Johnny Cash Describes Plight Of Hispanic

By Jose Lopez

People usually look at me funny when I profess I’m a huge Johnny Cash fan.

Maybe because as a 5-foot-8, dark-skinned, first-generation Mexican immigrant born in the early 1980s, I don’t really fit the profile of most fans of Cash, a 6-foot-2, super-white Arkansan born in the early 1930s.

But it’s true; the Man in Black has captivated me for a while now.

Part of it has to do with my long-defunct rock-star dreams and the realization that my bass-baritone singing voice could never match that of my favorite rock tenors like Jeff Buckley, Freddie Mercury or Bono on a good day.

Also, in Cash’s low voice, I find a kindred soul who understands that a bass-baritone can make a deeper statement precisely because of its rarity in commercial music, a voice matching perfectly the weighty issues it sang about.

Mainly, though, my love for Cash has to do with his persona, his enigma, and the way he sang about the issues that were prevalent in his music.

No one has done it with his unassuming panache, his sloppy sophistication, or his demonic sainthood, before his first recordings in the mid 1950s or after his swan song “American” albums in the 2000s.

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of hearing Howard Brill, UA law professor, use the music of Johnny Cash to cite and explain state and federal laws during a Washington County Bar Association luncheon in Fayetteville. Brill linked Cash staples such as “Folsom Prison Blues” to prison reform law, “Ring of Fire” to marriage and divorce law, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” to Indian law, and “He Turned the Water into Wine” to legal church disputes.

The way Brill did this really made my imagination go wild, and I wondered, what if Cash was here to celebrate his 81st birthday on Feb. 26? What if he was still making records in 2013?

Specifically, as the editor of NWA’s premiere Spanish newspaper, I got to wonder: How would Cash describe the plight of the Hispanic community in Arkansas if he were still alive today?

If you really think about it, Cash’s country music is not too much different from the good ranchero music that most of my readers listen to. And that goes beyond the mariachi-esque trumpets of “Ring of Fire.”

The Mexican rancheros and the Southern country singers have similar themes in their songs: problems of the working class, drug addiction, love turned good or bad, loneliness, death, etc.

Plus, the lyrics in both styles are simple, written in mostly straight iambic meters, rhymes no more complicated than ABAB or a variant thereof, and the verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure.

What if Cash were to sing something like “Cocaine Blues” or “Hurt” to describe the Latin American drug wars that make people want to flee to the land of the free?

What about “Oney” or “Working Man Blues” to express the frustration of poultry factory women and men who work very long hours and barely get 30 minutes of lunch break?

What if he sang something like “Starkville City Jail” or “San Quentin” to explain the shenanigans of local law enforcement agencies pulling people over based on their skin color, jailing them for not having a driver’s license, and exposing them to inhumane prison conditions?

What if he still boomed about “The Streets of Laredo” or “New Mexico,” reminding us that white cowboys were arguably the first illegal immigrants, actually crossing freely into Mexican territory without making a fuss about it?

If Johnny Cash were still alive and singing about those issues, I guarantee you more Anglophones would understand my community and would be less quick to dismiss with the token “illegals-go-home.”

And to our local lawmakers who foolhardily fail to understand that one day, we’ll be the ones voting them in and out of power, here is the line from “San Quentin” they need to listen to the most:

“You’ve cut me and have scarred me through and through / And I’ll walk out a wiser, weaker man / Mister Congressman why can’t you understand?”

Categories: Legacy Archive