In order to help farmworkers who test positive for COVID-19, Tulare County Health & Human Services Agency launched its Healthy Harvest program, bringing housing support to the county’s agriculture and farmworkers during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in coordination with the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA). Adobe Stock.
Local writer of the column 'Notes From Home'

After writing about the opportunities and obligations of residency last week in “Living Here,” I thought I’d follow up with some ideas about living among “exiles,” a nod to the mobility of our society, the rolling stones who gather no moss. But the Mother Superior of “Notes from Home” had other ideas, so I’m up in the middle of the night to tell you about the song “Deportee.”

I get to play it in a few hours for the memorial service of a friend, Bill Warner of Porterville. I met Bill when I began attending the Visalia Friends Meeting in 2005, just as he was recovering from shattering his leg in a motorcycle accident. Bill was active in the peace movement, worshiped with both the Quakers and the Unitarians, and restored antique toys as a passionate hobby. He was an old folkie who played guitar and sang the people’s music: folk songs of our time and others’. We will be singing Deportee from a page in his songbook, one of his favorites.

I remember where I was when I first heard the song. It was 1977; I was a student working as a live-in housekeeper/babysitter in the Berkeley hills. I was standing in the beautiful kitchen-with-a-view, full of sunlight, when Joan Baez’s voice came over the radio, carrying Woody Guthrie’s words written 30 years before. The song’s history attests to the lyrics’ powerful truth, and many people have recorded the song. But Joan was applying it to the work of awakening urban people to the rural plight of migrant farmworkers and the UFW’s attempts to organize them. She was successful: she sang with authority, her clarity piercing the armor of ignorance.

Fast forward to Lindsay around 2010. I get wind of the poet/writer from COS, Tim Z. Hernandez, through the second Kaweah Land and Arts Festival. He’s performing Deportee with a band, because he’s just finished a huge project on it, and this is his way of awakening us to the continuing plight of migrant farmworkers here and now, his clarity piercing our armor of ignorance. He’s finished what Woody Guthrie started, and it’s brilliant. But I discover that most people in Lindsay had never heard of the song.

Woody wrote the lyrics after reading a newspaper clipping about a plane crash that occurred in 1948, killing all on board. The plane carried 3 crewmembers, an INS agent, and 28 Braceros who were being flown from the Bay Area to El Centro to be processed for deportation (sound familiar?) The plane went down about 10 miles north of Coalinga in the rough country of Los Gatos Canyon. In the newspaper, the four Americans were named, but the 28 Mexicans were not. The bodies of the nameless ones were buried in a mass grave in Fresno.

So 50-plus years later, Tim, this beautiful young man from Dinuba, discovers this hole in our history and begins to find out their names. With the help of others he raises money for a new headstone in Holy Cross Cemetery with all 28 names. But he didn’t stop there: he gathered their life stories by finding their relatives in Fresno and Mexico, and telling them in his book “All They Will Call You,” published first in 2017. And by filling this hole in our history, Hernandez has accomplished a healing.

But here we sit, still broken in 2024, unable to think about immigrants, what causes them to come much less what to do about or for them. Our political system has been hijacked by fear, inflaming old wounds. The MAGA folks continue to mythologize us as the greatest country on earth, even as many of them feel their hold on home turf slipping away. For immigrants, that myth of Great America is part of the pull, while the covert actions of our government and blatant land displacement activities of our corporations provide much of the push. Until we can get down to those truths, our chances of “solving” the immigrant problem are zero.

Woody’s last verse in Deportee starts with the question “Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?” With farm and food processing jobs being mechanized out of existence, the problem is worsening. We—we who live here—need to work together to find a better way.

Trudy Wischemann is grateful for the chance to sing as well as live here. Send her your breakthrough ideas c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247.

This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Sun-Gazette newspaper.

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