Saturday, July 29, 2006

They have names

I am in Modesto, California for the wedding of my wife’s brother. Last night we went to the Modesto Prospect Theater Project, a store-front theater with 70 seats, to see a production of “Hard Travelin’ – A Tribute to Woody Guthrie.” I really enjoyed the energetic and enthusiastic young cast and their spirited singing of Woody Guthrie’s music. I also was once again struck by how timely many of the issues that Woody Guthrie addressed in his songs still are 60 or 70 years after they were written.

I have heard Woody’s song “Deportee” many times over the years. The lyrics talk about the crash of a plane over Los Gatos canyon. Rather than listing the names of the victims as is usually done when a plane crashes the radio news account simply noted that they were deportees. Woody Guthrie did not know the victims but he knew that they must have had names.

When I heard the song last night I was struck by how Woody made poetry with the Spanish names and phrases:

Goodbye to my Juan, farewell Roselita
Adios mes amigos, Jesus e Maria
You won’t have a name when you ride the big airplane
All they will call you will be deportee.

I don’t think Woody ever studied Spanish in school. The knowledge of Spanish reflected in the above verse must have come from his encounters with Mexicans as he traveled around. They were fellow workers in some of the hard-scrabble jobs he held. They also were traveling around looking for whatever job they could find. From his lyrics we can tell that Woody thought of them as people like himself and did not like them being exploited and treated differently because of their illegal status.

Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can raise our good crops?
To fall like dry leaves and rot on out topsoil
And be known by no name except "deportee."

We would do well to remember Woody’s point as we debate immigration policy. The “illegal immigrants” we are discussing are people with names.


Anonymous said...

Dave, good writeup. A trip to California can really shape one's perspective on immigration. If you're still there, make a trip to the fields.

jcb said...

Dave -- my friend Dennis Moran said he was at the concert, too, and found Woody Guthrie particularly appropriate given life at the moment.

Dave Barrett said...

One of my California relatives who has lived there a long time (not Dennis) explained to me that the debate over immigration we are currently having nationally occured 10 years ago in California. The Republican governor decided to make a public show of getting tough on illegal immigrants, obviously thinking that this was a winning political strategy. In the following election every Republican running for state-wide office was defeated, as has every Republican candidate other than Arnold ever since. Debate over.

You can tell that President Bush is aware of how this issue is likely to play out for the long-term prospects of his party but most of the Republicans in Congress just don't get it.