The Short Life of José Antonio Gutierrez
By Gar Smith /
January 30, 2007

José Antonio "Tono" Gutierrez
The 90-minute film (Das Kurze Leben des José Antonio Gutierrez), won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and received its first theatrical US showing on January 15 at the Berlin and Beyond Film Festival in San Francisco. One critic clearly moved critic provided the following summary: "He was born in one war and killed in another, yet his spirit flourished. One green-card soldier who is nameless no more."

The first Marine (and the first Latino soldier) to die in Iraq was not even an American. Jose Antonio Gutierrez was a "Green-Card Soldier," one of the 32,000 foreign-born fighters who enlisted in the "War on Terror" in hopes of winning US citizenship.

Separated from his family during Guatemala's 30-year-long civil war, Gutierrez spent his childhood on the streets. Blessed with intelligence, resilience and self-confidence, the young Gutierrez eventually rode the rails 2,000 miles north, in hopes of attending school in the US and becoming an architect.

Swiss-born filmmaker Heidi Specogna became fascinated with Gutierrez' story and, joined by German co-director/cinematographer Rainer Hoffman, she traveled to Guatemala, Mexico and the US to document the saga of the young boy known to his friends as "Tono."

The Short Life of José Antonion Gutierrez opens with the filmmakers interviewing the officer in charge of Gutierrez' squad who explains how "one of the hardest things I ever had to do" was to lie about Tono's death. Why did he have to lie? Because an investigation revealed that the young Marine had been cut down by "friendly fire." It was necessary to lie to his troops, the soldier explained, because "I needed to keep their heads in the game."

In Guatemala, the filmmakers located Patrick Atkinson, the director of the orphanage that brought Tono in from the streets. Atkinson was livid about the Pentagon's "official story" of Gutierrez' death, calling it "a classical war propaganda story exploiting Tono for their own purposes.

"You read that he comes to the US illegally at 14 because he wants to be a Marine. You know what? False! All untrue! Why would they lie like that when this boy's story is so powerful for who he is?"

The Unofficial Story
A powerful new film tells the story of a street child with a brilliant smile and a burning dream to become an architect who met his fate in the Middle East, the victim of "Friendly Fire."
José Antonia Gutierrez was born in a small village during Guatemala's civil war, a bloody conflict backed by the US Central Intelligence Agency. US military advisors and the CIA played a key role in the scorched-earth program that obliterated 440 villages and killed at least 200,000 of Guatemala's poorest citizens.

In February 1999, the Guatemala Truth Commission published secret documents proving US direct role in the genocidal war against the civilian population.

By the time Guatemala's civil war entered its 13th year, more than 300,000 children had been separated from their families and rendered homeless. Among the victims were members of the Gutierrez family, who fled to capital in the late '70s. It was here that Tono was found abandoned by social workers at Casa Alianza, a nonprofit shelter that serves 15,000 homeless children each year.

The filmmakers revisited the streets that Tono live on and found a scene that has changed little in the past ten years. Ragged teenagers congregate on the sidewalks, sniffing glue. One youngster's hand shakes uncontrollably, a testament to a nervous system ravaged by chemicals. A teenage mother huddles in a dingy room in an abandoned warehouse, tending to her newborn -- a radiant child with a brilliant smile that belies the difficult life that likely awaits.

A social worker remember Tono as a nine-year-old waif who was "wise in the ways of the streets but inside, bleeding from loneliness." Shuffling through Antonio's file, Fabian Giron remembers his first meetings with the thin, undernourished boy who couldn't even confirm his identity. He had been told that his mother was dead but he told the social workers that he would never give up searching for his mother. "Apparently no one told him when someone dies, they don't come back," Giron says.

Atkinson remembers Tono as a smart, playful, innocent who could "flip to street-smart to get the reaction he wanted. He learned very quickly how to read people. What's your soft spot? He'd find it and play it."

The Search for Family
Filmmaker Heidi Specogna. Credit: (c) 2006. Eigentum des jeweilgen Studios / Vertriebes
Tono didn't always remain in the Casa Alianza shelter, one of the staffers explained. "He kept returning to the streets to find his missing sister. Many street children dream of having their own home. Jose wanted to be an architect. He drew pictures of houses. He was a good draughtsman who wanted to bring his dreams to life."

