In 1948, a plane chartered by U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service fell from the sky near Coalinga, Calif. Nameless for decades, the Mexican citizens who died are finally receiving recognition.Through the efforts of two men, they're getting a small monument.
Over farms and ranches on the edge of the Diablo Range, 20 miles west of Coalinga, the World War II surplus DC-3 trailed black smoke. An engine exploded. A wing broke off, floating left and right. More than 100 witnesses watched bodies and luggage thrown from the fireball. There were no survivors.
News accounts named only the pilot, first officer, stewardess — who was also the pilot's wife — and an immigration officer. The others were listed simply as "deportees."
Guthrie read about the crash and wrote a poem protesting the anonymity of the workers. Schoolteacher Martin Hoffman later set the words to music.
The song lived on. A string of artists including Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash and Bruce Springsteen sang the chorus of imagined names: Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye Rosalita, Adios mis amigos Jesus y Maria.
In 2009, Hernandez was at the Fresno County Library scrolling through old newspapers, researching a book about Bea Franco, the inspiration behind the Mexican girlfriend character in Jack Kerouac's "On the Road." He'd immersed himself in the era's music, especially that of Guthrie, who sang about migrant workers and Central Valley fields.
It was a life Hernandez, 39, knew well. The poet and novelist now lived in Colorado, but grew up in farm towns across the Central Valley. He traced his love of storytelling to long road trips with his family picking crops. His mother, Lydia, would read books aloud; his father, Felix, would jump in and say "That's not what really happened" and spin his own endings.
A 1948 headline about a fireball plunging to earth caught his eye. He thought of Guthrie's song about the deportees. For the first time, Hernandez realized that Guthrie wasn't referring to the city of Los Gatos, near San Jose, but to the juniper-scented hills and canyons above the oil pumps in western Fresno County.
"Who were the people on that plane?" he wondered. "Did anyone ever tell their loved ones why they didn't come home?"
The monument will be unveiled on Labor Day.
"They're answering Woody's prayer," Nora Guthrie said. "If you keep the questions — the ideas — alive, then someday, someone will come along to answer. My father sang, 'All they will call you will be deportees.' This is a back-atch'ya. A resounding 'No, we all have names.' "
The stone will be etched with 32 falling leaves, four of them bearing the initials of the Americans who died on the flight. In the center will be 28 names:
Miguel Negrete Álvarez. Tomás Aviña de Gracia. Francisco Llamas Durán. Santiago García Elizondo. Rosalio Padilla Estrada. Tomás Padilla Márquez. Bernabé López Garcia. Salvador Sandoval Hernández. Severo Medina Lára. Elías Trujillo Macias. José Rodriguez Macias. Luis López Medina. Manuel Calderón Merino. Luis Cuevas Miranda. Martin Razo Navarro. Ignacio Pérez Navarro. Román Ochoa Ochoa. Ramón Paredes Gonzalez. Guadalupe Ramírez Lára. Apolonio Ramírez Placencia. Alberto Carlos Raygoza. Guadalupe Hernández Rodríguez. Maria Santana Rodríguez. Juan Valenzuela Ruiz. Wenceslao Flores Ruiz. José Valdívia Sánchez. Jesús Meza Santos. Baldomero Marcas Torres.