Down at the Santa Fe Depot: 46 Years Later

 

April 22, 2016

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Photo credit, Victor Trejo, 2016

Today we are meeting on the concrete steps at the Santa Fe Train Depot in Fresno, California. Twenty-one living writers and seven forbearers. We’ve agreed to meet up to re-create a photograph that has been legendary since it was first taken in 1970. Many of us weren’t even born then.

 

The original photograph, taken by Tom Peck, graced the back cover of an anthology of “new voices” at the time, titled “Down at the Santa Fe Depot: 20 Fresno Poets.” The editors were two Armenian-51VDABY0VGLAmerican poets David Kheridian, and James Baloian. The photograph includes a handful of poets who would later go on to become influential in American letters: Philip Levine, Omar Salinas, Lawson Inada, and William Saroyan—perhaps Fresno’s most internationally recognized writer. In the photo, the group looks aloof, casual, and yet, at least for writers in Fresno, this single image has become somewhat iconic. At the time they were first, second and third generation Chicanos, Armenian, Japanese, and anglo. American writers, all of them.

David Kheridian: “The idea for the photo came from my understanding that place was one of the most critical elements in the nature of poetry. The word itself, when used to name a person or place, became the very embodiment of that thing. This is the power that poetry can convey: the microcosm when named becomes the universal, spring to life.”

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What brought us together is Fresno’s first ever LitHop, a day long gathering of more than 100 writers in over 30 venues. It’s the brainchild of Lee Herrick, Fresno’s current Poet Laureate. If not for this event, there would’ve been no other reason to get us all into one place at the same time. We had to seize the opportunity.

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Juan Luis Guzman (Poet)

Today, as each of us begins to arrive, despite the rain, there is an electricity in the air. At first it’s me and Michael Medrano. But then Brian Medina shows up, and then Joseph Rios shortly after. He tells us he just got in on the Amtrak from Los Angeles. Says he wouldn’t have missed this. Minutes later, stepping off of the local bus, Fresno’s first city Poet Laureate, James Tyner, appears. One by one they arrive, and each time another walks toward us, the electricity grows. We feel it. We’ve all come to this photo-shoot keenly aware of the homage we are paying to our own literary forbearers, and to our dear friends who’ve since passed on. The rain pours harder, and still they come.

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Andre Yang (Poet)

Andre Yang swaggers up and slaps hands with each one of us, and then Devoya Mayo and Estela Sue emerge from the behind the building. Because it’s now raining hard, we begin to duck under a tree. But then David Mas Masumoto walks up and he’s carrying a shovel. He’s a farmer after all. And he sees us, and sorta laughs, then tilts his head back and lets the huge drops of rain splash against his face. “This is what we want to happen!” he says. And he’s absolutely right. This agricultural region that has fed and nourished us, that has brought many of our families here in the first place, and that has been in a drought for years, WANTS rain to happen, NEEDS rain to happen. We shuffle out from the under the tree and let the rain come down on us. Since we’re all curious, I ask Masumoto what the shovel is for. He replies, “It’s my work tool. It’s what I do.” Of course it is, we say, having a good chuckle over it. Later on, over beers, Joseph Rios and I will talk about Mas’s shovel. “If Fresno writers have one thing in common, it’s that our books do work. Like Mas’s shovel.”

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Mas Masumoto (Non-Fiction), Me, Andre Yang

