Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee”:  Migrants, Death, and Namelessness

Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee”: Migrants, Death, and Namelessness

En memoria de mi padre, Magdaleno Mora Rojas (1919–2004). Vivió una vida de aventurero  como campesino, minero, bracero (también “espalda mojada” y “alambrista”), “pizcador” de muchas “pizcas” y “traquero”.  También en memoria de Pete Seeger (May 3, 1919–January 27, 2014), amigo de Woody Guthrie y el primero que popularizó “Deportee.”


Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” is one of the best known ballads of all times. First written as a poem in 1948, Guthrie’s song ties a tragic event to the role that Mexican migrants play within the United States’ agribusiness economy, starting with the lines: “The crops are all in and the peaches are rott’ning / The oranges piled on their creosote dumps; / They’re flying ‘em back to the Mexican border / To pay all their money to wade back again.” Stated in a less poetic way, illegal entry into the U.S., deportation, and reentry are embedded into the cycle of harvests.

Guthrie, one of the most influential singers and prolific songwriters in American music history, wrote “Deportee” after reading in the press about an airplane that crashed and burned at Los Gatos Canyon near Coalinga, California. Thirty-two people lost their lives in this tragedy, one of the worst commercial aviation disasters at that time. The press and radio named the three-crew members of the airplane and the immigration guard. The remaining twenty-eight people were not named but instead called “Mexican deportees.”

This tragedy is not recorded in history books. The little that is known about the crash is largely due to the research of Tim Hernandez, a poet and novelist. Apparently, la migra picked up the twenty-eight Mexicans at different points in Northern California. Bound for deportation, they left Oakland on an airplane heading for El Centro, near the US-Mexican border, before crashing at Los Gatos Canyon on January 28, 1948. What remains unknown is whether the Mexican government was notified of the immigrants’ death (it probably was given the diplomatic protocol and the press coverage of the tragedy). If the government was aware, did it inform their relatives in Mexico? Whatever the case may be, it was their unfortunate fate that no one claimed any of their bodies and their remains were not returned to Mexico because of “inadequate funds.” Despite the victims’ anonymity, hundreds of Mexicans from the Fresno area attended their funeral, paying last respects to their nameless paisanos. They were buried in a mass grave at Holy Cross Cemetery in Fresno without a headstone. It was not until many years later that a donor provided funds for a headstone that read, “28 Mexican citizens who died near Coalinga, California on January 28, 1948, R.I.P.” Their single grave and namelessness in the press reflected the indifference of the Catholic Church, U.S., and Mexican governments and the value these institutions gave to the victims’ lives.

Sympathetic to workers on the move, Guthrie’s “Deportee” honored the thousands of nameless workers laboring in the fields and orchards, especially “los 28” of Los Gatos Canyon who magnified the overall condition of many migrant workers. Guthrie knew the plight of the migrant workers better than any artist of the time. He had experienced migration first hand as one of the many destitute “Okies” and “Arkies” fleeing drought-plagued Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas for California during the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s. Thousands of American migrants worked alongside Mexicans in the California fields. As the main protest singer of the 1930s and 1940s, Guthrie’s songs largely dealt with the underdogs, including migrants, a sector of the working class for whom he felt a special closeness. The world of the migrants influenced many of his songs, including “This Land is Your Land,” perhaps the second national anthem of this country. (The radical message of this song is that the country is not private property for it belongs to all. He wrote this song as a response to Irving Berlin’s super patriotic song, “God Bless America.”)


Most likely, the tragedy at Los Gatos Canyon would have been erased from history had it not been for the longevity of “Deportee,” Guthrie’s poem that Martin Hoffman, a schoolteacher, arranged into a song. Starting with Pete Seeger, who recently passed away, many artists have interpreted and recorded this song for the past fifty years. The list of interpreters is impressive, from Chicanos, such as Johnny Rodriguez and Los Super Seven, and folk singers, like Judy Collins, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul and Mary, to “superstars” of the caliber of Dolly Parton, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Tom Morello (of Rage Against the Machine), The Byrds, and The Highway Men (Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson). For most of the interpreters, the politics informing “Deportee” are perhaps not as significant as the practice of honoring Guthrie’s legacy; Many of the contemporary interpreters might not even know about the events that inspired “Deportee.”

“Deportee” is more than a great ballad about a tragic event. It connects the tragedy to the larger world of the Mexican migrant worker at a moment when the Border Patrol initiated a campaign of mass deportations of “illegals.” This campaign was highly publicized by the press and it reached its peak during “Operation Wetback (1953-54),” the two years involving the greatest numbers of deportations up to that point in history. William Kelley, the Assistant Commissioner in charge of the Border Patrol, stated in 1954 that “illegals” represented “the greatest peacetime invasion” of the country. The terms “Illegals” and “wetbacks” became associated with Mexicans. These labels served the purpose of distancing mainstream society from Mexicans.

