
An estimated 500,000 Latinos served from 1941 to 1947 (roughly 4% of all who did), according to a study by Cal State Los Angeles. And although there’s no reliable data for how many fought in the Vietnam War, that same study estimates that Latinos made up about 20% of all U.S. troops who were killed in Vietnam.
For decades since, the U.S. has aggressively tried to tap into our growing demographic — including thousands of non-citizen immigrants — to fight and die on its behalf. America is strategic about attracting Latino kids via campus recruiting efforts and Army-sponsored video games, as well as the federally-funded Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps or JROTC units, which were designed as a recruitment tool ahead of U.S. involvement in World War I.
We are often on the recruitment radar screen for other U.S. government outfits as well, from the Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement to the Central Intelligence Agency. We may be the perfect recruits: Typically Spanish-speaking and bicultural. Roots in Latin America. Like everyone, we want steady, well-paying jobs. Our families want us to go to college and get help to pay for it.
They know some of us have fewer opportunities or may be eager to prove our alliance to this country. They also know some of us want to carry on the tradition of our parents serving in the U.S. military.
I am an immigrant from Venezuela: A country of 30 million people no one in Nutley seems to have heard of.
One day, in history class, our teacher asks the immigrant kids to point to our places of origin. But all I see on our classroom wall is a classic color-coded map of the United States, flanked by red, white and blue flags — as if this was the very center of the universe, the only country worth knowing anything about.
The CIA’s tempting offer
I left Nutley to study political science at Rutgers University, where the tall oaks and pines on campus reminded me of my old high school grounds.
As my college loans began to pile up, I read Antonio Gramsci, Hannah Arendt, Franz Fanon and Karl Marx. From one reading to the next, I questioned the American dream’s promise of growth and prosperity at home, while the U.S. forced its geopolitical policies and whims around the globe. Like my parents, I was becoming a modern-day hippie myself.
Then, one day, I met a smooth-talking CIA recruiter visiting our campus.
He had a tempting offer for a bilingual college kid from Venezuela with a ton of debt. And I was not yet a citizen.
“Not a problem,” said the clean-shaven military man in a navy suit.
“We’re looking for people who are motivated, hard-working and who love traveling,” the CIA recruiter said.
He handed me a printed out application. I put it on my desk, where the official-looking logo at the top of the page stared back at me for days. I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t consider filling it out.
I desperately wanted to get out of debt and into the world. I told my Marxist Theory professor about this CIA recruiter and he gave me a knowing smirk.
“Do you think they’d want you for anything other than speaking Spanish and being from Latin America?” he said. “Think about it.”
I did and still do, sometimes. My future was then unimaginable, as life has a way of being.
Here, I had an offer from the U.S., my adopted country, telling me I need not worry about debt or citizenship. If I played my cards right, I need not wait to travel.
But I didn’t say yes in high school or in college because it would go against everything my parents believed in and taught me. It would go against the very history so many kids like myself were a product of, and against everything I was learning about life, politics and the world.
My restlessness would lead me in a different direction. I’d follow a path toward a morally driven and less-profitable route: Journalism.
I’d travel closer to Venezuela again. But this time, I’d find myself questioning my own lens, my own privilege and my own world perspective.
‘Out in the world’
People from across the world died on U.S. soil in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Americans felt a fleeting moment of unity before wars were waged in Iraq and Afghanistan. Recruitment for all kinds of intelligence and military positions was on the rise — and this would have sweeping effects for Latino communities in America.
U.S. military needs were so great that in 2002, President George W. Bush ordered “expedited naturalization” for immigrant soldiers in an effort to grow American Army ranks.
This should have been a boon for the kind of explanatory and investigative journalism that drew in so many from my generation. It was a time when Americans urgently needed to know where countries were located on a map. We needed to understand those countries’ histories, while questioning the impact of U.S. actions around the world.
As a young journalist just a few years out of college, I dreamed of sharing work with the kind of context and deep reporting that help people experience compassion, while still developing a critical understanding of current events.
The opposite happened.
Newsroom budgets were cut, bureaus were closed. It was a disorienting time for any journalist — and even more so for any immigrant one, for the many of us who never truly feel like they belong in America.
By the summer of 2008, I finally got a chance to do the work that I believed could make a difference: I earned a fellowship and won an all-expenses paid, five-week trip to a poorly-covered, misunderstood country that’s been long suffering at the hands of U.S. interests.
I was 32 years old when I landed in Haiti just two weeks after back-to-back Hurricanes Hanna and Ike had killed thousands of people and destroyed the livelihoods and homes of thousands more, leveling entire neighborhoods, hospitals and schools.
My plan was to chronicle how U.S. foreign aid and private interests descended on the country haphazardly, out of tune with the needs of those most affected. Like the tons of food aid that ended up stranded in Port-au-Prince warehouses for weeks, or the humanitarian workers who arrived en masse unwilling to collaborate with Haitian nurses or doctors.
The experience jolted me. It brought me face-to-face with the limits of journalism as a form of foreign correspondence, revealing how little I understood about other cultures. Worse yet: It exposed all the ways in which my privileged desire to travel, to be “out in the world,” was insensitive to others’ pain.