By 4:45 everyone has arrived. There are twenty-one of us. Anglo, Latino, Armenian, Hmong, Nissei, African-American, Palestinian-American, and Korean. Sometimes, some of us will get asked, why Fresno? Why do so many writers come out of Fresno? I’ve even heard it referred to as “The Fresno School,” which seems kinda funny to me. To my knowledge no one among us has ever taken this question seriously. Sincerely, maybe, but not seriously. What does it mean to have a “school” anyway? The mere thought of any kind of limitation makes me cringe. Limitations are boundaries, borders. And for me, borders have no room in art. A school? Sure, we sometimes share our work with one other, or in small groups over food and drinks, or perhaps a phone call. Of course we champion one another’s work, and celebrate—and we celebrate heartily— when one of us has penned a new book or landed an award. But ask each one of us individually about what makes a place like Fresno a fertile breeding grounds for poets and you’ll likely get a different answer. Fresno, a city of more than half a million people, which consistently ranks first place in nearly every major national survey on topics such as, Worst Cities in America. Worst Pollution in the U.S.. Least College Degrees. Highest Illiteracy. Most Impoverished Counties. Poorest Job Market. And the lists go on. How is it possible that a single region with minimal resources and even lesser hope, has consistently produced some of the greatest literary names to ever have the privilege of occupying space on bookshelves?

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Aris Janigian (novelist), Daniel Chacon (novelist)

Brian Turner’s award winning book, “Here, Bullet,” took the poetry world by storm, because never before had a war veteran wrote so compelling and boldly honest about the realities of war. And then there’s the young Andres Montoya, a friend to many of us, who died at the age of 30, just months before he would get to hold his first book in his hands. He never saw his own first book get published!! We used to say. What a tragedy! But his namesake is now a major award, launching the career of many new talented writers across the country. The Andres Montoya Poetry Prize is synonymous with “new groundbreaking poet rising.” Ironically, no writer from Fresno had ever actually won the award, until this past year. A young, fierce Chicano, who was a student and dishwasher in Fresno, finally brought home the prize. His name is David Campos and the dude has no intention of slowing down. There are others too who’ve paved the way, such as, David St. John, Larry Levis, Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel, Victor Martinez, Dixie Salazar, Roberta Spear, Gary Soto, and numerous others. This city has produced two back-to-back United States Poet Laureates, National Book Award winners, National Book Critics Circle awards, American Book Award winners, Children’s Book Awards, screenwriters, songwriters, and playwrights. It is for this reason that today we are carrying the photographs of these forbearers. The fiction writer, Daniel Chacon is carrying his best friend, Andres Montoya. The poet, Devoya Mayo is carrying the image of William Saroyan. Poet, Juan Luis Guzman is carrying Larry Levis, because they both hail from Selma. Poet, Kenneth Chacon is holding up the crazy gypsy, Omar Salinas. Estela Sue is holding up her uncle, Victor Martinez. James Tyner is carrying Ernesto Trejo. And I’m holding Phil Levine. Today they are all here with us. In our writing, and in spirit.

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Estela Sue (Poet), Michael Medrano (Poet), Soul Vang (Poet)

What’s going on in Fresno you ask? Maybe it’s the open brooding sky choked out with methane. Or the drought. Or the rain. If there is a school, then the endless fields are our classrooms. Our chalkboards the blank page. Definitely no rulers or other delineations here. Only comradery. Only support, championing the other. We have place in common. We all know its history. How remnants of the dust bowl Oklahomans who came to this great valley to work the fields can still be seen on the faces of the people 75 years later. We don’t have to look hard to find the Armenian bakeries, and the Hmong gardens amidst the concrete and potholes, or the campesinos who still bend and pick like they’ve been doing here for eons, up and down the dogleg of Highway 99. And I think maybe it’s with this understanding that we’ve all taken a kind of silent vow, in one way or another, to write our collective and individual histories and herstories out of the fields, the margins, and onto bookshelves. The Hmong American Writers Circle is probably one of our best examples of this. Up until 60 years ago the people of Laos didn’t even have a written language! They told stories, sang songs, recited poems and tales, and documented their existence in their beautiful art. Poets like Andre Yang, Mai Der Vang, Burlee Vang, Soul Vang, Anthony Cody, are a generation of outriders, beacons for their communities. They are the vanguard, making waves in literary circles across the country, and yet, they are as American as Walt Whitman. In fact, Mai Der Vang just received the highly coveted Walt Whitman Prize! They are all from here. We are all from here. Brothers and sisters in story, word, and community.

