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70 years ago, on January 28th 1948, a poorly serviced Douglas DC3 passenger plane on its way to the Immigration and Naturalization Service Deportation Centre in El Centro, California, burst into flames over Los Gatos canyon in Fresno County and crashed, killing 28 Mexican migrant workers and the American crew of 4. Even though this was tragic event it might be assumed after such a long time that the crash and the loss of life would be forgotten but not so…

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The crash was extensively reported on the radio and in national newspapers but with the exception of the local ‘Fresno Bee’ none listed the names of the migrant workers, only those of the American crew. The 28 dead Mexicans were simply dismissed as ‘Deportees’.

The folk singer Woody Guthrie was dismayed by the casual racist treatment of the migrant workers and in response wrote a poem in which he assigned symbolic names to the dead…

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"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""

A school teacher, Martin Hoffman, composed a simple melody for the poem which Pete Seeger recorded in 1959. It has since been recorded many times by artists as diverse as Bruce Springsteen, Max Boyce, Joan Baez and Dolly Parton and under a variety of titles, including “Deportees”, “Ballad of the Deportees”, “Deportee Song”, “Plane Crash at Los Gatos” and “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee)”.

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At the time the transportation of migrant workers was part of the US Government’s 1942 ‘Bracero Program’ that permitted Mexican farm laborers (or ‘braceros’) to work in the United States because of the severe labour shortages caused by World War II. The labour contractors were expected to provide transportation to and from the Mexican border, with the U.S. Immigration Service repatriating the Mexican citizens if the contractor defaulted.

Although there are clear references in the lyrics to the often criminal mismanagement of the Bracero Program…

"Some of us are illegal, and some are 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."

…it has been argued that Woody Guthrie’s song is more a comment on the attitude of America towards Mexican farm labourers and the government policy of destroying crops in order to keep food production and prices high. The song opens..

"The crops are all in and the peaches are rott'ning,
The oranges piled in their creosote dumps."
And later... Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?

The bodies of the Mexican labourers were placed in a mass grave at Holy Cross Cemetery in Fresno under the marker “Mexican Nationals”. On Labor Day, 2013, a monument was finally unveiled containing the names of the 28 migrants and the 4 American crew. Here are their names, deportees no longer…

Names of the 28 Mexican Citizens

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  1. Miguel Negrete Alvarez
  2. Francisco Llamas Durán
  3. Santiago Garcia Elizondo
  4. Rosalio Padilla Estrada
  5. Tomás Aviña de Gracia
  6. Bernabé López Garcia
  7. Salvador Sandoval Hernández
  8. Severo Medina Lara
  9. Elias Trujillo Macias
  10. José Rodriguez Macias
  11. Tomás Padilla Márquez
  12. Luis López Medina
  13. Manuel Calderón Merino
  14. Luis Cuevas Miranda
  15. Martin Razo Navarro
  16. Ignacio Pérez Navarro
  17. Román Ochoa Ochoa
  18. Ramón Ramirez Paredes
  19. Apolonio Ramirez Placencia
  20. Guadalupe Lara Ramirez
  21. Alberto Carlos Raygoza
  22. Guadalupe Hernández Rodriguez
  23. Maria Santana Rodriguez
  24. Juan Valenzuela Ruiz
  25. Wenceslao Flores Ruiz
  26. José Valdivia Sánchez
  27. Jesús Meza Santos
  28. Baldomero Marcas Torres

Members of the crew:

  1. Francis “Frank” Atkinson, Long Beach, Pilot
  2. Marion Harlow Ewing, Balboa, Co-Pilot
  3. Lillian “Bobbie” Atkinson, Long Beach, Stewardess
  4. Frank E. Chaffin, Berkeley, Immigration Guard

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“Deportees (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” was the last great song that Woody Guthrie would write, a memorial to the nameless migrants “all scattered like dry leaves” in Los Gatos Canyon.”

JOE KLEIN - a journalist

I wonder why the death of 28 migrant workers in a plane crash in California 70 years ago should be of interest to any of us living here in comfortable St Margarets save for the recognition that like us they were doing their best to improve the lives of themselves and their families and that like us all they deserve the respect and acknowlegement of their fellow human beings denied to them at the time.

The original recording by Pete Seeger

– from Martyn Day