Farmworkers killed in 1948 plane crash near Coalinga to be honored

June 5, 2024 /

Then-Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno Bishop Armando X. Ochoa presides at the Mass and blessing honoring the victims of the 1948 Coalinga plane crash. (Courtesy of Michael LoMonaco Photography.)

Seventy-six years ago in 1948, a plane overloaded with farmworkers went down 20 miles west of Coalinga in a remote area called Los Gatos Canyon in Fresno County. The DC 3 plane had taken off from Oakland and was headed to the Mexican border with 28 migrants, one immigration agent, and three crew members. News reports of the day identified and named everyone — except the farm workers. They were simply referred to as “deportees.” 

It pretty much remained that way for decades, and the bodies with no names were buried as such in a mass grave at Holy Cross Cemetery in Fresno with only a small diminutive plaque that read, “28 Mexican citizens who died in an airplane accident near Coalinga, California on Jan.28, 1948 R.I.P.” 

The original burial plaque was originally installed at the gravesite in 1948 with no names.  (Photo courtesy Carlos Rascon)

But the world has slowly come to gain consciousness about these men and women who were killed and quickly forgotten. Coming up this September during National Hispanic Heritage Month, there will be a dedication ceremony with a plaque naming all of the victims at the crash site. And had it not been for famed folk singer Woody Gutherie, their story might have also died. 

The Register, a newsletter of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno documented the 1948 burial of the caskets. (Courtesy of Carlos Rascon)

The backstory 

Guthrie was incensed that the names of the farmworkers, all Mexican citizens, had been omitted from all news accounts that he took action the best way he knew how. Guthrie wrote a poem about these unknown strangers, so callously referred to as “deportees” with no names, no humanity, nothing. He titled it “Deportee.” 


Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards? 

Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit? 

To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil and be called by no name except deportees? ••• 

A schoolteacher, Martin Hoffman later wrote the music and it took off from there. “Deportee” has been recorded by a legend of artists including Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Joan Baez, Bruce Springsteen, and a host of others. Many years later in 2009, writer Tim Hernandez was doing research regarding farm labor in the 1940s at the Fresno County Library. He stumbled upon a news article about the infamous crash. Hernandez was also familiar with the song “Deportee” and it quickly cliqued inside his head. This is what Guthrie was referring to. Living in Fresno at the time, Hernandez went to Holy Cross Cemetery.

“When I saw the gravesite, it just called to me after that,” Hernandez said in a phone interview from El Paso, where he now lives and is an assistant professor in the Master of Fine Arts in creative writing at the University of Texas at El Paso. 

Hernandez learned most of the passengers on the doomed flight were part of the bracero program, a U.S. government plan that brought workers to the United States from Mexico to work in the fields during the labor shortage. Their contracts had expired and they were being sent back to their country aboard a chartered plane. Others were undocumented. Hernandez made it his mission to find out their names and somehow, find their families. Hernandez connected with Carlos Rascon, the then-new director of cemeteries for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno. But to their dismay, the cemetery ledger did not list the names of the dead farmworkers,. 

“To my surprise, we didn’t have their names. All we had was “Mexican national” written 28 times on a ledger. That was very disappointing,” said Rascon in a phone interview. 

The setback did not deter the pair. Rascon found the church register had been provided a list of names from Fresno County, and this led to finding the death certificates. Once the names had been sorted out, Hernandez continued on his quest to find their relatives. But it was decades since their deaths, would anyone come forward now? Hernandez would not find someone connected to the victims until three years later. 


“Some of us are illegal, and others not wanted 

“Our work contract’s out and we have to move on 

“But it’s six hundred miles to that Mexican border 

“They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.” 


Thanks to his dogged determination, Hernandez was able to find and connect with surviving family members of the 28 crash victims, traveling to Mexico in some cases. One of those family members is from Bakersfield, but Hernandez is not yet ready to name the person. In 2017, Hernandez published a book about this experience, calling it, “All They Will Call You,” telling the story of the people, and the families behind the legendary song. A large plaque is now in place at Holy Cross Cemetery in Fresno with the names of the 28 victims. This year marks 76 years

since the day when people on the ground at the crash site witnessed the plane plunging to earth. Plans are still being developed for a public ceremony that will take place at or near the crash site. 

“Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita, 

“Adios mis amigos, Jesús y María; 

“You won’t have your names when you ride the big airplane, 

“All they will call you will be ‘deportees.’” 

— “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)”

Jose Gaspar

José Gaspar is a veteran journalist and former news anchor/reporter with Telemundo, Bakersfield. Prior, he worked 28 years at KBAK-TV as a reporter. Email him at