All They Will Call You: The Telling of the Plane Wreck at Los Gatos Canyon

author: Tim Z. Hernández
University of Arizona Press, 2017
grades 9-up 
Mexican


The crops are all in and the peaches are rottnin’ 
The oranges are piled in yer creosote dumps
Yer flyin’ em back to the Mexican border
To pay all their money to wade back again
Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye Rosalita
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria
You won’t have a name when you ride the big airplane
All they will call you will be…deportee.


Ever since the Great Depression, the US has had a “revolving door” policy tied to its capitalist economy. When the economy starts to pick up, the door opens to immigration as a source of cheap labor; and when times get tough—immigrants (“illegals”) are the first to be blamed, rounded up and deported.[1]

In 1942, with increased demands for production, the US and Mexico initiated the Bracero program, which brought millions of Mexican “guest” workers to US agricultural fields in California and Texas. This program was immensely profitable for the large growers, who used it to thwart unionizing efforts and drive down wages of all agricultural workers.[2] By the autumn of 1947, soon after World War II ended, Mexican labor became dispensable, and more than 600,000 were rounded up and sent back to Mexico—even though many were US citizens.

On a cold winter morning on January 28, 1948, a plane crash at Los Gatos, California—what was then called “the worst airplane disaster in California’s history”—claimed the lives of 32 passengers, including 28 Mexican agricultural workers.[3] At the time of their deaths, these Mexican citizens were in the process of being deported by the US government.

Within a few days of the crash, the members of the flight crew had been identified and their remains collected and returned to their families and communities. But the Mexican citizens on board remained anonymous—and newspaper stories for that day referred to them only as “deportees.” When their charred remains were interred in an unmarked mass grave in the Central Valley, the records of Holy Cross Cemetery identified each person simply as a “Mexican National.”

Just a few days after the tragedy, on February 3, the great Woody Guthrie, protesting the anonymity of these farm workers and their tragic deaths, penned a poem entitled “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee).” Guthrie’s poem later became a song and, through the years, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Dolly Parton, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen have brought it to wide audiences.

Inspired by the song and motivated by his dying grandfather’s memories of life as a campesino—and with a combination of dogged journalistic spirit and empathy, heart and Chicanismo—Hernández set out to uncover the family stories of these passengers. The search, he writes, “required traveling six decades back in time, to numerous cities, ranchos, and barrios, in three countries, three languages, with limited resources, and only a single shred of old newspaper as the clue.” Hernández was eventually able to locate the families of seven of the “anonymous” agricultural workers who perished in the crash. Here, readers—told from the beginning when and how these campesinos would meet their tragic deaths—come to know them as real people with families, friends and communities; real people with impossibly difficult lives and also with loves and passions and dreams.

Major sections—“The Witnessing,” “The Stories” and “They’re Flyin’ ‘em Back,”—begin with a line from the song, and readers will find as well several aged, almost unrecognizable black-and-white family photos mixed in. Together, this approach effectively sets each telling into a time and place, and encourages readers to want to learn more.

These engaging, sometimes heartbreaking stories are circular and multilayered. Often beginning decades after the tragedy with a relative’s memory told contemporaneously, Hernández’s own recreations connect the tellings and take them back in time. Here, Ramón, as a young man about to head north, stops at the community’s ejido:

The whispers of birds in the nearby bushes could be heard. In the perfect silence of the evening, Ramón looked across the ejido and could almost envision the well. He could see the glistening rows of water and hear the infinite trickling of a stream. It was the sound of (the community’s) success. His own success. He could see the corn growing to unfathomable heights, garbanzos as large as fists. The fertile earth a shade of red, umber, its scent wafting like a sash across his chest. There was only one choice. As much as he hated to admit it, el Norte was the only solution.

With the community depending on him, Ramón tells his wife: “Necesito ir pa’l Norte…. I have to, mi amor. It’s the only choice.”

