Sixty-five years ago, a plane full of Mexican deportees crashed in the hills near Coalinga. At the time, the disaster grabbed national headlines, and even inspired a song by Woody Guthrie. The song has since been covered by many artists, but the event itself has faded into the mists of Central Valley history. What would it take to turn that around? Reporter: Rebecca Plevin
Author Tim Z. Hernandez was digging through old newspapers at the Fresno County Public Library when a dramatic headline from the late 1940s captured his attention.
"It said, '100 people see a ship plunge to the earth’ or something like that,’” Hernandez recalled. “It was just really a captivating headline. I instantly realized after reading it that it had to be tied into Woody Guthrie’s song.”
This is a stanza from that song, called "Deportee:"
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.”
Guthrie wrote the lyrics after hearing of a harrowing plane crash in Los Gatos Canyon, near the small town of Coalinga in Central California, in 1948. The plane was transporting 28 Mexican nationals who were being deported. None survived the crash, and their names were not published in initial news accounts, which listed only the four additional victims, who were Americans.
In his song, Guthrie assigned symbolic names to the victims.
Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria
You won’t have your names when you ride the big airplane
All they will call you will be “deportees.”
Hernandez instantly knew he had another book idea. He says he wanted to give those who had died some measure of dignity by learning more about them, including their real names.
“I think I just felt compelled to want to find their story, or put their story back,” said Hernandez, who is the son of a migrant farmworker.
His goal is to reconstruct the accident and the lives of the people affected by it.
“It’s nice here,” said Coalinga resident Larry Haws, as he stood at the site of the crash. “It’s like someone’s backyard, it’s very pretty, it’s a cattle field right now.” His mother was just a child when she saw the wing of the plane fall off and land just steps from her grandmother’s home.
“The plane came in, and barely made it over this little ridge we see right here to our right," Haws explained. "And it was spiraling, and it barely made it over that, and it crashed head-on into this creek bank, right here, and it caught these three trees on fire."
Hernandez also connected with Haws’ aunt, June Leigh Austin, who was almost 10 years old when the plane crashed near her home in the canyon. The 74-year old still recalls the gruesome details of the crash.
“There were bodies scattered all over, so it took a lot to even find everybody, all the pieces I should say,” Austin said. “I don't know that there were any bodies totally intact, and none were identified.”
But Hernandez combed through records to properly identify all 28 Mexican nationals. His search also took him to Fresno’s Holy Cross Cemetery, where the Mexican crash victims are buried. Their graves are marked with one headstone -- again, without any names.
“It’s a 12-by-24 bronze memorial. As you can see, it’s weathered, it’s patina-ed,” said Carlos Rascon, director of cemeteries for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno, as he stood over the grave. “It says, ‘28 Mexican citizens who died in an airplane accident near Coalinga, California, on January 28, 1948. Rest in Peace.’"
Rascon and Hernandez came up with a plan. They are raising $10,000 to establish a memorial to the victims of the plane crash, which will include 28 names.
“My idea, as part of the inscription, is to have one leaf represent each of the 32 people,” Rascon explained. “Twenty-eight of them are here, but the other four were buried elsewhere. And if you hear Woody Guthrie’s poem it says, ‘They were scattered like dry leaves on our topsoil.”
Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?
To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil
And be called by no name except “deportees?”
Hernandez encourages people to embrace this history.
“We want the community to feel that this is part of their history as well, not just California history, but American history, as Woody Guthrie told us,” he said. “At the end of the day, our names are really what we have.”
The crash victims will be honored on Labor Day, when the new headstone is erected. The book should be released next summer.