On the morning of January 28, 1948, a DC-3 plane under the auspices of the US Immigration Service exploded in midair near Coalinga, California, while en route from Oakland to an INS deportation center in El Centro, killing thirty-two people in the worst aviation disaster in state history. The remains of the pilot, crew, and an INS official were identified and their families notified of their deaths; the bodies of the Mexican laborer deportees were buried, without identification, in an unmarked grave and their families left to wonder about the fate of their loved ones.
Folksinger Woody Guthrie wrote a poem to express his anguished outrage at this infliction of anonymity, which was put to music by college student Martin Hoffman and titled "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)." More than sixty years later, poet and novelist Tim Z. Hernandez began a five-year research project dedicated to uncovering the identities of the deportees of that song, the results of which are revealed in his 2017 book, All They Will Call You.
During the course of an epic investigation, Hernandez traveled widely throughout three countries, examining official records and any other sources which would help him locate anyone connected with the deportees and, later, interviewing the far-flung relatives and friends of seven of the Mexican laborers he was able to identify.
Hernandez is an historical novelist who grew up in the San Joaquin Valley, where these men had labored. For those laborers whose identities remain unknown, he invents imaginary names and characters, giving their forgotten names and lives a measure of dignity denied them by the government. As he describes this process,
While the telling itself is true, its loyalty is not to people of fact but rather to people of memory. Which is to say, all of us. . . . And how reliable is fact anyway when the "official" documents themselves have been proved incorrect, beginning with the names of the passengers? Officialness, too, has its...
(The entire section is 495 words.)