New Rendition of Woody Guthrie's 'Deportee' Song

Dec 30, 2013
Originally published on December 30, 2013 4:51 pm
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This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, she studied law, runs a fashion boutique and is an up-and-coming pop star in Malaysia. Now Yuna is taking her music to the U.S., and she tells us about her latest album "Nocturnal." That's ahead. But first, there are reports that deportations in this country dropped by 10 percent compared to last year. And that reminded us that conversations over who should be allowed in and who should be sent home have been going on for decades in this country. And one particular tragedy brought the discussion into the national spotlight more than 60 years ago.

In 1948, a U.S. Immigration service plane carrying undocumented immigrants from the U.S. to Mexico crashed in the mountains of California. News accounts of the time listed the names of the four people in the flight crew, but the 28 undocumented victims were simply listed as Mexican deportees. Folk musician Woody Guthrie with this inspired by the story to write a poem titled "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos," which eventually became the legendary protest song "Deportee." It's been performed by musicians ranging from Bruce Springsteen to Dolly Parton to the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock.


MARTIN: Author and performance artist Tim Hernandez went on a journey to find out just who these deportees are and to update the song with their names. We caught up with him earlier this year. And I asked him if he remembered how he first heard about the song and the story.

TIM HERNANDEZ: Yeah, absolutely. In 2009, I was working on a previous novel, you know, that had me in that same timeframe. Actually, it was 1947. So I was doing quite a bit of research on that year and also listening to a lot of the music from that time, you know, trying to get in the mood for writing this novel. And at that time, as I was doing my research, I came across the headlines that basically said 100 people see a ship plunge from the sky. And I didn't realize right off that it was the same tragedy that Woody Guthrie had written about, although I was aware of the song. I didn't realize that until after I read the full article. Then it suddenly sort of dawned on me that this was the area that it was from.

MARTIN: What made you feel that this was the right time to update the song?

HERNANDEZ: Well, the song itself, it wasn't my idea to update that song. That right there is the idea of Lance Canales, who's also from the San Joaquin Valley in Fresno County as well - the son of a migrant farm worker just like myself. And when I finally had this list of names, I took them to Lance Canales, and I said, you know, what might we do with this? And he said, you know, I can redo the song, and I think the time is right. And we recorded that song now with the names being read.

MARTIN: Let's play a little bit of this. And once again, this is the recording of the updated version of the song - the new version of the song with Fresno musician Lance Canales.


MARTIN: How did you figure out the names of the victims all these years later - the full names?

HERNANDEZ: Sure, yeah, you know...

MARTIN: Did someone have that somewhere, and it just was never reported?

HERNANDEZ: That's right, yeah. It had been logged away in the annals of the Fresno County Hall of Records for about 65 years.


HERNANDEZ: At first, they didn't want to give me any information. So then I went to the cemetery where they're buried. And I asked the cemetery folks there - I said, hey, you know, do you happen to have this list that we can sort of confirm that these are the right names? And so they took my list and did some research there. They went over to the Fresno Hall of Records themselves, and they got access to actually the death records. So some of the names matched. The names that are on the Internet only had, like, the first and last names, and some of them were poorly misspelled.

And others were just wrong altogether. And the Fresno Hall of Records, when we pulled out this list of names, they had first, middle and last names of each of the passengers aboard. I mean, at the end of the day, right, our names are really what represent who we are. They're our stamp of the fact that we've existed here at one point. And obviously, too, names are about lineage, where we come from, the culture we come from, who we are.

MARTIN: That was author and performance artist Tim Hernandez telling us more about the story behind the song "Deportee." And he was with us from Boulder, Colorado. Tim Hernandez, thank you so much for joining us.

HERNANDEZ: My pleasure, Michel. Thank you.

MARTIN: We will be following up on the issue of deportees tomorrow. We'll be talking about the estimated 5,000 children left behind here in the U.S. when their parents are deported. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.