SOUTH EL MONTE, CALIF. -- "PRAY FOR OUR SERVICE MEN AND WOMEN" commands the sign above the bulletin board at the back of Epiphany Roman Catholic Church, where the children clustered after Mass to point out to each other in English and Spanish the pictures of their parents, brothers and sisters on duty in the Persian Gulf.
The bulletin board is fast running out of room. Already, it contains photographs of 59 local residents and names of eight others serving in Operation Desert Storm. Underneath the photographs are names that bespeak this city's Mexican-American heritage, names such as Armando Flores, Jaime Lopez, Carol Aguinaga and Jaime Salada. A child looking up at the bulletin board said proudly in Spanish, "My daddy is a Marine."
Such patriotism is traditional in this quiet, little working-class city (population 20,850) 15 miles east of Los Angeles, where the streets are lined with American flags and older men have memories of war and a deep devotion to the United States.
South El Monte is 90 percent Hispanic and 100 percent American. Military service here is viewed as an honor, even a duty. City Council member Arthur Olmos proudly noted that his nephew was a career Marine. State Sen. Art Torres (D) observed that his sister-in-law is serving in the gulf. Vice Mayor Jim Kelly, a onetime truck driver and South El Monte's only non-Hispanic elected official, noted that he served in the Navy during the Korean War.
Ignacio "Slim" Gracia, who gave the invocation at a community vigil here Sunday night in support of the troops, remembered his service at Guadalcanal in World War II.
"We're doing the right thing," Gracia, who heads the city planning commission, said in an interview. "The South El Monte community, like everyone else, doesn't want war, but we ought to back the troops to the hilt."
On Sunday, Gracia helped serve at two of the eight Masses at Epiphany before participating in the vigil, at which a school band played patriotic songs and the audience recited The Lord's Prayer together before lighting candles of remembrance. Although the meeting was ostensibly nonpolitical, with yellow ribbons as prevalent as flags, the sentiment was supportive of a war that speakers described as necessary to preserve freedom and democracy.
"As long as there are some who lack freedom, all of us to some degree have no freedom," said State Sen. Charles Calderon (D), who has introduced legislation suspending debt obligations until after the war for those on duty in the Persian Gulf. Rep. Esteban Torres (D) predicted that the United States would win "a tremendous victory" and urged constituents with relatives in the gulf to call his office if they needed assistance.
Even council member Raul Pardo, the only politician who expressed reservations about the war, called for "a strong commitment" to the troops and their families.
Support for the armed services is a tradition among Hispanics in this state. They traditionally enlist in the armed services, especially the Marines, far beyond their numbers. One Vietnam-era study found that Hispanics, then about 10 percent of the state's population, accounted for 20 percent of California servicemen in Vietnam and 22 percent of the casualties. Hispanics continued to enlist in disproportionate numbers after the draft was abolished.
The wives and mothers who attended the vigil here were accepting of the tradition, although worried about their husbands' safety. Sally Farinella, whose son Christopher has been in the Army for two years and is on duty close to the front lines, said he always talked about serving his country as a soldier.
"Don't worry, ma, I'll be okay," he told her before he shipped out. "I'm doing it for my country."
Christopher Farinella's wife, Lissbeth, is 17 and the mother of Christopher Jr., 1 1/2. She lives with her mother-in-law and is finishing high school. "I've learned not to watch the television news too much," she said. "I watch it just enough to know what's going on."
Carmela Marquez, who has three children, was happy that her youngest child was born a day before her husband, Rudy, was activated with the Army Reserve. "I was two weeks early, so he got to see her," she said. She, too, accepts what has happened. "It was what he wanted," she said, as did other wives and mothers during the evening.
A prayer vigil is held each night now in Epiphany Church in this once-rural area of truck gardens and horse stables that has evolved into a diverse industrial community of aerospace and manufacturing firms and chicken-processing plants.
South El Monte's leaders are proud that they led the fight to ban sale in California of assault rifles, which until two years ago were manufactured here, and that they also fought to raise the minimum wage.
City Manager Raul Romero said South El Monte is "a service-oriented" community with flourishing programs that provide child day-care and serve hot meals to senior citizens. Almost as an afterthought, he added, "The other thing that is distinctive about this city is its patriotism."