Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Naming the Los Gatos Canyon dead

Woody Guthrie's "Deportee," aka "Plane Crash at Los Gatos," is one of those songs I can't remember not listening to and being moved by, so it was interesting to read Tuesday about the Labor Day dedication at Holy Cross Cemetery in Fresno, California, of a monument naming the 28 previously unidentified migrant workers buried there.

The event itself has been largely forgotten I suppose --- Federal immigration officials had chartered a plane on Jan. 28, 1948, to return 28 farm workers to Mexico from Oakland, California. Most were in the United States legally under the Braceros guest-worker program and a contractor had defaulted on a promise to return them to the border, others had crossed into the United States illegally. 

At mid-morning, the plane crashed in Los Gatos Canyon, killing the workers and the plane's four-person crew. The bodies of the Mexican victims were gathered and buried in a mass grave in Holy Cross Cemetery marked previously by only a small stone that identified them as "28 Mexican citizens."

National news reports of the crash caught Guthrie's eye --- in large part because the reports named the four white crew members who had died, but did not name the Mexican victims, referring to them only as "28 deportees."

Guthrie composed a poem about the event that he performed as a talking song. Then the now-familiar melody was added school teacher Martin Hoffman and Pete Seeger began performing it. Since then, it's become an American folk classic.

The song has come to symbolize our habit of turning brothers and sisters who for some reason are the "other" into abstractions with generalizations, declining to acknowledge their humanity by naming them.

Tim Z. Hernandez, himself a son and grandson of Mexican farm workers, led the drive to track down the names of the Los Gatos dead and worked with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno to fund and erect the monument dedicated on Monday.

You can read more about Monday's events in The Fresno Bee and The New York Times (which probably published the news report that first caught Guthrie's eye). This Huffington Post report contains ABC video that focuses on Hernandez and his part in the project.

I'm partial to the performance here of "Deportee" by Woody Guthrie's son, Arlo, and Emmylou  Harris.

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