09/03/2013 11:48 am ET Updated Oct 30, 2013

Farm Workers' Push for Immigration Reform Honors the 28 'Deportees' From 1948

This Labor Day finally brought recognition for the 28 Mexican migrant farm workers who tragically perished when the twin-engine DC-3C charter plane flying them back to Mexico caught fire and crashed on Jan. 28, 1948, near Los Gatos Canyon in west Fresno County, Calif. The Latino community of Fresno buried the 28 unidentified bracero farm workers after funeral services in a mass grave at Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery. News reports of the crash didn't offer any names of the farm worker victims. They were just called "deportees."

Incensed by how the farm workers were treated on the radio and in the newspapers, famed folk singer and songwriter Woody Guthrie wrote a beautiful poem, later a song, called "Deportee" or "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos." Many artists, including Joan Baez who sang it at a United Farm Workers benefit last July in San Jose, have performed the ballad. The refrain goes:

Farewell to my Juan, farewell Angelina
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 deportee

Cesar Chavez was 20 and serving in the U.S. Navy when he learned of the tragedy. It helped convince him that someone had to do something to change how farm workers are treated in our country, although he had no idea at the time that person would be him.

Sixty-five years later the names of the 28 deportees are known, mostly because of research efforts by Colorado author Tim Z. Hernandez. Largely with help from fundraising spearheaded by Hernandez, the Diocese of Fresno Catholic Cemeteries is honoring these migrant farm workers with a large granite memorial listing their names. It is being dedicated in a Labor Day ceremony following an outdoor Mass celebrated by Bishop Armando X. Ochoa at Holy Cross Cemetery in Fresno.

Honoring the 28 deportees with this Mass and memorial finally listing their names is long overdue. Yet farm workers who follow the same hard road traveled by the 28 deportees from 1948 still produce the greatest bounty of food the world has ever known. Yet instead of calling them by their names, they are called names: Illegals. Aliens. Lawbreakers.

So in a genuine sense, today's farm workers honor their compatriots who now rest in peace in a Fresno cemetery with their names by continuing to struggle so one-million immigrant farm workers can some day stand up and claim -- in their own names -- their rightful place in this society they sustain with their toil and their sacrifice.

Farm workers honor their sisters and brothers who perished in 1948 by continuing to work for immigration reform -- for the bipartisan comprehensive Senate bill now stalled in the House of Representatives. Most House Republicans refuse to support a broad-based measure with a pathway to citizenship that would free hard-working undocumented farm workers from lives of abuse and poverty.

Instead, the GOP backs piece meal proposals such as a bill by U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) offering today's immigrant farm workers fewer protections than the infamous 1942-1964 bracero program, under which the 28 deportees were being sent back to Mexico when their plane crashed. House Republicans recently passed a bill by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) to deport innocent young immigrants who are called Dreamers after Rep. King said they have "calves the size of cantaloupes" from carrying "marijuana across the desert."

Today's farm workers also honor their brothers and sisters who died sixty-five years ago by continuing to battle nonviolently for a better life through UFW contracts at companies like giant Gerawan farming corporation in Fresno.

May the Lord bless and keep the 28 who died in 1948. May the Lord also be with today's farm workers as they struggle for the freedom and self-determination that are their birthrights as workers and as human beings.