Friday, February 10, 2017

Labour & Pop Culture: Deportee

This week’s installment of Labour & Pop Culture looks at “Deportee” written by Woody Guthrie. This song is about a 1948 plane crash that killed 28 migrant farm workers being returned from the United States to Mexico. (A misunderstanding about the nature of the US Bracero program resulted in the workers being labeled deportees).

This song draws our attention to the strange discourse on migrant workers in the United States. The country (particularly in labour-intensive sectors of agriculture) is profoundly dependent upon migrants workers with no legal right to work in the US. These workers basically subsidize the price of food for everyone because they have no choice but to accept grindingly low wages and terrible working conditions.

For their hard work, they are demonized. Most recently, Donald Trump has (without any evidence) accused illegal migrants of massive voter fraud. A more common critique centres on such workers “stealing our jobs” (that no citizen will take because the jobs are so terrible…). This “othering” of migrant workers is very similar to the othering of immigrants and other racialized groups, again most notably in the rising tide of Islamaphobia evident in the US and Canada.

Guthrie’s song pointedly talks about the cost (to migrant workers) of their poor treatment and how the appalling treatment of human beings is downplayed when we label them as “illegals” or “deportees”.

There are dozens and dozens of covers of this song. I chose KT Tunstall’s acoustic cover—she has a lovely voice and has shifted the melody away from the 1940s folk sound that is so tedious:

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"?

-- Bob Barnetson

No comments:

Post a Comment