For weeks, ever since the fate of the DACA Dreamers has been in doubt, I keep hearing in my head a haunting lament written nearly 70 years ago.
The song, its words penned by that feisty American balladeer Woody Guthrie, is “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos).” Check it out on YouTube. It’s been sung by almost every top singer under the sun – from Odetta to Dolly Parton, from Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen.
Here is the song’s refrain:
“Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye Rosalita.
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria.
You won’t have your names when you ride the big airplane
All they will call you will be deportees.”
On Jan. 28, 1948, which happens to be my birthday, a plane filled with Mexican crop workers crashed in Los Gatos Canyon near Fresno, Calif. All aboard died in the fiery crash, including the four American crew members and the 28 guest workers, three of them women. The U.S. Immigration Service was flying them back to Mexico.
Guthrie, living in New York City at the time, read about the catastrophe in the New York Times and was disturbed the story mentioned the names of the crew members but none of the names of the Mexican victims. As often happened when Guthrie’s sense of outrage was riled up, he wrote a poem about it. Later, a schoolteacher, Martin Hoffman, created a beautiful melody for the words.
What Guthrie didn’t know at the time was that the Fresno newspaper did, in fact, print all the names of the deceased. But, never mind, because with many a great song, it’s the meaning and spirit of the song (not so much facts) that carry the day and that live on.
The meaning and spirit of “Deportee” is that very often the “other,” the “foreigner, the “outsider,” the “not us” are considered mere statistics, numbers, things that can be used and discarded. People turned into objects – made faceless, nameless, invisible. That is why, in his moving song, Guthrie gave back names to the workers – Juan, Rosalita, Jesus, Maria. He restored their humanity.
The victims of the plane crash, sad to say, remained nameless even in death. They were buried in a mass grave.
The U.S. Congress, paralyzed once again by its reckless, insensitive deadlock, still has not passed a bill, as promised, to protect the nearly 1.5-million “Dreamers” from deportation. Those are people who were brought to this country when they were children and who now live and work here productively in virtually every field, blue-collar and professional, including serving in the military.
Will the day come, as in the song, when they will become rejected, tossed out, forgotten, when all we will call them will be deportees?
In 1942, Congress passed what is known as the “Braceros” agreement with Mexico, a way for Mexican manual laborers (braceros in Spanish) to work in the United States to help with a vast labor shortage during World War II. The workers, after their months of hard labor, would be transported back to Mexico by the companies (mostly agricultural ones) that needed their labor. If the contractors welched on that promise, the workers would be transported back by the U.S. Immigration Service. That was the situation when the plane crashed near Fresno.
“The sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon,
A fireball of lightning, and shook all our hills,
Who are all these friends, all scattered like dry leaves?
The radio says, They are just deportees.”
Let’s insist our legislators and our president drop their petty, inhumane disputes long enough to pass a DACA Relief Act. To keep those good young people in a limbo of anguish and uncertainty is nothing less than criminal.
We should take time to recall that other great Guthrie song, our “other” national anthem, “This land is your land, this land is my land . . . This land was made for you and me.”
By all means, strengthen the border, deport lawbreakers and (this one’s a tall order) pass comprehensive immigration reform.
In the meantime and that means now, let’s demand lax legislators not turn these dedicated Dreamers into dejected deportees.