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Woody Guthrie's Musical Empathy With Latino Migrants Resonates 64 Years Later

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From the Dustbowl Troubadour's own hard travelling through Tucson, AZ looking for work and food, Woody Guthrie was a friend to migrants and the oppressed. His legacy reverberates during Tucson's current "Freedom Summer" to save Chicano culture from being erased by state/local authorities.

Cherished American songwriter and poet Woody Guthrie always spoke up for the underdog, especially those downtrodden by society and the government. The 100th anniversary of his birth on July 14th coincided with some latest news in a deepening social struggle -- one of the greatest of our time. US border enforcement and immigration policies, underscored by economic discrimination, touched Guthrie in personal ways which extend today in the growing justice movement for migrants and Latino-indigenous peoples.

Nicknamed the "Dustbowl Troubadour" (on account of his vocalizing, in song, countless human stories from the period of catastrophic drought and dust storms throughout the Great Plains and adjacent regions which created mass displacement and migration during the 1930s), Woody Guthrie's music is a cultural treasure. One narrative ballad in particular holds a significance that ripples through the generations and is expanded tenfold today than when Woody first penned the words 64 years ago.

A 'Fireball of Lightening' Shakes Guthrie to Song

News of a plane wreck over Los Gatos Creek/Canyon near Coalinga, CA in late January, 1948, struck a sharp chord in Guthrie as he witnessed the media's public mistreatment of the crash victims, who were largely Mexican migrants being transported under guarded deportation from Oakland to an El Centro border station. In response, he wrote a song entitled Deportee, also known as "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos." His blistering narration tells the story and the aftermath of news reception. The song, in summary, reads:

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".

In his song, Woody gave symbolic names to the nameless, as if to give his respects to -- and wish peaceful rest upon the fallen "friends" he never knew: "Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita," he sang in repeated chorus, "Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria."

Woody's offended sense of humanity is unsurprising when reading over the selectively sympathetic news reports of the crash from local and national media that ignored the lives of the "deportees". The matter-of-fact reporting from The New York Times (via the Associated Press), San Francisco Chronicle, and Coalina Record expressed the perceived important facts from those not worthy mentioning. For example, it was presumably only proper for the editors to present expectant readers with personal information of the dead white citizens (a crew of three plus an immigration guard). The facts of their worthy lives are illustrated throughout the reports with human names, ages, where they resided -- even the fact that the 63 year-old immigration guard from Berkeley, Frank Chaffin, was nearing retirement age when he was lucklessly fraught in the doomed plane.

Woody was rightly incensed that virtually no such personal information was given to the dead migrant workers. (A few words in one of the reports referred to baby clothes found at the wreckage beside the body of a woman "with no trace of a baby's body".) The perished migrants were involved in the Bracero Program ("bracero" is Spanish for "strong-arm"), initiated by the United States to exploit cheap labor during World War Two, when domestic workers were in economic demand.

A vast population of Mexican-American workers previously lived in the US but when the Great Depression (1929-1939) hit the country, the US government cleansed a half-million Mexican-Americans in a period of deportation and coercion euphemistically called the "Mexican Repatriation."

Ethnic repatriation was, of course, not a new measure by US authorities, nor was it unique in the setting of exploited ethnic labor forces. Roughly the same amount of Mexican-Americans were living in the US at the turn of the century, after having been invited to fill new cheap labor demands after mass deportations of Chinese-Americans surrounding the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

Fitting this pattern, and not long after the Los Gatos plane wreck, the time came when the expendable workforces were cleansed from the lands once more. Then-American President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed US Army general Joseph Swing to swiftly deal with those who Woody pointed out in the song were viewed by society as unwanted and "illegal" (needless to say, an early representation of the racial slur). General Swing coordinated "Operation Wetback," beginning in Arizona and California, which utilized a Border Patrol force of roughly 1000 agents to deport hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants. In the background of Bracero and the cyclical treatment of migrant workers, Guthrie's "Deportee" solemnly asks:

Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?/
Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?/
To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil/
And be called by no name except "deportees"?

Targeting the 'Illegal' and 'Not Wanted'

When Woody was writing in 1948, the US Border Patrol was less than 25 years old and would still take more than 25 more years to grow to 2000 agents. Today, since the sharp intensification of military-style infrastructure and build-up along the border beginning in the early 1990s, the Border Patrol's force is more than 20,000 agents. Hundreds of miles of roads, walls, barriers and checkpoints scar the borderlands, harm the environment and wildlife, and divide human communities that for generations lived on "both sides of the river" and borderline, as one verse in "Deportee" puts it:

Some of us are 'illegal', and some are not wanted,/
Our work contract's out and we have to move on;/
Six hundred miles to that Mexican border,/
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.

Beyond the stigma of "illegal," a new favorite word apparently coined by Border Patrol officials is "tonk" -- so named for the thunking crack of a sound made over the heads of migrants by agents using, as bludgeons, their extra-long, black metal flashlights commonly issued to law enforcement officers.

