When strangers were welcome here: A hopeful mixtape
By Dennis Hartley
I don’t know if you’ve been following the story about the Central American caravan, but once they reached Tijuana last week, the media seemed to lose interest (it’s not as captivating as the new royal baby, I suppose). Well, media outside of Fox, where pundits continue to gin up the nativist hysteria that kicked off with Trump’s remarks claiming that the women within the relatively small group of asylum seekers “are [being] raped at levels that nobody has ever seen before”. He has also Tweeted he won’t let them through.
While there’s certainly nothing new about the anti-immigrant rhetoric that Donald Trump has been spouting nearly all his adult life (much less as “our” president), there’s been something particularly sickening to me about the racist dogpiling atop this group of people. Sure, we don’t know all their personal histories, but they are still human beings:
The final remnants of the Central American caravan began to disappear in Tijuana Friday after the last group of asylum seekers entered the United States.
Volunteers and migrants who plan to stay in Mexico slowly dismantled tents and canopies, picked up trash, folded blankets and swept dirt from the ground they slept on since arriving to the U.S.-Mexico border Sunday.
As the last members of the caravan entered the U.S. – about 70 of a total of 228 – some said goodbye to loved ones. Those staying behind include people who need more legal help before crossing into the U.S. and those who have already been deported and have slim changes of asylum.
Mario Mejia, 34, of El Salvador, said farewell to his wife.
The couple planned to claim asylum together, but lawyers told Mejia his case for asylum is weak.
Mejia was deported from the U.S. five times between 2010 and 2013 after getting caught crossing the border illegally in the Arizona desert.
"The last time I was deported I spent a year and a half in prison," he said. "The judge told me if I tried again I'd serve twice as much."
Apart from his deportations from the U.S., Mejia has been deported from Mexico eight times. He's applied for asylum in both countries but has been denied.
Mejia left El Salvador when he was 14 after members of MS-13 threatened to kill him if he didn't join their gang.
"It's a hard life," he said. "I've never had a stable place to live in."
As his wife walked toward the San Ysidro border crossing Friday, Mejia told her to keep moving forward and promised to call her brothers, who live in the U.S., to make sure they take care of her.
Later, as he packed his belongings into a backpack and helped clean up the caravan’s makeshift tent city, he pondered his future. He said he plans to stay in Tijuana and hopes to find a job in construction until he makes enough money for a bus ticket to Mexicali, where he has friends and better job opportunities.
From there? "I don't know," he said.
And that’s just one of the stories. It breaks your heart (if you have one). Here’s the thing-that’s not just Mario’s story. Outside of Native Americans, it is all our stories; all Americans. None of us are really “from” here; if you start tracing your family’s genealogy, I’ll bet you don’t have to go back too many generations to find ancestors who were born on foreign soil. Some Americans have conveniently forgotten about that fact.
That’s why I think it’s time for some music therapy. I’ve chosen 10 songs that speak to the immigrant experience and serve to remind us of America’s multicultural foundation.
“Across the Borderline” – Freddy Fender
This song (co-written by John Hiatt, Ry Cooder, and Jim Dickinson) has been covered many times, but this heartfelt version by the late Freddy Fender is the best. Fender’s version was used as part of the soundtrack for Tony Richardson’s 1982 film The Border.
“America” – Neil Diamond
Diamond’s anthemic paean to America’s multicultural heritage first appeared in the soundtrack for Richard Fleischer and Sidney J. Furie’s 1980 remake of The Jazz Singer (thankfully, Diamond’s stirring song has had a longer shelf life than the film, which left audiences and critics underwhelmed). Weirdly, it was included on a list of songs deemed as “lyrically questionable” and/or “inappropriate” for airplay in an internal memo issued by the brass at Clear Channel Communications in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Go figure.
“America” (movie soundtrack version) – West Side Story
This classic number from the stage musical and film West Side Story (with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and music by Leonard Bernstein) is both a celebration of Latin immigrant culture and a slyly subversive takedown of nativist-driven ethnic stereotyping.
“Ave Que Emigra” – Gaby Morena
Speaking of exploding stereotypes-here’s a straightforward song explaining why cultural assimilation and cultural identity are not mutually exclusive. From a 2012 NPR review:
As a song that speaks of being an immigrant, [Gaby Moreno’s “Ave Que Emigra”] strikes the perfect emotional chords. So many songs on that topic are gaudy, one-dimensional woe-is-me tales. Moreno's story of coming to America is filled with simple one-liners like "tired of running, during hunting season" (evocative of the grotesque reality Central Americans face today at home and in their journeys north). Her cheerful ranchera melody, with its sad undertone, paints a perfect portrait of the complex emotional state most of us immigrants inhabit: a deep sadness for having to leave mixed with the excitement of the adventure that lies ahead, plus the joy and relief of having "made it."
No habla espanol? No problema! You can see the English translation of the lyrics here.
“Buffalo Soldier” – Bob Marley & the Wailers
Sadly, not all migrants arrived on America’s shores of their own volition; and such is the unfortunate legacy of the transatlantic slave trade that flourished from the 16th to the 18th centuries. As Malcolm X once bluntly put it, “[African Americans] didn’t land on Plymouth Rock; the Rock was landed on us.” Bob Marley entitled this song as reference to the nickname for the black U.S. Calvary regiments that fought in the post-Civil War Indian conflicts. Marley’s lyrics seem to mirror Malcom X’s pointed observation above:
If you know your history, Then you would know where you’re coming from Then you wouldn't have to ask me Who the heck do I think I am I'm just a Buffalo Soldier In the heart of America Stolen from Africa, brought to America Said he was fighting on arrival Fighting for survival
“Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” – Arlo Guthrie
Woody Guthrie originally penned this “ripped from the headlines” protest piece as a poem in the wake of a 1948 California plane crash (the music was composed some years later by Martin Hoffman, and first popularized as a song by Pete Seegar). Among the 32 passengers who died were 28 migrant farm workers who were in the process of being deported back to Mexico. Guthrie noticed that most press and radio reports at the time identified the 4 crew members by name, while dehumanizing the workers by referring to them en masse as “deportees” (plus ca change…). His son Arlo’s version is very moving.
“The Immigrant”– Neil Sedaka
In a 2013 Facebook post reflecting on his 1975 song, Neil Sedaka shared this tidbit:
I wrote [“The Immigrant”] for my friend John Lennon during his immigration battles in the 1970s. I’ll never forget when I called to tell him about it. Overwhelmed by the gesture, he said, "Normally people only call me when they want something. It’s very seldom people call you to give you something. It’s beautiful."
I concur with John. It’s Sedaka’s most beautifully crafted tune, musically and lyrically.
“Immigration Blues” – Chris Rea
In 2005, prolific U.K. singer-songwriter Chris Rea released a massive 11-CD box set album with 137 tracks called Blue Guitars (I believe that sets some sort of record). The collection is literally a journey through blues history, with original songs “done in the style of…[insert your preferred blues subgenre here]” from African origins to contemporary iterations. This track is from “Album 10: Latin Blues”. The title says it all.
“Immigration Man” – David Crosby & Graham Nash
After an unpleasant experience in the early 70s getting hassled by a U.S. Customs agent, U.K.-born Graham Nash (who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1978) didn’t get mad, he got even by immortalizing his tormentor in a song. The tune is one of the highlights of the 1972 studio album he recorded with David Crosby, simply titled Crosby and Nash. I love that line where he describes his immigration form as “big enough to keep me warm.”
“Thousands are Sailing”– The Pogues
An ode to the Irish migrant wave that was driven by the Great Famine of the mid-1800s.