A mass grave site at Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery in Fresno now has a new memorial bearing the names of 28 Mexican citizens — the "deportees" — who died in an airplane crash in 1948.
The farmworkers were in a program that allowed Mexican citizens to enter the United States to do seasonal work and then return to Mexico, but they never made it home. They were buried in a mass grave in Fresno, but the grave maker did not list any names.
Folk singer Woody Guthrie wrote a protest song about the events, "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)" in 1948. The memory of the farmworkers was kept alive over the years through renditions of the song by well-known musicians, including Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.
On Monday, the right thing was done. More than 500 people attended a Mass under a tent at the cemetery and then walked a short distance to the grave site, where a 4-by-8-foot granite memorial with the farmworkers' names was unveiled.
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno, which owns Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery, led an effort with author and former Valley resident Tim Z. Hernandez to raise money for the memorial. About $14,000 was raised to cover the cost of the memorial and expenses to stage the Mass and unveiling ceremony.
Carlos Rascon, director of cemeteries for the diocese, told the crowd: "Many of you are here because you wanted to help — you wanted to correct a past wrong. A person asked, 'Who are these friends?' Today, we have that answer, because of you."
Relatives of those who died in the airplane crash expressed gratitude at Monday's events. Some traveled great distances to Fresno.
Caritina Ramirez came from Charco de Pantoja in the Mexican state of Guanajuato. She wiped away tears as she spoke Spanish through an interpreter about her father, Ramon Paredes Gonzalez, a farmworker who died in the crash. She was 11 at the time.
"I remember when he was going and coming back," said Ramirez, now 77. "He was a wonderful man. I have very good memories of him. This day is something that's amazing. I have happiness and sadness at the same time."
Anna Cardena, of Paso Robles, said she felt a sense of family pride. She is the great granddaughter of Guadalupe Ramirez Lara, a farmworker who also died.
"I'm really proud to be here," Cardena said. "My grandmother came here to see the grave site in July 1995. Now, I am able to come here, and to talk with a lot of people. It's almost as if it's nostalgic. I'm really happy. I just don't know how to put it into words."
Three crew members and an immigration guard also died in the crash. Although they were buried at various cemeteries, their names also were listed on the new memorial.
Connie Mart, of Lagunitas, the niece of pilot Francis C. Atkinson, attended the Mass and unveiling, saying it made her feel good about her family.
"It happened eight months to the day before I was born," she said, "My grandmother always talked about him — and tears would come to her eyes. He was always in my life. He was the star of the family."
After the unveiling, renditions of "Deportee" were performed by John McCutcheon as well as Lance Canales and Jemmy Bluestein.
Hernandez, who is writing a book about the farmworkers, read a poem by Martin Hoffman, who provided the music to 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."
Remembering the dead
The 28 Mexican citizens whose names were inscribed on the new memorial at their mass grave site at Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery:
Miguel Negroros Alvarez
Francisco Llamas Duram
Santiago Garcia Elizondo
Rosalio Padilla Estrada
Tomasa Avena De Garcia
Bernabe Lopez Garcia
Salvador Sandoval Hernandez
Severo Medina Lara
Elias Trujillo Macias
Jose Rodriguez Macias
Tomas Padilla Marquez
Luis Lopez Medina
Manuel Calderon Merino
Luis Cuevas Miranda
Martin Razo Navarro
Ygnacio Perez Navarro
Roman Ochoa Ochoa
Ramon Ramirez Paredes
Apolonio Ramirez Placencia
Guadalupe Laura Ramirez
Alberto Carlos Raygoza
Guadalupe Hernandez Rodriguez
Maria Santana Rodriguez
Juan Valenzuela Ruiz
Jose Valdivia Sanchez
Jesus Meza Santos
Baldomero Marcas Torres
Others aboard the flight:
Francis "Frank" Atkinson, Long Beach, pilot
Marion Harlow Ewing, Balboa, co-pilot
Lillian "Bobbie" Atkinson (married to Frank), Long Beach, stewardess
Frank E. Chaffin, Berkeley, immigration guard
Source: Diocese of Fresno Catholic Cemeteries
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