As Mexican migrants became further alienated from American society, Guthrie moved closer to undocumented immigrants with “Deportee.” In the song Guthrie placed himself in the shoes of Mexicans: not only to give them a voice but to show how their condition of illegality operated within a political economy that criminalized them: “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.”

Guthrie’s “Deportee” was a lonely voice of protest in an era when the defense of undocumented migrants was almost non-existent. Today, it is the children of the migrant workers who are seeking to redeem the humanity of the twenty-eight nameless Mexicanos. Tim Hernandez, a poet and writer (and historian), Lance Canales, a Fresno bluesman, and Carlos Rascon, the director of cemeteries for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno, have labored to research the history of the event, find their names, raise moneys for a new tombstone, and organize a memorial that commemorates their lives as Mexican migrant workers and historical actors.

Hernandez accidently “discovered” them while doing research for a novel at the Fresno Public Library. Finding the local press coverage of the tragedy, he made the direct connection to “Deportee.” What is known so far has largely been the product of Hernandez’ historical recovery efforts. Enlisting the help of Rascon, they were able to locate the names of the 25 males and 3 females. The Fresno trio raised $10,000 from donors and fundraisers for a new tombstone that contains the names of the 28 Mexicans, the three-crew members, and the immigration guard. A public Memorial was held on last year’s Labor Day, a recognition of their lives as workers with names. Hernandez, Canales, and Rascon have done what the Church failed to do 66 years ago.

Lance Canales and his band, The Flood, performed “Deportee” at the Memorial. Unlike previous renditions of this song, Hernandez and Rascon recited the name of each one of the nameless Mexicans while the band played “Deportee.” Canales emphasized that, unlike other interpreters of “Deportee,” his targeted audience are Mexicans because “we are Mexicans.” Hernandez, on the other hand, is working on a novel about the overall meaning of this tragic event. Of all of the interpreters of “Deportee,” Canales’ version is the most moving.

The tragedy at Los Gatos Canyon does not appear in history books and leaves one with the impression that it was nothing more than an unfortunate and isolated episode of the past. This event was not an isolated event but rather a link in a long chain of transportation tragedies that have operated within the world of Mexican migrants, a world encompassing hundreds of thousands of braceros (temporary guest-workers), the undocumented, and U.S.-born Mexicans. A few examples highlight the degree of “to and from” work disasters. Regarded as the “worst rail accident in Texas history,” a speeding train crashed with a truck transporting forty Mexican farmworkers near McAllen, Texas on March 14, 1940. Ranging in age from 10 to 48, thirty-four were instantly killed. Not too far from this site and six years later, another train crashed with a truck near Harlingen, killing nine farmworkers and seriously injuring twelve. Almost 2,000 miles away from Harlingen, a train crashed with a makeshift bus near Brawley, California in 1953, resulting in the death of eight migrants.

The list also includes a makeshift bus that caught on fire near Soledad, California on June 17, 1958. Because both exits were chained shut, the braceros were trapped in the burning bus. The screams of the incinerated men were so loud that they awoke the nearby sleeping residents. A Mexican farmworker who was walking near the burning bus was able to remove the chain of one of the exits but could not unlock the other. Although his heroic efforts saved many lives, twelve braceros died and nineteen were injured, two of whom died a few days later. He declared that he “could hear the men praying in Spanish as I struggled with the chains.”

Additional cases include a makeshift bus that burned near Phoenix on June 8, 1959. Witnesses reported that, while the bus burned, the workers struggled to reach safety through the back door, the only exit on the bus. Sixteen Mexicans were killed and thirty-two were injured in this tragedy. On September 9, 1963 in Chualar, California, near Salinas, a speeding freight train smashed an overcrowded makeshift bus transporting sixty-three braceros to their labor camp. A farmworker working in a nearby lettuce field went to their rescue. He commented that “shoes, hats and cutting knives were all around” and “everywhere you could hear the injured moaning.” Two men died in his arms. Twenty-eight men died and thirty-five injured in the “worst vehicle accident in California history.”

Put together, including the case of Los Gatos, 137 migrants died in these transportation accidents, a number which only represents a few cases. This does not include the many who died in the fields. For example, seventy-nine braceros died laboring in the fields of California in 1957, not counting the undocumented and U.S. citizens. Farm labor, perhaps the most hazardous occupation in the labor force, is poorly paid and physically detrimental. It is an occupation that Mexican undocumented workers have dominated for the past five decades. Historically it is an occupation that few American citizens have been willing to do, unless they are of Mexican ancestry. As of the present we do not have a historical work that examines the relationship between migrant workers and high death rates.


