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.”
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."
Nora Guthrie, the folk singer's daughter, was in the audience. “She approached us afterward to say how important names were to her father… how important he would find this work," Hernandez said.
"Lance and I were buzzing from this experience and realized we weren’t finished and had to take this further. What’s to stop us from creating a new headstone that includes all 28 names? We’re both from the Central Valley, sons of migrant farm workers. It was our job to do.”
They needed $10,000 to erect a new memorial. Fundraising efforts included benefit concerts, an online donation site, bake sales and art sales. Donations poured in from as far as Spain and Australia. Folk musician John McCutcheon used his talent and resources to spread the word. The Woody Guthrie Foundation was instrumental to the effort.
On Sept 2 2013 over 700 people came to unveil the 8ft x 4ft Monument headstone. It was a special and powerful day. A day that will not be forgotten. Si Se puede!