“Hello my Juan, Good-bye, Rosalita, adios mes amigos Jésus and Maria You wonʼt have a name when you ride the big airplane. All they will call you will be Deportees.”
This is the chorous of Woody Guthrieʼs famous song “Deportees”. I had the pleasure of hearing the story behind this song up close and personal when Arlo Guthrie did a tour honouring his dad’s music a few years back. (Anybody who has ever seen Arlo Guthrie can attest that you really go to hear him tell stories, his songs are merely adjunct).
Arloʼs dad Woody Guthrie grew up in poverty of the Great Depression. He would read the paper, get incensed about an issue, and write a song in protest. This particular song came about because an airplane crashed over Los Gatos airport in 1948, and the newspaper noted the names of the pilot and crew, while dismissing the itinerant labourers who died, as “deportees”. The marker on the mass grave simply read, “28 Mexican Citizens who died in an airplane accident near Coalinga, California on Jan. 28, 1948. RIP.” The very gravestone erected in memory seemed to erase the humanity of the victims because it did not dignify them with names. Hence the song, “All they will call you will be Deportees.”
In 2012 a man named Tim Hernandez did something small but wonderful in nature. He reversed this oversight with a simple act of kindness which demonstrated to the world, that people who are often overlooked, do matter. He tracked down the individual names of the crash victims, and descendants of the bereaved were gathered in to honour the dead in a manner that had not been possible in 1948.
Teaming with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno, Tim Hernandez dedicated a plaque to the victims 65 years later, dignifying each with a name. In 2013, a special mass was held over the grave site where the names of all 28 itinerant workers was spoken aloud in memory. Jaime Ramirez, grandson of one of the victims, led the crowd in reading the names. At the end of the mass, they sang Woody Guthrie’s song together, as if to set right an ancient wrong.
People can also become passionate about raising awareness as a fait accompli. Awareness however, is merely symbolic. Short of action, it hands out a shiny star prematurely. It might just be a modern version of hollering over a fence at your friends and enemies alike. I get it. Sometimes problems seem insurmountable in scope, and you can holler a long time without thinking what comes next. This is where it might be good to remember the African proverb… How do you eat an elephant? The answer, one bite at a time.
Likewise, a manageable way to change the world, might be small acts of kindness - those things which land within the scope of a regular day. Small acts of kindness can go a long way. This lesson was retaught to me recently. I was having a crabby day. My mind was beset with the kind of complexities that can accompany adult life and I was letting this spill over. While I was driving my youngest daughter to school she turned to me and said, “Dad, you seem to be having a bad day. Let me read to you from my book of awesome and it will make you feel better”. This approach may sound naive. While it did nothing to resolve my base problem, it sure changed the channel on my day. There is a reason they say, “from the mouths of babes comes forth wisdom”. It was the intent that caught me off guard, and it humbled me.
Small acts of kindness can also be considered Christian theology. The Apostle Paul talks about them in the second chapter of Ephesians. He states: “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Sounds like God had small acts of kindness planned out all along, likely because they are manageable and realistic.
Awareness is fine. But if I can’t fix the world, what small thing can I do now which falls within my footprint? Something very simple can go a long way. Jesus said… even a cup of cold water in my name, will do. The whisper of a simple act of kindness might just surpass the shouting of a woke crowd.