DEPORTEE (PLANE WRECK AT LOS GATOS)
“Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” is a protest song with lyrics by Woody Guthrie detailing the January 28, 1948 crash of a plane near Los Gatos Canyon, 20 miles (32 km) west of Coalinga in Fresno County, California, United States. The crash occurred in Los Gatos Canyon and not in the town of Los Gatos itself, which is in Santa Clara County, approximately 150 miles away. Guthrie was inspired to write the song by what he considered the racist mistreatment of the passengers before and after the accident. The crash resulted in the deaths of 32 people, 4 Americans and 28 migrant farm workers who were being deported from California back to Mexico.
The genesis of the song reportedly occurred when Guthrie was struck by the fact that radio and newspaper coverage of the Los Gatos plane crash did not give the victims’ names, but instead referred to them merely as “deportees.” For example, none of the deportees’ names were printed in the January 29, 1948, New York Times report, only those of the flight crew and the security guard. However, The Fresno Bee covered the tragedy extensively and listed all of the known names of the deportees. Guthrie, whose image was that of a train-hopping folk singer, actually lived in New York City at the time. Not knowing about the extensive local coverage of the disaster, Guthrie responded with a poem, which, when it was first written, featured only rudimentary musical accompaniment, with Guthrie chanting the song rather than singing it. In the poem, Guthrie assigned symbolic names to the dead: “Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye Rosalita; adiós, mis amigos, Jesús y María…” A decade later, Guthrie’s poem was set to music and given a haunting melody by a schoolteacher named Martin Hoffman. Shortly after, folk singer and friend of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, began performing the song at concerts and it was Seeger’s rendition that popularized the song during this time.
The crops are all in and the peaches are rotting
The oranges are filed in their creosote dumps
They’re flying ’em back to the Mexico border
To take all their money to wade back again
Goodbye to my Juan, farewell Roselita
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 deportees
My father’s own father, he waded that river
They took all the money he made in his life
It’s six hundred miles to the Mexico border
And they chased them like rustlers, like outlaws, like thieves
The skyplane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon
The great ball of fire it shook all our hills
Who are these dear friends who are falling like dry leaves?
Radio said, “They are just deportees”
Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can raise our good crops?
To fall like dry leaves and rot on out topsoil
And be known by no names except “deportees”