An Interview with Author Tim Z. Hernandez
On occasion I feel the need to write about issues outside of the comfy confines of Barrio Logan and San Diego. This is one of those times.
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”
– Woody Guthrie, Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)
The first time I heard those lines was in 1998. It was in Spanish on the CD Siempre He Estado Aquí by Teatro Campesino co-founder and Fresno residents Agustín Lira and his partner of many years Patricia Wells Solórzano. At the time I didn’t know that it was originally written by famed folk singer/activist Woody Guthrie. Later on that year I heard it in English by the Latin super group Los Super 7.
Since then I’ve heard Woody sing it and fellow folk traveller and activist icon Pete Seeger as well as other performers such as Bruce Springsteen, Concrete Blonde and recent Grammy award winners Quetzal. Many more have recorded and performed this classic piece of American music.
This song has a lot of meaning to me. So much so that I co-organized an event in 2009 around it with USD’s Ethnic Studies Department called Deportation Nation: Musical Migrations. It was a concert that featured Los Alacranes, Quino (of Big Mountain) and Son Sin Fronteras.
At the end of the night the three groups jammed together on Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos). Three generations of local musical talent came together that night to pay tribute to that classic tune and all deportees.
As someone who has committed most of his adult life to the many struggles of the Mexican community in America and various social justice causes I can relate to the lyrics in that song. I can relate to the anonymity, not only of the deported that Woody wrote about, but to the anonymous Mexican workers that toil in the fields or stand outside home improvement stores thoughout the United States struggling to work or find work.
Through a change of fate I, or others in my family, could’ve been among them. And though I may be a citizen that does not take away the empathy I feel for others of Mexican descent who don’t have papers, who are undocumented.
Those without documents live in harowing times. They fight on the daily for dignity and their very existence as politicians debate their future, as Minuteman and Tea Party types demand their ouster, as agribusinesses exploit their labor. But they continue with their lives because they must. Their families depend upon it.
A great injustice is being done in this country to those who are undocumented. But a greater injustice was done to a group of Braceros that Woody wrote and sung about who died in a plane crash on January 28, 1948. Twenty eight migrant workers who were being sent back home to Mexico died in a fiery crash in Los Gatos Canyon in Fresno County. They were buried anonymously in a mass grave at Holy Cross Cemetery in Fresno.
Nobody cared about these people enough to restore their names. Until now.
I’ve known Tim Z. Hernandez since 1999 when I first met him in San Jose at a Floricanto organized by MACLA. At the time I was the co-owner of a fledgling Chicano literary press called Calaca Press. Tim was a young poetic protegé of reknown Chicano poet Juan Felipe Herera (who would later on become the Poet Laureate of California).
In 2000, I played a small role in a spoken word CD that Tim put together with fellow Fresno poets called The Central Chakrah Project: A Spoken Word Cura. Since then he has gone on to win an American Book Award in 2006 for his poetry collection Skin Tax and in 2011 he won El Premio Aztlán Literary Prize forBreathing, In Dust as well as other literary prizes for his work.
Doing research for his soon-to-be released book, Mañana Means Heaven, he found the names of those that died in that terrible crash in 1948. With that knowledge Tim decided to do something. He decided he wanted to help create a memorial listing all of the names of those that died in the plane crash. The anonymous would be anonymous no more. Their names would live on.
Below is an interview I conducted with Tim Z. Hernandez. I sent him a list of questions through Facebook and he emailed me back the answers.
What is the Deportee Memorial?
Currently, the remains of all 28 passengers are buried in a mass grave at Fresno’s Holy Cross Cemetery. There is a simple headstone that reads “28 Mexican Nationals who died in a plane crash are buried here.” No names at all. Early on, while researching for my book, I found the manifest, the list of all 28 names. I am now working with the Fresno Diocese and Fresno based musician Lance Canales to raise money to install a new memorial headstone listing all of their names and its ties to a historical incident. We have scheduled the public event to take place on Labor Day of this year, September 2.
Why is it significant that the deportees who died in the plane crash finally get recognized?