I recall visiting the maternity ward of a hospital in Port-au-Prince that was overwhelmed with patients and too few doctors. Parts of the building lay in ruin.
Once I got permission to enter the compound, I roamed around its halls with a microphone in my hand, looking for a way to tell the story of this place as best I could. I wanted to feature the voices of these mothers; these women.
And then I saw her: A young mother, much younger than myself at the time. She was waiting to be seen, gently shaking her tiny baby in her arms. I watched as a doctor approached her in Creole and told her her baby was gone.
The fever had killed him and he wasn’t coming back. I looked into her eyes — they were lost, looking for answers. Her baby lay motionless.
I couldn’t sleep that night. All I could think about was this woman’s helplessness and sorrow. Her senses so numbed, she couldn’t even cry.
I looked in the mirror. Staring at myself, I wept. Because I knew I couldn’t fully understand or explain what people like her were living and how they were dying.
Back home. Recruited, again.
When I returned from Haiti, I joined the other fellows in Washington, D.C., young journalists like myself who’d also tried to jumpstart their international reporting careers.
We gave a short presentation about our experience and I struggled to describe my inadequacies. That’s when someone approached me with an offer that reminded me of others in the past.
“So where are you originally from?” a man asked me after the presentations. He was short and maybe in his 50s, with shaggy gray hair and clear blue eyes. “Do you speak Spanish? How would you like to work on a reporting project in Cuba?”
He said his name was Jeff Kline. He introduced himself to another fellow as well, a Mexican-American woman from South Texas who’d just traveled to the border between Guatemala and Mexico. We took his business cards and handed him ours.
I’d always wanted to visit Cuba, and not just because of Fidel Castro and his radical socio-political experiment. Cuba was a model for the rest of the hemisphere: a country that had designed one of the best public education and health care systems with very limited means.
I’ll never forgive myself for having to turn down an offer I got in my early twenties to visit Cuba by taking a motorboat from Venezuela’s coast. It would have only taken a couple of hours, I was told, but even at that age I knew this could have been a disastrous voyage.
And now, a stranger was trying to convince me that I would be the perfect young journalist for his Cuba project.
A couple of days later, my friend and I went to meet Kline inside an austere Dupont Circle office building with chrome elevators and polished marble floors.
There were other young Latino journalists sitting at the end of a conference table inside a big white office. We never learned their names.
Kline and a Spanish-speaking woman showed us some slides. All they would need us to do, they explained, was travel to Cuba the following spring.
The mission was simple: We’d bring some recording and cellular phone equipment into the island and we’d distribute it among young Cubans, younger even than ourselves.
We’d have to teach them how to use it so they could send dispatches back to the U.S. We would encourage them to enter their personal stories in a radio contest. And one more thing, Kline said. The gig would pay well, half upfront, and the rest when we got back. But only by direct deposit into a Mexican bank account that we would be in charge of setting up at a later date.
We were asked to meet again in a few days so we could sign a contract. But I didn’t need a Marxist Theory professor or anyone else to warn me. I suspected something was strange about a reporting trip to Cuba funded by an offshore bank account.
About a year later, I read about the case of U.S. foreign aid subcontractor Alan Gross, who was arrested and jailed in Cuba for bringing military-grade communication equipment with the aim of subverting or overthrowing Castro’s regime.
I immediately thought of Kline.
His name has since showed up in several 2014 blog posts by journalist Tracey Eaton about a no-bid “disappearing $450,000 contract” and communications gear that was confiscated by Cuban authorities.
I wondered if that contract would have paid for me to go to Cuba had I accepted his offer, had I signed up for an all-expenses paid, summer-long assignment traveling to a place I’d always dreamed of seeing.
I recently spoke with Kline for this story – 14 years after we’d met in D.C. He didn’t remember me. But he said he wasn’t trying to recruit me. He insisted that he wasn’t in the business of spreading U.S. propaganda in Cuba. Instead, he described his mission as fostering freedom of speech — with funds from the U.S. State Department and help on the ground from Spanish-speaking journalists.
That was the last time I was targeted as a recruit. Almost 14 years have come and gone.
I’m probably too old now — my skepticism too entrenched — to be an appealing candidate for any U.S. state interest.
Still, I wonder what path my life would have followed if I hadn’t said no. If I’d been recruited to become a spy, or a pawn for U.S.-funded pro-democracy work. If I’d joined the military and then died for my adopted country, like the almost 500 Latinos who perished in U.S. military actions during the Iraq War, the bloodiest since Vietnam.
Perhaps I would not have found my love for journalism. After all, that is the story we tell ourselves about why we come and why we stay: Because we’re looking for a better life, for an education for our children, for jobs. Often, we’re seeking more than just a job: We want to live a moral life, to make the world better than it was for those who sacrificed for us.
We want the freedom to chase our dreams on our own terms. Young and old, Spanish-speaking, citizens or not.
Ruxandra Guidi, a native of Venezuela, has reported throughout the Western Hemisphere for over 20 years. Her work has appeared on the radio shows PRI’s The World and NPR’s Latino USA, and in High Country News, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Atlantic, The New York Times and other publications. She teaches audio and freelance storytelling at the University of Arizona and collaborates regularly with husband, Bear Guerra, under the name Fonografia Collective.
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