He was shy, He wrote poems for girls... until they went out with someone else. He remained true to his dream of becoming an architect.

After seven years, his time at Casa was up. Tono didn't know where to turn. Unhappy about being alone, he traveled around, trying to remember places where he'd lived with his father. Tono finally found his birth certificate in Encuntias, a document dated Dec. 1, 1974.

"From that moment on," a friend recalls, "he was mature: He now knew his real name." And, after a determined three-month search, he was reunited with his sister, Engracia. They didn't recognize on another at first, but then they hugged and both began crying and laughing.

But Tono felt he could not realize his dreams in Guatemala. Against the advice of Atkinson and other friends, one cold morning he crossed the river near a border town and entered Mexico. It took Tono two months and 14 trains to reach the US in 1996.

The Harrowing Journey North
At this point, the filmmakers decided to retrace Tono's epic journey to the US. Shouldering their cameras, they hopped onto a train filled with migrants and embarked on an eye-opening journey through the Alternative Universe of Poverty. In the process, they filmed a moving testament to the courage of the dispossessed and the compassion of those who minister to them.

In Tapachula's House of Migrants, they discovered Christian monks who tend to the physical and spiritual needs of travelers -- and then hold classes to teach migrants how to safely catch rides on Northbound trains.

A young mother at the House of Migrants weeps as she recalls leaving for El Norte. She slipped away in the days before Christmas "so I didn't have to face my children asking for presents I can't afford." Another woman breaks down explaining her plan to work in the North for two years before she will be able to return to see her children.

The film crew arrives at a Hospice for Train Victims. The holidays are approaching and a room full of amputees -- men who have lost a arm or both legs to the wheels of North-bound trains -- join their voices in songs of praise to Jesus Christ and Santa Claus.

Tono was arrested by Border Patrol during his first attempt to cross the Mexico/US border at Tijuana. He finally succeeded in slipping into the US and found himself on the streets of Los Angeles.

From Homelessness to High School
Once again homeless in the streets of LA, Tono received food and shelter from Catholic priests. His social worker in LA, an attractive, vivacious woman, remembers: "He used to make little houses out of lollipop sticks... He made tables and little homes. Very creative. He was a great painter, by the way.... He was my little hero."

Because he was so slim, Tono looked younger than he was. When he discovered that minors would not be deported to Mexico or Guatemala, he faked his age in hopes that the government would protect him. He was deemed eligible for foster care, a green card, and the opportunity to enroll in high school with funding under Children & Family Services Act.

For the first time in his life he found security in a home with a Foster Family in Los Angeles. As his social worker friend put it: "He was finally able to live his childhood -- at the age of 22."

"He was proud to be a Latino," one of Tono's LA friends tells the film crew. "He refused to the end to speak English." The social worker also remembers that Tono "refused to speak English because he was proud to be a Guatemalan. He never wanted to be an American."

He joined LA's Harbor College soccer team, which finished 2nd place in collegiate competition. But, after high school, he had to leave foster home program.

"He Never Planned to Join the Marines"
In July 2000, George W. Bush announced a program offering Green-card holders fast nationalization in exchange for enlisting in Army. With few other options to pursue his education, Tono enlisted in the summer of 2000.

In a note to his sister, he wrote: "I want to be an architect. I want to write my story. I want to write my book. I want to do it all now. If the government can help me get my education paid for, then I can do a lot of things."

"He never planned to join the Marines," said one of his LA comrades. "He wanted to be an architect or a professional soccer player. When I told him I wanted to join Marines, he said: 'You're crazy. Don't do that. They're nuts.' It wasn't his thing."

But.,after graduating from high school he did it out of sheer desperation. And there may have been another motive.

Back in Guatemala, orphanage director Atkinson recalls how Tono "was always looking for family." Perhaps that's part of what he was seeking when he decided to join the Marines. The corps promotes the idea that "We are one family; brothers in arms." And this "matches perfectly with [Tono's] desire for family."

