My town of Decorah, Iowa is not far from the site of the largest U.S Immigration Service raid in U.S. history, at the Agriprocessor plant in Postville, Iowa. Naturally, there has been a great deal of news coverage of events there and the aftermath, and one recent story caught my attention and my imagination. The article in the August 5, 2008 edition of The Decorah Public Opinion featured native Guatemalan David Vasquez, Pastor at Luther College, and the important support that he has been giving to the immigrant population in Postville. The article began with a quote from the Dr. Suess story, Horton Hears A Who!: “A person’s a person, no matter how small.” (You may recall the story of Horton, the sensitive elephant who hears voices on a speck of dust attached to a flower. It turns out the voices belong to residents of Whoville, and they need Horton’s help in relocating their spot in the world to a safe place. As if that’s not difficult enough, Horton is seemingly the only creature able to hear the Who’s and he suffers the taunts and threats from other jungle creatures as a result.) David Vasquez recounts how emotional he became when reading the story to his son before bed one night, and how the words seemed to capture the plight and the hope of the immigrants with whom he was working now in Postville.
I admire the work that David Vasquez is performing on behalf of “small” people who really need all the help they can get, and I enjoyed reliving my own memories of the great Dr.Suess classic. The courage and selflessness of such a giant creature made an instant and lasting impression on me as a young boy, and remained with me as I grew into my very own rather elephantine-but-gentle dimensions. The newspaper article brought the lesson to light beautifully as related to the immigrants’ plight; David Vasquez is working tirelessly to help others remember the story and its lesson, as well.
Curiously, the stories of David Vasquez and Horton remained with me as I made my way down to Nicaragua on behalf of Winds of Peace Foundation last week. And as coincidence would have it, the in-flight movie being shown was none other than “Horton Hears A Who!” I decided that, my book reading requirement notwithstanding, I’d at least half-watch the animated film out of respect for my childhood. I’m glad that I did; new truths often arise from old sources.
The story- especially as told on film, with all of the requisite “enhancements” that today’s filmmakers believe important to mesmerizing their young audiences- is ostensibly about that faithfulness and heroism which Horton exhibits toward his microscopic charges. He will not abandon them and there is no limit to what he is prepared to do to provide the protection and voice for the Who’s, regardless of the cost to himself. After all, “an elephant is faithful, 100%.” That personal cost even seems to be leading to an eventual physical assault on Horton, as the jungle creatures, following the lead of an intolerant, controlling kangaroo, are whipped up to an antagonistic frenzy against him. Yet, still he holds onto the flower and his heroic intentions with the undying hope that somehow the Who’s can be saved.
I confess to have having returned to my reading at this juncture in the movie, only occasionally glancing up to the screen to check on old Horton. But this was the moment of denoument, and for me, a new epiphany on an old story. For at the very moment that Horton’s plight seems beyond hope, the Who’s themselves rescue both Horton and themselves. Collectively, collaboratively, with the participation of virtually every Who in Whoville, they generate a noise of protest and self-presence that cannot help but be heard by the broader world beyond. The jungle creatures, at the very moment of Horton’s destruction, hear the sounds and are forced to acknowledge the truth of what Horton has maintained all along, but which they did not want to hear. Horton is saved and celebrated as a hero for his faithfulness, 100%.
I love Horton, the way he looks and the way that Dr. Suess gave him such moral character. But I also awakened on that flight to the realization that ultimately it was the Who’s themselves who saved the day. To be sure, they could never have achieved it without the presence and accompaniment of their strong partner. The happy ending at the conclusion of the story is a result of the friendship and support given by both Horton AND the Who’s. They needed each other, relied upon each other, and were eventually saved by one another. And for me, THAT’S now the theme behind Horton Hears A Who! After all these years, I finally get it!
By most worldly measures, the people of Nicaragua are small. Geographically, economically, politically, or in the media, they are at times nearly invisible. But they are there, with families and hopes and aspirations and knowledge and contributions to be made that would inspire Horton or anyone else who might make the effort to hear them. And perhaps of greatest importance of all is the realization that we need those voices- every last one of them- for our own salvation. It’s not a matter of saving them, or even their saving us, but of our absolute need for one another on this cosmic speck of dust called the Earth.
Dr. Suess got it all correct, and I’ve now added all of the Suess books to my NEW reading list to see what else I’ve missed along the way….