Above all, the narratives—what the relatives wanted to tell—are stories of humanity and kindness. Here, Jaime tells of how he remembers his uncle, Guadalupe:

“My uncle was a very tall man, and oftentimes, when he would go, he would cross el Río Bravo, and he would help the women and children cross by carrying them on his back, or on his shoulders. Yes, my uncle did that, and people knew him for that. How he would help people cross.”

As they read the events on the day of the tragedy—interspersed with recollections from before—readers will have become familiar with, not only the campesinos themselves, but also their families and communities. Early that morning, for instance, Luis is looking at Casimira’s photograph and is excited about their upcoming wedding. It’s forty-one degrees in downtown San Francisco, and the passengers are boarding the bus that will take them across the Bay Bridge toward Oakland. When they arrive at the Oakland Municipal Airport, a member of the flight crew instructs them: “Formen una sola linea, por favor.”

A light gust of wind blew José Sánchez Valdivia’s baseball cap off his head, and he scooped it up before it had a chance to go skipping down the tarmac…. Everyone made small talk to pass the time…. The air was frigid still, and María huddled against her husband, Lupe. Ramón and Guadalupe spoke of plans for the ejido, and how it would be nice to return home again…

The family members’ tellings, in all their intimacy and love, are beautiful to read—all the more so because we know how these stories end. The events before, during and after the crash, in all their minute detail, are painful to read, but high school students will gain an empathetic perspective, the scope of which they may never have experienced before.

While these family tellings maintain the loving intimacy of relatives, friends and communities, Hernández’s journalistic perspective places readers into the picture that’s generally seen only in headlines or sanitized stories. With detail as important as the family stories, he writes, for instance, about the degradation of the fitness evaluations—which he calls the “bracero entrance exam”—that guaranteed that only those who were fit enough to be field laborers, yet “would not look to raise trouble” were deemed capable of enduring life as braceros in el Norte. 

It was not until 1989—more than 40 years after the tragedy—that Jaime Ramírez, carrying with him a newspaper clipping from 1974, which had a list of those who had been killed in the crash—was able to find the unmarked gravesite where his grandfather, Ramon Paredes and uncle, Guadalupe Ramírez Lara, were buried. He showed the list to Hernández in 2013, and gave him an audiotape of Woody Guthrie’s song. “Had it not been for the song,” Hernández writes, “I would’ve never known about the plane crash in the first place. The song, by all definitions, was the beacon.”

There is much more to All They Will Call You, including stories of the flight crew members; Hernández’s interview with Pete Seeger; the story of a troubled young man named Marty Hoffman, who wrote the music; an account of the day of the memorial headstone celebration; photographs of the author with some of the families; and a long, long list of acknowledgements.

Hernández’s Field Notes (2012-2015) begins with a section from “La Huesera” by Ire’ne Lara Silva:

…here, where the world is undone, and their bodies are remade, their spirits rise in star-flecked spirals. The pooling blood runs backwards, their splintered hearts come together. I know all their names. I will call them, and they will come…

In All They Will Call You, Hernández transforms his tape recorder into a tool for gathering stories. “While the telling itself is true,” he writes, “its loyalty is not to people of fact but rather to people of memory…. In this way, it’s inevitable that some rememberings will contradict other rememberings…. In this case, perception is truth.”

There is no pretense of objectivity here, nor should there be. Trusting in the multiple rememberings and perceptions of the tellers here—rather than attempting to sift out or retell one “truth” of a story—is the mark of a brilliant advocacy journalist.

Indeed, All They Will Call You is intense and compassionate, and places teen readers into the stories and struggles that have at least as much meaning today as they did almost seven decades ago. And together, they serve as a model for readers considering a career in the kind of journalism that speaks truths about power.