"Young people are good at juggling identities," one of Tono's social worker friends notes. "It's a mechanism all street children learn. It's obvious to me, José... was playing a role in order to reach his goal. He wanted to come back from the war alive."

A Platoon Sargent recalls asking Gutierrez, "Why did you join?" and says he replied: "To give back to the US that took him in."

A lot of the guys in the platoon were Spanish-speaking

But Tono didn't find the Marines to offer the sense of family that he may have hoped for. In a letter home, he wrote: "Dear sister: Life is so different. Friendships get lost. People don't remember each other. They live to work."

The Road to Iraq
A Soldier friend of Tono's remembers the day in San Diego. It was January 6, 2006 that Tono's squad got the news they were being deployed to the Middle East. "When you first get the call, your heart drops. You're human. You get scared. But you have to be ready on the word 'Go!' It was a long trip out there. Every day was like a year. It was very lonely."

En route to the war zone, Tono's platoon leader remembers coming across the young Marine on the deck drawing a picture of another ship on the horizon at sunset. "We called him 'McGyver,' because he'd make things. Like rigging a broken flashlight to his helmet."

On March 21, 2003 José Antonio Gutierrez found himself deployed on the Kuwait border. And, in the course of operations, he once again found himself separated from his "family." The military has a plan for such contingencies, his platoon sergeant explained: It called the Lost Marine Plan. But, on this day, the plan failed. On his way to relink with his platoon, Tono was shot and mortally wounded by US bullets.

A friend tearfully recalls finding Tono's horribly wounded body, brought to a medical truck. The interview is repeatedly interrupted as the soldier breaks down and recomposes himself. His last memory of Tono, moments before he died: "He was asking for his grandma ... and that was it."

Shortly before his death, Jose wrote to his sister. His last letter begins: "I am sitting at a window looking out at two birds. The wind is blowing through the trees. I can remember the sensation of freedom I felt upon leaving my home country."

A Burial in Guatemala
The US Ambassador to Guatemala came to Engracia's house at 3AM to inform her that her brother had been killed. She was given a visa to fly to the US to reclaim her brother's body and, on April 9, 2003, Tono was buried in Guatemala City.

At the ceremony, a US official handed Engracia a carefully folded US flag. Half of the $250,000 insurance policy that Washington provides for fallen Marines went to Engracia; the other half went to Tono's foster family in the States. Engracia returned to the US to live.

Sitting in her comfortable American home alongside her husband and new baby, Engracia tells the filmmakers that Tono's "dream to become an American only came true after his death." Turning to look at her sleeping child, she smiles and adds: "But his nephew is an American."

A Postumous Citizenship Certificate hangs on a nearby wall.

Ciudad Vieja cemetery is the final resting place for homeless children who have died on streets of Guatemala City -- many killed by police and state security forces.

"We would have liked to bury José here, next to his friends," says one of Tono's friends from Casa Alianza. "That's what we wanted. We asked his sister but she said the US Embassy already had a plot for him. Now he's lying in peace where he doesn't belong -- in a cemetery with mausoleums as big as houses. Houses that he never knew of on the streets. He's lying there all alone, cut off from all of us in a place without any flowers that we can bring him."

The plight of "Green Card Soldiers" is not unique. "Nearly every Latino family has a soldier in the US Army. Their stories are all so similar," the US Consul from LA tells the film crew.

Ten years later, the filmmakers show photos of José -- both as a child and as a Marine -- to fellow illegals on the streets of LA. "Anyone in Latin America would do the same to get citizenship," one man volunteers. Another offers a qualification: "I would insist that I be given citizenship before I die." A third man is even more defiant: "George Bush should give back what he owes us," he proclaims.

A book about José Antonio Gutierrez is in the works and a Hollywood film is being planned. Meanwhile, in his adopted homeland, the Catholic cardinal of Los Angeles has written a personal letter to George W. Bush suggesting that, from now on, Green Card soldiers should no longer have to risk death to win citizenship: Green-card soldiers should become US citizens upon enlisting.

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