In Other Words
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.