Recently I learned that retired U.S. Representative Esteban Torres had passed away at the age of 92. Although I had met Congressman Torres (or “E.T.” as friends called him) several years ago, I never really knew him, but I knew about his incredible career. Born in the copper mining region of Arizona, his father, a miner, was deported to Mexico in 1935, when E.T. was three years. This was during the depths of the Great Depression and thousands of Mexican laborers were deported. E.T. never saw his father again but he went on to an inspiring career serving in the U.S. army during the Korean War, working in an automobile plant, becoming a leader in the United Auto Workers, serving as the U.S. Ambassador to UNESCO in Paris and as a Special Assistant in the White House under President Jimmy Carter, and being elected to Congress and serving for 17 Years.
I was asked by the organizers of the Memorial Service to perform one of the finest Woody Guthrie songs of all time: “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee)”. Guthrie wrote the song in 1948 when he was 36 years old, living in Brooklyn, and struggling with the debilitating disease that took his life several years later. Guthrie read a newspaper article about a plane crash in California in which 32 passengers were killed. The names of the pilot and crew were listed, but the names of the rest of the victims—all Mexican farm workers who were being sent back to a deportation center –were left nameless, faceless, and simply referred to as “deportees.” Guthrie was so offended that he immediately composed a poem called “Los Gatos Plane Wreck”, pounding out the lyrics on a typewriter with the cap lock pushed in so the words leapt off the page in upper case letters. Like dozens of other Guthrie compositions from this period, the poem was left without a melody and was never recorded by Guthrie. The story of how the song eventually found a melody and was recorded was researched by Tim Hernandez and you can read about this in a review I wrote a few years ago for the Woody Guthrie Annual. (continued below)
Listen: Plain Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee) by Darryl Holter:
It was a special pleasure to perform this beautiful but very sad song for a large group of family and friends who gathered last Saturday night to honor the life and legacy of Esteban Torres. I noticed tears in the eyes of some listeners when I sang painful lyrics like “Who are these good friends who are falling like dry leaves?“ and “All they’ll call you will be…deportee”. It was hard to keep my voice steady as I sang those poignant lyrics.
E.T. would have been about 18 years old when Guthrie wrote his poem. Maybe he heard the terrible news just before leaving for military duty. The fact that Esteban Torres could achieve so much in his life and do so much for so many others during the course of his life of public service, is an affirmation of the American Dream. The fact that we, 76 years later, are still grappling with issues like poverty and immigration, and too often not successfully, speaks to the challenges before us.