Sometimes it takes a poet to remind us of the power of a name: its stake in memory and human dignity.
Seventy years ago, the 35-year-old folksinger, songwriter, and author Woody Guthrie heard a radio account of a plane crash near Fresno, California that killed all 32 people on board.
Radio and print accounts of the crash identified by name only the two crew members, the flight attendant, and a U.S. immigration official on board. The other 28 people who perished were Mexican citizens who had been working in the U.S. as braceros, or contract agricultural laborers, and they were bound for home either because their contracts had ended, or because they had been hired illegally. None of the workers were identified by name. They were listed in the news reports only as “deportees,” and they were buried without names in a mass grave in Fresno.
The headstone read, “28 Mexican Citizens Who Died In An Airplane Accident Near Coalinga, California on January 28, 1948. R.I.P.”
Outraged by this treatment, Guthrie wrote the poem, “Deportee,” including such stanzas as the following:
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”
Guthrie’s friend Martin Hoffman set the poem to music and sent it to folksinger Pete Seeger, who performed and helped popularize it. Later, other singers and songwriters, including Joan Baez, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Bruce Springsteen performed and recorded their own versions. Here is a version recorded by Guthrie’s son, Arlo: “Deportee.”
Many years later, poet and novelist Tim Z. Hernandez painstakingly tracked down all the names and many of the stories of the Mexican men and women who died on that flight, publishing his account in 2017 in his book, All They Will Call You. Because of the work of Hernandez and the families of the deceased, a new headstone listing all 28 names was unveiled in 2013, and all the names were read at a special commemoration in the California State Legislature this past January on the 70th anniversary of the crash.
Thus human beings were restored to their names in the difficult work of redeeming public memory and affirming a common humanity.