In Other Words

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - — Casey Sanchez TIM Z. HER­NAN­DEZ

All They Will Call You by Tim Z. Her­nan­dez

All They Will Call You: The Telling of the Plane Wreck at Los Gatos Canyon by Tim Z. Her­nan­dez, Uni­ver­sity of Ari­zona Press, 240 pages

In the win­ter of 1948, the wing broke off a DC-3 fly­ing west of Coalinga, Cal­i­for­nia, caus­ing the plane to ex­plode and ex­pel its 32 burn­ing pas­sen­gers in Los Gatos Canyon. Most of the dead were Mex­i­can mi­grant farm­work­ers be­ing forcibly de­ported at the con­clu­sion of their work contracts. When The New

York Times and most other news­pa­pers de­clined to name the for­eign vic­tims, re­fer­ring to them only as “de­por­tees,” the tragedy in­spired a fu­ri­ous Woody Guthrie to pen a song, “De­por­tee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos),” which re­mains a peren­nial folk stan­dard, cov­ered by ev­ery­one from Joan Baez and Bruce Spring­steen to Dolly Par­ton and Bob Dy­lan.

Few know that the re­mains of the vic­tims were de­nied repa­tri­a­tion to Mex­ico, or even proper head­stones. The His­panic pas­sen­gers, 28 men and women, were buried in a mass anony­mous grave at a Catholic grave­yard in Fresno. Do­ing yeo­man’s work for his book All They Will Call You, writer Tim Z. Her­nan­dez tracks down the ac­tual names of the vic­tims (most were mis­spelled or Angli­cized be­yond recog­ni­tion in ceme­tery records) and pulls off the un­likely feat of in­ter­view­ing sur­viv­ing fam­ily mem­bers, more than six decades af­ter the tragedy.

Cal­i­for­nia of­fi­cials’ ne­glect­ing to pro­vide ei­ther a dig­ni­fied in­ter­ment or no­ti­fi­ca­tion of the de­ceased’s fam­i­lies is stun­ning, given how epic the event was at the time. “By print, ra­dio, and word of mouth, there wasn’t a soul on this con­ti­nent who hadn’t heard the story of the two World War II pi­lots, an im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cer, a stew­ardess, and 28 ‘de­por­tees,’ who ex­ploded in an air­plane in some un­known Cal­i­for­nia hill­side called Los Gatos Canyon,” Her­nan­dez writes.

Trav­el­ing through the U.S., Mex­ico, and the Navajo Na­tion, Her­nan­dez man­ages to lo­cate seven fam­i­lies who lost loved ones. The most as­tound­ing chap­ters come from his visit to the Jalisco, Mex­ico, home of Casimira Navarro López. Now wheel­chair-bound and well into her eight­ies, she had spent the rest of her life with­out ever be­ing asked about her fi­ancé, Luis Miranda Cuevas, who died in the plane crash. Over the course of sev­eral chap­ters, she tells the tale of their love, their plans for a wed­ding limned by mari­achi singers and bougainvil­lea blooms. To speed the ar­rival of his wed­ding day, Cuevas took up la mi­gra on their newly avail­able of­fer of a plane ride to Mex­ico, in­stead of tak­ing a lurch­ing bus. On a phone call that same morn­ing, López ut­tered what would be her last words to her fi­ancé, “I’ll be here, Luis, wait­ing.”

Be­yond the per­sonal heart­break, Her­nan­dez delves into bru­tal po­lit­i­cal re­al­ity of the bracero pro­gram which shipped these men to the U.S. for work and then forcibly shipped them back to Mex­ico, par­tic­u­larly as the end of World War II brought U.S. sol­diers home. Upon their en­trance to the U.S., the Bracero Pro­gram Wel­com­ing Com­mit­tee de­loused their la­bor­ers with DDT and sprayed their clothes with Zyk­lon B, which had been pre­vi­ously used in Nazi gas cham­bers.

“We are ask­ing for la­bor only at cer­tain times of the year, at the peak of our har­vest, and the class of la­bor we want is the kind we can send home when we get through with them,” was how the San Joaquin Val­ley’s Agri­cul­ture La­bor Bureau de­scribed their needs in a state­ment re­leased only months prior to the plane crash.

Else­where, the book’s in­ter­views are dev­as­tat­ing, re­veal­ing the way sud­den death can freeze and pre­serve our mem­o­ries of loved ones. How­ever, Her­nan­dez does have an un­for­tu­nate habit of in­sert­ing him­self into the nar­ra­tive at in­op­por­tune mo­ments, fre­quently to lament his poor Span­ish skills. As an add-on, Her­nan­dez in­cludes a chap­ter, in­ter­view­ing a ninety-five-year-old Pete Seeger on the song’s ini­tial re­cep­tion among folk singers in the 1950s. It also takes a crack at re­con­struct­ing the life of Tim Hoff­man, who set Guthrie’s words to his own haunt­ing melody. He be­came a school­teacher on the Navajo reser­va­tion, suf­fer­ing through trou­bling men­tal episodes be­fore com­mit­ting sui­cide in 1971.

But the book’s cen­tral fo­cus re­mains restor­ing the ac­tual messy hu­man nar­ra­tives of lives known to us only as song lyrics. It’s a sim­i­lar tack that he took up in his 2013 book Mañana Means Heaven, where he lo­cated and in­ter­viewed a ninety-year-old Beatrice Franco — oth­er­wise known to the wider world as Terry, the “Mex­i­can Girl” of Jack Ker­ouac’s On the

Road. Her­nan­dez’s book set the record straight on Ker­ouac’s se­ri­ous lack of street smarts and his un­ease at be­ing in a Mex­i­can work camp while still man­ag­ing to con­vey the ro­mance at the core of his re­la­tion­ship with Franco.

The writer pulls off a sim­i­lar, if vastly larger-scale feat in All They Will Call You. It’s an un­likely cul­tural project — nar­rat­ing the lives of Lati­nos who have hith­erto only ex­isted col­lec­tively as a sym­bolic muse to white artists — but it’s a niche sub­ject in which the au­thor ex­cels.

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