While all over the country, state authorities and society in general dehumanize migrants as criminal, hostile, and parasitic, the area in which this hatred takes on its most brutal form is along the US/Mexico border. Human rights/humanitarian group No More Deaths/No Más Muertes (NMD) is one of the organizations at the forefront of abuse documentation, education and public advocacy around border enforcement and immigration issues. NMD released its latest report, Culture of Cruelty, last fall and a preceding report, Crossing the Line, in 2008. Both comprise the group's six-year investigation into human rights abuses on the part of Border Patrol which maintains an institutional culture of abuse and neglect of the lives of migrants, with the absence of any system of meaningful accountability. PBS's Need to Know program recently covered the issue on July 20, 2012.

'We Died in your hills, We Died in Your Deserts'

One of the most sinister aspects the militarization of the border is the continued high levels of migrant deaths resulting from an enforcement strategy called "deterrence." The deadly strategy militarized urban border areas in order to push the increased migration into "more remote and hazardous border regions" (mostly through the Arizona desert) where the terrain's "mortal danger" would "deter" migrants from crossing. When hundreds of deaths predictably started to mount by the early 2000s, a rare public criticism of the new policy by former Tucson Border Patrol sector chief, Ron Sanders, appeared in The Nation magazine: "By every measure, the strategy is a failure. All it's accomplished is killing people....If you had airplanes crashing in this country with the same numbers [of deaths], you'd have everybody after the FAA. But since these people [dying] are Mexicans, no one seems to care." Since 1998, more than 6000 deaths have ensued, and the mortality continues.

The Border Patrol's "Tucson Sector" has always been the deadliest of Border enforcement areas. In fact, an investigation by the Arizona Republic showed that Arizona is ranked third, only behind CA and NY, in unidentified human remains. Just before Woody's 100th birthday, the forensics office in Tucson released the newest reports of known deaths so far this year, adding on May and June's numbers of 36 recovered human remains, bringing the death toll to approximately 130 at the start of July, which is traditionally the deadliest time of the year.

Woody's grimly ominous words written 64 years ago, doubtless largely metaphorical, find striking significance today:

We died in your hills, we died in your deserts,/
We died in your valleys and died on your plains./
We died 'neath your trees and we died in your bushes,/
Both sides of the river, we died just the same.

I first heard Deportee years ago sung by marvelous Tucson musician and activist Ted Warmbrand at a volunteer training of No More Deaths. The song is revered by many generations of singers and has been covered by the likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Johnny Rodriguez, Pete Seeger and Woody's son, Arlo Guthrie, Dolly Parton, Bruce Springsteen, Emmylou Harris, The Kingston Trio, and Woody's many-time harmonious sidekick, working-class musician Cisco Houston.

Bustling through Tucson, AZ, and into "Freedom Summer" 2012

Woody had strong empathy for migrant workers that sunk down to his bones. He himself knew what it felt like to have to migrate looking for work, food and a living. At one point in his autobiography, Bound for Glory (1943), Woody writes about his life on the road trying to reach California, stranded temporarily in Tucson, AZ. When Woody arrived in the Sonoran desert on a freight train from Deming, NM, he hadn't eaten for two days and described the feeling as being in a dazed stupor. Turned away even by church authorities, he eventually was given food from ordinary working families. He wrote in Bound for Glory how he basked in the "mighty purty sight to see," adding: "Yes, it is a sight to see the early morning sun get warm in Tucson."

The words of Guthrie's Deportee if read today only tell the partial story of degradation and attacks on Latino--in particular Mexican--peoples going on across the country, with an intensified scenario in Tucson and the US/Mexico borderlands. Mostly young Chican@ students in Tucson have formed the leading edge of a struggle that is intimately local--while also one that reverberates across an entire nation where anti-immigrant sentiment abounds--to preserve and defend what has long been the sole K-12 Mexican-American Studies (MAS) program (a.k.a. "Ethnic Studies") in the U.S., outlawed by Arizona on May 10, 2010. After a dramatic battle with a mobilized local community, the board of Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) finally terminated the program this past January after state authorities inflicted crippling economic sanctions on the district. The program books were then banned from the classrooms, followed by the recent firing of the MAS program director and student employees.

But despite the district's purges, a movement has blossomed and continues to grow. Elder community and local activists joined with supporters nationally to form Freedom Summer, a multi-leveled campaign calling volunteers to converge on Tucson for various activities aimed at "canvassing for November school board elections, community education, updating websites, working social media, ceremonias, Danza Azteca, fundraising, direct action along with working and assisting artists, teachers and poets in the popular education of participants and Tucson residents."

Woody Guthrie was no stranger to radical political struggles in defense of poor and working-class people, both in the US and internationally. His guitars were often scrawled with the words, "This Machine Kills Fascists", showing his support of local and international brigades organized to fight Nazi-backed government forces in Spain during the Spanish Civil Wars (1936-1939), about which he recorded several songs including Jarama Valley. He sung Two Good Men about Sacco and Vanzetti, American anarchists executed by the US in 1927; and Ludlow Massacre about the mass murder of numerous striking miners and their families in their tent city by US National Guard and private security forces in 1914.

One, then, can easily imagine Woody alive today every Tuesday evening at the TUSD school board meetings rallying next to local communities to save Mexican-American Studies. One can easily hear him sing at the weekly "Flor y Canto - In Xochitl In Cuicatl" at Tucson's La Indita indigenous-owned restaurant on 4th Ave.

Woody's spirit and legacy is alive today as an inspiring part of struggles resisting injustice and seeking to improve humanity.