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Yes, that’s a picture of me carrying a box of grapes. Home from college in the summer of 1993, the only way to spend time with my family was by joining them at work. My father insisted on taking the photograph because he didn’t want me to forget where I had come from. Why am I smiling? Even working among family and friends didn’t lessen the burden of the heat and exhaustion and aching muscles. I had cuts on my fingertips from mistaking their dusty roundness for a rotting grape. Grape picking and cleaning are skills I never mastered.
The dominant theme of my posts on Harriet this season, in case you didn’t notice, is the border: the banned border, the bilingual border, the science/ spirituality border, bordercrossings, and today this: a discussion of the centerpiece poem to my next poetry collection, Unpeopled Eden, which is about war and borders. “Our Deportees” (which you can find in the March/ April 2012 issue of American Poetry Review) is a long poem that took me a decade to give shape, but it started brewing long before that.
Shortly after migrating from Mexico in 1980, I made a school friend, Demetrio Chapa, who had been raised in California and was hip to all things American. At home, I was subjected to my grandfather’s folk music from Veracruz and my grandmother’s pirekuas, folk songs in her native indigenous tongue. So Demetrio introduced me to pop music . He had a funny little record player with colorful vinyl records, and among the tunes that made us get up and dance was Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5.”
That song carried such positive memories of my first friendship, that when my family moved again I wanted to take it with me. I found it at a department store and begged my father to buy it. I have no idea what compelled him to make this purchase, except that over the years I knew not to ask for anything, so this was a rare occasion indeed. He bought me the full-length album called 9 to 5 and Odd Jobs, with Dolly wearing glamorous heels as she’s hauling all kinds of work equipment: a lawnmower, a hoe, a hose, a paint roller–objects I associated with my family’s world of labor.
I was such a “good boy” that my grandparents humored me and allowed me to play my album on their precious console once in a blue moon. And that’s how I discovered two other tracks, “House of the Rising Sun,” which I suspected was about prostitutes (thank goodness my family didn’t understand English!), and “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos),” which also sent me for a loop: a song about 28 farmworkers getting flown back to the border, only to die when the small plane goes down on Los Gatos Canyon.
The song, I would find out later, was a Woody Guthrie cover. He wrote this song as a protest poem back in 1948, shortly after he read an account of the accident, which named the four white casualties (the pilot, co-pilot, flight attendant, and border guard), but referred to the 28 Mexican casualties as simply “deportees.” This was the era of the Bracero Program (1942-1964), which was an agreement between the U.S. and Mexico to allow entry to Mexican laborers particularly during wartime. (My maternal grandfather participated in the early 1960s.) The “deportees” on that plane had overstayed their welcome, but Guthrie called them bordercrossers, connecting them to a much larger social issue, undocumented immigration and the open contempt against them, which continues to this day. Here’s a cool YouTube video with a song version by Arlo Guthrie, Woody’s son:
When I began to search more consciously for material, I kept going back to this song, haunted by the father’s gesture. I could not forget where I had come from. Yet somehow I couldn’t quite get into the writing of it. For years I tried creating lives for the nameless, much like Guthrie gave life to the plane wreck, but it seemed wrong–these people had names already, but the world had refused to hear (or remember) them. I felt uncomfortable making a fiction of them. And then in 2008 I came across an article written by Chris Mahin, a historian and anti-war activist, on the 60th anniversary of the accident, and that motivated me further: I had to get this poem down on paper.
It came to me then: instead of writing about the spaces the workers inhabit, I would write about the spaces they vacate, leave empty, and are forced to occupy or abandon–the fields, the deportation bus, the detention center, the plane, the sky, the communal grave.
While I was working with these parameters, and the decision to use 9-line stanzas as the poem approached each place like the 12 stations of the cross (the poem comes to a close with 6 sections)–yes, all number divisible by the holy number 3–I stumbled upon another article that claimed to have located the names of all but one of the “deportees.” That gave me permission to construct, like Guthrie does in his song, a kind of roll call, in the last section of the poem:
Manuel Merino, Julio Barrón,
Severo, Elías, Manuel Calderón,
Francisco, Santiago, Jaime, Martín,
Lupe, Guadalupe, Tomás, Juan Ruiz,
Alberto, Ramón, Apolonio, Ramón,
Luis, Román, Luis, Salvador,
Ignacio Navarro, Jesús, Bernabé,
Rosalío Portillo, María, y José.
Y un Diportado No Identificado.
I was reminded of the precariousness of names, identities and even documents, when I had all of my papers stolen in Puerto Rico in January. All seemed fine until I had to board the plane back to JFK without ID. I had to be interviewed by an IVE–an identification verification expert–from the State Department. It was a stressful 45-minute process that took place after I signed a document that said I would be placed under arrest if I didn’t pass the test. Among the requests the IVE made was that I name one other person who was related to me, who shared my last name, who also lived in the U.S. (read: was in “the system”). I could not name any although I have dozens of relatives living in this country. Undocumented, they don’t have this incredible privilege that I have to hold my name up for everyone to see, to walk into an airport and voluntarily board a plane to wherever it is I want to go, want to be.
Guthrie’s song remains attractive to protest singers. I invite those interested to seek out the versions crooned by Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and of course, by Dolly, the country sensation who first invited me not to forget where I had come from, long before my father’s advice, long before the photograph I keep mounted on my writing desk, right next to my computer.