Our names are the record of who we are, proof that we once existed. They are also the thread of our direct lineage, binding us to our ancestral beginnings. They are our individuality, our present and our future. If we consider each part of our name, first, middle and last, you will find that each of these elements is contained within them. At the very least, no matter what a person might’ve amounted to in this life, we all deserve to die with our names in stone.
What is your role in this effort and what does it personally mean to you?
I uncovered the list of names with the help of the Holy Cross Cemetery, Director Carlos Rascon. This was initially only supposed to be research for a book. But even though I’m a writer, at the end of the day I’m a human being, and here was the opportunity to correct a small but vital piece of history. Having had over 17 years of non-profit administrative and event planning experience, I knew a memorial had to be done, and that I had the tools to do it. My role was to raise the money needed ($10,000) to make it happen, and to see this effort through to the end. This goes far beyond the memorial headstone itself and the writing of the book. It extends out into the community, because the more we share this story the more it becomes history.
When was the first time you heard the Woody Guthrie classic Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos) and what effect did it have on you?
It’s one of those songs you sort of grow up hearing. From folk music to pop and rock to Tex-Mex and even gospel, no matter your musical preference you can’t grow up in the United States having not heard the song at some point in your life. This said, it wasn’t until I stumbled across the newspaper headlines of 1948 that I was really awakened to the meaning and depth of that song. After that I was basically obsessed with one question: What happened to the names? This was the beginning. When I found the names, I then couldn’t help but wonder: Who were they? And so on.
What are the goals of the organizers and how close are they to reaching those goals?
Our initial fundraising goal was $10,000. The headstone will be a 4 x 8 ft slab of granite that weighs a ton and will have all 28 names listed along with some reference to Woody Guthrie’s song and the history behind the incident. Because that’s an old part of the cemetery too we have to hire a crane that will position itself outside the perimeter of the cemetery just to set the stone in place. Of course there are also event costs that we’re having to cover. But the good news is we are now only $2000 shy of reaching our goal, so planning is full force ahead at this point. The date is set for September 2 of this year, Labor Day and the public is invited.
What can the public do to help make the memorial happen?
They can make a contribution to the memorial headstone. Checks can be made out to: Saint Peter’s Cemetery. Memo: Holy Cross Memorial.
Where can people get more info on the Deportee Memorial?
Since the beginning we really wanted this to be a community effort. It’s one thing to go out seeking one big donor to cut a check for the entire cost, but an entirely different kind of event when the community rallies to make this happen. We’ve had individuals from all over the county donating, even teachers in small rural High Schools holding bake sales with their students to help contribute. It’s a great teaching opportunity, and we encourage everyone to participate in this bit of history making.
And finally, you are an award winning author with humble Fresno roots. What is next for you as an author and how can readers of this column find out more about your work?
I have a book of historical fiction coming out this August, “Mañana Means Heaven” which is based on the life of Jack Kerouac’s Mexican girlfriend, Bea Franco. This book also takes place in 1947-48 and it’s actually the book I was working on when I discovered the newspaper headline about the plane crash. I’ll be touring the west coast promoting this book most of this year. Otherwise I’ll be finishing up this new book project about the 28 deportees. Folks can find out more at my website:www.tzhernandez.com
If you’d like to make a contribution to the memorial fund you can send contributions to Tim Z. Hernandez. If you send it to Tim he’ll mail you back a signed thank you card with an excerpt from his book-in-progress, which is tentatively titled, All They Will Call You…
All checks should be made out to Saint Peter’s Cemetery. Be sure to write ATTN: HOLY CROSS MEMORIAL on the envelope and in the memo line of your check.
ATTN: HOLY CROSS MEMORIAL
302 Casper Drive, Lafayette, CO 80026
Or you can mail a contribution directly to the cemetery:
Saint Peter’s Cemetery
264 N. Blythe Ave .
Fresno, CA 93706
Also, you can purchase a copy of the song “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos” performed by Lance Canales & The Flood with Tim reading all 28 names by clicking here. All proceeds will benefit the memorial fund.