“32 Die in Plane Crash Near Coalinga,” read the headline from the Hollister Evening Free Lance on Wednesday, Jan. 28, 1948. The accompanying article gave San Benito County readers a basic account of the tragedy occurring earlier that day.
Time of accident: 10:45 a.m.. Type of aircraft: DC-3. Plane’s destination: El Centro, Calif. Cause of accident: Right engine failure. And among the dead: “28 Mexicans nationals returning to their homeland,” stated the front page story.
Of the county’s three newspapers in circulation in the 1940s, the Free Lance was the the only one that reported on the crash.
On May 11, California poet and author, Tim Z. Hernandez, visited San Benito High School, providing a fuller account of the ill-fated flight, while breathing life into those who perished nearly 70 years ago.
His 90 minute presentation—funded by grants secured through Poets & Writers and California Center for the Book, as well as a contribution made by SBHS’s School Site Council—also inspired the audience of nearly 60 teenagers to find their calling and to tell their own stories.
The son of farmworkers, Hernandez was born and raised in the San Joaquin Valley. In high school, he dreamed of playing baseball and later of becoming an artist. Writing, he explained to the students, never crossed his mind.
A personal loss changed that.
In 1995, Hernandez’s favorite uncle was shot and killed by police.
“I was grief stricken and full of anger,” the author said of Virgil’s death.
Bed sheets used as canvases were now filled with words such as “justice” and “hate.”
Hernandez also began penning letters to his late uncle. A weekly, open mic night provided the opportunity to read these words, intended for the dead, to the living.
He soon gained a following and one day someone called Hernandez a poet, marking his birth as a writer.
In 2010, he published his first book, Breathing, In Dust.
“A collection of long poems, it’s about growing up as a young man in a farmworker family,” he said about the work of fiction.
On the Road, by Jack Kerouac inspired Hernandez’s second book.
“The Mexican Girl,” a chapter in Kerouac’s seminal work, tells the story about the late writer’s dalliance with an unknown farmworker he met at Los Angeles bus stop in the 1950s.
By not revealing the woman’s identity, Kerouac, Hernandez stated, effectively shaped a narrative that “erased her voice.”
A two-year search eventually brought Hernandez face-to-face with Beatrice Franco, the unknown subject in Kerouac’s story who lived but a stone’s throw from Hernandez’s Fresno home.
“I wanted to tell Bea’s story from her perspective,” he said about his book, Mañana Means Heaven.
While researching Franco’s story, Hernandez came across a Central Valley newspaper clipping about the 1948 plane crash that occurred in Los Gatos Canyon, an area just east of where San Benito County's southern edges meet Fresno County.
Published earlier this year, Hernandez’s sixth book, All They Will Call You, chronicles the path of the doomed flight. It is also a tribute to the 28 Mexican nationals who were often collectively referred to as “deportees” in news accounts about the disaster.
Discussing his recent book, Hernandez took the group assembled in the high school's library back to the wee hours of Wednesday, Jan. 28, 1948, when pilot and World War II hero, Frank Atkinson, received a phone call from his employer, Airline Transport Carrier, Inc.
Atkinson was told that his chartered flight for the day was without a stewardess. Without hesitation, Atkinson woke up his pregnant wife, Bobbie, and asked if she would fill in. Still groggy, Bobbie agreed.
With his crew now complete (a co-pilot would join the married couple), Atkinson ran through his work assignment. Depart from Burbank. Head to Oakland. Then south to El Centro.
Guadalupe Ramirez Lara, one of Atkinson’s soon-to-be passengers, was also getting ready for the trip.
A native of the state of Guanajuato, Mexico, Ramirez had entered the U.S. in search of work at least dozen times. His earnings were to fund a much needed well for the farming cooperative he belonged to, writes Hernandez in All They Will Call You.
In 1947, Ramirez found himself in San Juan Bautista, picking pears in one of California’s most important fall and winter pear-producing counties, explained Hernandez during his presentation.
