HOW DO WE treat our dead? We mourn them, perform rituals to memorialize them, and treat their remains with respect. Sometimes we chisel their names on gravestones; sometimes we cremate them and scatter their ashes in places where we can meaningfully recall them. Yet, for one of the worst airplane crashes in California history, the names of accident victims were buried along with their charred remains.

Early in the morning of January 28, 1948, a Douglas DC-3 plane chartered by the US Immigration Service flew from Oakland, California, and journeyed toward an INS deportation center in El Centro, California. The plane carried 32 people: the crew, an immigration official, and 28 farm laborers, some returning after fulfilling government contracts, others who were being deported. The people on the plane probably did not know it, but there was cause for worry. In the months preceding the crash, two Douglas planes had exploded. All the planes were ultimately recalled.

Not all of the victims’ names were lost. In articles detailing the accident, the pilot, crew, and immigration officer were properly named. Only the plane’s passengers, laborers heading home to Mexico, were referred generically as deportees. Folk singer Woody Guthrie became so incensed by their anonymity that he penned a poem that was later put to music. It became the legendary protest song, “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos).” It would take six decades for poet and historical fiction writer Tim Z. Hernandez to excavate the history behind that song.

All They Will Call You is the culmination of the author’s five-year research effort to learn what happened to those workers. Hernandez reconstructs the crash by interviewing eyewitnesses and their descendants. He imagines the conversations among the workers, their trepidation about flying, and their preference for the solidity of railroad tiles, some of which they’d lain themselves. The way those individuals were so easily rendered nameless bears profound lessons for today, especially as a new president institutes mechanisms for accelerated deportations of immigrants.

The story that emerges from Hernandez’s research is chilling. At approximately 10:30 a.m., the plane flew over the Los Gatos Canyon — part of the Diablo Range near the western end of Fresno — near Coalinga, California. Eyewitnesses noticed smoke and saw the left wing catch fire first. They watched as it separated from the body of the plane and floated downward. The right wing followed. As the wingless plane turned and twirled, bodies dropped from the air. The plane exploded, tossing bits and pieces of bodies, clothes, and other personal belongings over the canyon.

Because of the fire, investigators had difficulty collecting the remains as well as identifying them. Later, however, at least one Fresno Bee article listed the names of all the victims. But the other newspapers that reported on the crash omitted the laborers’ names, the Mexican nationals only be referred as the deportees.

According to Hernandez’s research, the laborers’ families heard the news in haphazard ways, some through radio and newspaper, some through word of mouth. Because of the unreliability of such channels, at least one woman mistakenly believed her son had been killed in the crash. When her son returned home three years later, she thought she was witnessing a ghostly apparition.

For decades, the remains were buried in an unmarked grave at Holy Cross Cemetery in Fresno. In the early 2000s, an anonymous donor erected a headstone that read: “28 Mexican Nationals Who Died In A Plane Crash Are Buried Here.” Because of Hernandez’s research and fundraising, a headstone now lists their full names.

The story arises in the verdant San Joaquin Valley, an area that calls itself the breadbasket of the nation. Since the late 1840s, valley farmers have relied on Mexican farm laborers, and until 1924, the border between the United States and Mexico was un-policed, allowing migration to flow easily between the two countries. Mexican farm laborers were not seen or treated as immigrants, but rather as seasonal workers that arrived, picked crops, then returned home.

During the depression in the 1930s, the United States deported large numbers of Mexican workers, even many who were citizens. A decade later, when farmers and factories experienced labor shortages because of World War II, it turned to its southern neighbor and negotiated the Bracero program. The term “bracero” means long-armed men in Spanish. Officially, the Department of Labor contracted 400,000 workers, but hundreds of thousands more workers arrived unofficially. The program was supposed to be short-term, but it lasted 22 years and included 4.5 million Mexican workers.

The contracted Mexicans referred to themselves as enganchados — a Spanish word that means hooked. Indeed a strong connection existed between the workers and US farms. The Bracero program created a symbiotic relationship in which farmers obtained needed labor and farm workers gained the resources they needed to support their families. After the Mexican revolution, families had to subsist from their ejidos — small parcels of land given to them by the government. Some could not live off these tracts and had to find other means to survive. They turned north. Hernandez beautifully captures this dilemma:

According to the wives of Charco de Pantoja [an ejido that was home to one of the workers who died in the crash], el Norte was less a place and more of a mistress. The way their husbands and sons would return home, talking of el Norte — a seductress that would have them yearning long after they left. Perhaps this is why they referred to one another as enganchados.

On the US side, reliance on Mexican laborers created an appetite for cheap labor, one that depended on undocumented workers to depress wages and keep costs low. Once the season ended, workers were expected to return home. The US government paid the travel for contracted workers and deported those who had been working without documentation. One such journey ended in the infamous 1948 crash.

In 2009, Hernandez had been researching Mañana Means Heaven, a book about the Mexican girl in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, another historical character that remained nameless until Hernandez located her whereabouts. In order to write that book, the author immersed himself in the music of the time. Hernandez had been aware of the song, but because it referred to Los Gatos, a town in the Bay Area, he had not realized the crash happened near his hometown of Fresno. That song became a portal to the rediscovery of an injustice.

All They Will Call You is an astonishing project, especially when one considers the painstaking research it took to locate and interview survivors and descendants. In his author’s note, Hernandez states that writing the book required “traveling six decades back in time to numerous cities, ranchos and barrios, in three countries, three languages, with limited resources, and only a single shred of old newspaper as the clue.”

The book weaves together the stories of eyewitnesses and survivors along with archived materials. With these he reconstructs, and occasionally reimagines, the lives of those who perished in the crash. At times poetic, Hernandez also captures the rhythm and cadence of the era’s dialogue while delivering a cast of colorful and memorable characters.

Among his interviewees is Casimira Navarro López, the childhood sweetheart of Luis Miranda Cuevas, one of the men who died in the crash. Before leaving for El Norte, Miranda Cuevas proposed marriage to Casimira, promising her a wedding party with a full mariachi band. In one touchingly humorous scene, Casimira, now 86 years old and in a wheelchair, recalls how Luis dressed up in woman’s clothes, just so he could sit near her as she sewed and not provoke the ire of her father. Of course, her father noticed immediately and chased him away.

Hernandez also writes about Jose Sánchez Valdivia, a young man so obsessed with baseball that he created a Mexican League in the town of Stockton. One can almost see him, white cap over his head, practicing to hit the ball. Ultimately, Hernandez manages to locate the families of seven of the passengers. He also includes chapters on the pilot and his wife — also the daughter of an immigrant — and Martin Hoffman, the musician who took his life after composing the music to “Deportee.” With compassionate storytelling, Hernandez humanizes the individuals who died in the crash, eulogizing them with anecdotes and stories that would have been theirs if they had not lost their lives so far from home.

All They Will Call You was released in January 2017, just as a new president took office. This is a president who campaigned by vilifying immigrants, particularly Mexicans, lumping them together and stereotyping them with derogatory attributes. But if we look more closely, just as All They Will Call You requires us to do, we recognize that we are more alike than not. We are all endowed with strengths, desires, faults, and foibles. We are not fungible or disposable. We are all unique souls passing through this earth and should be remembered with dignity and respect.

¤

Sara Campos is a writer, consultant, and lawyer.