Watch: Ghosts of the Canyon: Deportee Mystery Comes to Light After 65 Years

Woody Guthrie CIRCA 1970
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Woody Guthrie must have known 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, but while the four American crew members were identified by name, the 28 Mexican farmworkers 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 farmworkers 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 offended too. 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 Mexican 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."

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