In 1948 there was a plane crash in Los Gatos Canyon, California. In the plane were 28 undocumented Mexican workers who were being deported, and four Whites – the pilot, co-pilot, stewardess, and immigration agent. Nobody survived. The papers carried the names of the four Whites, but the Mexicans at first went nameless. The Whites were given a funeral service and burial. The Mexicans were interred in an unmarked mass grave and none of their families were notified of the service, let alone invited to attend.
Eventually, the Mexicans were identified, but the authorities confused their names so badly that the tall, stoic Guadalupe Ramírez Lara – a man – became Guadalupe Laura Ramírez, a woman. Tomás Gracia de Avina became Tomása. Tragedy turned into farce.
The whole episode prompted Woody Guthrie to write a poem that became a famous protest song, and the line “Who are these friends all scattered like dry leaves?” echoes like a chorus throughout the book.
Tim Z. Hernandez, a multi-award-winning poet and novelist, has brought the story back to life nearly seventy years on. He tracked down the victims’ relatives, old friends and lovers and asked them about those who had died in the crash. He traversed the U.S. and crossed into Mexico and the Navajo Nation to interview these ancient rememberers, knocked on doors, made phone calls, learned their stories.
He spoke to Casimira, an old lady in a wheelchair (her name means “almost sees”). He spoke to Dottie, who remembered Frank, the pilot of the fated plane. He found eyewitness accounts and delved into the archives to dig up historical records. He even visited a 94-year-old Pete Seeger, who’d made the song “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee)” famous, and played him the earliest recording of it on his MP3 player.
What Hernandez has done with all of this material is astonishing. Rather than presenting only the facts, he has re-imagined them with a novelist’s eye for detail.
On the fateful day, we see Bobbie the stewardess adjusting the strap on her red high heels. We watch as Maria and Lupe snuggle up on the cramped plane. José Valdivia pulls a baseball cap down over his eyes. Chaffin, the surly immigration officer, snaps, “son of a bitch” when the plane lurches. Bar the names, all of this is fiction, made-up stuff. But fiction can sometimes tell the truth better than facts, and the best fiction always does this.
The chapters are short. Some are in the style of a diary, with dates and times, while others are vivid vignettes, re-imaginings of old scenes. Yet others are straight non-fiction narrative describing the interviews.
Towards the end, we find ourselves hurtling, with the plane, to the inevitable, and suddenly Hernandez’s writing bursts into life with a terrible, focused energy. “Luís gripped the armrests, but the plane bucked again.” “The wing sailed down like a shimmering leaf.” Tomás “somersaults across the morning sky.” “Liquefied metal hissed on a nearby digger pine, and the tree went up in flames.”
Then, finally, the names of the dead flutter down the page like men and women tossed from the heavens.
This section is a tour de force. Its grim, visceral poetry makes real the unimaginable. Above all, it is earthy. Men of the soil come to clean up the remains of other men of the soil and find nothing but charred body parts and detritus strewn across the valley.
Later, as the victims descend to their final resting places in the earth they toiled upon, a great pathos sweeps over the narrative. It is an unbearably sad story, yet the sheer act of rescuing it has also rescued the men and women from the long void, the nothingness that accompanied their deaths. How apt that Hernandez uses Studs Terkel’s “In their rememberings are their truths” as his epigraph.
This is a wonderful piece of work, a book that honors the dead and the living, and reminds us of the fragility of life and the durability of memory.