Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)

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"Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)"
Song by Woody Guthrie
Written1948 (1948)
GenreProtest song
Composer(s)Martin Hoffman
Lyricist(s)Woody Guthrie

"Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)" is a protest song with lyrics by Woody Guthrie and music by Martin Hoffman detailing the January 28, 1948 crash of a plane near Los Gatos Canyon,[1] 20 miles (32 km) west of Coalinga in Fresno County, California, United States.[2][3] 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.[1] 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.[3]


Woody Guthrie.

The genesis of "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)" 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."[2] Guthrie lived in New York City at the time,[4] and 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.[3][5] However, the local newspaper, The Fresno Bee, covered the tragedy extensively and listed all of the known names of the deportees.[4]

Unaware of the extensive local coverage of the disaster,[4] 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.[1] In the poem, Guthrie assigned symbolic names to the dead: "Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye Rosalita; adiós, mis amigos, Jesús y María..."[6] A decade later, Guthrie's poem was set to music and given a haunting melody by a schoolteacher named Martin Hoffman.[2] Shortly after, folk singer Pete Seeger, a friend of Woody Guthrie, began performing the song at concerts, and it was Seeger's rendition that popularized the song during this time.[2]

It has been suggested by the Three Rocks Research website that, in fact, "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)" betrays Guthrie's lack of understanding regarding the Bracero Program.[3] The program was a series of laws and diplomatic agreements created by the U.S. Congress in 1942, that permitted Mexican farm laborers (or Braceros) to work in the United States due to the severe labor shortages caused by World War II. Under the terms of the program, the labor contractors were expected to provide transportation to and from the Mexican border, with the U.S. Immigration Service being required to repatriate the Mexican citizens if the contractor defaulted.[3] As such, the "deportation" of Braceros in this fashion was simply a way of meeting the obligations of the program—although some newspapers, e.g., the New York Times, did refer to the braceros as "deportees".[3] However, the presence in the song of the lines, "Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted/Our work contract's out and we have to move on." suggests that Guthrie did in fact understand the workings of the Bracero Program. Furthermore, it could be argued that Guthrie's song is less about the program itself and more a comment on the attitude of American society and the media towards the Mexican farm laborers.

In addition to being a lament for the braceros killed in the crash, the opening lines of "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)":

The crops are all in and the peaches are rott'ning,
The oranges piled in their creosote dumps."[6]

are another protest by Guthrie. At the time, government policies paid farmers to destroy their crops in order to keep farm production and prices high.[7] Guthrie felt that it was wrong to render food inedible by poisoning it in a world where hungry people lived.

"Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)" has been described by journalist Joe Klein as "the last great song he [Guthrie] would write, a memorial to the nameless migrants 'all scattered like dry leaves' in Los Gatos Canyon."[1] The song has been recorded many times, often under a variety of other titles, including "Deportees", "Ballad of the Deportees", "Deportee Song", "Plane Crash at Los Gatos" and "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee)".


The song has been recorded by many artists, including:


  1. ^ a b c d Klein, Joe. (1999). Woody Guthrie: A Life. Delta. ISBN 0-385-33385-4.
  2. ^ a b c d "60th anniversary of "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee)"". Indybay. Retrieved 2009-10-16.
  3. ^ a b c d e f "DC3 Aircraft Crash Site in Los Gatos Canyon". Three Rocks Research. Archived from the original on 2014-03-20. Retrieved 2009-10-16.
  4. ^ a b c Kulczyk, David (2009). Death in California – The Bizarre, Freakish, and Just Curious Ways People Die in the Golden State. Fresno, CA: Craven Street Books. p. 80. ISBN 978-1-884995-57-6.
  5. ^ "Los Gatos Canyon Plane Crash, Fresno County, California". Eastern Mojave Vegetation. Retrieved 2009-10-16.
  6. ^ a b "Deeportee (Plane Wreck at Los gatos) lyrics". The Official Woody Guthrie Website. Retrieved 2009-09-27.
  7. ^ "Mark Hammond: Chapel Talk" (PDF). The Irene DuPont Library. Retrieved 2009-10-16.[dead link]
  8. ^ "Stanna stanna". Svensk mediedatabas. 1985. Retrieved 16 June 2011.
  9. ^ from an interview on Americana Music Show #273, published November 17, 2015

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