“To be homeless,” John Berger wrote in A Seventh Men(1975), “is to be nameless” and to be nameless is “the existence of a migrant worker.” The nameless Mexicans who died at Los Gatos Canyon exemplify Berger’s maxim. So does the case of a woman who lost her newborn child in 1938 after an exhaustive journey from the Mexican border to the Michigan sugar beet fields. Her child was buried with another child who had frozen to death; both without a coffin or a death certificate.

Berger’s maxim has resonated more with artists, such as Woody Guthrie, Tim Hernandez and Lance Canales, than with scholars. Historians and other academics have ignored the broader implications of the association of the high death rates and migrant workers in spite of their very close correlation and the many clues that are traceable. In doing so, they are anonymizing and encouraging an attitude of indifference to the lives of migrant workers; omitting them from history books and public spheres just like the press and Church did with “los 28 de Los Gatos.”

Walter Benjamin, the well-known German cultural critic, noted that, “for every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.” Within this claim, Guthrie’s “Deportee” is a powerful and timeless song because what he wrote in 1948 continues to loudly speak to the present: “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.” He pointed out that death shadows the migrant on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican boundary. The migrant also acknowledges that death is within sight.

Today the image of death shadowing the migrant is no longer of the speeding train crashing with a makeshift bus, but of the migrant dying in his or her attempt to reach and enter the U.S. Today the migrant is not overwhelmingly Mexican. Most of the 193 people found in the mass graves at San Fernando, Tamaulipas were Central Americans en route to the U.S. At the present five people die every four days in their attempts to cross the border. At the Pima jurisdiction (Arizona) of the Border Patrol, over 2,000 have died since 2001. Migrants die at the hands of criminal gangs, by asphyxiation in airless trucks, drowning at the Rio Grande (many of them Central American), and of thirst in deserts. The majority does not carry any form of identification when their bodies are recovered. They are nameless and recorded as “Jane Doe” and “John Doe” in their death certificates.

“Deportee” also resonates to the present in view of the mass deportations that the Latino community is facing. So far two million people have been evicted under the Obama administration, outpacing any previous president. Most “deportees” in the years of “Operation Wetback” were males who had their families in Mexico. The “deportees” of today are male and female, mainly from Mexico and Central America. The majority have been living in this country for years and have U.S.-born children.

Writing on the problems of the electoral left in Germany, Walter Benjamin noted that the left had forgotten that it had acquired its original strength from the “image of enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren.” Progressive sectors need to take Benjamin’s observation into account when it comes to the present battle over the so-called “comprehensive immigration reform” legislation. The thousands of migrants who have died over the decades should provide us with the courage and ethical resources to defend all and future immigrants. The struggle of today is to stop all deportations.

Woody Guthrie’s poem has become a timeless song that in spite of age continues to speak to the present. He serves as a primary example of a non-Mexican artist who empathized with Mexicans at a time when they had few friends. “Deportee” went against the “illegals” discourse promulgated by la migra and the mainstream press. His song dignified the lives of the 28 Mexicans who died at Los Gatos Canyon. Albeit invented, Guthrie recognized their humanity by the act of giving them names: “Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita, / Adiós mis amigos, Jesús y María; / You won’t have your names when you ride the big airplane, / All they will call you will be ‘deportees.’”


Thanks to the labors of Hernandez, Canales, and Rascon, we now know the names of the “Mexican Deportees.” Their names are:

Miguel Negroros Álvarez, Francisco Llamas Durán, Santiago García Elizondo, Rosalío Padilla Estrada, Tomasa Avena de García, Bernabé López García, Salvador Sandoval Hernández, Severo Medina Lara, Elías Trujillo Macías, Tomas Padilla Márquez, Luis López Medina, Manuel Calderón Merino, Luis Cuevas Miranda, Martín Razo Navarro, Ignacio Pérez Navarro, Román Ochoa Ochoa, Ramón Ramírez Paredes, Apolonio Ramírez Placencia, Guadalupe Laura Ramírez, Alberto Carlos Raygoza, Guadalupe Hernández Rodríguez, María Santana Rodríguez, Juan Valenzuela Ruiz, Wenceslao Flores Ruiz, Jose Valdivia Sánchez, Jesús Meza Santos, Baldomero Marcas Torres

Que en paz decansen.

Juan Mora-Torres. History professor at DePaul University and author of The Making of the Mexican Border.

♦ ♦ ♦