A plane left Oakland, California on July 28, 1948, headed for Mexico. The plane was chartered by the U.S. Immigration Services and was carrying 32 people. Twenty-eight were Mexican citizens. They were being returned to Mexico courtesy of the U.S. government. Many were part of the bracero program and had finished their government-sponsored work contracts. Others had entered the country illegally and were being deported back to Mexico.
Not long after take-off, over Coalinga, California, the plane, a World War II surplus DC-3, was in trouble. Witnesses reported a trail of black smoke, followed by an engine exploding. Then a wing broke off. More than100 witnesses watched bodies and luggage thrown from the plane, now a fireball. There were no survivors.
The event was immortalized in the Woody Guthrie song, “Deportees”.
“The crops are all in and the peaches are rotting,
the oranges all piled in their creosote dumps;
They’re flying ’em back to the Mexican border
To pay all their money to wade back again
Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria;
You won’t have your names when you ride the big airplane;
All they will call you will be “deportees.
The New York Times reported on the crash the next day. But the article did not print any of the names of the persons from Mexico, listing only the names of the flight crew and the INS agent accompanying the Mexican citizens. The article merely listed the other passengers as “deportees”.
Today migrants continue to cross the US – Mexico border and risk dying anonymously. Not much has changed.
“My father’s own father, he waded that river,
They took all the money he made in his life;
My brothers and sisters come working the fruit trees,
And they rode the truck till they took down and died.
Some of us are illegal, and others not wanted,
Our work contract’s out and we have to move on;
Six hundred miles to that Mexican border,
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.”
The United States’ Senate has just passed a bill that would drastically change many components of our immigration system. While the bill does offer millions of undocumented persons the opportunity to adjust their immigration status in the United States, the so-called “pathway to citizenship,” other measures of the bill are less advantageous for the migrant, including a planned “border security surge” that would make the line between the United States and Mexico the most militarized border in the world, according to Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.).
We died in your hills, we died in your deserts,
We died in your valleys and died on your plains.
We died ‘neath your trees and we died in your bushes,
Both sides of the river, we died just the same.
The names of the 28 men from Mexico have remained unknown for 65 years. But in an article appearing in the Los Angeles Times on July 9, Diana Marcum reports on how that wrong has now been made right. In her article, Marcum reveals the touching story that uncovered the identities of those that died. She wrote about the efforts of poet and novelist Tim Hernandez, who had been reflecting on the plane crash and the history surrounding it. The Colorado writer spent his childhood in the Central Valley area of California and felt a kinship with the “deportees.” He wanted to know if their families were ever notified; ever informed of why their loved ones would never return. But first he simply wanted to learn their names.
Today, thanks to the investigative work of Hernandez and the help of Carlos Rascon, the director of cemeteries for the Catholic Diocese of Fresno, California, the names of the 28 Mexican citizens who died that day will finally be known.
Hernandez contacted Rascon and told him that he was looking for the names of 28 deportees who might be buried in a mass grave in one of the Fresno cemeteries. Rascon told Hernandez that he had the names.
Hernandez and Rascon joined forces to raise money for a memorial stone engraved with the deportees’ names. As they neared their $10,000 goal, Rascon and the diocese wanted to press ahead, but Hernandez was reluctant without having found even one family member.
Finally Hernandez agreed that it was time to dedicate the memorial. He’d come to accept that he might never find any of the families. Yet last month, June, 2013, Hernandez finally did meet with Jaime Ramirez, a restaurant owner who had recently told a friend the story of his grandfather. That friend had recently read an article chronicling Hernandez´s efforts to learn the names and even to find some families of those who died that day in 1948. He shared the information with Ramirez and in late June, in Coalinga, Ramirez met Hernandez for the first time. He told the writer about his grandfather, Ramon Paredes Gonzales, and his great-uncle, Guadalupe Ramirez Lara.
Soon after meeting, the two of them drove to the site of the crash. Marcum relates in her article how the two men approached a tree that was located in the exact spot where the plane had crashed.
As Hernandez reached out his hands towards the tree he asked, “Do you feel that?”
“Of course, I feel that,” Ramirez said, “May they rest in peace.”
For all these years the site where the remains of the 28 were buried has been marked with a simple stone that is engraved with these words: “28 Mexican citizens who died in an airplane accident near Coalinga, California on January 28, 1948. RIP”
The new 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 Lara. Elías Trujillo Macias. José Rodriguez Macias. Luis López Medina. Manuel Calderón Merino. Luis Cuevas Miranda. Martín Razo Navarro. Ignacio Pérez Navarro. Román Ochoa Ochoa. Ramón Paredes Gonzalez. Guadalupe Ramírez Lara. Apolonio Ramírez Placencia. Alberto Carlos Raygoza. Guadalupe Hernández Rodríguez. María Santana Rodríguez. Juan Valenzuela Ruiz. Wenceslao Flores Ruiz. José Valdívia Sánchez. Jesús Meza Santos. Baldomero Marcas Torres.
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”
Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?
To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil
And be called by no name except “deportees”?
The tragedy continues today. Migrants continue to die. They die before they arrive at the border, victims of bandits and thieves, kidnapped and killed by drug runners associated with warring cartels. They die in the deserts south of the Mexican border. They die in our own deserts, in our own back yards, here in Arizona. More than 6,000 migrant deaths have been recorded along our border with Mexico in the past 15 years. While many of the corpses have been identified, others have not. Even when they are identified, hundreds a year, their deaths leave barely a trace, barely impact us. We know little about those who die and we seem to care even less. They live and they die anonymous and invisible to us like the scattered, dry leaves that were the victims of the plane crash.
While reflecting on this history and the reality of the lives and the deaths of the men and women traveling across the desert where I live, I came across a poem by Muriel Rukeyser called “The Book of the Dead”. In this poem she asks the question, “What three things can never be done?” And her answer is: Forget. Keep silent. Stand alone. I agree. This must be our response to what is going on around us: Never Forget, Never Keep Silent and Never Stand Alone.