If there is any school at all, this is probably it. Poets, novelists, immigrants, activists, all with vastly different ideas and aesthetic interests, yet, all in a kind of unspoken vow to writing as a way to “Live a life without borders,” as the current U.S. Poet Laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera, recently said. “What’s going on in Fresno, they ask me,” he bellowed to a crowd of more than 400 at Fresno City College, “I tell them, don’t you know? Fresno is the poetry capital of the WORLD!!”

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Photo credit, Victor Trejo, 2016

(Bottom row, L – R) Tim Z. Hernandez, Aris Janigian, Daniel Chacon, Kenneth Chacon, Randa Jarrar, Marisol Baca, Devoya Mayo.

(Second row from bottom L – R) Lisa Lee Herrick, Lee Herrick, Michael Medrano, Connie Hales, Soul Vang, Estela Sue

(Third row up from bottom, L – R) Juan Luis Guzman, Andre Yang, Joseph Rios, Bryan Medina, David Mas Masumoto

(Top row, L – R) Steven Church, John Hales, James Tyner

Missing: Juan Felipe Herrera, Margarita Luna Robles, David Campos, Mai Der Vang, Anthony Cody, Sara Borjas, Alex Espinoza, Tanya Nichols, Jefferson Beavers, Mia Barraza Martinez, Liz Scheid-Blau, Dixie Salazar, Jon Vineberg, Marx Arax, Margarita Engle, Blas Manuel de Luna, Destina Unica Hernandez, Michael Jasso, Aideed Medina, Shane Scurvy, Meta L. Schettler…

ALL PHOTOS CREDITED TO VICTOR TREJO, 2016

“All They Will Call You” Timeline

Hi Friends!

Great news. As I write this, the manuscript, which is the culmination of all my research since 2010, is in negotiations for publication. In the meantime, because I’ve been asked on numerous occasions about how this all took shape, I’m posting a timeline of how my research, the headstone, the new version of the song, and documentary have all taken shape. Hopefully this is of some help. Hope to share some good news soon, but in the meantime, enjoy!

 

Los Gatos Plane Crash/ “All They Will Call You” Project Timeline

December 2010: I first saw the newspaper article at the Fresno Public Library, while researching for my previous novel, Mañana Means Heaven. My research began here.

January – December 2011: I immersed myself in the research, and though I found a couple of lists of names online, none were accurate. This whole year was spent solely trying to confirm the names of the passengers. During this time is when I discovered that the Mexican passengers were buried in a mass unmarked grave in Fresno’s Holy Cross Cemetery.

November 2011: I invited musicians Dayanna Sevilla and Lance Canales to perform the song, “Deportees (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” with me reading the names at the Steinbeck Festival in Salinas. Dayanna and Lance began exchanging ideas via email for how the song might go. Eventually Dayanna had to cancel the gig and Lance composed his version of the song solo. I continued my research for the names, filing papers with the Freedom of Information Act, and numerous other archival records. Still was unsuccessful.

May 2012: Lance and I performed at the Steinbeck Festival, and afterward, while walking the streets of Salinas, we spoke about the idea of installing a headstone memorial with the list of names I had.

July 2012: I managed to locate the Gaston family, who owned the crash sight property in 1948 and were eyewitnesses to the crash. I began interviewing them, and they showed me the crash sight for the first time. This meeting was a breakthrough, as I now had first hand accounts of what happened that day. This is when my book began too.  This same month, I also located a woman named Diane, who put me in touch with Martin Hoffman’s family, and I began interviewing them immediately.

August 2012: Still trying to confirm names, I approached the Fresno Diocese, where I met Carlos, the cemetery director. He admitted to knowing about the mass burial site and incident but didn’t know about the names until I had inquired. I asked if he’d be willing to check the Fresno County Hall of Records. He agreed, and was successful. This became the second list of names, not entirely accurate but another breakthrough.

October 2012: I formally submitted a proposal to the Fresno Diocese stating that I would pursue installing a memorial headstone at the gravesite, mentioning it would be with the help of friends, including Lance Canales, Fresno artists, and the Diocese. It was approved.