Especially now, in these dark and dangerous times, it’s important for readers to know the “deportees,” how hard they worked and shared with their communities. They were disrespected in life, and in death, they were just tossed away. All They Will Call You is a humbling book that honors and memorializes these “deportees” and all the humble people whose backbreaking work puts food on our tables. To say the least, it’s major Pulitzer Prize material.


Miguel Alvarez Negrete ¡Presente! Francisco Durán Llamas ¡Presente!
Santiago Elizondo García ¡Presente! Tomás Gracia de Aviña ¡Presente!
Salvador Hernández Sandoval ¡Presente! Severo Lara Medina ¡Presente!
Tomás Márquez Padilla ¡Presente! Luis Medina López ¡Presente!
Manuel Merino Calderón ¡Presente! Martín Navarri Razo ¡Presente!
Ramón Ochoa Ochoa ¡Presente! Ramón Paredes González ¡Presente!
Alberto Carlos Raygoza ¡Presente! Guadalupe Rodríguez Hernández ¡Presente!
María Rodríguez Santana ¡Presente! José Sánchez Valdivia ¡Presente!
Jesús Santos Meza ¡Presente!Baldomero Marcos Torres ¡Presente!
Bernabé García López ¡Presente! Rosalio Estrada Padilla ¡Presente!
Juan Ruiz Valenzuela ¡Presente! Elias Macías Trujillo ¡Presente!
José Macias Rodriguez ¡Presente! Wenceslao Ruiz Flores ¡Presente!
Ignacio Navarro Pérez ¡Presente! Luis Miranda Cuevas ¡Presente!
Apolonio Placencia Ramírez ¡Presente! Guadalupe Ramírez Lara ¡Presente!


—Beverly Slapin
(published 4/26/17; revised last four paragraphs, 4/28/17)



[1] An excellent source of historical information is 500 Años del Pueblo Chicano / 500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures by Elizabeth (“Betita”) Martinez, reviewed on this site.

[2] See also The Bracero Program: 1942-1964 by Sarah Hines, http:///www.counterpunch.org/2006/04/21/the-bracero-program-1942-1964/

[3] This is the number that was officially recorded; there may have been as many as 39 Mexican passengers on board.

Esteban de Luna, Baby Rescuer! / Esteban de Luna, ¡rescatador de bebés!

author: Larissa M. Mercado-López
illustrator: Alex Pardo DeLange
translator: Gabriela Baeza Ventura
Piñata Books / Arte Público Press, 2017
preschool-grade 3 


Esteban, an active little boy who appears to be about five, dreams about becoming a superhero. In fact, he wears his long, green cape “that ripples like a flag on windy afternoons” every day and everywhere: “He wears it to breakfast. He wears it to the park. He wears it to the doctor’s office. He even wears it to the supermarket.” Esteban’s problem, though, is that his cape is not magic and doesn’t do anything special. In fact, it doesn’t do anything at all. It’s just a cape. Well, this is not good, and youngest listeners and readers might expect that, somehow, Esteban’s cape will change in some way to infuse him with superpowers.

But it doesn’t. Totally bummed out, Esteban tries to sell it, but no one wants to buy an ordinary green cape that does nothing.  One day, while Esteban plays at the park with his mom and little sister Lola, he sees an abandoned baby doll, all alone on the swing. As a sudden storm causes them to run for shelter, Esteban looks back at the doll and decides he must rescue her. So he does. Tying her snugly in his cape, which now takes on an additional function, Esteban jumps puddles and walks under the bus stop shelter to keep his doll dry.

As he takes on the responsibility—a big deal for a five-year-old—of taking his doll everywhere and keeping her protected by his cape so that she stays clean, his parents look on approvingly but don’t say anything. Esteban has become “Esteban de Luna, Baby Rescuer!” And that’s the big deal about this story that places a little boy’s gentleness in the center of what’s often left out of a story about “heroism” and “superpowers.”

That this family is bilingual is subtly demonstrated. Here, for instance, just before a trip to the park:

“Let’s go to the park!” says their mom.
“¡Parque!" cheers Lola.

