The People Behind Guthrie's 'Deportee' Verses Artist Tim Hernandez has uncovered a mystery behind the classic Woody Guthrie folk song, 'Deportee,' about a tragic plane crash in 1948 that killed 28 illegal immigrants. Hernandez talks with host Michel Martin about what inspired him to look into the real story.

The People Behind Guthrie's 'Deportee' Verses

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We want to turn, now, to a current effort to address a decades-old tragedy. In 1948, a U.S. Immigration Service plane carrying undocumented immigrants from California to Mexico, crashed. All 32 people onboard were killed. But while news accounts listed the names of the four people in the flight crew, the 28 undocumented victims were just listed as Mexican deportees.

This upset folk musician Woody Guthrie and inspired him to write a poem, titled "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos." That poem became the legendary protest song "Deportee." It's been performed by singers that include Bruce Springsteen, Dolly Parton and Bob Dylan. We just want to play a short clip of a version by the a capella group Sweet Honey and the Rock. Here it is.


SWEET HONEY AND THE ROCK: (Singing) Goodbye to my Juan. Goodbye, Rosalita. Adios, mis amigos Jesus and Maria. You won't have a name when you ride the big airplane. All they will call you will be deportee...

MARTIN: Today, with this country again struggling with immigration, author and performance artist Tim Hernandez has updated a rendition of "Deportee." And beyond that, he's working to honor the memories of those 28 crash victims.

And he's with us now, to tell us more about it. Tim Hernandez, welcome to the program. Thanks so much for joining us.

TIM HERNANDEZ: Thank you, Michel. My pleasure.

MARTIN: Do you remember how you first heard about this, or the story behind the song?

HERNANDEZ: Yeah, absolutely. In 2009, I was working on a previous novel, you know, that had me in that same time frame - actually, it was 1947. So I was doing quite a bit of research on that year and also, listening to a lot of the music from that time; you know, trying to get in the mood for writing this novel. And at that time, as I was doing my research, I came across the headlines that basically said 100 people see a ship plunge from the sky. And I didn't realize, right off, that it was the same tragedy that Woody Guthrie had written about, although I was aware of the song. I didn't realize that until after I read the full article. Then it suddenly - sort of dawned on me that this was the area that it was from.

MARTIN: What made you feel that this was the right time to update the song, to get a new rendition going?

HERNANDEZ: Well, the song itself - it wasn't my idea to update that song. That, right there, is the idea of Lance Canales, who's also from the San Joaquin Valley, in Fresno County, as well; the son of a migrant farm worker, just like myself. And when I finally had this list of names, I took them to Lance Canales and I said - you know - what might we do with this? And he said - you know - I can redo the song, and I think the time is right. And we recorded that song, now with the names being read.

MARTIN: And let's play a little bit of this and once again, this is the recording of the updated version of the song - the new version of the song, with Fresno musician Lance Canales.


MARTIN: How did you figure out the names of the victims all these years later, the full names?

HERNANDEZ: Sure, yeah.

MARTIN: Did someone have that somewhere, and it just was never reported?

HERNANDEZ: That's right, yeah. It had been logged away in the annals of the Fresno County Hall of Records for about 65 years.


HERNANDEZ: At first, they didn't want to give me any information. So then I went to the cemetery where they're buried, and I asked the cemetery folks there. I said, hey - you know - do you happen to have this list that we can sort of confirm that these are the right names? And so they took my list and did some research there. They went over to the Fresno Hall of Records themselves, and they got access to - actually, the death records. So we matched up - some of the names matched. The names that are on the Internet only had like, the first and last names; and some of them were poorly misspelled, and others were just wrong altogether. And the Fresno Hall of Records, when we pulled out this list of names, they had first, middle and last names of each of the passengers aboard.

MARTIN: Is there anything else you found out about them, in the course of doing this research, that you'd want to tell us about?

HERNANDEZ: Yeah, absolutely. Doing some of this research - I think early on, some of the first reports that came out in 1948 were that there was only one Mexican female aboard that airplane, and that there was also someone that was anonymous. And in pulling out this list, we discovered that it looks to be that there were three Mexican women aboard that airplane. So that was one of the things that was sort of a revelation. And the others were that one of them, at least, wasn't even a Mexican national; he was actually born in Spain. And in fact, there's another gentleman here who, so far in my research - I haven't confirmed this part but so far, the research is pointing to the fact that he might have been from the Philippines.

So some of these folks - you know, it could have been that they were here as workers and, you know, their contracts were up. And at the time, there were some loopholes where employers here, when the contracts were going to be up for workers, they would send them back to Mexico and they would basically, you know, get an extension on their work visa; and then they'd come right back and continue to work for the employer, so...

MARTIN: But why do you think...

HERNANDEZ: ...that could have been the case.

MARTIN: matters that it isn't even clear, necessarily, what the nationality of these people was? Why do you think this information is important, and it's important to call attention to it?

HERNANDEZ: It all comes down to the same idea of why it matters that their names are even brought up. You know, here we are, 65 years later. I mean, at the end of the day - right? - our names are really what represent who we are. They're our stamp on the fact that we've existed here, at one point. And obviously, too, names are about lineage - where we come from, the culture we come from, who we are. So in that same way, then, accuracy is pretty important, in terms of - at least, my book; it's very important. And so I'm trying to find out not only who they are, exactly, but where they came from. So nationality does become, I think, an issue.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, I understand that you're also working to build a memorial...

HERNANDEZ: That's right.

MARTIN: these crash victims that would include...

HERNANDEZ: That's right.

MARTIN: ...all of their names, their full names.


MARTIN: And I just wanted to ask you again - you've been touching on this - why you think that's important.

HERNANDEZ: Yeah. Well, you know, for the longest time, they were buried there in a mass grave, in Holy Cross Cemetery in Fresno, California. And for the longest time, it was just a stone marker. It had no words on it. And then probably - I'd want to say, about a decade ago - some anonymous donor gave a headstone that just - now, it just reads, "28 Mexican Nationals Who Died In A Plane Crash Are Buried Here." And that's been there for the last 10 years and now, we're at a point where we have these names, so what's to hold us back from sort of correcting a piece of history here, and affording these 28 passengers what every human being is afforded, and that's the right to have their names.

MARTIN: That was author and performance artist Tim Hernandez, telling us more about the story behind the song "Deportee." And he was with us from Boulder, Colorado. Tim Hernandez, thank you so much for joining us.

HERNANDEZ: My pleasure, Michel. Thank you.

MARTIN: As I mentioned earlier, many artists have performed the song "Deportee." So we want to end with this mix of versions from Dolly Parton, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Billy Bragg.


DOLLY PARTON: (Singing) The crops are all in, and the peaches are rotting...

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) The oranges are piled in their creosote dumps. I'm flying them back to the Mexican border, to take all their money to wade back again...

BOB DYLAN AND JOAN BAEZ: (Singing) Goodbye to my Juan. Goodbye, Rosalita. Adios, mis amigos, Jesus and Maria. You won't have a name when you ride the big airplane...

BILLY BRAGG: (Singing) And all they will call you will be deportee...

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