One evening, the labor camp in which Ramirez was living was raided by U.S. immigration officers. He and his longtime friend, Ramon Paredes Gonzalez, were both apprehended in the sweep that Hernandez describes in the chapter, “The Telling of the Roundup at San Juan Bautista.”
Bused from an immigration detention cell in San Francisco, Lara and Paredes were now on the Oakland tarmac, waiting for instructions from an immigration officer accompanying those “returning to their homeland.”
With Atkinson at the yoke, the DC-3 departed from Oakland shortly after 9 a.m.
“The airplane flew right over Hollister,” Hernandez said, while pointing skyward.
As the plane approached Coalinga, its right engine caught fire. Having crash-landed a similar aircraft during his war service, the pilot was probably unnerved, Hernandez added.
But when the right wing ripped off the plane, all hope was lost.
Eyewitnesses reported hearing blood-curling cries from victims as they plunged toward the earth.
Three days after the accident, with the smoke still smoldering from the fuselage now resting on a creek embankment, the 28 Mexican nationals were buried in an unmarked mass gravesite at the Holy Cross Cemetery in Fresno.
Years ago, an unassuming, bronze placard was placed on a patch of grass that almost entombed their anonymity for eternity.
Upon learning about the accident, folk-singer Woody Guthrie wrote a poem.
“Guthrie was very politically active and when heard about this injustice he wrote ‘Place Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee),’ Hernandez said.
Eventually, singer Martin Hoffman put music to verse and recorded Guthrie’s poem as a song. It would be recorded and performed countless times by other artists over the years.
Familiar with the tune and making the connection with the newspaper clipping he discovered, Hernandez set out to find those who remained nameless for decades.
“My curiosity got the best of me,” he said to the students.
After six years of painstaking research, Hernandez had identified all of the individuals—the 27 men and one woman—who the press neglected to flesh out.
His book’s title is borrowed from a line in Guthrie’s poem.
Owing to Hernandez's efforts, a large tombstone listing the names of the twenty-eight Mexican nationals was unveiled at their burial site in 2013.
A question-and-answer period followed Hernandez’s presentation.
“Do you have a favorite poem?” a student asked.
“Yes, it's by Rumi," responded the author, before reciting its first stanza, “‘In your light I learn how to love.’”
“What kept you motivated when writing the book?” asked another.
“As I met the some of the families [of those who died], I could see that my work meant something to them,” Hernandez said.
SBHS library assistant, Amelia Schroeder, asked, “Is there a Spanish version of All They Will Call You? ”
“Not yet,” Hernandez said. But he hoped to have one out soon, explaining that some of his students enrolled at the University of Texas at El Paso were already translating portions of his book.
“It’s the only bilingual program in the country,” the assistant professor of creative writing said about university’s master of fine arts program.
Hernandez took a few more questions before telling the rapt teens, “It’s your story now. Go and share it.”
Several approached him for pictures and autographs afterwards. He eagerly obliged.
A few shared their thoughts about Hernandez’s visit with BenitoLink.
Praising the author’s dogged persistence when writing the book, senior Candy (Candelario) Hernandez said, “He didn’t quit. He was like an FBI agent.”
Candy’s classmate and fellow senior, Emmanuel Maya, explained that he was now going to speak to his mother’s 90-something-year old friend, a longtime Hollister resident.
“I’m going to ask her if she knows anything about the crash,” Maya said.
Before Tim Z. Hernandez’s Thursday morning presentation, senior Leslie Jasso was undecided about her future. She departed from the library never more certain.
“I know now that I want to be an anthropologist,” she said, clutching a copy of Hernandez’s book that she won in a raffle after the discussion.
“He [Hernandez] makes me want to throw myself to the world,” she added with a wide smile.
All They Will Call You by Tim Z. Hernandez
Camino del Sol
University of Arizona Press (January 28, 2017)
Visit Tim. Z. Hernandez's website.
Watch C-SPAN's interview with Tim Z. Hernandez.