The weather was ideal for flying, Tim Z. Hernandez writes in his new book “All They Will Call You.” The DC-3 airplane, chartered by U.S. Immigration Services, left the Oakland airport at 9:30 a.m. One hour after takeoff, as it sailed over the Diablo mountain range near Coalinga, the plane’s left engine caught fire.
“The plane spiraled down toward the earth and plummeted into the creek bed of Los Gatos Canyon, killing everyone aboard,” says Hernandez, an author and professor with deep family farmworker roots in the central San Joaquin Valley.
The day was Jan. 28, 1948.
The crash made headlines, but only the names of three crew members and an immigration officer were reported. Twenty-eight passengers, all Mexican farmworkers – some part of the bracero farmworker program, others being deported for entering the country illegally – were referred to simply as “deportees.”
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Sixty-nine years later, on the anniversary of the crash, the release of Hernandez’s sixth book by University of Arizona Press helps remember those who lost their lives. The title is a line from Woody Guthrie’s much-covered song “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee)” about the crash.
We caught up with Hernandez, who is marking the book’s publication with a book signing Friday, Jan. 27, at Fresno State, to tell us about this latest project.
Q: You got the idea to write a book about the crash after seeing an old news clipping in the library. Were you familiar with the Guthrie song?
A: I was already familiar with the Guthrie song because I had been working on a novel set in Fresno County that took place in 1947, and I had been listening to Guthrie’s music to help set the mood. I’d heard the song a few times growing up, too, but never really paid close attention to it. It was truly one of those alignments, me being in the right place at the right time, open enough, or aware enough, to discover it.
Q: Tell us a little about the bracero program. Did you learn anything that surprised you?
A: The bracero program was essentially a guest worker program, so that Mexico could be an ally to the U.S. during WWII. Workers were granted visas to come and work for extended periods of time in the fields, factories and railroads. But the workers were poorly treated and often not paid.
Q: After the crash, was there any kind of public outcry over the deportation of the passengers?
A: That I’m aware of, there wasn’t an outcry about the deportation that occurred on Jan. 28, 1948. And nothing, on record at least, showed that anyone really knew about the omission of their names and the anonymity of their gravesite.
What was most surprising to me, more than even the media’s omission of including the names of the passengers, was that Holy Cross Cemetery in Fresno had access to the names since the accident, over six decades (ago), and never was there an effort to at least put their names on a headstone. Alice Walker once said: “Some years are for asking questions, other years are for answering.”
And this was truly the case. It was truly one of those errors that time needed to correct … someone invested in the story, a writer-historian from the San Joaquin Valley with family roots in migrant labor, and an insatiable curiosity, to come along and probe.
Q: Your last book “Mañana Means Heaven” is a cross between nonfiction and fiction. How do you classify “All They Will Call You”?
A: It is classified as a “documentary novel.” Just as one would view a documentary film, say, about the first pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock. We know the scholars who make the film have all the information, have done the research and know their subject better than anyone, yet they still utilize elements of fiction, which they call “re-enactments,” as a way to give us a three-dimensional view of what life was like in those times, and what might’ve actually occurred. But it’s always in service of the “real story.”
My book was written using a very similar formula. At its heart, the book is mainly nonfiction, taken from my years of research and interviews, and any fictional aspects in it are minimal and used only as a means of allowing the reader to feel that they are actually in the presence of these people.
Q: You seem intrigued with blurring the line between fiction and nonfiction. Is there a risk to this approach in terms of having your work read and accepted? Why not just keep to established conventions?
A: The biggest risk was perhaps that a publisher might not want to accept it for publication, because it doesn’t easily fit on any traditional classifications for bookshelves. But it could be argued that most, if not all, “nonfiction” books, including our history books, utilize some element of embellishment and/or fiction. It’s impossible to avoid because an author cannot help but bring his or her experience to their writing. Everything written is filtered through their perception. It’s in this blurred zone that my own book exists.
But the reason for this approach is because my book is loyal to memory, to the spoken testimony, oral history, not to “people of fact,” as I mention in the foreword. The great oral historian, Studs Terkel, once wrote: “In their rememberings are their truths.” And, too, I can’t help but think of what the Mexican novelist Luis Arturo Ramos once told me: “It would be good for us to read fiction as if it were history, and history as if it were fiction.”
Q: How difficult was it to track down relatives of the farmworkers who died in the crash?
A: Extremely difficult. Going back six decades in time with only a single shred of newspaper as the clue, and funded by my own pocket, makes for an almost impossible task.
In the end, I only managed to find the families of seven of the passengers who died in the crash. I have information for many more, but I just don’t have the resources to continue the search. So now I’m relying on the power of this book itself. Art has gravity. It’s very possible that after publishing this book more families will come forth. At least this is my belief.
Q: Tell us about the Ramirez family here in Fresno.
A: They were the first family I found. Jaime Ramirez had been doing his own research on this incident for many years before I came along. When I met him in early 2013 he handed me a packet with just about everything I could dream of, which is how I was able to finally confirm the names for the headstone memorial we installed, and for my research. They literally became co-researchers in this book.
His brother, Guillermo Ramirez, traveled with me into central Mexico to look for more families. He was my main resource in Mexico, but he took it a step further and trekked with me everywhere, was my translator and assistant researcher. Let me put it this way – it would’ve been impossible to write this book without the Ramirez family.
Q: You visited the site of the crash. What was that like for you?
A: It was moving. Los Gatos Canyon holds a kind of silence. It is such a historical place, where much grief has occurred over the many years. It’s where Joaquin Murrieta was beheaded. It was a major trading post for the Yokut long ago. It sits on the San Andreas Fault line. And it’s where “the worst plane crash in California’s history” occurred. And all of this is what you feel hanging in the silence of that space.
The first time I took Jaime Ramirez and his family there was the most moving, though. He had to take a knee and say a prayer. I’m a strong believer that space holds memory.
In 2013, I was able to lead a small caravan of all the families associated with the plane crash into the canyon. We all embraced one another there, held hands and took a photo together. Family of the pilot and stewardess, and the passengers, and family of Martin Hoffman, the man who turned Woody’s poem into the popular song, were all there together. It felt like closure.
Q: Tell us about the Friday book signing.
A: It’s being held on Jan. 27 – the last day the passengers were alive – because it’s a celebration for the closure to this chapter in American and Mexican history. We invite the entire community to come out and share in this memorable and historical event. Many of the families will be present, too. And, best of all, it’s free.
“All They Will Call You” with author Tim Z. Hernandez
6-8 p.m. Friday
Fresno State Satellite Student Union