It was my freshmen year in high school and I was in English class. We were doing a segment on poetry and had come to study a selection of more contemporary works. The editors of our textbook (and my English teacher, Mrs. Ligon) wanted to show us that poetry was not some dead art from the past, stilted and fallen from its stilts, but rather that it was still a relevant form of expression to understand and appreciate.

In among the poetry there were even some songs of somewhat recent issue: Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen. (These were of somewhat recent issue when I was freshmen in high school I’m afraid.) I think Mrs. Ligon even brought out Paul Simon’s ‘I Am A Rock’ and read it aloud to us, comparing it with John Donne’s ‘No Man Is An Island’ which we had studied earlier.

But what I mean to consider here is this one particular song, by one particular writer. I don’t believe we studied this one in the classroom, but it was there. I was reading through the textbook and I came across it, ‘Plane Wreck at Los Gatos’ (Deportee) by Woody Guthrie. I’d heard just a fragment of the song only recently on the radio, I recognized that. My father had winced at the singers (Dylan and Baez) doing discordant harmonies and “singing about rotten vegetables” — as my Dad put it.

But what really struck me, there in the classroom as I read the song lyrics, was the short footnote at the bottom of the page. It gave the story of how the song had come to be written, how Guthrie, back in 1948, had heard the radio reports and read the newspaper accounts of a tragic plane crash in Los Gatos Canyon in California. The crash had resulted in the deaths of 32 people, four American citizens and 28 migrant farm workers who were being deported from California back to Mexico. None of the migrant workers were named in the reports, only the flight crew and security guard — only the “real” Americans. As for the others, as Guthrie said in his song, “the radio said they are just deportees.”

I read the lyrics again. “The crops are all in and the peaches are rott’ning. The oranges piled in their creosote dumps.” There was the part my dad had made light of. “They’re flying them back to the Mexico Border to pay all their money to wade back again.” This was the subtle more telling part. Who or what is flying who or what back? So you start with the workers juxtaposed with the crop itself, faceless objects on a par with the “oranges piled high in their creosote dumps” — but then the song does something amazing.

Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria;
You won’t need names when you ride the big airplane,
All they will call you will be “deportees.”

This was my high school in the early 1970′s and the ’60′s were just behind us. I’d heard about protest songs before and wondered about the form — what exactly was the point of politics that rhymed, that you sang, that got strummed along with on the guitar. (As you might have gathered it wasn’t a genre greatly appreciated around my household.)

But ‘Plane Wreck at Los Gatos’ wasn’t a mere protest song. Or if it was protest, it was also something more. It struck me just then that this song didn’t merely complain of the injustice and indignity of treating these “illegals” as nameless faceless objects who ended “scattered like dry leaves” lifeless on the canyon floor. The song pointed to and challenged that nameless fate — and changed it, with those names.

“Juan, Rosalita — adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria.”

Something powerful happened for me in that moment, in my high school English class, as I quietly read to myself, as I took in the song and the stories behind the song. I suppose I appreciated something of that import of poetry and song that my teachers wanted me to gather in, but I was also forever changed in my perception of “illegals” — I learned something of the meaning in a name — the difference between a name and a label. I learned how words can be powerful and terrible, inspiring and sobering. To this day whenever I find myself involved in or witness to some abstract discussion about “immigration reform” and someone uses that term “illegals” something of that song sounds inside of me. I think of those names. I am that much reminded of their human faces. And I take that as a gift — and I thank Woody Guthrie.

It’s July 14th, it is Guthrie’s 108th birthday. Maybe for some the day will be just another Bastille Day — a day for The Rights of Man and red wine and soft cheese — a day to pause in the summer heat, hoist the tricolor flag and harken to La Marseillaise.

Not so for me. There’s another song I’ll have in mind.

Tom Driscoll, poet, essayist and opinion columnist lives/works in Framingham, Massachusetts.

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