And the Spanish reads:

            —¡Vamos al parque!—dice su mamá.
            —¡Park!—celebra Lola.

DeLange’s expressive digitally enhanced mixed media illustrations on paper follow the action and capture the moods of a warm, loving Latinx family. Rendered in mostly watercolors and ink on a palette featuring bright yellows, greens and blues, the art centers on young Esteban’s dilemma and its resolution, and features toddler Lola’s nonstop activity, pregnant mom’s expert balancing act, and dad’s calm sharing of a story with the children. Young readers’ eyes will also locate Esteban’s cape, Chico the puppy, and later the doll, on almost every page, and adults may notice that dad suspiciously resembles Clark Kent.

The English text is simple and evocative, and the ever-talented Baeza Ventura never skips a beat in her rhythmic, storytelling Spanish interpretation. For instance, while Mercado-López’ story describes Esteban’s futile attempt to sell his cape this way:

Esteban makes a sign and sits in his front yard one morning.
“Cape for sale!" he shouts. He sits. And sits. And sits. No luck.

Baeza Ventura’s interpretation holds the same emotion in a slightly different conversational tone that centers hablantes without confusing English readers who want to learn Spanish:

Una mañana, Esteban hace un letrero y se sienta en el jardín de enfrente.
—¡Se vende una capa!—grita. Espera. Y espera. Y espera. Nada.

The unstated message in this lovely little picture book—for the youngest hablantes as well as those who are bilingual or English-only speakers—might be that the concept of “boys will be boys” (whatever that meant, once upon a time) is finally being changed, and that kindness, caring, love and compassion are not gender-specific. Esteban de Luna, Baby Rescuer! / Esteban de Luna, ¡rescatador de bebés! is highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 4/20/17)

Little Doctor / El doctorcito


author: Juan J. Guerra
illustrator: Victoria Castillo 
translator: Gabriela Baeza Ventura 
Piñata Books / Arte Público Press
2017
kindergarten-grade 3 
Salvadoran American


Guerra, who is an ob-gyn physician in Oakland and co-founder of Salud en Español, a clinic for the Spanish-speaking community, conceived of and wrote this quasi-autobiographical story to encourage children who are bilingual to think about entering the medical profession. Unfortunately, The Little Doctor / El doctorcito is fractured and contrived, and does little to communicate this valuable message to young readers.

Ten-year-old Salvador has just earned an A+ on his fourth-grade science test, and rushes home to celebrate with his abuelita, who greets him with a request that he accompany her to the community clinic in order to help her “speak English” (translate for her). The child enthusiastically welcomes the chance to help his abuelita, telling her on the way that he wants to become a doctor.

At the community clinic, which has an inexplicably long line of people who are “coughing, moaning, and fussing,” several are crying and a woman is angrily shushing her screaming daughter. Salvador comforts a woman who is crying, and, when it’s finally their turn, he tells the health care worker at the desk that his grandmother is here for a checkup and asks for a doctor who speaks Spanish. There is none, and he realizes that “everything (is) now up to him.”

In the examining room, Abuelita is frightened (“Salvador, don’t leave me!”), insisting that her young grandson remain with her while she changes into a robe. And, as the door bangs open, in rushes a white, gray-haired, crazed-looking doctor, who not only appears rude, he’s downright mean. With papers flying all around, he barks at Salvador:

“Tell your grandmother her blood pressure is high. She needs to stop eating so much Mexican food and eat more fruits and vegetables. And she needs to take medicine.”

Then he storms out the door, slamming it behind him.




First, no responsible physician would instruct a young child to translate and explain a serious medical condition such as “high blood pressure” to a parent or grandparent; this is something the child might not understand and would probably not have the vocabulary to translate, not to mention explain. And second, this racist, reality-challenged doctor—who assumes that all Spanish-speaking people are Mexican, grandma doesn’t eat any fruits or vegetables but she eats too much Mexican food (all of which is unhealthful), nor does she take medicine—loudly instructs this child to disrespect his own grandmother.

