SAN LUIS DE LA PAZ, Mexico – Hundreds of residents from this bean- and chile-growing town gathered around a small church on Sunday to mourn a Mexican-American who became a U.S. Marine and died in Iraq.
Lance Cpl. Juan Lopez (search) was one of four U.S. Marines killed in an ambush in Ramadi, west of Baghdad, on June 21. His death left residents here grappling with how to best honor the 22-year-old who gave his life in a conflict most Mexicans don't believe in.
U.S. Marines, five of whom served with Lopez in Iraq, loaded his gray coffin onto a hearse, as a swell of people filled the street. Relatives, carrying a framed picture of Lopez in uniform, locked hands and marched behind the hearse past shabby brick homes
A mariachi band wearing green sang: "Goodbye forever, goodbye." The music never stopped during a somber 45-minute march across town.
Initial arrangements asked for a 21-gun salute, but Mexico's Secretary of Defense (search) rejected that, saying the salute would violate constitutional measures preventing foreign soldiers from bearing arms on Mexican soil.
Mexican soldiers apparently objected to the ceremonial arms carried by two of the Marine pallbearers, U.S. officials said.
Four Mexican soldiers had blocked the pallbearers path, asking the Marines and six others who had served as pallbearers to return to a Chevy Suburban that had brought them to the funeral.
More than a dozen Mexican soldiers blocked it from leaving for about 45 minutes, before finally allowing the Marines to go.
During the service, about 300 people who could not fit into the church listened over loudspeakers and sang along.
Born in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato, Lopez migrated as a teenager to be with his father, three brothers and sister in Dalton, Ga. His mother and other relatives stayed in Mexico.
In Dalton, Juan met his wife, Sandra Torres; they married in December.
Oscar E. Lujan, of the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, arrived Sunday to present Lopez's citizenship to his widow, making her eligible for benefits.
Family members said they were proud that Lopez became a Marine though they were grief-stricken by his death.
Juan's cousin Octavio Lopez wore a T-shirt Sunday that Juan had given him, emblazoned with the words: "First Marine division back from Iraq."
"To think of him over there in Iraq, alone without family support, it makes you sad," Octavio said.
Juan served in Iraq for two months at the start of the war and was supposed to be completing his last trip there before the end of his tour of duty in December, relatives said.
He was assigned to the 2nd Battalion of the 1st Marine Division and based at Camp Pendleton, Calif.
Neighbors of the Lopez family in San Luis de la Paz (search) questioned the war.
"It's sad to see a life end so quickly," said Marciana Camacho, who runs a one-room convenience store a block from the Lopez family home. "It's a personal decision to risk your life, but for me the war made no sense."
The last time people in this town of 30,000 saw Juan was when he came back last year to visit. Much of the population has migrated to work in the United States.
"Little Juan's home town is crying today," said Jose Antonio Ortiz, 49, who is in charge of collecting money to pay for funerals of migrants who die after leaving for the United States.
"This is the first death thanks to a war," he said. "But we've see many more victims here. In Mexico, it's almost like we produce citizens so that they can go away and die."