Biographer Joe Klein called “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos” the last great song Woody Guthrie wrote. Guthrie read a newspaper account of a January 1948 plane crash that killed 32 people, 28 of them Mexican farm workers who were being deported by the U.S. Immigration Service. He was incensed that the immigrants were reduced in news stories to “just deportees”—no names, no families, no sense of why they had come to the United States.
Because of the wartime shortage of agricultural workers, the United States brokered a deal with Mexico in 1942 for contract laborers. Known as the Bracero program, it allowed Mexican workers to legally cross the border for a specified period of employment. Anyone who violated the terms of the contract, or who stayed in the country after the contract was up, was subject to deportation. The federal agreement expired in 1947, but it continued to operate unofficially until new legislation was passed in 1951. The Bracero program ended in 1964, but Guthrie’s stark tale of immigrant laborers—legal or not—still resonates.
Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportees)
By Woody Guthrie
The crops are all in and the peaches are rott’ning,
The oranges piled in their creosote dumps;
They’re flying ’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 your names 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;
My brothers and sisters come working the fruit trees,
And they rode the truck till they took down and died.
Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted,
Our work contract’s out and we have to move on;
Six hundred miles to that Mexican border,
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.
We died in your hills, we died in your deserts,
We died in your valleys and died on your plains.
We died ’neath your trees and died in your bushes,
Both sides of the river, we died just the same.
The sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon,
A fireball of lightning, and shook all our hills,
Who are all these friends, all scattered like dry leaves?
The radio says, “They are just deportees.”
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”?
Originally published in the October 2006 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.