Immigrant Songs Offer New Twist on Old Sounds

Immigrant Ranger (tall)

hide captionThe Immigrant Ranger, political activist and corrido-writer, with the words to one of his corridos.

Courtesy Taki Telonidis
Corrido i i

hide captionA new song by one of the students attending a corrido-writing workshop.

Courtesy Taki Telonidis
Corrido

A new song by one of the students attending a corrido-writing workshop.

Courtesy Taki Telonidis

Hear Corridos

Field recordings by Taki Telonidis

From a corrido contest held in Woodburn, Ore.

Written during the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride in Washington, D.C.

A rallying cry to all immigrants recorded at the same corrido contest in Woodburn, Ore.

Recorded at his modest home and dedicated to hungry and thirsty immigrants crossing the border.

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The phrase "protest song" often brings to mind a collage of faces from the past: Maybe it's Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and the civil-rights music of the 1960s, or perhaps Woody Guthrie and his songs from the Dust Bowl days. These balladeers defined their times, and their music was a reflection of the politics, economics and social upheavals of the day.

The debate over immigration rages everywhere, from the halls of Congress to Main Street to the lettuce fields in California. Naturally, it has spawned a new generation of folk songs that speak directly to those with the most at stake in the debate: immigrants themselves. And listeners needn't speak Spanish to get the message.

"Esta Tierra Es Tuya" is the title track from a new album by Sones de Mexico. Band member Juan Dies says that "This Land Is Your Land" kept playing over and over in his head during the demonstrations for immigrant rights of the past few years, so he did some research.

"Woody Guthrie wrote this song in 1940, at a time when migrant workers from the Great Plains were being displaced by drought and the Dust Bowl," Dies says. "They were traveling and looking for opportunities, for a chance to work and feed their families."

Many Mexican migrant workers of today can relate, so Dies decided to translate Guthrie's classic into Spanish, while adding a few lyrics of his own: "In the world there are people who are poor / In the world there are people who are rich / And then there are the others, the travelers / who are seeking an opportunity."

"A song sometimes helps you address something that possibly has no solution," Dies says. "Maybe someone has died, or there's a situation that has no escape. And a song becomes a way to possibly feel that you're not so alone, that other people feel like you do."

An Immigrant's Ballad

Dies has felt this power of music during his travels through the American West this summer. He has been wearing his other professional hat, that of a folklorist, surveying grassroots Mexican musicians in Idaho and Oregon for the Western Folklife Center. In the process, he found that immigration serves as a recurring theme in their ballads.

A corrido is a tragic ballad. Gerardo Sagrero and his band have written a new song called "Corrido de Mi Padre," and it's dedicated to Sagrero's father, who died 20 years ago, while he and his brother were trying to cross the border into the U.S.

"They crossed by the Rio Grande in Texas, and when my father was crossing, he was stepping on some stones and carrying two bags in his hands," Sagrero says. "He slipped, and he fell into the current and was swept away.

"When I was about 16 years old, I liked corridos very much, and I was listening to other stories about people who had problems, who'd died. And that's when I felt I wanted to write a song for my father. What this corrido does for me is it brings back his memory. It makes us remember him."

The new corridos are being embraced by — and in some cases, written by — a new generation of immigrants. Fourteen students and their families at Woodburn High School in Oregon take Dies' corrido-writing workshop. Students can compose songs about anything they want, and immigration emerges as a common theme.

True Tales of Sorrow

Corridos must be true, and they follow a specific structure that includes a headline, the introduction of characters and a moral. Student Tony Ramos wrote his corrido about his uncle, who died crossing the border.

Ramos was a toddler when his parents crossed the border. Now, he wants to become a teacher, so he can educate the next generations who come to America. Ramos pays close attention to the debate over illegal immigration.

"I would get angry at some of the things politicians say: 'Build a wall and keep them out.' But at the same time, I grew up here, and this country has given us a lot," Ramos says. "And it makes it hard to choose what side to be on."

Immigrant farmworkers themselves have written ballads that address the issue. Jose Garcia of Payette, Idaho, wrote one called "Embajadores," which expresses the hope that President Bush will take action to legalize undocumented workers.

Other immigrant farm workers are not as optimistic. Benigno Pedraza sings, "The doors of opportunity are closing in America, so I'm going back to Mexico."

Still others write songs to accompany their political activism. The Immigrant Ranger, as he calls himself, clenches his fist and closes his eyes as he begins a song. He wears a cowboy hat with more than 100 signatures from the people he met four years ago during the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride to Washington.

The Immigrant Ranger has written songs about stowaway Mexicans who suffocate to death in boxcars, and about the hardships of day laborers who freeze on street corners while they wait for work.

Guthrie once said, "If the fight gets hot, the songs get hotter. If the going gets tough, the songs get tougher." Immigrant Ranger vows to keep singing until things change, and he's working with students to translate his songs into English. He wants all Americans to hear his stories.

"I think that if Woody Guthrie were alive today and he heard what we were doing, he'd be very happy," Dies says.

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