The Importance of Names

I’m an old folkie from my deepest roots. I was raised on Peter, Paul & Mary, The Weavers, and Joan Baez. I consider Pete Seeger to be an honorary uncle. (Also Walter Cronkite, for what it’s worth–any Walter fans out there? “And that’s the way it is…” still chokes me up.)

So I can’t remember how long I’ve known the Woody Guthrie song that goes by the name, “Deportee.” It’s actually titled “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos,” but no one calls it that. Probably because of the haunting chorus, which goes like this:

Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye Rosalita

Adios, mis amigos Jesus y Maria

You won’t have a name when you ride the big airplane

All they will call you will be deportee.

Woody wrote the song after a 1948 plane crash in California, which killed 28 people. The passengers were all Mexican nationals being returned to Mexico. The crew were Americans. News accounts of the time named the dead crew members, but referred to the remaining men, women and children only as “deportees.”

But that’s all I knew about the story behind the song. No, I’m lying–I knew even less. I didn’t know the date of the crash, or the number of people who died, or even that the Los Gatos in the song isn’t the suburb near San Jose, but a desolate area in the Fresno County hills.

Then a music pal of mine, visiting LA, sent me this article from the front page of the LA Times, which not only filled in all the missing information I never knew about the crash and Woody Guthrie’s reaction to it, but the really important part: the NAMES of those poor people, lost to anonymity for 65 years.,0,2642231.htmlstory

I really hope you click on this link and read the article; it will probably move you to tears as it moved me. But in case you’re in a hurry, I’ll cut to the chase. A descendant of some of the men killed, and a writer, both searching independently for records that would confirm exactly who was on that plane, found each other, and together they found that information. This September, those folks will be honored with a ceremony and a plaque dedicated to their memory…a memory that had been all but wiped out for 65 years.

Why does this matter? The families of those poor folks whose plane, witnesses said, exploded in mid-air, have long since known they were gone. They won’t get them back; they won’t get money, or even an apology from any authority figure.

But their loved ones can now be remembered as PEOPLE, not as a vague, pathetic lump. The naming of names is an honor in any human culture I can think of. The removal of names is a dehumanization. Think of any event in history where people’s names were converted to numbers, or to tribal groups. The removal of names makes people into the “other.” When that happens, empathy dies, human connection is broken, and all bets are off.

I, for one, am proud of, and thankful for, the people in this article who tracked down the names of those lost and brought them back to life. Now, whenever I sing Woody’s haunting song, I will remember that some kind of miniature resurrection occurred, and feel a little less haunted.

And, speaking of that song, here it is, as sung (many years ago) by Arlo Guthrie and Emmylou Harris:

What about you? When you think of the importance of names, what comes to mind? What other thoughts did this article or this song bring out in you? Please share!

2 thoughts on “The Importance of Names

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