FRESNO — In an old cemetery, where few headstones have been added since the ‘50s, a large crowd gathered Monday for a memorial that was 65 years in the making and shepherded home by a Woody Guthrie song.
“Today we are here to right a wrong,” said Fresno Roman Catholic Bishop Armando X. Ochoa.
On a morning in 1948, a plane chartered by U.S. Immigration Services, carrying 32 people, including 28 farmworkers, left Oakland bound for the Mexican border. It went down in a fireball over Los Gatos Canyon, near the oil fields of Coalinga. Many of the laborers were part of the bracero work program and had finished their government-sponsored contracts. Others had entered the country illegally.
Everyone on the plane died. It was one of the worst aviation disasters of the era and was widely reported. But the farmworkers were buried without names in a mass grave in Fresno.
Struck by their anonymity, Woody Guthrie wrote a poem:
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?
Schoolteacher Martin Hoffman later set the words to music. It was recorded by a string of artists including Bruce Springsteen, Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash. The song was passed down and memorized, a protest to both the grave marker with no names and to the idea that some lives don’t matter as much as others.
But the real names of the people in that grave were forgotten.
In 2009, writer Tim Z. Hernandez began searching for their names and stories. This year, he finally found family members. On Monday, at Holy Cross Cemetery, he shared with an audience that had gathered from across the United States and Mexico some of what he learned about the people on that plane.
Ramon Paredes used to sing love songs to his wife. His son remembers. Paredes had made enough money from his bracero contracts to buy a small farm in Charco de Pantoja in central Mexico, but he crossed illegally to the U.S. to buy corn seed to plant. He traveled with his best friend, Guadalupe Ramirez Lara, a tall man who was hoping to make money for an irrigation system for their village.
A brightly colored serape was pulled aside to reveal a monument scroll where Paredes and Ramiez Lara and the others who had once been known only as “deportee,” now had their names written in stone. The $14,000 for the marker and ceremony was raised largely by donations of less than $20 from individuals, including Woody Guthrie devotees and families of farmworkers.
It was planned that the names would be read aloud; what wasn’t planned was that the crowd would repeat each name. Nuns in habits, priests in white robes, Aztec dancers in pink feather headdresses, middle-aged folk-song fans, aged braceros, children shading themselves with umbrellas and many multigenerational families whose grandfathers could have been on that plane, repeated the names.
Jaime Ramirez — Parede’s grandson and Lara’s grand-nephew — solemn in a suit and tie, read the final names on the list, the crowd growing louder in its chorus. He stepped from the stage, his eyes shining, and broke into a smile.
“It’s not every day that we get to witness and take part in a closure of this capacity,” Hernandez told the crowd.
Lance Canales, who sang one of three renditions of “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos” during the ceremony, said he had to fight to keep the music reined into its slow, easy tempo.
“There was so much energy from the crowd that the song almost fought to get away,” he said. “This means a lot to a lot of different people. For some of us, we’re trying to pay back our relatives who worked so hard in the fields with little thanks, by honoring these 28.”
Those who still work in the fields were not forgotten.
During the Labor Day Mass before the unveiling of the stone, Ochoa referred to the immigration bill stuck in Congress.
“Let us pray in a special way at this historical time that our elected officials will continue to work on comprehensive immigration reform,” he said, to tears and amens in the audience.
Margi Dunlap, the niece of Hoffman, said the day was both bringing a story full circle and setting a path ahead.
“It’s really meaningful to have this final punctuation mark on the song and these lives,” she said. “But it’s also an inspiring start for us to do better.”