A video for Lance Canales and the Flood's version of Woody Guthrie’s ballad 'Deportee' features author Tim Z. Hernandez whispering the names of those who died in the 1948 plane crash, and of people holding signs painted with those names. (YouTube)
So many artists -- from Bruce Springsteen to Bob Dylan -- have recorded Woody Guthrie's famous ballad "Deportee," about one of the worst airplane disasters in California history. But a big piece of the story was missing. Until now.
One cold winter morning in January 1948, 32 passengers were killed when a plane crashed in Los Gatos Canyon, near the Central Valley town of Coalinga.
The dead included 28 Mexican workers in the process of being deported by the U.S. government. Guthrie was outraged that newspaper accounts of the crash omitted the names of the Mexican passengers, simply calling them “deportees." So he penned a song, giving symbolic names to the dead:
Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita Adios mis Amigos, Jesus y Maria; You won’t have your names when you ride the big airplane, All they will call you will be "deportees"
For seven decades, the real names of those deportees were unknown, their bodies buried in a mass grave in Fresno. Until Tim Z. Hernandez -- a previous winner of the American Book Award for poetry -- spent years investigating in both Mexico and the U.S., interviewing families and unearthing records.
The band Lance Canales and the Flood play a version of Woody Guthrie's "Deportee," with author Tim Z. Hernandez whispering the names of those who died in the 1948 plane crash.
Hernandez's new book, “All They Will Call You,” explores his journey uncovering their stories. From the book's forward:
To stumble upon a plane crash is to stumble upon the fragmented and broken shards of stories, and to have faith that from these clues, our own glaring humanity offers enough light to fill in the unknown. The facts of what occurred on that day are not, nor have they ever been, the purpose of this book. The telling is not interested in the calculable details, but rather, the testimonies themselves, from the people whose lives were touched in incalculable ways. How a tragedy and a song had a profound, lasting effect on the people who lived it.
"I’m the son of migrant farmworkers," explains Hernandez. "It was raw curiosity that sprung me forth to look for these names. I wanted to know who they were."
But he had few leads to go on. Only a single shred of newspaper from an Associated Press report after the crash, which didn’t include any names of the Mexican passengers. He found an erroneous list of names Guthrie fans had tried to compile on the internet. He then went to Fresno's Holy Cross Cemetery, where the remains of the Mexican passengers were buried in an unmarked grave. The cemetery had a list, but instead of individual names, it logged the term “Mexican National” 28 times.
Hernandez pushed on, digging up records and putting an ad in a bilingual newspaper looking for family members. After years of traveling across the U.S. and Mexico, he managed to locate the families of seven passengers.
The book reconstructs profiles of those passengers, fleshing out their love affairs, families and histories -- expanding the narrative of their lives beyond their identities as laborers or farmworkers.
Like Ramon Paredes Gonzales, who crossed back and forth to work in the U.S. for years, and whose daughter, Caratina Paredes Murillo, was just 10 years old when he died in the crash. Decades later, an elderly Murillo still remembers the lyrics of the song her father sang every time he returned to their village.
"For so grim a subject, one of the jobs was to find the light in each of their stories," says Hernandez. "I always asked the families to tell me one of their fondest memories of their relatives."
The book doesn’t just include the intimate stories of the Mexican farmworkers, but also the stories of witnesses to the crash, the pilot, stewardess and the immigration agent accompanying the deportees.
"Omissions are wrong," says Hernandez. "Erasure is wrong, no matter what your background is, or nationality you are. Let's talk about the Mexican nationals, and the pilot and the stewardess, the family who owned the ranch whose children saw people falling out of the sky. And later on, how the song affected the people who made the melody, who sang it. This one incident had such a ripple effect across borders, and across lives."
Hernandez helped get a headstone with some of the names he discovered placed on the mass grave for the deportees. People all over the San Joaquin Valley helped raise money to make these names visible.
Hernandez also re-recorded a new version of the song with musician Lance Canales. He whispers the actual names as Canales sings the lyrics.
“It’s important to honor all of us. To honor that we have had a history and a legacy, and that we once were here on earth, loving,” says Hernandez.
"We have much more in common side by side than we do differences, and certainly, this airplane that crashed, becomes almost a kind of analogy," he adds. "We’re all in this ship together, hurling toward a common fate."
The story, he says, is deeply relevant to today’s political climate.
“Back then, they referred to the Mexican passengers simply as 'deportees.' That kind of rhetoric perpetuates this idea of a single narrative, one way of looking at these folks who come to this country and work to feed us," he says. "Today we hear other words being used, 'illegal,' or 'alien.' All those kind of abstractions are used to erase the face, or the stories, of the people we’re talking about."