Notes from Home: Wading That River

By Trudy Wischemann 

“My father’s own father, he waded that river…” from Woody Guthrie’s song “Deportee.”

In last week’s column, I mentioned discovering Tim Z. Hernandez’s book All They Will Call You at the Lindsay Public Library. It was being given away as part of this year’s Book to Action project of the Tulare County Library. Wednesday, March 28, the day this paper will hit the newsstands, the Exeter Public Library will hold a book club meeting on it at 7 p.m.

The book’s title comes from the Woody Guthrie song “Plane Wreck Over Los Gatos,” commonly known as “Deportee.” The song is about that 1948 plane wreck carrying 28 Mexican nationals being deported from California at the end of their official stays courtesy of the Bracero Program. Everyone died in the wreck, including the three crew members. The last lines of the chorus came from the newspaper reports of the accident, and the truth of our tendency to keep farm laborers nameless, identity-less: “You won’t have your names when you ride the big airplane; all they will call you will be deportee.”

I have loved this song since I first heard Joan Baez’s recording of it, probably in Berkeley, probably sometime in the 1970s. When I met Tim Hernandez as part of the planning group for the Kaweah Land and Arts Festival in 2009 and later learned of his project to restore the names to those dead deportees buried in a mass grave in Fresno, I was in awe. Tim’s project seemed so huge on one hand, and yet so perfectly focused, a laser beam that, in healing this one wound, could start the healing process for a problem so massive it blinds us.

The book is fantastic. It starts with stories of people who witnessed the crash: the landowners, the first responders, the photographer and editor of the Coalinga newspaper, whose report hit the AP wires that night. Then it moves to stories from the lives of a few of the men who were being deported: their girlfriends and wives, their dogs and horses and grandparents left behind, their little farms whose lack of water and the need to drill wells drove these farmers from their land to do farm work up North. Their villages and families become real; the treks become real; the distances become real. Most of all, they leave the nameless stranger category and become neighbors.

And on some very important level, we can begin to wade that river with them, back and forth, ride boxcars and buses, dodge la migra, stand in line waiting for jobs we hope will provide enough money to send home. I can’t think of anything more important for us to do at this moment in time than learn what it means to be on the receiving end of that terrible vulnerability. Roll up your pant legs: we’ve got work to do.

Trudy Wischemann is a writer with a mean poetic streak who sings, mostly in the shower. You can send her your wading stories c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247 or visit and leave a comment there.

This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Foothills Sun-Gazette newspaper.

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