What were their names?
Book in Common author tells stories of forgotten Mexican farmworkers
In January of 1948 the legendary folksinger Woody Guthrie, having freshly learned of the death of 28 Mexican farmworkers in a plane crash in Los Gatos Canyon, near Coalinga in the San Joaquin Valley, wrote a poem about the disaster that he titled “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee).”
Several years later, in 1957, a young songwriter named Martin Hoffman set the poem to music and played it for the famous folksinger Pete Seeger, who subsequently recorded it. The song was a huge hit and later was recorded by such luminaries as Joan Baez, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Arlo Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Bruce Springsteen, Odetta, Kris Kristofferson and The Byrds.
The song’s heart-wrenching refrain soon entered the nation’s collective consciousness:
Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye Rosalita/Adios mis amigos Jesus y Maria/You won’t have a name when you ride the big airplane/All they will call you will be … deportees.
Flash-forward to 2001, when poet and novelist Tim Z. Hernandez was hired to travel to various rural communities in the San Joaquin Valley and gather their residents’ stories.
Hernandez had grown up in the valley. Most of his family members lived there. So, when his grandfather was in the hospital, Hernandez naturally went to visit him.
When he arrived, he found his grandfather, “an aged campesino,” asleep in a dim, cold room. He waited for the old man to awake, and while waiting closely regarded his grandfather’s weather-worn face.
“This old man, to whose seed I owed my existence,” he later wrote, “was the last living grandparent I had. He was the single thread connecting me to my past.” He pulled out his recorder, determined to capture his abuelo’s stories.
He also determined to answer a question that had popped up during his research: Who were the 28 laborers who died in Los Gatos Canyon? Five decades after the crash—the worst airplane disaster in California history—and their burial in a mass grave, they remained anonymous. What were their stories?
The only victims of the crash whose names were known were the pilot, Frank Atkinson, his wife, Bobbie, who was serving as the stewardess, co-pilot Marion Ewing, and Frank Chaffin, an Immigration and Naturalization Service officer. No effort was made to learn the names of the 28 Mexican deportees—until Hernandez came along determined to tell their stories.
Thus began an epic search for information, one that has lasted seven years and shows no sign of waning. Hernandez has pored through historical records, interviewed eyewitnesses and traveled to small villages and towns in Mexico to learn the names of those who died and their loved ones left behind.
The first book in a planned trilogy is All They Will Call You, which came out in 2017 and is the 2018-2019 Butte County Book in Common. It tells the stories of seven of the farmworkers who died, as well as those of the flight crew and songwriter Hoffman, whose life took a poignant twist. The author will visit Chico State’s Laxson Auditorium for a lecture, with music and video, on Wednesday (March 13) at 7:30 p.m.
Hernandez is now a professor of creative writing at the University of Texas at El Paso. In a phone interview from his home there, he said that he’s located the families of four more people who died in the crash and is developing their stories. His intention is to write the trilogy based not only on the stories of the crash victims and their families, but also to explore the current debate over immigration from the perspective of the immigrants themselves.
“It’s a lifelong endeavor,” he said. “I plan to keep working on this for the rest of my life.”