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Award-winning poet and author visits SBHS, teaching and inspiring students

Tim Z. Hernandez visited the high school campus to discuss his recent book, "All They Will Call You." In addition to teaching students about a piece of local history, he left several feeling inspired
The front page from the Hollister Evening Free Lance, Wed., Jan. 28, 1948. Photo by Frank Perez.
Photo of Guadalupe Ramirez Lara, one of the 28 Mexican nationals who was killed in the plane crash. Lara was working in San Juan Bautista when he was apprehended in an immigration raid. Photo used with permission of Jaime Ramirez. All rights reserved, 2017.
Hernandez speaking before the assembled audience in the high school's library. Photo by Frank Perez.
Article about the plane crash that appeared on the front page of the Hollister Evening Free Lance on Wed. Jan. 28, 1948.
Hernandez shares with students a 1948 article about the plane crash. Photo by Frank Perez.
Photo of the crash site that appeared in the Hollister Evening Free Lance on Friday, Jan. 30, 1948. Photo by Frank Perez.
Hernandez reads from his book, "All They Will Call You." Photo by Frank Perez.
This reporter's Chicano history class with author Tim Z. Hernandez. Photo by SBHS Spanish teacher, Leti Villegas.
Senior Leslie Jasso with the author. Photo courtesy of Leslie Jasso.

“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.

More Information:

All They Will Call You by Tim Z. Hernandez
Camino del Sol
University of Arizona Press (January 28, 2017)
240 pages

Visit Tim. Z. Hernandez's website.

Watch C-SPAN's interview with Tim Z. Hernandez.

About:
Frank Perez (fjperez)

I’m a lifelong resident of San Benito County. I reside in Hollister with my wife, Brenda. I’m embarking on my 19th year at San Benito High School, where I teach World Studies and Chicano History. In addition, I'm moonlighting as a freelance journalist for BenitoLink. My passion is delving deeper into the nuances of the local, historical record, while including lesser-known stories of our past. My hope is that county residents will have a greater appreciation for the diversity and complexity of San Benito County, realizing that its uniqueness depends upon our responsibility as its stewards.

Comments

Thank you for sharing this fascinating story, Frank. I've been anxiously awaiting your article since you stopped by the Luck Museum in SJB to research our archives for information. You have brought to light an untold story that is worthy of our attention...especially today under the current administration. You've piqued my interest to read the book (my husband just finished it), and now I've also been able to listen to Guthrie's rendition. What a wonderful idea to extend an invitation to the author to speak at the high school. I can imagine that the students were fully engaged. Well done, Frank!

 

Ms. Guibert, what in the world does this story have to do with "the current administration"?  This was a terrible accident in 1948; however, there were 26 worldwide DC-3 crashes in 1948 with a total of 416 fatalities.  Thirty-two passengers was a full plane, it was not overloaded.  It was an accident, no one was executed.

"Perhaps unique among prewar aircraft, the DC-3 continues to fly daily in active commercial and military service as of April 2017, more than eighty years after the type's first flight in 1935."  This is among the all-time great planes.

The President of the United States at that time of the crash was Harry S. Truman (Democrat), my favorite president.  He was the president who signed this executive order "establishing the President's Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services, committing the government to integrating the segregated military" on July 26, 1948.

Your paranoia is totally out of control, do you think the government knew, somehow, that the plane was going to crash?  Military and commercial flights of the C-47 (military version) and DC-3 went on for decades after.  I flew in a few when I was in the Air Force in the 1960s.

OBTW, there were 134 fatal farm accident fatalities in Wisconsin (where they kept records) alone in 1948, it was probably more dangerous to work on a farm in 1948 than be deported by air, but one thing has nothing to do with the other (there was no one on the grassy knoll).

Marty Richman 

Wow. The point of my comment was NOT about the plane crash itself but about the concept behind the title based on the Woody Guthrie song "All they will call you is the deportees." Nameless, faceless people of seemingly little worth...a human tragedy on many levels.

Ms. Guibert, my issue is with the gratuitous portion of your remark, I'm sure you know that.  Many of those in the plane were not deportees, they were legal farm workers returning home, so if the message is, "don't assume that every Hispanic farm worker is illegal" fine, but there is no evidence whatsoever that the administration has any kind of program against LEGAL immigrants - the U.S. takes about 1 million legal immigrants a year and should take more, but illegal immigrants are jumping the line.

I am married to a legal immigrant, now a naturalized U.S. citizen of almost 50-years, and she had to do all the paperwork and all the background checks and all the tests as other legal immigrants.  They did reduce her waiting tine because the military sent me back overseas.

The U.S. still had segregation in 1948, as I pointed out, so obviously people were not seen with the same view we have 70-years later.  Having the Mexican victims buried in a mass grave seems worse to me than not listing their names, but many bodies were not identifiable (no DNA in 1948) and this was less than 2-1/2 years after WWII in which 20-million people were killed, certainly half being nameless and faceless murder victims buried in mass graves.all over the world.

We cannot run a rational immigration program by just ignoring the problem or "selling" Green Cards as we do now to "investors."

Marty Richman

Submitted by Robert Gilchrist Huenemann (bobgh) on

I'm with Marty, for once. When I read "the current administration" in the comment, I tuned out.

The DC3/C47/Dakota was a great plane. I flew a couple to job interviews. (Yeah, I am dating myself.) It did tend to 'snake' a bit. Yaw dampers back then were pretty crude. And of course the biggest single safety improvement in aviation history was the invention of the jet turbine engine. Turbine engine conversions for the DC3 are available, but not very competitive with modern aircraft. One of the great success stories of turbine conversions involves the S2 sub chasers now used as air tankers in fire fighting. You can see them at the Hollister airport.

But of course today's readers want identity politics, not the memories of an old fart like myself.

Submitted by (Chinga chavin) on

this is about how folks will depersonalize a group of people and once they can just make them a slur or a name, they can do whatever they want to those people, put them in mass graves, disrupt or ignore their rights and more importantly, they can ignore their humanity. One of you claims some sort of validity because your wife is an immigrant and the other claims validity because you flew a plane like it. that level of 'not getting it' is a good sign that not as much has changed since '48.
you missed it fellas. it is about depersonalization and marginalizing people and refusing to see them as human beings. this is a familiar tactic that the current administration employs with great regularity.

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