by Diane Burton
“Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria;
You won’t need a name when you ride the big airplane
And all they will call you will be ‘deportee.’”
On April 24, 2017, Tim Z. Hernandez spoke to a full house at Tulsa’s Woody Guthrie Center about his book, All They Will Call You: The Telling of the Plane Wreck at Los Gatos Canyon (U Arizona P, 2017). I was lucky enough to attend the event and want to let Nimrod followers know about it and about Hernandez’s powerful project: restoring the names and stories of the Mexican guest workers who died in the crash, and building a memorial to them that includes their names and their story.
W.H. Auden famously said, “Poetry makes nothing happen.” While he said this in retreat from his own politically engaged writing, it’s often taken as a warning that poetry should not aim to make things happen—a caution against shortsighted topicality and future unforeseen consequences. But Hernandez’s efforts, inspired by a poem by Woody Guthrie, make me wonder if Auden was mistaken; maybe poetry can make some things happen, if not in action in the world, in action in our memories and consciousness.
The Plane Crash
The book is based on a plane crash at Los Gatos Canyon, California, January 28, 1948, that killed all 32 people aboard the aircraft, including the crew (pilot, copilot, stewardess), a guard, and at least 28 Mexican guest workers, 27 men and one woman. The plane’s left engine caught fire, the left wing fell off, and the plane blew up, leaving no survivors and scattering the remains of the dead across the canyon.
Press coverage named the crew and the guard but not the Mexican workers, which outraged Woody Guthrie, who read about it in New York and wrote a poem, “Plane Crash at Los Gatos (Deportee).” Years later, in 1957, after Guthrie’s death, the poem was set to music by Martin Hoffman, a Colorado college student, in the form of a valsera ranchera, a song of loss or lamentation, in 3/4 time, a form popular in Mexico. Hoffman played it for Pete Seeger after a concert by the folksinger and friend of Guthrie in Colorado; Seeger was impressed and later recorded it and played it at concerts. The poem and its haunting melody appealed immediately to audiences and other musicians, who continued to play it and play it still. It has become one of the most beloved of Guthrie’s songs.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
“Who are all these friends, all scattered like dry leaves?”
In 2010, poet and novelist Hernandez set out to recover the names and the stories of the people who died in the crash. Two days after the wreck, the Fresno paper published a partial and inaccurate list of names; the hall of records in Fresno had another list with more names, still inaccurate; El Faro, a Spanish language newspaper in Fresno, published a full list, with names, hometowns, and the names of surviving family members, but the newspaper was not available in archives. While the Anglos’ remains were returned to their families for burial, the guest workers were buried in a mass unmarked grave in Holy Cross Cemetery, Fresno. Their families were not notified. The workers’ “names were as dismembered as the bodies they belonged to,” Hernandez writes.
He set out to restore their identities and commemorate their lives, eventually raising the funds for a memorial stone, which was dedicated on Labor Day, 2013, in a ceremony attended by more than 800 people. The stone measures 8’ x 4’ and records the story of the plane crash, in Spanish and in English, followed by the full names of all those on board, surrounded by engravings of 32 dry leaves.
With the task complicated by the careless American recordkeeping of Mexican workers (giving a new twist to the term “undocumented workers”), Hernandez went to Mexico, looking for the workers’ families. He found survivors of four of them. Their stories form the heart of the book.
All They Will Call You
Hernandez’s book is a gathering of stories, some the testimony of witnesses to the crash and its aftermath, some the memories of the workers’ loved ones, some the story of the poem and song that inspired the search, some relating the search itself, and one a chilling reimagining of the crash itself. Not all the stories agree exactly and Hernandez expressly declines to pronounce on an official version, a final truth, stating in his crucial author’s note that the book’s “loyalty is not to people of fact but rather to people of memory.”
In his presentation at the Guthrie Center, Hernandez retraced the process of finding the stories through finding the people who told them; he calls the people he interviewed “story keepers.” His talk included multiple media—readings from the book, photographs, videos, and audio recordings of the people involved—all fascinating, but most impressive of all was Hernandez himself. Eager to follow the story wherever it might lead, he is devoted to honoring the memories of people whose fates had been dismissed. It was easy to imagine people opening up to him, sharing their comic stories and their painful loss. Warm, friendly, engaged, animated, his delivery emphasized the people who died in the crash and the people who remembered them, bringing the former to life figuratively and the latter literally: he had brought with him members of the Ramirez family, descendants of Ramon Paredes Gonzalez and Guadalupe Ramirez Lara, who had helped Hernandez with research for the book, providing the definitive list of the dead from an ancient copy of El Faro. They were joined as well by relatives of the family who now live in Tulsa, all meeting at the Woody Guthrie Center, a neat confluence that further illustrated Hernandez’s emphasis on the personal relations that lie at the base of individual stories and human history.
And this is the remarkable thing about Hernandez’s accomplishment, in his book, in his presentation, in his work on the memorial: He never allows us to lose sight of his people’s individual lives, despite the temptation to read their stories in relation to the current political conditions. As incensed as he is by the way the people’s names are lost as they are reduced to the label “deportee,” he resists reducing them further through a facile parallel between the immigration problems of 1948 and those of today.
Hernandez is careful to explain the braceros program—an agreement between the U.S. and Mexican governments (1942-1964) for importing agricultural workers (and later other workers) from Mexico to replace American workers who were in the Armed Forces during WWII, an agreement that benefited American employers and contractors as well as the cash-poor farmers of western and central Mexico, who came to the United States for seasonal work, sent money home, returned to Mexico, then came back to work in the U.S. to earn money again. Among the migrant workers were contadas (contract workers) and contrabandas (workers who came without contracts); the deportations rounded up workers whose contracts had expired or who had no contracts; some of the workers on the plane had come on contract, others not, some had been on contract in the past but not on this trip.
For years, the braceros program provided minimal safeguards for wages and living conditions among migrant workers. When the program ended, so did any attempt at labor regulation for farm workers, and employers accustomed to a cheap government-sanctioned labor force resisted paying higher wages, spurring farm workers to organize.
The political situation today is related, of course, but also very different. In both his book and his presentation, Hernandez refuses to oversimplify the relationship between conditions now and those in 1948. What his telling insists upon, instead, is the dehumanization that results from regarding people as aliens—from denying them the courtesy and respect all of us owe to each of us. In Hernandez’s powerful work, the personal becomes political only and always as the political remains personal.
Diane Burton is an associate editor of Nimrod. She retired from teaching at The University of Tulsa two years ago.