Sunday, June 26, 2005

Born in Countries Other Than the U.S.A.

Born in Countries Other Than the U.S.A.

By Celeste Fremon, Celeste Fremon is a Border Justice fellow at USC Annenberg's Institute for Justice and Journalism and the author of "G-Dog and the Homeboys."

If our nation's conscience has a soundtrack, it's by Bruce Springsteen. From his Asbury Park days forward, Springsteen has written with conviction (and a notable lack of irony) about thorny issues. In his last two acoustic albums, "The Ghost of Tom Joad" and the newly released "Devils & Dust," Bruce takes on the trickiest issue of all: U.S. immigration policy.

Although the singer famously stumped for John Kerry, these immigration tunes aren't bleeding-heart harangues. To the contrary, the songs weave subtle narratives to explore the issue's complexities andcontradictions. In "Sinaloa Cowboys" from the "Tom Joad" album, two teenage brothers slip across the border to pick fruit in the orchards of the San Joaquin Valley — "doing the work the g├╝eros [white folks] wouldn't…. " They ignore their father's warning: "For everything the north gives / it exacts a price in return … " and succumb to the temptation of quick money offered by Sinaloa drug dealers recruiting migrants to cook meth in the desert near Fresno.

By song's end, one brother has the duty of burying the other.

In "Galveston Bay," Springsteen sings about a second-generation Texas fisherman who hates the Southeast Asian immigrants encroaching on his already tenuous existence. Before long, protagonist and friends decide to take matters into their own hands: "Soon in the bars around the harbor / it was talk of America for Americans. Someone said, 'You want 'em out, you got to burn 'em out / And brought in the Texas Klan.' "

Two deaths later, the fisherman comes to the hazy realization that the immigrants he despises are a mirror of his own hard work, fragility and longing.

The New Jersey songwriter is a rich white rock star who has little experience with border issues. Yet the Boss has always possessed a gift for uncovering the shared human thread in any situation.

"Devils & Dust" closes with a haunting ballad called "Matamoros Banks." The song's central character makes his way along the Rio Grande in "sandals of twine and tire thread, my pockets full of dust" while dreaming of his wife or lover who waits for his return. As he gazes at the lights of Brownsville in the distance, "a shout rings out," the migrant dives into the river to escape capture … and drowns.

"Your clothes give way to the current and river stone / Till every trace of who you ever were is gone," Springsteen sings.

It's a tale of one of the 300 or so immigrants who die, often anonymously, each year along our southern borders, and Springsteen manages to memorialize all of these deaths with dignity and humanity. Because humanity is what usually vanishes first when politicians bring up immigration, I recommend we outfit every senator and House member and the president with an iPod, preprogrammed with the proper mix of Bruce songs. It couldn't hurt.

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