Woody Guthrie knew that immigrants were more than just labels like “illegal” or “deportee.” In 1948, news of a plane crash at Los Gatos Canyon, in California’s central San Joaquin Valley, made headlines across the country. While the four American crew members were identified by name, the 28 Mexican farm workers who died in the crash were lumped together and referred to only as “deportees.”
Upon reading The New York Times’ account, Guthrie wrote his poem “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos” to protest the media’s failure to accurately report on and identify the farm workers killed. “Who are all these friends, all scattered like dry leaves?” Guthrie wrote. “The radio says, ‘They are just deportees.'”
Tim Z. Hernandez, a California poet and author, was also offended. In late 2010, while researching archives for his novel “Mañana Means Heaven,” he came across the headline “100 Prisoners See An Airplane Fall From the Sky.” It was a story about the crash, and it changed the course of his career. He grew up in the farming communities of the San Joaquin Valley, and he connected with Guthrie’s poem because it echoed his own feelings of injustice for the 28 Mexican men and women who were left unnamed.
But instead of simply lamenting the loss, Hernandez embarked on a nearly two-year quest for the long-forgotten names.
“It’s inhumane,” Hernandez said. “Why didn’t anyone inform their families? This was a government-chartered flight. There was a manifest somewhere. What happened to these names?”
A mass-funeral was held for the 28 victims shortly after the accident in 1948 at Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery in Fresno, attended by more than 400 members of the community. A plaque was placed at Holy Cross reading “28 Mexican Citizens Who Died In An Airplane Accident Near Coalinga California On January 28, 1948 R.I.P.”
But there were never any names — even though the story survived and became famous after musician and schoolteacher Martin Hoffman discovered Guthrie’s poem in 1957; he gave it a melody, and composed a song that would become a staple in folk music repertoire. Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, and Los Super Seven would also perform and record “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos,” also known as “The Deportee Song.”
Hernandez wanted more. With the help of Carlos Rascon, Director of Cemeteries for the Diocese of Fresno, he obtained lists from the Fresno Hall of Records and St. John’s Cathedral, where the original funeral mass was held. The lists matched, and the two worked to adjust misspellings of the names. One by one Hernandez researched the names through the Hall of Records, the Department of Labor and online details of their lives.
In 2012, Hernandez was invited to perform some of his poems at the Steinbeck Festival in Salinas, California. He recruited musician and fellow Central Valley native Lance Canales to add a musical component. The two performed a reading of the names weaved into Canales’ version of “The Deportee Song.”
Nora Guthrie, the folk singer’s daughter, was in the audience. “She approached us afterward to say how important names were to her father… how important he would find this work,” Hernandez said.
“Lance and I were buzzing from this experience and realized we weren’t finished and had to take this further. What’s to stop us from creating a new headstone that includes all 28 names? We’re both from the Central Valley, sons of migrant farm workers. It was our job to do.”
They needed $10,000 to erect a new memorial. Fundraising efforts included benefit concerts, an online donation site, bake sales and art sales. Donations poured in from as far as Spain and Australia. Folk musician John McCutcheon used his talent and resources to spread the word. The Woody Guthrie Foundation was instrumental to the effort.
In five months, they amassed the cash needed for the new headstone. Hernandez believes it worked out because “the grassroots effort of appealing to our community lets the people take ownership of this story, of their history.”
“Part of the reason we made the list public is that we want any surviving family to know they are welcome to come forward and participate,” explains Rascon.
In his journey, Hernandez has unearthed the 28 names and found surviving family of two of the victims.
In June of this year, Jaime Ramirez, who lives and owns the restaurant Ole Frijole in Fresno, was the first to come forward. According to Hernandez’s website, “He is the grandson and nephew of Guadalupe Ramirez Lara and Ramon Paredes Gonzalez, both men who found themselves aboard that fateful flight on January 28, 1948.”
Ramirez was overwhelmed at a public mass and dedication ceremony held at Holy Cross Cemetery on Labor Day. A large crowd of more than 1,000 people of varying homelands, ages and perspectives were present including family members of the deceased pilot and farm workers, Martin Hoffman’s family, folk music enthusiasts, and even a few men who had been Braceros in their youth. Gathered beneath the blazing California sun they watched as Hernandez, Rascon, Canales and McCutcheon, filled with emotion, lifted a serape to reveal the massive new headstone. When Lance Canales and The Flood played their version of “The Deportee Song” Hernandez and Ramirez joined them onstage to read the names aloud. As each name was read the crowd solemnly chanted back, “En paz descanse.”
In a community too often left in the shadows and margins, Hernandez has worked tirelessly to restore dignity to the souls who perished on January 28, 1948. He claims the memory of the American-born crew is integral, too, and he has forged relationships with the family of the pilot, Frank Atkinson, and his wife and stewardess on the flight, Bobbie Atkinson. Their names were included on the new headstone.
“The folk music community has carried this song; the song has carried this story for 65 years,” said Hernandez.
The names of the 28 Mexican citizens:
– Miguel Negrete Álvarez
– Tomás Aviña de Gracia
– Francisco Dúran Llamas
– Santiago Elizondo Garcia
– Rosalio Padilla Estrada
– Tomás Márquez Padilla
– Bernabé Garcia López
– Salvador Hernández Sandoval
– Severo Lára Medina
– Elias Macias Trujillo
– José Macias Rodriguez
– Luis Medina López
– Manuel Merino Calderón
– Luis Miranda Cuevas
– Martin Razo Navarro
– Ignacio Navarro Pérez
– Román Ochoa Ochoa
– Ramon Paredes Gonzalez
– Guadalupe Ramirez Lára
– Apolonio Placencia Ramirez
– Alberto Carlos Raygoza
– Guadalupe Rodriguez
– Maria Rodriguez Santana
– Juan Ruiz Valenzuela
– Wenceslao Ruiz Flores
– Jóse Valdivia Sánchez
– Jésus Santos Meza
– Baldomero Marcos Torres
Pilot: Captain Frank Atkinson
Copilot: Marion Ewing
Flight Attendant: Bobbie Atkinson
Immigration Guard: Frank E. Chaffin