By Trudy Wischemann
Tim Z. Hernandez was a featured writer at last weekend’s Book Festival at the Visalia Public Library. He told the history of his project to restore the names of 28 Braceros who died in 1948 when the plane crashed that was deporting them back to Mexico, a crash made famous in Woody Guthrie’s song known as “Deportee.”
This project’s history has been beautifully rendered in Tim’s book All They Will Call You (2017), one of two books which were chosen by the Tulare County Public Library for this year’s Book to Action program. The title comes from the last lines Guthrie’s song: “You won’t have your names when you ride the big airplane. All they will call you will be deportee.”
As I listened to Tim’s story, I remembered how my friend Sylvia Ross, another author featured in Saturday’s festival, once described Tim as “eye candy.” He is delicious to look at, but at least half of his attractiveness is the energy inside his body and words, unified by the task of conveying the message inside his project. What I heard is that Grace stands on the side of human compassion, and you can, too.
Tim was born in Dinuba, went to Redwood High School and COS in Visalia. He identifies himself as a poet, but his role as a story gatherer and re-interpreter is clear. When he found the news article that first informed him of the 1948 plane wreck, still considered the worst in California’s history, he was actually working on another book, Manana Means Heaven, about Bea Franco, the person known only as “the Mexican girl” in Jack Kerouac’s book On the Road.
But the story of the nameless farmworkers captured his attention, and he began to follow their lead while still rewriting Bea’s story.
Restoring names, restoring identities to people from his culture that white culture sees only as a category is a fine mission in life. It restores dignity and presence to the people themselves, and it helps reduce the ungainly hubris and ignorance of white culture for those of us stuck on this side of the line. But more than that, it gives credibility to a form of truth — and power — that many of us suspect, even reject. And that is the form of knowing that comes from our guts, the accumulated knowledge of culture passed down and built up through the generations, what Tim called “abuelita instincts” in his talk Saturday.
That term came out when he was telling the story about finding the first list of names of the 28 Braceros buried in a mass grave in Holy Cross Cemetery in Fresno. The priest in charge of the cemetery had a list, apparently from the list of “passengers” on that flight prepared by the U.S. government. Tim went down the list and noticed one mistake after another in the spellings of common Mexican names, mistakes which told him — through his “abuelita instincts” — that there was much more to this story than anyone knew. The missing stories led him on a journey to find what wasn’t there, a brave move that most people would have avoided for fear of failure if nothing else.
In restoring the names and identities, the stories, of people who our culture has wanted to keep nameless, unknown, Tim’s work healing the past has made us a better present. From that point we all can work together for a better future. God bless his abuelita instincts, and his willingness to follow them.
Trudy Wischemann is a remedial poet who doesn’t always like hearing from her grandmothers. You can send her your thoughts c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247 or visit www.trudysnotesfromhome.blogspot.com 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.