On January 28, 1948, the engine of a plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon, about 60 miles southwest of Fresno, California, killing 32 people. Gabriel Thompson at SFGate.com reports that the incident was the deadliest plane crash in California history, the type of tragedy that typically takes over the newspapers and spawns biographies and memorials to the deceased.
But in 1948, news reports only identified four of those killed—two crew members, a flight attendant and an immigration official by name. Their bodies were recovered and sent back to their families. The other 28 people on board were Mexican farm workers being sent back home after working in the U.S. under the Bracero Program, which allowed Mexican guest workers to legally work in the U.S. to fill agricultural labor shortages. Their names were not listed, their families were not notified, and they were buried in mass grave with a plaque reading: “28 Mexican citizens who died in an airplane accident near Coalinga.” Radio reports simply called them deportees.
"Three months before that accident there was a very similar one, another plane crashed in Utah and 52 people died, in the news every passenger with his name appeared and they even showed their pictures in the Los Angeles Times," Tim Z. Hernandez, author of the 2017 book All They Will Call You, which uncovers the names and stories of the unnamed individuals who perished in the Los Gatos Canyon crash, tells the BBC in a recent interview.
In 2010, Hernandez, who teaches at the University of Texas El Paso, first saw articles about the California plane crash while researching a different novel in the Fresno library. The clippings summoned the memory of the song “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)," which began as a poem written by folk icon Woody Guthrie, who penned it after hearing about the tragedy on the radio. He was upset that the migrants were not treated with the same respect as the flight crew. A friend set his words to music and gave the song to Pete Seeger, another folk luminary who popularized the tune. Over the decades names like Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Dolly Parton and others have sang their story.
But Hernandez, the son and grandson of Mexican farm workers, was shocked to find that no one had yet to answer the central question in the song: “Who are all these friends all scattered like dry leaves?/The radio said they are just deportees.”
Inspired to investigate further, he tracked down a list of names from their death certificates. But the spellings of their names had been horribly botched, which made it difficult to further trace the men back to their descendants in Mexico. So Hernandez put a notice in a bilingual Fresno paper that he was looking for relatives of the braceros, writing: "If someone is related, please get in touch." "Si alguien está relacionado, por favor, pónganse en contacto."
The grandson of one of the deceased got in contact and led him to a local Spanish-language newspaper that published the correct names, hometowns and relatives of the workers a few days after the accident.
In the coming years, Hernandez tracked down families of seven of the individuals on the flight that day. He learned that one, José Sánchez Valdivia, was a Babe Ruth fan and organized a Mexican baseball league that used cabbages as bases. Luis Miranda Cuevas from Jocotepec, Jalisco, dressed up like a girl to fool his future wife’s father so that he could sit next to her and talk while she sewed.
Now, 70 years after the crash, Hernandez and the families of the deceased have worked to get a new headstone placed at the grave. It includes the names of all 32 individuals killed in the accident, bringing some closure to families who were never able to hold a funeral. Last month, on the official anniversary of the crash, the names of the victims were read on the Senate floor of California's state capitol. The folk singer Joan Baez was invited to play a version of Guthrie’s song for those in attendance.
For Hernandez, his search is not over. He explains it's become his lifelong mission to track down the remaining relatives of the crash who still don't know the fates of their loved ones. As he puts it to the BBC, "I'm still looking."