The haunting imagery of “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos” has carried the ballad from the pen of Woody Guthrie to the stadium concerts of Bruce Springsteen.
A host of iconic musicians have covered the song along the way: Pete Seeger, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, among others.
The lyrics tell the story of 28 migrant workers who were killed in 1948 when their plane crashed in Los Gatos Canyon en route to a deportation center in Southern California. Guthrie was incensed by a New York Times report which carried the names of a guard and the crew, but lumped the Mexicans together under the label “deportees.”
“The sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon,
A fireball of lightning, and shook all our hills,
Who are all these friends, all scattered like dry leaves?
The radio says, ‘They are just deportees.’”
“Without me realizing initially, this book is an attempt to answer that (Guthrie’s) question. Who are they? Well this is who they are,” the author told the Mexican Labyrinth.
Hernandez, himself the son of migrant farm workers, came across the story when he was researching his novel “Mañana Means Heaven.” A 1948 newspaper article, “100 prisoners see an airplane fall from the sky,” inspired him to tell the story of the fateful flight.
“The original idea was to create a fictional book. But I thought, rather than make up fake names, why not find a list of the real names and use them as the chapter titles?”
He started the painstaking process of searching online, contacting cemeteries and consulting county hall records. His ambitions grew with the investigation, and he decided to try to track down some of the victim’s families.
It was not until a local reporter ran the story that he was contacted by Jamie Ramirez, a relative of two of the passengers. Ramirez had come to the United States at 17 to work as a dishwasher and now owned a restaurant. He had been collecting information on the crash for years and left flowers at the unmarked mass grave every November.
Among his files was the faded newspaper clipping that the Mexican consulate sent the families in 1948.
“That newspaper had the full and complete list of names, surviving relatives and the hometown in Mexico where they were from. It had everything,” Hernandez said.
The author brought the list of names to the Catholic Diocese in 2011 and suggested that they build a memorial headstone. Together they raised $14,000 dollars. The stone is engraved with 32 falling leaves and the names of all of the passengers.
More than 1,000 people turned up for the inauguration in 2013. Blues group Lance Canales and The Flood played their version of “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos,” accompanied on stage by Hernandez and Ramirez, who read the names aloud. “Rest in peace,” the crowd responded as each name was uttered.
In January, Hernandez traveled to Mexico to meet seven of the 28 families he had successfully located. He brought along a videographer to record the trip and is now raising money to complete a documentary film.
Most of the families recalled their relatives with vivid and fond memories, but at times he needed to tread lightly. The family he tracked down in San Julian, Jalisco, was hesitant to discuss the past.
“They told me a little bit but there were some matters in the family they would just rather not discuss,” Hernandez said. “So I respected that and I tried to gather as much information as I could around that.”
Later in the trip, Hernandez enjoyed a moment of pure serendipity.
“As we were driving to Guadalajara we came across the town of Manalisco. We hadn’t planned for this visit because I thought it was somewhere else far away from our route. I checked my files and sure enough, it was the hometown of another passenger.”
They hit the brakes and headed into town to ask around. “So far I believe I have located another family, but I haven’t confirmed it yet,” Hernandez said.
When completed, the book will weave the stories of the incident, Guthrie’s song and the lives of the 32 passengers told through interviews, documents, letters and photographs.
While the immigration theme clearly resonates with the present moment, Hernandez is seeking to counter, rather than provoke political debate.
“Something gets missed when we continue using the same rhetoric, using the same language, entering the same discussion. To me this provides an opportunity to speak to a very human element,” he said. “What Woody Guthrie was getting at is that using a word like ‘deportee’ is a convenience for the political movers and shakers to not have to say who they are. So this is really about saying let’s forget about these labels and let’s talk about the individual.”
The memory of the U.S. crew is also integral to the story.
“I want to tell you about the immigration officer, I want to tell you about how he said goodbye to his wife that morning. I want to tell about the pilot and how he had trained all of his life and on that same level, I want to tell you about these 28 Mexicans and where they came from and their dreams.”
Hernandez had a surprise meeting with Woody Guthrie’s daughter Nora at a writer’s conference in California.
“My father believed in the importance of names,” she told him. “He would repeat them like a chant. Even just finding their names matters.”
Through his project, Hernandez has uncovered the names for the headstone and is set to restore them from anonymity in his book:
Miguel Negrete Alvarez. Tomas Aviña de Gracia. Francisco Llamas Duran. Santiago Garcia Elizondo. Rosalio Padilla Estrada. Tomas Padilla Marquez. Bernabe Lopez Garcia. Salvador Sandoval Hernandez. Severo Medina Lara. Elias Trujillo Macias. Jose Rodriguez Macias. Luis Lopez Medina. Manuel Calderon Merino. Luis Cuevas Miranda. Martin Razo Navarro. Ignacio Perez Navarro. Roman Ochoa Ochoa. Ramon Paredes Gonzalez. Guadalupe Ramirez Lara. Apolonio Ramirez Placencia. Alberto Carlos Raygoza. Guadalupe Hernandez Rodriguez. Maria Santana Rodriguez. Juan Valenzuela Ruiz. Wenceslao Flores Ruiz. Jose Valdivia Sanchez. Jesus Meza Santos. Baldomero Marcas Torres.
Guthrie would have been delighted.