“Who are all these friends all scattered like dry leaves? / The radio said they are just deportees.”
Closure – more than seven decades after a horrific airplane crash over Los Gatos Canyon near Coalinga – arrived on a recent Sunday morning at Holy Cross Cemetery for the families of Alberto Carlos Raygoza and María Rodríguez Santana.
The poem by Woody Guthrie was set to music by Martin Hoffman and later recorded by the likes of Pete Seeger, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen and Joan Báez.
But the names of Carlos Raygoza and Rodríguez Santana – along with 27 fellow Mexican nationals who perished when a Douglas DC-3 dropped from the sky on Jan. 28, 1948 (the pilot, a co-pilot, a flight attendant and an immigration officer also died) – vanished into history until local author Tim Z. Hernández’s research identified the deportees.
Mike Rodríguez III, a history teacher in the Santa Ana Unified School District, recalled his uncle Gonzalo would talk about Rodríguez Santana. But details were sketchy, other than she died in an airplane crash.
“That’s all we knew because the older generation didn’t talk much about it,” said Rodríguez. “There was a lot of shame, a lot of guilt to the story.”
Rodríguez Santana was the lone Mexican woman who died on the flight from Oakland back to México. The baby clothes she was carrying back for her nephew, Michael Rodríguez, was found strewn at the crash site.
“I was 6 months old at the time,” said Michael Rodríguez Jr., a 71-year-old retired television stage operator who lives in Paso Robles. “I always felt close to her even though I didn’t know her.”
His father, he added, “really suffered.”
“My grandmother died never knowing,” said Rodríguez. “She’s up there smiling down on us.”
Ivonne Cerecero Jensen, who came to the U.S. when she was 6 years old, also wondered about the man shown in a photo holding up an infant girl. The baby was Carlotta, the younger sister of Carlos Raygoza.
“My family didn’t know where he had passed or how,” said Cerecero Jensen, whose research started last year and resulted in her discovery Hernández and his 2017 book ‘All They Will Call You.’
“Now I know where his remains are,” said Cerecero Jensen. “For my mom, it was too painful for her. It was her younger brother.”
Those scenes are a major reason that Hernández, now a writing professor at the University of Texas, El Paso, started his search for the names after discovering a story about the tragedy while researching for another book.
He collaborated with musician Lance Canales in raising money for a tombstone with the names of the Mexican nationals even before the names became available.
“I was curious they didn’t have their names,” said Hernández about his first visit to the cemetery just west of Highway 99 in central Fresno. “I stood here and there was only a headstone. It was moving that there could be 28 souls here and no names.
“I thought for sure their families must be home wondering what happened to them.”
In his book, Hernández tracked down families of seven of the people on that doomed flight. He plans a second book now that more families have come forward.
“I’ve located 12 of the families,” said Hernández, who plans a trilogy. “The search continues.”
A second book in the “next few years will look at the crash in a different way.” Hernández plans to look at the descendants of the victims and their lives as flight attendants, history teachers and other professions.
The third book?
“I won’t write that one until I’m around 65,” said Hernández, who will be 45 later this month.
There is a possibility that a movie on the first book will be done.
Until then, family members like Ivonne Cerecero Jensen and Frank Rodríguez are happy to have contacted other families and made that connection to a mass burial site in Fresno.
“It’s like that movie ‘Coco’ said. When people’s stories are no longer told, they are forgotten and erased from history,” said Rodríguez. “Our family members were almost erased from history because of the prejudice at the time.”
Rodríguez praised the 28 Mexican nationals.
“They were the first generation to come to the United States. They helped make America great,” he said. “They picked the food and served the people while this country was at war.
“They made the money so that our family could open a store in Ensenada; and 20 years later, our family came here. We’re nurses, teachers, truck drivers. We’re all kinds of things here.
“This story is the American story.”
This story was updated on Feb. 10, 2019 to correct the name of Mike Rodríguez III.