Tuesday, 15 November 2016

The continuing relevance of Woody Guthries song Deportee ( Plane Wreck at Los Gatos.) and the power of Song

One of Woody Guthrie's greatest protest songs,is Deportees.It details the tragic event of January 28, 1948 and the crash of a U.S Immigration Service plane near Los Gatos Canyon, 20 miles (32 km) west of California, carrying undocumented immigrants who were being deported from California to Mexico. During World War II there was a shortage of farm workers in California so the federal government set up the braceros program which allowed Mexican immigrants to legally come to California and relieve the shortage. A common trick of the time was to bring the low-paid workers over the border from Mexico with contracts that were intentionally flawed (in English) so that they would have no legal force.Following a season of backbreaking work in California's orchards and fruit fields, the braceros would at times be rounded up as illegals because of the invalid contracts and deported without being paid at all. Once their contracts were up, they were, in a sense, taken back to the border.The Mexican workers were fine to be used as cheap labour and then simply cast aside when they were not needed anymore.After the war, the California growers liked the cheap labor so much that they encouraged (bribed) congress to keep it in place. It wasn't ended until 1964.
Subsequently all 32 people on board this plane were killed. But while news accounts listed the names of the four people in the flight crew, the 28 undocumented victims were just listed as Mexican deportees. This upset folk musician Woody  and inspired by what he considered the racist mistreatment of the passengers before and after the accident, (who were buried in a mass grave and not given individual gravestones, just marked by a single plaque, which read only : “28 Mexican Citizens Who Died In An Airplane Accident Near Coalinga California On Jan. 28, 1948 R.I.P.”) to explode into anger and write a poem entitled "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos." It wasn't until nearly 10 years later that a Martin Hoffman , a teacher put the words to music.Becoming known the world over as "Deportee".Woody humanised the dead migrants as only he could.To Guthrie, they are not merely deportees: They have names (Juan, Rosalita, Jesus, Maria) and families.
Tim Z. Hernandez, a California poet and author, was also offended. In late 2010, while researching archives for his novel “Mañana Means Heaven,” he came across the headline “100 Prisoners See An Airplane Fall From the Sky.” A story about the crash, and it changed the course of his career. He grew up in the farming communities of the San Joaquin Valley, and he connected with Guthrie’s poem because it echoed his own feelings of injustice for the 28 Mexican men and women who were left unnamed. As he continued to read about the incident, Hernandez realized that this plane crash and the crash mentioned in Guthrie’s song were one and the same.But instead of simply lamenting the loss, Hernandez embarked on a nearly two-year quest for the long-forgotten names.Teaming up with the Diocese of Fresno to track down the workers' names, their family members and their stories. While the diocese's church register had partial, misspelled names, the writer and diocese officials pulled death certificates for all the workers and reconstructed their full names. With the help of Carlos Rascon, Director of Cemeteries for the Diocese of Fresno, he obtained lists from the Fresno Hall of Records, the Deparment of Labour and St. John’s Cathedral, where the original funeral mass was held. The lists matched, and the two worked to adjust misspellings of the names. Hernandez also decided to write “All They Will Call You,” a book about the tragedy to try to bring attention to those who were forgotten which hopefully will come out next year.
Also with the solidarity and help from the folk and grassroots community was able to amass enough money for a new headstone to mark their memory. Like Woody Guthrie before him he knew that immigrants were more than just labels like “illegal” or “deportee,” they were human beings that deserved to be treated with respect and dignity.The victims were honored in September 2013 by more than 600 people who had gathered at Holy Cross Cemetery in Fresno for an elaborate memorial service and the unveiling of a large headstone that lists each victim.Renditions of "Deportee" were performed at the memorial.

 Their names read thus :-

Miguel Negroros Alvarez

Francisco Llamas Duram

Santiago Garcia Elizondo

Rosalio Padilla Estrada

Tomasa Avena De Garcia

Bernabe Lopez Garcia

Salvador Sandoval Hernandez

Severo Medina Lara

Elias Trujillo Macias

Jose Rodriguez Macias

Tomas Padilla Marquez

Luis Lopez Medina

Manuel Calderon Merino

Luis Cuevas Miranda

Martin Razo Navarro

Ygnacio Perez Navarro

Roman Ochoa Ochoa

Ramon Ramirez Paredes

Apolonio Ramirez Placencia

Guadalupe Laura Ramirez

Alberto Carlos Raygoza

Guadalupe Hernandez Rodriguez

Maria Santana Rodriguez

Juan Valenzuela Ruiz

Wencealado Ruiz

Jose Valdivia Sanchez

Jesus Meza Santos

Baldomero Marcas Torres

Others aboard the flight:

Francis “Frank” Atkinson, Long Beach, pilot

Marion Harlow Ewing, Balboa, co-pilot

Lillian “Bobbie” Atkinson (married to Frank), Long Beach, stewardess

Frank E. Chaffin, Berkeley, immigration guard

It is the power of a song that has kept this tragedy of this incident alive, long after all the participants and witnesses have died.After stealing Mexican  and Native American land for years, despite this history of injustice a certain politician now wants to build even more walls of oppression. This  song continues to reminds us that the immigration problem isn't new, but has a long history. Woody's song, and the wide variety of musicians who have covered the song over the years reflects the sense of loss inspired by the story, and serves to  remind us of the many immigrants who have worked, suffered, been deported and continue to do so.Mexican farm workers, both legal and illegal,  still being used in great numbers. Many of them commute between Mexico and California annually as work comes and goes. Woody's words can still move us, raising attention of the many neglected, disadvantaged, downtrodden  people who are effected by American Governmental policies in our present times.
I am currently delighted however that every morning I wake up I get to read about the fantastic anti Trump demos taking place across the U.S and the amazing people that still manage to find the courage to stand up and speak out for a world where security is based on cooperation and community. And a world where  all people are able to reach their full human potential and are treated with respect. No human is illegal. Love trumps hate and so does human dignity.

Here is a link to Tim Z Hernandez own website that offers much more additional information to the event that inspired Woody Guthrie's poem and song :- https://timzhernandez.com/


Words; Woody Guthrie 

Music; Marty Hoffman

The crops are all in and the peaches are rott'ning,
The oranges piled in their creosote dumps;
They're flying 'em back to the Mexican border
To pay all their money to wade back again

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"

My father's own father, he waded that river,
They took all the money he made in his life;
My brothers and sisters come working the fruit trees,
And they rode the truck till they took down and died.

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.

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.

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"

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"?

Here are some of my favourite versions of this song.

Pete Seeger - Deportee

 Christy Moore - Deportee

Ani di Franco and Ry Cooder - Deportee

Outernational with Tom Morello and Cuentame -  Deportee

with moving video that highlights the continuing struggle of migrants and deportees cross this great nation.

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