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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Protest singers have been writing about what they believe for centuries. The modern protest song began in the 1940s and '50s when Woody Guthrie sang about labor, race and class. Since then, protest songs have grown out of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and, more recently, the Iraq war.

Now, folksingers are raising their voices again. These songwriters have been inspired by, and sometimes provoked by the debate over illegal immigration. The Western Folklife Center's Taki Telonidis surveys a new generation of protest songs.

(Soundbite of song, "Esta Tierra Es Tuya")

Unidentified Man (Singer): (Spanish spoken)

Mr. TAKI TELONIDIS (Media Producer, Western Folklife Center): This is not your father's folk music. But the song speaks directly to the people with the most that's taken this debate: the immigrants. And you don't need to speak Spanish to get the message.

(Soundbite of song, "Esta Tierra Es Tuya")

SONES DE MEXICO: (Singing in Spanish)

Mr. TELONIDIS: "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.

Mr. JUAN DIES (Guitarist, Sones de Mexico): 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. They were traveling, looking for opportunities for a chance to work and feed their families.

Mr. TELONIDIS: Much like the Mexican migrant workers of today, says Dies. So he decided to translate Woody Guthrie's classic into Spanish, and he added a few lyrics of his own.

(Soundbite of music)

SONES DE MEXICO: (Singing in Spanish)

Mr. DIES: In the world there are many people who are poor. And in the world there are others who are rich. And then we have the travelers, looking for an opportunity.

(Soundbite of music)

SONES DE MEXICO: (Singing in Spanish)

Mr. DIES: A song sometimes helps you to address something that possibly has no solution. Maybe someone had died, or there's a situation that has no escape. And a song becomes a way to feel that you are not so alone, that other people might feel like you do.

Mr. TELONIDIS: Juan Dies has felt this power of music during his travels through the west this summer. He's been wearing his other professional hat, that of a folklorist, surveying grassroots Mexican musicians in Idaho and Oregon for the Western Folklife Center. And Dies has found that immigration is a recurring theme in their ballads.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. TELONIDIS: Gerardo Sagrero and his band tune up in cramp basement in Salem, Oregon. They're putting the finishing touches on a new song.

(Soundbite of song, "Corrido de Mi Padre")

Mr. GERARDO SAGRERO (Band Singer): (Singing in Spanish)

Mr. TELONIDIS: This is a corrido, a tragic ballad. And it's dedicated to Sagrero's father. He died 20 years ago, while he and his brother were trying to cross the border into the U.S.

Mr. SAGRERO: (Through translator) They crossed by the Rio Grande in Texas, and when my father was crossing, he was stepping on some stones and he was carrying two bags in his hands. He slipped, and he fell into the current and he was swept away.

(Soundbite of song, "Corrido de Mi Padre")

Mr. SAGRERO: (Singing in Spanish)

(Through translator) 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 had died. That's when I felt I wanted to write a story for my father. What this corrido does for me is that it brings back his memory. It makes us remember him.

(Soundbite of song, "Corrido de Mi Padre")

Mr. SAGRERO: (Singing in Spanish)

Mr. TELONIDIS: Juan Dies says that corridos often become a part of the grieving process.

Mr. DIES: For us Mexican boys, they teach us not to cry from the time we are little. But singing is okay. And I feel that, you know, through a song, we can cry.

Mr. TELONIDIS: The new corridos are being embraced by — and in some cases, written by — a new generation of immigrants.

Ms. ALEJANDRA MENDOZA(ph) (Student, Woodburn High School, Oregon): (Spanish spoken)

Fourteen students and their families cram into a classroom at Woodburn High School in Oregon. It's the last day of Juan Dies' corrido-writing workshop. Students can compose songs about anything they want, and again, immigration emerges as a common theme.

Ms. MENDOZA: (Spanish spoken)

Mr. DIES: There was a little girl in the class who decided that she was going to write her corrido about her travel to the United States and how she came really against her will. Her parents had made that decision. And she wrote a song called "I Was Never Asked To Be Brought Here."

Ms. MENDOZA: (Through translator) That day was my birthday, and he had to come here. So I didn't want to come but it was fast. And I was crying from Mexico to here.

Mr. TELONIDIS: The little girl, Alejandra Mendoza, says this song is helping her cope with her sadness, and it's helping her make a point.

Ms. MENDOZA: (Through translator) The message of my song is for parents to listen to their children before coming here to the United States.

Mr. TELONIDIS: 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.

Mr. TONY RAMOS (Student, Woodburn High School, Oregon): It kind of made me put things in order a little better. There's one part where I had a hard time, which is with the moral lesson - with the moral of the song. And for me, that -I still haven't been able to come up with one for my uncle's story.

Mr. TELONIDIS: Ramos was a toddler when his parents crossed the border. 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.

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

Mr. TELONIDIS: Immigrant farm workers themselves have written ballads that address the issue. Jose Garcia of Payette, Idaho, wrote this one. It expresses the hope that President Bush will take action to legalize undocumented workers.

(Soundbite of song, "Embajadores")

Mr. JOSE GARCIA (Resident, Payette, Idaho): (Singing in Spanish)

Mr. TELONIDIS: 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. Adios.

Mr. BENIGNO PEDRAZA (Farm worker): (Singing in Spanish)

Mr. TELONIDIS: Still, other immigrants write songs to accompany their political activism.

THE IMMIGRANT RANGER (Political Activist, Corrido-writer): My name is El Yanarwin Migrante(ph), The Immigrant Ranger.

(Singing in Spanish)

Mr. TELONIDIS: 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. They're from the people he met four years ago during the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride to Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

THE IMMIGRANT RANGER: (Singing in Spanish)

Mr. TELONIDIS: Immigrant Ranger dedicates this song to one of those freedom riders, an older man named Savaro Esentio(ph).

THE IMMIGRANT RANGER: He talked to the Congress and he never asking for the social security to retire. He's 75. So he say, I want a social security number to keep working, and the final lay in the Freedom Ride, we're going in the bus, and I just start singing the song and he's still crying.

(Soundbite of music)

THE IMMIGRANT RANGER: (Singing in Spanish)

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

THE IMMIGRANT RANGER: Sometimes, the (unintelligible), making the people angry but not with me. Angry with the situation they live it.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. TELONIDIS: Woody Guthrie 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.

The stories in these new corridos resonate with folklorists and musician Juan Dies.

Mr. DIES: I know corridos from recordings, older corridos. But seeing people writing their own corridos about situations that are affecting them right now and feeling that connection was a revelation for me. Their stories about crossing, the people they have lost along the way. You know, they are just very, very hard and very touching stories.

(Soundbite of song, "Esta Tierra Es Tuya")

SONES DE MEXICO: (Singing in Spanish)

Mr. DIES: I think that if Woody Guthrie were alive today and he heard what we were doing, he would be very happy.

Mr. TELONIDIS: For NPR News. I'm Taki Telonidis in Salt Lake City.

(Soundbite of song, "Esta Tierra Es Tuya")

SONES DE MEXICO: (Singing) This land is your land, this land is my land. From California, to the to the New York island. Form the Redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters. This land was made for you and me.

(Singing in Spanish)

HANSEN: Our story was produced by Hal Cannon of the Western Folklife Center.

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