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"The last great song he would write."
Joe Klein

Woody wrote this song after reading about it in the New York Times and while the crew were named, the rest of the souls on board were "deportees".

The "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos" Canyon - January 28, 1948, a very good report on the incident which lays out the background and the aftermath.

A few snippets. Read the whole thing.

Most, but not all, newspaper accounts of the crash omitted the names of the deportees aboard the aircraft.  Woody Guthrie,  the well-known songwriter of the era, took note of this deletion, and wrote a poem on the matter.  A decade later, Martin Hoffman, a school teacher, added a simple melody to it, and Pete Seeger began singing it in concerts.


Wrong Assumptions Fuel Guthrie’s Passion

Guthrie, always a champion for those he felt were getting a raw deal, questioned the absences of names for the deportees in the newspapers articles he read. He viewed it as some sort of racist, final cold act of an uncaring American public to those migrant workers killed in the crash.

Keep in mind that unlike today, at the time the U.S. did have a guest worker program and entry into the U.S. from Mexico on a work visa was simply a matter of filling out a few forms. It was so easy that from 1942 to 1964 the Guest Worker program allowed 4.5 million Mexican farm workers to legally cross the border to work. So there was little excuse for being here illegally.  

It should also be noted that even today accidents with large numbers of people involved seldom list the names of all those killed and injured. Typically only the local newspapers will carry a complete passenger listing (as was done in this case), while other more distant newspapers will simply state something akin to, “28 were killed and 2 injured in a plane crash…” So what Guthrie saw as an injustice to those killed, was simply typical and standard newspaper reporting practice still in common use today.

Another point is that while nobody today can know for sure, it is possible those taking the plane back home may have welcomed the two hour flight in lieu of the other option, a 14 hour plus bus trip.  In fact, the INS gave the deportees the choice of air or ground travel.  In all likelihood, for most of the passengers, this was their first time aboard an airplane and viewed by them as at least one good thing stemming from their deportation.

But no matter how one looks at it, the accident, thanks largely to song, is remembered.

Plane Wreck at Los Gatos
(also known as "Deportee")
Words by Woody Guthrie, Music by Martin Hoffman

The crops are all in and the peaches are rott'ning,
The oranges piled in their creosote dumps;
They're flying 'em back to the Mexican border
To pay all their money to wade back again

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"

My father's own father, he waded that river,
They took all the money he made in his life;
My brothers and sisters come working the fruit trees,
And they rode the truck till they took down and died.

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.

We died in your hills, we died in your deserts,
We died in your valleys and died on your plains.
We died 'neath your trees and we died in your bushes,
Both sides of the river, we died just the same.

The sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon,
A fireball of lightning, and shook all our hills,
Who are all these friends, all scattered like dry leaves?
The radio says, "They are just deportees"

Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?
To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil
And be called by no name except "deportees"?

Originally posted to Protest Music on Mon Jan 28, 2013 at 04:29 PM PST.

Also republished by DKOMA, Rebel Songwriters, WE NEVER FORGET, Invisible People, and In Support of Labor and Unions.

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