THE IMPORTANCE OF OUR NAMES AND OUR STORIES.
In 1974 a teenager named Jaime Ramirez made his way from a tiny town in Mexico to the city of Pasadena, California. He got a job as a dishwasher. It was a move little noticed by anyone. In the big historical picture, it was a moment of quiet anonymity. But that day when he arrived served to eventually connect him to an event once steeped in anonymity but decidedly worth noting, for it crystalizes issues of immigration, of repatriation, of deportation and of identity. That event – and its long aftermath – resonates with meaning about who we are, as mexicanos, as Latinos.
In 1948 a plane took off from an Oakland airport, headed to the Mexican border. It was carrying 28 Mexicans. Some were braceros being returned to Mexico after their “guest worker” contract ran out. Others were undocumented immigrants who were rounded up and were being deported. As iconic folksinger Woody Guthrie wrote in his song “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos”: “The sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon, a fireball of lightning that shook all our hills, who are all those friends all scattered like dry leaves?” There were no survivors. The newspapers and the radio mentioned the names of the white crewmembers on board the plane, but did not mention the names of the Mexicans. In the words of Woody Guthrie’s song: “The radio says they are just deportees.” Nameless. Faceless.
To the gringo world, we Latinos are often nameless and faceless. We are almost invisible to them. It has been a struggle. The U.S. government’s official Repatriation Program of the 1930s saw thousands of Mexicans rounded up and put into boxcars, like cattle, and shipped “back” to Mexico. Many were U.S. citizens or legal residents. It didn’t matter. We were scapegoats for the economic downturn. Sound familiar?
Deportations of undocumented workers continue today. Latinos have long struggled to “prove” we are “good Americans,” often in the face of prejudice and discrimination. We have endured. And our names and faces are acknowledged.
For 65 years the names of those Mexicans who perished in the plane crash were unknown. Forgotten. But research by writer Tim Hernández and others recently helped change that. The names of the 28 Mexicans were discovered in the archives of a Roman Catholic cemetery. Interestingly, researchers who had been trying for years to discover the names were thwarted because of confusion over the name of a community. Most people who heard the Woody Guthrie song assumed the plane had crashed over the town of Los Gatos, near San Jose. That was incorrect.
The “Los Gatos Canyon” mentioned in the song was actually an out of the way spot near the city of Fresno, where the Roman Catholic cemetery is. Finally a mystery had been solved. Those 28 Mexicans were buried in a mass grave without their names. On Labor Day of this year a plaque was placed at the site – a plaque which included the names of all of those mexicanos who died in the plane crash over Los Gatos Canyon.
They were anonymous no more.
Jaime Ramirez, now lives in Salinas where he owns a small restaurant. He discovered recently that among those “deportees” on that ill-fated plane was his abuelito, Ramon Paredes Gonzales. It has brought solace to him to know that his grandfather’s name has been acknowledged. Anonymous no more.
In the historical Big Picture of things, perhaps it’s a small matter. But it’s a significant one, an important one. As Latinos in the United States we continue to fight to have our achievements, our contributions, acknowledged. We are not nameless. We are not faceless.
Latinopia contributor Luís Torres is the author of the just-published book “Doña Julia: The Life and Legacy of Educational Reformer Vahac Mardirosian.”