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Express-News June 14 2003
Names changed, but story remains

On January 29, 1948 a chartered plane flying Mexican farm workers from Oakland to the El Centro, CA, deportation center crashed in Los Gatos Canyon. All 28 passengers died. Singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie was outraged that radio reports of the crash referred to them only as deportees, not honoring them with their names. He wrote the song "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos" to vent his anger. I've sung it myself:

Good-bye to my Juan, farewell Rosalita
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria
You won't have a name when you ride the big airplane
And all they will call you will be deportees.
The year before the crash the U.S and Mexican governments agreed to limit deportations to one per year per farm worker. The growers took advantage of this rule by bringing undocumented workers across the border, then calling la migra to have them deported. They would bring the same group back again, now immune for the rest of the season from another deportation. The 28 men who died in Los Gatos were victims of this bizarre system.

On May 14, 2003 nineteen workers from Mexico and Central America died in the back of a truck near Victoria. Maybe the world has become better: we know most of their names.

Goodbye José Felicito Gutiérrez, Juan José Morales, Augusto Stanley Vargas and Marco Antonio Villaseñor Acuña. Farewell José Antonio Villaseñor Leon, Felicito Figueroa, Roberto Rivera Gámez and Serafín Rivera Gámez. Adios mis amigos Elisendo Cabanas González, Juan Carlos Castillo Loredo, Ricardo González Mata, Oscar González Guerrero, José Luís Ramírez Bravo and Edgar Gabriel Hernández Zúñiga.

We know their names but they died just the same.

Mexican workers have been crossing the border since the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. Between 1850 and 1880, 55 thousand Mexican workers immigrated to the United States. The immigration intensified with the Mexican Revolution: between 1910 and 1917, 53 thousand workers crossed each year. The tension began in 1924, with the founding of the Border Patrol. It was at this point the workers became "illegal."

During World War II, the exploitive bracero program brought four million skilled Mexican farm laborers to the U.S., making our farms, fields and orchards the most productive on earth. When their contracts expired, the braceros were required to surrender their permits and return to México. The program closed in 1964 when much of agriculture, particularly cotton, was mechanized.

We have been struggling with the border for generations, but still people die. Since 1995, 2,500 have died. Last year, 350 died. Nineteen died in Victoria last month. We are a smart, compassionate and resourceful people. We must find a way to balance the longing of our southern neighbors for dignified work, the requirements of our industries for reliable labor and the need to maintain the integrity of our borders. And we must do it before more people die.

There are perhaps as many as 12 million undocumented workers in this country.

They harvest our crops, mind our children, pave our roads and clean our houses. Their children can be our doctors, our lawyers, our teachers. If we sent them all home tomorrow our economy would collapse. We must find a way to make them "legal," without cumbersome and expensive bureaucratic rigmarole. And we must find a way to stabilize the economies of our neighbors to the south so that the people there can earn a decent living in their own lands.

On June 2 we held a memorial for the 19 who died. About 90 of us gathered in Main Plaza to mourn their deaths and sing, we hope for the last time, Woody Guthrie's song:

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.
Susan Ives can be reached at suives@texas.net.