Rewriting a Tragic Story: Tim Z. Hernandez's Deportee Memorial Plane Crash Project


This is an astonishing story, not only about an astonishing event, but about the power of the arts to transform society, and the enduring power of stories to inspire other artists, a generation or two down the line, to transform the story itself, through the arts. This is the story of the Deportee Memorial Plane Crash Project, based in Fresno, California. This is a story about restoring dignity to the lives and memories of a planeload of 'anonymous' farm workers, whose identities remained unknown for 65 years. Until now.

Author Tim Z. Hernandez.
Author Tim Z. Hernandez.

This is the story of how award-winning poet/author/performance author Tim Z. Hernandez, a Fresno native and author of many books, including the forthcoming Manana Means Heaven (University of Arizona Press, 2013) has re-visited and is revising the story of an infamous 1948 plane crash of a plane en route to Mexico from the Oakland, CA airport. The flight was loaded with Mexican farm workers whose documentation to work in the United States under the Bracero Program had expired, and tragically crashed in remote Los Gatos Canyon -- just west of the San Joaquin Valley farm town of Coalinga -- before reaching its destination.

The New York Times reported on the crash:

"...the Mexicans were being flown to the deportation center at El Centro, Calif., for return to their country. The group included Mexican nationals who entered the United States Illegally, and others who stayed beyond duration of work contracts in California, he added. All were agricultural workers.

The crew was identified as Frank Atkinson, 32 years old, of Long Beach, the pilot; Mrs. Bobbie Atkinson, his wife, stewardess, 28; and Marion Ewing of Balboa, copilot, 33. Long Beach airport officials said that Mr. Atkinson, formerly of Rochester, N.Y., had logged more than 1,700 hours flying time as a wartime member of the Air Transport Command. The guard was identified as Frank E. Chaffin of Berkeley.

The plane, which was chartered from Airline Transport Carriers of Burbank, was southbound from the Oakland airport, when it crashed in view of some 100 road camp workers. Foreman Frank V. Johnson said that it appeared to explode and a wing fell off before it plummeted to the ground. A number of those in the plane appeared to jump or fall before the aircraft hit the earth, he added. The wreckage was enveloped in flames when the fuel tanks ignited. Not until the fire died down were rescuers able to get near the plane. By then, there was nothing to be done but to extricate the bodies. "

Upset at media coverage of the event, in which the names of the Mexican farm workers on the plane were never listed and remained anonymous -- even though the names of the Anglo pilot and crew were given, and dismayed that the farm workers were buried anonymously in one mass grave at Fresno Holy Cross Cemetery, famous folk musician Woody Guthrie penned a poem, "(Deportee), Plane Wreck at Los Gatos" that was later put to music by Martin Hoffman and made into a song by the same name.

Surely, it is not an accident, after all, that the site of the Los Gatos plane crash is located very near California's imposing San Andreas Fault. The resonating tremors from the 1948 event rumbled and traveled far beyond the Central Valley crash site into Southern California - particularly in the Coachella and Imperial Valleys - to coincide with the birth and gathering momentum of the United Farm Workers movement, starting with the efforts of Cesar E. Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and untold others to improve working conditions and civil rights for immigrant workers crossing the U.S. border from Mexico and all Latin Americans, a movement that continues to this day.

"(Deportee), Plane Wreck at Los Gatos" became a famous banner anthem and protest song of the 1960's-70's, performed, recorded and popularized by Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie's own son Arlo Guthrie as Cesar E. Chavez and Dolores Huerta led the fight for civil rights reforms for migrant farm workers in the United States. Although the song has swirled in the public consciousness since that time as an all-time great human rights and protest song, recorded subsequently by such musical greats as Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Bruce Springsteen and Ani DiFranco, the names of the "deportees" on board had never been made known.

Air Disaster Headlines.
Air Disaster Headlines.

That was, until a few years ago, when Hernandez began investigating the story and conducting his own research. Since then, in what has become a collaborative, community-inclusive, multi-media project dedicated to chronicling his journey through music, spoken word performances, film, a documentary book project and a memorial headstone fundraiser and dedication for those who perished in the crash was installed at the mass gravesite in a ceremony at Holy Cross Cemetery this Labor Day weekend.

"I cannot express to you how fantastic, challenging, and yet frightening this whole process," says Hernandez, whose parents, grandparents, and other relatives have worked as migrant farm workers in the U.S. "Here I am now" doing my best to allow the voices of the plane crash victims, 65 years later, to speak on their own accord, free of my own biases and free of what John Steinbeck calls one's own 'authorial warp.'" Hernandez has been tirelessly filming, researching, visiting, interviewing, and writing to people related to the crash for the past several years as he shapes his revisionist version of the event into what he says will be a "textual documentary book, filled with language, interviews, photos and letters."

Deportee benefit concert flyer.
Deportee benefit concert flyer.

As part of the Deportee Plane Crash project, Hernandez has given a number of community performances related to raise awareness about his project, as well as to raise the $10,000 in contributions -- a goal recently reached, with contributions coming in from all over the country, including from the Woody Guthrie Foundation and Cesar E. Chavez Foundation -- needed to install a memorial headstone with all of the victims' names on it at the Fresno Holy Cross Cemetery.

Tim Z. Hernandez at the plane crash site.
Tim Z. Hernandez at the plane crash site.

"I was invited to perform at the Steinbeck Center in Salinas," says Hernandez, "and I asked my musician friend Lance Canales if he'd be willing to learn the 'Deportees' song and collaborate with me. I shared some of my work-in-progress while he played, and we ended up doing the song with the names being read aloud, and went on to record it. Lance's version is actually a fresh take on the song." They have also collaborated on a recent fundraiser in Fresno featuring a spoken-word performance by Hernandez and music by Lance Canales and his band, The Flood, as well as musicians Jemmy Bluestein and Cunjunto Califas.

Hernandez's Deportee Memorial Plane Crash Project has generated interest in the national literary and arts community in a resonant way, nationwide and beyond. Interviews with Hernandez discussing his project have been recently featured on such diverse shows as Univision's Special Report "Tragedia Sin Nombre." Hernandez emphasizes that the community-involvement aspect of inclusivity is an integral part of his project, and plays an important part in this re-shaping of history. "The community support has been incredible, and I could not be doing this project without it."

"My hope is that my Deportee Memorial Plane Crash Project spills far out, off the pages and into the streets, kitchens, classrooms, road trips and intimate spaces, wherever there is a discussion about what it means to be human," says Hernandez. "If you have found yourself sharing the story with others, then you are making history. The more we share this story the more it becomes an irremovable thread in our collective experience."


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