November 2012-February 2013: The Fresno Diocese issued a Press Release and news caught on that I had found the list of names, and that we would be installing a headstone.  During this time, Lance recorded his version of the song, and emailed it to me so that I could record the names over the track. We would use the song to raise money for the headstone.

January 2013: Fundraising for the memorial headstone was officially under way. A combined effort between myself, Lance, Fresno artists and activists, and the Diocese,
organized a concert to raise funds. People from all over the world contributed.

March 2013: I took the story of my search to the Fresno bilingual newspaper Vida en el Valle, hoping someone might read it and be related. Juan Esparza was the reporter, and he ran the story. Three weeks after its release, it was successful.

April 2013: I was contacted by the Ramirez family, who told me they were descendants of two passengers aboard the flight. I met and interviewed them immediately. That same month I also successfully located the family of the pilot and stewardess. I interviewed them right away. The book was making slow progress. The concert was held, and we raised an initial $4,000 for the headstone.

September 2013: We raised $10,000 and installed the headstone in a large public event at Holy Cross Cemetery in Fresno. The Ramirez family was present, and so were the families of the pilot and stewardess, Martin Hoffman, and the eyewitnesses. I organized a caravan trip and took the families to the crash sight for the fist time. We also hosted a public discussion at Ole Frijole restaurant in Fresno. Wide spread media covered the story.

October 2013: I met and interviewed Pete Seeger at his home in Beacon, NY. He told me his version of how the song came to be, and I showed him photos of the passengers, and told him some of their stories. He was visibly moved. Our meeting was captured on film by his grandson, Kitama, and I will release some of this footage in the documentary.

November 2013 – March 2014: I continued to search for more families, while writing my book. While I found much information on the passengers, it was moving slowly because I was funding everything from my own pocket.

Early March 2014: A breakthrough! I found the Sanchez Valdivia family after dozens of phone calls to Zacatecas, Mexico, San Diego, and Tijuana. This was the fifth passenger I managed to locate. I interviewed the family via telephone, but knew I had to meet them in person in Mexico before too long. They sent me photos of their deceased relative.

Late March 2014: Another breakthrough! I located the Padilla Marquez family in Stockton, California, after I recited the list of names out loud at a fundraiser breakfast, and made an appeal to the audience. It happened that a friend of the family was in the audience. They knew the story, and put me in touch with the family immediately. This was the sixth passenger I had now found. By noon that day I was at their home interviewing them. My mother was with me, and we documented the conversation on video.

May 2014: I traveled to the Navajo nation to camp in Canyon du Chelly with the friends and relatives of Martin Hoffman. This is where he last lived and where his life ended. I interviewed them all, and this was also documented.

Sept 2014 – December 2014: I launched a fundraiser crowdsourcing campaign to raise $4000 to travel into Mexico.

January 2015: I traveled into central Mexico, Jalisco, Guanajuato, Zacatecas, with Guillermo Ramirez, to knock on doors using the information I had accumulated over the past few years. This was the last big push in my research, and it was a long shot. We ended up finding the Miranda Cuevas family in Jalisco. I interviewed them and they gave me photos of their relative. During this trip I also interviewed family members for the other passengers I had already found, but who were living in Mexico.

January – December 2015: I continued to search for families, and write my book at the same time.

February 2016: I completed writing the book, tentatively titled, “All They Will Call You.” I am still looking for families and conducting portions of research. I’ve also agreed to donate some of my research to the Woody Guthrie archives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I am currently working with the El Paso based filmmaker, Valentin Sandoval, on editing the documentary, which is tentatively titled, “Searching for the Plane Crash at Los Gatos.”

Final Note & Credits: To date I have located 7 of the total 32 reported passengers on the airplane.  90 percent of this endeavor, from 2010 to date, has been funded from my own pocket. While the research itself was a solo effort, it wouldn’t have been possible without the assistance of friends, family members, and strangers. Lastly, all of the events on this timeline have been documented in film, audio, photographs, emails, and the notebooks I kept throughout. My book will be released in Spring 2017.