When The Family Glue Is Gone


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American soldiers in Iraq

The cramped, cluttered home of Gloria Tapia and Victor Hernandez sits half a block off the I-5 freeway in Los Angeles. The couple, illegal immigrants from Mexico who became U.S. citizens through an amnesty program, raised six American-born children in the city. Today their two-bedroom bungalow is home to 11 people representing three generations and is the hive of activity for the extended family. Here, each relative feels the absence of Jose Cesar Aparicio, a reservist serving in Iraq, in a different way. Gloria, 51, misses her son, her confidant. Of all her children, she says, Cesar, as the family calls him, "is the one I can talk to most openly." Says the matriarch, who suffers from diabetes and kidney disease: "I can tell him about my illnesses."

His unmarried half sister Ana, 23, says that Cesar, who served eight years in the Marines before joining the Army Reserve, was a surrogate father to her three young sons; the eldest calls him Daddy. Cesar dubbed his daughter Amber, 10, and her two girl cousins "Charlie's Angels." Before he was called up for duty in Iraq, Cesar lived in San Diego, where he worked in the border patrol, but he spent his days off at his parents' house in Los Angeles and took the girls each week to Soak City, a local water park. He has been a role model to his youngest half sibling, Victor Jr., 21, a bank teller. Twice, Cesar has been on the phone with Victor Jr. when shots and explosions could be heard in the background, and Cesar hung up in a got-to-go hurry. "Then I can't sleep," says Victor Jr. To cope with his worries, he bangs on his drum set in the basement or goes target shooting.

When she learned her father was in Iraq, Amber, who lives near her grandparents' house with her mother, from whom Cesar is separated, fell ill with a fever and lack of appetite, missing a month of school. She speaks to Cesar one to three times a week, when he phones home. But during the calls, "she's quiet," says Cesar's half sister Martha. "If he doesn't ask her, she won't say anything."

Gloria had an American flag put up outside the house to honor her son, but inside, the family's patriotism is mixed with dismay. "I don't know what this war is about," confesses Gloria. Says Victor, 68: "We have to defend the country. I'm proud of Cesar." But, he adds, "I see the news. I'm scared." Commenting on the arrest of Saddam, Martha says, "We're glad they got him. I hope it's over, but I don't think so." Victor Jr. pitches in: "It's pretty dumb. People are dying when the war is supposedly over." He does not say such things to his brother, however. "I don't want him to feel that I'm not there for him." --By Margot Roosevelt/Los Angeles