A Memorial to Woody Guthrie’s “Deportees” 65 Years Later

Tuesday, September 10, 2013
(graphic: Fresno Bee)

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"


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"?


They remained unknown publicly for 65 years. But the farmworkers who died in the California plane crash that inspired folk singer Woody Guthrie’s song “Deportees” have been officially memorialized in a Fresno cemetery.


On January 28, 1948, a plane chartered by federal immigration officials left Oakland, bound for Mexico. Onboard were 28 Mexican farmworkers, some of whom were part of the U.S. government’s Braceros guest-worker program that allowed migrant field hands to legally travel back and forth between the two countries. The workers also included unauthorized immigrants being deported back to their home country.


The 28 farmworkers never made it to Mexico.


An explosion ripped through the Douglas DC-3 carrying them, tearing the plane’s left wing from the fuselage about 80 miles southwest of Fresno. Local residents reported seeing some of the passengers falling from the crippled plane before it crashed into a nearby canyon.


Everyone aboard the ill-fated aircraft, including its two pilots, a flight attendant and an immigration guard, were killed.


Following the tragedy, the crewmembers and guard were buried at various cemeteries. But the farmworkers’ remains were dumped into a mass grave. A small marker near the site did not list any names of the victims. It read: “28 Mexican Citizens Who Died In An Airplane Accident Near Coalinga California On Jan. 28, 1948 R.I.P.”


Guthrie heard of the accident and was inspired to write a protest song that became “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos),” which others artists have covered over the years, including Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.


The singers were not the only ones determined to remember the crash.


The Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno led an effort with author and former Central Valley resident Tim Z. Hernandez to raise money for an official memorial, complete with the names of those who died. It was unveiled on September 2 at a ceremony attended by more than 500 people, including family members of some of the farmworkers who traveled all the way from Mexico.


Hernandez, the son and grandson of Mexican farmworkers, worked with Carlos Rascon, the diocese’s cemeteries director, to track down the names of all the farmworkers.


He is now writing a book about the farmworkers.


At the ceremony, Hernandez read a poem by Martin Hoffman, who composed the music for Guthrie’s song: “Now we know who these people are—once nameless and the stories of their families. Share the story. The more we do, the more we correct the past.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Fresno Memorial Unveiled with ‘Deportee’ Names from 1948 Crash (by Ron Orozco, Fresno Bee)

65 Years Later, a Memorial Gives Names to Crash Victims (by Malia Wollan, New York Times)

Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos) (Wikipedia)


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