Moreover, in Abuelita’s case, a doctor or nurse would be likely to find out why she has high blood pressure: Do other family members have high blood pressure? What’s her diet like? Is she taking other medications? Does she exercise? But the over-the-top behavior of this doctor is beyond the pale and confusing to young readers, especially to young Latinx readers.

While Salvador responds to the doctor’s assumption that the family is Mexican, he doesn’t question any of the other assumptions. Of course, as a young child, he wouldn’t; but again, the child reader will be confused. This failure, along with many others, is built into the story.

Depending on necessity and circumstance, people in El Salvador often see both physicians and curanderas. But readers at first learn that, whenever Abuela felt ill in El Salvador, she saw a curandera or drank herbal tea. And later, an upset Abuelita remembers, “Salvadoran doctors listen. They want to know about you and how your family is. In El Salvador, the doctors really care for their patients!” This “either-or” rather than “both” paradigm is confusing as well.

Salvador’s experience in this overcrowded clinic in which there are no Spanish-speakers is now convinced that he has found his life’s path. Abuelita’s young translator now assures her that he will never take her to see another abusive doctor like the one they’ve just encountered “ever again.” And his parents remind him that he’ll have to “work very hard” to bring his dream to reality.

And, that night, as he goes to sleep:

[He] imagined the amazing journey of becoming a doctor, wondering about mysterious and marvelous places like college and medical school.

He envisioned a world with doctors who looked like him and spoke English and Spanish.

Knowing that his magical adventure would begin the very next day, Salvador drifted off to asleep [sic].

Doctors practice all over the world, and in many places, people see both traditional healers and physicians. While years ago, medical translators were nonexistent or rare, most clinics now employ both medical professionals and translators who speak the languages of the communities. But there are some cases in which a translator may be unavailable, and this story could have been about not having enough Spanish-speaking doctors, but that’s way different than Salvador’s situation.

It's clear that Castillo is a talented illustrator and comic artist. In a different story, her vibrant, cartoonish art, in pen and ink and digital watercolor on a bright palette of mostly reds and oranges, would shine through and easily capture a young child's imagination. But here, they are discomfiting exaggerations of what might have been tender scenarios in which young Salvador is translating and being generally helpful. For instance, in a scene where he is helping a nurse who is assisting a patient in a wheelchair, the nurse is smiling at Salvador rather than looking where she is going, shielding her patient from the rain by holding an open umbrella under her left arm and struggling to steer the wheelchair with her left hand while also struggling to keep a heavy door open with her right hand. Salvador is opening the other heavy door for her. This kind of problem may have been typical more than 20 years ago, but today, most hospitals and clinics are equipped with wheelchair ramps and automatic doors.

There are many stories that could have been—and should be—written about real situations involving children’s translating or interpreting for family members. And there are many positive potential scenarios about children’s desires to become community physicians and how these desires might be encouraged. This could have been a story about something positive happening that convinces a child to want to become a doctor.

Finally, “doctorcito” is a Spanglish word, an endearing term for a child who may have demonstrated his skills of doctoring, such as taking care of a sick puppy or changing the dressing on a kitten’s paw, or even reminding his grandma to take her medicine on time. But here, our young protagonist is a translator, a helper—but not a “doctorcito.” 

Baeza Ventura’s excellent Spanish translation, in many cases, reads better than the English text. For instance, an English passage reads: “Salvador knew that everything was now up to him,” and Baeza Ventura’s translation reads: “Salvador sabía que todo estaba en sus manos.” But it’s not enough to save this story. Rather, The Little Doctor / El doctorcito is a stereotypic mishmash with lots of contradictions and distractions and little to recommend.

—María Cárdenas
(published 4/6/17; revised 4/10/17)