Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, but they lack some of the rights of citizenship, including the right to vote for president. Yet they have served, and died, in the military for generations. Since 2003, dozens of Puerto Ricans have been killed in Iraq. Mandalit del Barco visits some of their families.
A few of Jesus Montalvo's 12 brothers and sisters in Mayaguez say he used to phone home from Iraq, asking them to sing him plenas -- Puerto Rican ballads. This Christmas, their brother won't be here to accompany them on the pandereta drum and the cuatro guitar. Those pictured (from left) are: Segismundo Lopez Montalvo, Leo Montalvo, Olga Montalvo and Clarissa Montalvo.
"It's as though Puerto Rico were crying," says Leo Montalvo, as he looks out the window at the downpour from a tropical thunderstorm that's coming down hard on the city of Mayaguez. He and some of his 12 brothers and sisters are gathered at the house, grieving over word that their 46-year-old-brother Jesus was gunned down in combat, just four days before his mission was to end. He was reportedly the 55th soldier from this island to die while fighting for the United States in Iraq. Montalvo's family buried him Sunday.
"The Puerto Rican skies are protesting," Montalvo says, as the thunder roars. He remembers how his brother used to phone home from Iraq, asking the family to sing him plenas -- Puerto Rican ballads. This Christmas, Jesus won't be here to accompany them on the pandereta drum and the cuatro guitar. But they'll still tell stories about how he nicknamed himself Randall after a character on the old TV show Combat. And they talk about how he was a police officer in Mayaguez many years ago, before he started his career in the Army.
"He was always willing to serve and protect, you know. The armed forces, the militia, was in his blood. He knew what the risk was," says Segismundo Lopez Montalvo, who was two years younger than his uncle Jesus. They grew up as brothers. Just last month, Lopez says Montalvo came to him in a dream, to say goodbye.
"He was the all-American guy, he believed in the United States," Lopez says. "I disagree with the reasons why they made this war. But one thing is for sure -- I really miss him. He was my hero. I have a hole in my heart. That's the only way I can describe it."
Among the mementos on display in the living room is a photo of Staff Sgt. Montalvo in uniform playing with an Iraqi child. His death leaves his own four children without a father.
The same is true for another family here in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico's biggest port and fishing city on the island's west coast. Sgt. Miguel Angel Ramos was killed when a missile hit his base in Baghdad a year and a half ago.
"He called us to say he was scared when he heard the bombs and the explosions," says one of his sons, Omar Ramos, 9. "I feel lonely without my father. He played with us, he saw movies with us, he taught us how to speak in English."
Omar says he and his brothers Miguel and Sebastian are looking to their grandfather and uncles as father figures now, but it's not the same.
Puerto Rican soldiers have been fighting in the U.S. armed forces since at least World War I, when the island became a U.S. territory and its residents became citizens.
Altogether, more than 150,000 Puerto Ricans served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. But as Maria Munoz notes, they're from a territory, not a state, and they can't send a voting member to Congress or vote for commander-in-chief.
"It's ironic," she says. "We can't decide who will be president, but the U.S. offers for us to go to war. They see soldiers as just workers, like when we're shipped off to pick tomatoes. It's the same."
Munoz is sitting with her mother and brother at their home in Quebradillas, on the north coast of the island. They're remembering their brother Pedro Munoz, an Army sergeant, who was killed last year during a secret mission, and what a great athlete he was: a paratrooper who grew up wanting to be a soldier like his father was during the Korean War. Maria Munoz says her brother volunteered for the Army because he wanted to be able to support his family in a way he couldn't in Puerto Rico, where people earn about half what they make in the poorest U.S. states.
"Remember, we're in an economic crisis here," Maria Munoz says. "And a lot of young people see the Army as a way of getting money. 'I'll enlist, I'll help my wife, my mother…' But often the price they pay is with their lives."
Legend has it that Quebradillas was once a hideout for pirates of the Caribbean. Nowadays, the town 5,000 people is known for having lost three of its native sons --including Pedro Munoz -- to the war in Iraq. Mayor Heriberto Velez says that in a town so small, three deaths mean a lot.
"We're afraid because so many from Quebradillas are in the Army, and so many don't return," Velez says. "In this small town, everyone is like family, so it affects us all. It's a shared pain. "
Velez renamed two streets after two others were killed in Iraq: William Lopez Feliciano and Alexis Roman Cruz, whose parents say he had arrived in Baghdad less than a month before he was killed.
In their living room, Carmelo Roman de Jesus and Gloria Cruz have a shrine to Alexis, a glass cabinet with his baby shoes, baby teeth, toy cars and Medals of Honor. They're still upset with military recruiters who promised their son $20,000 to enlist.
"They bought his life," says Roman de Jesus, whose eyes are red from tears. He says he stares at the shrine every day and sobs, remembering how he and his son used to go fishing and play music together.
"I lost my son and I feel like nothing. Like nobody," he says. "I lost the greatest man in the world and I blame the U.S. for that. I blame Bush."
During the annual festival in Quebradillas, Roman de Jesus looks out at the audience as he sings with his trio onstage. But he can no longer see his No. 1 fan cheering him on. He says music doesn't hold the same joy it once did.
His latest song is a sad lament, dedicated to Alexis and all the other sons and daughters who've been killed in Iraq.
"Other mothers and fathers are suffering," he sings, "all of Puerto Rico, too." And he warns them, "Don't let our children die in Iraq."