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9:44 am
Tue September 3, 2013

New Memorial Gives 'Deportees' Their Names

In 1948, a plane chartered by the U.S. Immigration Service crashed in Los Gatos Canyon, near Coalinga. Everyone on board died. Immediate news reports named the flight crew and an immigration officer, but referred to the passengers as “28 Mexican deportees.” The crash was immortalized by folk singer Woody Guthrie, who wrote a poem about the tragedy, and assigned symbolic names to the Mexican nationals. On Monday morning, those passengers were formally named and recognized.

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Hundreds of people gathered at Holy Cross Cemetery in Fresno on Monday to remember the victims of a plane crash that occurred 65 years ago.

Among them was Jaime Ramirez, of Fresno, whose grandfather, Ramon Paredes Gonzalez, and great uncle, Guadalupe Ramirez Lara, died in the accident.

They worked in the fields of California as braceros – or guest workers - and as undocumented workers. They were being deported back to Mexico when the plane’s wing caught fire and broke off.

“Back in Mexico, we didn’t have no details of the accident, no address of where they were buried, nothing,” Ramirez said. “All we had was the few information, they got it through the newspaper. Officially, they never received anything.”

For years, Ramirez’s relatives were buried at Holy Cross, below a small, nameless headstone. But on Monday morning, Ramirez crouched down in the cemetery, and held the corner of a colorful serape – or Mexican blanket – in his hand.

Then, he helped reveal a large, new, granite memorial that lists the names of his relatives, and the other crash victims. The memorial is engraved with a border of 32 leaves – one for each passenger on board.

“It’s like a puzzle, putting the pieces together,” Ramirez said. “I think today we finally did it. We finally put together the puzzle.” 

"We finally put together the puzzle" - Jaime Ramirez

 Author Tim Z. Hernandez spearheaded the effort to recognize the crash victims. He researched their names, and located some of their descendants. He worked with the Diocese of Fresno to raise thousands of dollars for the new headstone. The project is part of a book he’s working on about the crash.

For him, the unveiling of the headstone was unforgettable.

“When we just stood there looking at it for a while, I just felt overcome with emotion and had to just take a knee and embrace it,” Hernandez said. “I just wanted to be close to it, and then I was saying ‘thank you’ for all the lives there, for letting me be a small part of it.”

During the ceremony, musicians Lance Canales and Jem Bluestein stood on a stage above the new memorial and sang a haunting version of Guthrie’s song, ‘Deportee.’ But this time, it was no longer necessary to call the victims by symbolic names.

Hernandez and Ramirez read the names of the 28 Mexican nationals during the song’s musical interludes. After each name, audience members spontaneously called out ‘descanse en paz,’  Spanish for “rest in peace.”

Folk singer John McCuthcheon also sang a version of ‘Deportee’ during the ceremony.

The song has always reminded Connie Ann Mart, of Marin County, of her uncle, Frank Atkinson. He was the pilot of the plane and his wife, Bobbie, was the stewardess.

“This happened almost 8 months to the day before I was born,” Mart said. “But it was still such a tragedy to the family. I was aware and told about him, and he was just in my life, all my life, especially in my younger years.”

For Mart, the ceremony brought a sense of closure to the tragedy.

“It’s such a completion,” she said. “They are all together now in my mind.”

That’s a sentiment that Tim Hernandez shared with the audience. 

"It's not every day that we get to witness or take part in a closure of this capacity" - Tim Z. Hernandez

“It’s not every day that we get to witness or take part in a closure of this capacity,” Hernandez said.

He told the crowd that the ceremony demonstrated how one tragedy affected the lives of so many people.

“Since that song has been recorded, this history has been one-sided,” he said. “But now, now we know the other side of the story, now we know who people are behind the nameless, now we know who their lives are, who their family are.”

He’s still searching for the families of the 26 other Mexican nationals who died in the crash. He wants to include their stories in his upcoming book.

“I invite you to share the story now,” he said. “The more we share the story, the more we all participate in correcting the past.”