By: Woody Guthrie
Source: Guthrie, Woody. "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee)." The Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives, 1948.
About the Author: American guitarist, singer/songwriter, and political activist and social protestor, Woodrow Wilson "Woody" Guthrie (1912–1967) is considered one of the most influential folk singers of the twentieth century, with nearly three thousand songs to his credit. He is best remembered for "This Land is Your Land" and "So Long, Its Been Good to Know You." Guthrie was born in Okemah, Oklahoma, but in 1931 moved into the Texas panhandle after local economic conditions and his mother's lingering illness left his family destitute. Guthrie barely survived in Texas as the Great Depression dominated the country. When the Dust Bowl came to the Great Plains in 1935, Guthrie headed to California in search of work. As Guthrie walked, hitchhiked, and rode hobo trains over the next two years, he experienced the life of the poor and often homeless people of the Depression era. He performed odd jobs but, more often than not, sang and played guitar for food and sundries. Many of his songs used themes of social justice, the American Dream, everyday living of everyday people, pro-labor, and anti-fascist communism. He soon became a popular personality and opinionated spokesperson among the people who inspired his songs. While working for the Los Angeles newspaper The Light , Guthrie investigated the plight of migrant workers. The research prompted Guthrie to support organized labor and to speak out about migrant rights. He wrote about migrant workers in such songs as "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee)."
The governments of Mexico and the United States agreed to establish an amnesty through deportation program in 1947. Under its terms, undocumented Mexican workers who had been apprehended in the United States would be sent back to Mexico—only to return as temporary contract laborers if they signed employer contracts. This arrangement of cheap seasonal labor for U.S. growers and assurances of not being deported for migrant workers became known as Drying Out Wetbacks or Storm and Drag Immigration.
On January 29, 1948, the New York Times reported an airplane crash 20 miles (32 kilometers) west of Coalinga, California, over the Los Gatos canyon. The airplane contained twenty-eight Mexican farm workers who were being flown from Oakland, California, to the El Centro, California deportation center.
Woody Guthrie read a news report about the wreck that supposedly did not give the names of the victims, only referred to them as deportees (illegal immigrants in the process of deportation). One news spokesperson stated that the deaths were dismissed as unimportant because all were deportees except for the pilot. Perceiving the incident as racial injustice, Guthrie wrote a poem he called "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee)," in which he assigned symbolic names to the nameless Mexicans. The poem was not set to music, but Guthrie merely chanted the words when he performed it as a protest song. Guthrie's poem was made into a song in the 1950s by school-teacher Marty Hoffman. Thereafter, folk singer Pete Seeger popularized the song by singing it at concerts. Since then, the song has been sung by such performers as Bob Dylan, The Byrds, Dolly Parton, Judy Collins, Arlo Guthrie (Woody Guthrie's son), and Bruce Springsteen.
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
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" ?
Governmental labor statistics throughout the twentieth century showed that migrant workers had been paid lower-than-normal wages while working and living in poverty-like conditions with little access to the protections supplied to most U.S. workers.
In 1917, migrant workers were first organized in the United States under guest-worker programs. The Farm Security Administration (FSA) was established during the Great Depression (1929– early-1940s) to improve the condition of the country's rural poor. The FSA also placed migrant workers into areas that had labor shortages. However, migrant workers were excluded from labor protection policies that were enacted through President Roosevelt's New Deal programs. In 1942, United States and Mexico agreed to permit temporary Mexican agricultural workers into the United States under a series of minimum wage, maximum hour, and elementary labor protection rules. When the agreement did not succeed, the U.S. government created the Bracero program, which supplied temporary, undocumented Mexican agricultural workers to U.S. growers. The Bracero program was officially ended by Congress in 1948, but continued into 1951 through a series of informal binational agreements.
Beginning in 1952, a temporary agricultural worker (H-2A) program became part of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA). This action, in essence, consolidated various immigration provisions into the INA. The Act allowed H-2A visas for foreign visitors to work in the United States when American workers are unwilling, unable, or unqualified to perform specific work at specific locations.
In 1986, Congress reformed its immigration laws when it passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). It provided for legalization of undocumented persons in the United States who had met specific admissions criteria, sanctions against anyone who employed undocumented workers, and border restrictions to stop further undocumented migrations. Although the IRCA legalized about 1.1 million individuals, over the next twenty years the Act did not succeed in its goals. In 1988, the number of undocumented workers into the United States was estimated to be between 1.5 and 3 million, while in 2002, it was estimated to have reached 9.3 million. Analysis from the PEW Hispanic Center shows that 11.1 million unauthorized migrants were in the United States as of March 2005.
In 2005, legislation was introduced in Congress called The Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act. The bill targets enforcement of illegal immigration but does not provide any means for the legalization and citizenship of undocumented workers. As a result, protests concerning immigration reform were held in 2006 at various locations across the country. The legislation was criticized by various civil rights, business, and religious groups. Many legislators countered with compromise measures such as The Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits, and Security Act, commonly known as AgJobs.
As of May 2006, immigration reform legislation has yet to pass in Congress. Tensions continue in the agricultural labor sector as disagreements occur concerning the requirements for foreign guest workers and legalization status of undocumented farm workers. Undocumented workers continue to cross U.S. borders to work at jobs that American workers refuse to do. In 2005, it was reported by the federal government that between fifty-two and eighty-five percent of all farm workers are undocumented, with most of them originating from Mexico. Over a half-century after Woody Guthrie wrote about the plight of migrant workers, most migrant farm workers remain among the poorest U.S. workers, with annual earnings of between $5,000 and $10,000. Without such migrant workers, the abundant crops grown in the United States could not be fully harvested, which would undoubtedly cause fruits and vegetables to be sought increasingly from foreign markets.
Cray, Ed. Ramblin' Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004.
Partridge, Elizabeth. This Land Was Made for You and Me: The Life and Songs of Woody Guthrie. New York: Viking, 2002.
Hard Travelin': The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie, edited by Robert Santelli and Emily Davidson. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England for Wesleyan University Press, 1999.
Gilbert, Lauren. "Fields of Hope, Fields of Despair: Legisprudential and Historic Perspectives on the AgJobs Bill of 2003." Harvard Journal on Legislation 42 (Summer 2005): 417.
The American Immigration Law Foundation. "The Value of Undocumented Workers: The Numbers Behind the U.S.–Mexico Immigration Debate." <http:// www.ailf.org/ipc/policy_reports_2002_value.asp> (accessed May 25, 2006).
The Library of Congress. "Woody Guthrie and the Archive of American Folk Song: Correspondence 1940–1950.' <http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/wwghtml/ wwghome.html> (accessed May 25, 2006).
The PEW Hispanic Center. "Size and Characteristics of the Unauthorized Migrant Population in the U.S." <http://pewhispanic.org/reports/report.php?ReportID=61> (accessed May 25, 2006).
The Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives. "Wood Guthrie: Biography." <http://www.woodyguthrie.org/biography.htm> (accessed May 25, 2006).