San Diego Fernando Suarez del Solar didn't even know who actor/director Sean Penn was. But Penn already knew Suarez. As reported in the San Francisco Chronicle on January 14, Penn, while in the Amsterdam airport Schiphol on November 29, 2003, saw Suarez on CNN. The Escondido activist was leaving the U.S. for the peace mission he and Penn would soon make together. Both men were part of a nine-member delegation of Americans who flew to Iraq, sponsored by Global Exchange, a Bay Area human rights organization. They converged in Amsterdam to start their trip together. The Pentagon advised against it.
Penn received widespread criticism across the U.S. for his antiwar rhetoric and his participation in the mission. But the trip turned Fernando Suarez into an international celebrity. On March 27, the day the war officially began, he received news that his son Jesús had been killed in the American forces' first ground action.
In the subsequent months, his antiwar message gripped peace advocates everywhere. On October 24 Suarez addressed members of the Spanish parliament in Madrid. His visit to the city coincided with the U.S.-sponsored donors conference there. The following day he spoke at a Washington D.C. demonstration called "End the Occupation of Iraq and Bring the Troops Home Now." Three documentaries on Suarez are currently in progress, and reporters from the BBC have interviewed him twice since last summer. A French journalist, after following Suarez for two weeks, filmed him during workshops on military recruitment at SDSU. On February 14, Japanese media members came to a tree-planting ceremony in Escondido to commemorate his son.
The U.S. military added strength to Suarez's campaign. At the time of his son's death, Suarez was told by military representatives that Jesús, a 22-year-old Marine lance corporal, was killed by a bullet to the head from enemy fire. Later, on an ABC News program, Suarez saw a different version of what happened. An embedded journalist, who had been on the scene of the accident, reported that his son had stepped on an American cluster bomb.
Relations between the military and the Suarez family deteriorated further when the government refused to pay the full cost -- $7000 -- of a civilian burial for Jesús in San Diego. Instead, the government offered the family $4300 for interment in a military cemetery. Suarez maintains the government eventually relented, but only on condition that he not publicly reveal their negotiations. He says the government insisted he stop his war protests.
To receive the compensation he wanted, Suarez promised the government he would comply with its terms. After the funeral, however, he changed his tune. Writing for the local online newsmagazine Zenger's on December 21, Mark Gabrish Conlan reports Suarez's reasoning: "I was quiet for a while. Then, when I finally called a press conference, I thought, 'If Bush can lie, I can lie a little, too.' "
On Martin Luther King's birthday, January 19, at the First Church of the Brethren in Southeast San Diego, I talked with Suarez an hour before he gave a one-hour video presentation to the San Diego Coalition for Peace and Justice. Several days earlier, President Bush had gone to Atlanta for a celebration honoring Dr. King. Suarez called the visit "an insult to the people there." A flyer in the church pew quotes King as saying, "I have condemned any organizer of war, regardless of his rank or nationality."
The mention of George W. Bush steered our conversation toward the president's recent immigration proposals, which some conservative commentators have called an amnesty program in disguise. Suarez is suspicious. "Mr. Bush plays very well with the people's feelings," he says in broken English. "Right now the Mexican people are afraid about their status here." As a result, says Suarez, himself an immigrant from Mexico ten years ago, the president is able to manipulate the Hispanic population for their votes.
In a Spanish-language chat room last August, several Cuban-Americans from Florida criticized Suarez's ingratitude to the country that has taken him in, says Jorge Mariscal, professor of Spanish literature at UCSD and a translator for Suarez. And the group Activist San Diego, , an organization that advertises itself as "networking for social justice,"has "adopted" Suarez, says it received this e-mail addressed to him:
Sorry to hear about your son, you traitor son-of-a-bitch.
Heather Richards, a San Diego resident and "supporter of our troops," regrets sentiments of that kind. And with the understanding of war casualties that comes from being "married to the military" her whole life, she extends heartfelt condolences to Fernando Suarez and his family. "No casualty is a good one," she says. "But his son signed up for [the Marines], and he knew that he might pay the ultimate price."
Richards volunteers to help Operation Homefront and CinCHouse. com, two organizations that assist military families waiting for their loved ones to return from Iraq. Her father was a career naval officer, and her husband Jeff is currently a petty officer on the USS Shiloh, now in port in San Diego. Jeff served aboard the Shiloh during the "shock and awe" campaign early in the recent Iraq War.
"Mad at the world" is how Richards describes her frame of mind two Christmases ago, when she found out Jeff's tour of duty would be extended another six months. But "his duty to his country" made her more accepting in the long run, she says.
Richards acknowledges that Suarez has every right to express his antiwar message in the United States. "That's the beauty of the country that we live in," she says, "and that's what we're fighting in Iraq to keep. Also, we now have the opportunity to help Iraq become a great country. Their children will one day be so grateful for what we are doing and what Fernando's son did for them. Iraqi children may soon have the same freedoms we have."
When Suarez speaks of Iraqi children, he complains about how American bombs destroyed some of their schools. But while in Iraq, he says, several young boys did thank him; his son had died to help them. Regarding America's young soldiers, Suarez was quoted in an October 26 article in the Washington Post, "We need to make Mr. Bush understand: He's not the owner of the lives of our children."
UCSD's Mariscal has been following Fernando Suarez's development as a social and political activist. On September 12 of last year, Mariscal wrote about Suarez in La Prensa San Diego, a weekly newspaper publishing in Spanish and English since 1976. The article was entitled "An American Hero from South of the Border."
At first, says Mariscal, Suarez did have difficulty speaking English to audiences here. "In the early days," he says, "Fernando sometimes broke down while speaking."
As time went on, Suarez's English got better, and the emotion in his speeches subsided. Suarez has spoken to a number of groups across the country on behalf of Military Families Speak Out, a national organization based in Massachusetts. He has organized an Escondido chapter of the organization for Hispanics; nine families are now members, waiting for family members to return from Iraq.
"These days [Suarez] is much more than a grieving father; he's an articulate activist on a lot of different subjects," says Mariscal. "He wrote a response to Bush's State of the Union address and is starting to write a book, which I will translate."
Suarez is no political novice. His father was a Partido Acción National (PAN) politician in Mexico City. After graduating from a military academy, Suarez came to Tijuana, where he got involved in antipoverty activism, especially in attempts to extend water and electricity services to the poor.
Not long ago, Suarez founded Guerrero Azteca (Aztec Warrior) as a project of Activist San Diego. Donations to the organization help Suarez with expenses. "I receive sometimes $1000, sometimes $1500 a month for my new work," says Suarez. Jorge Mariscal says the main activity of Guerrero Azteca is to give Spanish-speaking young men and women a more realistic view of military service. "Some of them get the idea that there is a law that you must join the armed forces or be put in jail," he says. "And some of the recruiters play that up."
Says Suarez, "We go into high schools and middle schools and give an education about what is true of military life. We try to explain that the recruiting people don't lie, but they don't say the whole truth. I tell the parents to go with their sons and the girls to the recruiting office and ask a lot of questions. And I explain what questions are good; for example, ones about money for school. The military promises $30,000 for school. I say to the father, 'When they hand you the papers, tell the recruiter to sign here.' When he says he can't do it, you ask why not. And you begin again to question."