The famous quote, “The historian will tell you what happened; the novelist will tell you what it felt like,” perfectly captures the spirit of Tim Z. Hernandez’s remarkable novel, “All They Will Call You.”
His book accomplishes an elegant feat, serving as a historical account of an event and a poignant narrative that expresses the emotions and experiences of its subjects. This story being told by Hernandez is of great importance, one that had long remained hidden because it didn’t concern the dominant culture.
Briefly, “All They Will Call You,” is about a 1948 plane crash, where 32 people died, 28 of them were Mexican citizens who were being deported. They had come to California to work in the fields, but were caught as illegals and were being sent back to Mexico in an airplane.
That airplane crashed in central California.
Everybody onboard died, including the crew, but when this news was revealed to the public, they only identified the crew members by name. Everyone else was just a Mexican. Just a deportee.
Hernandez’s discovery of the song “Deportees” as sung by Woody Guthrie is the catalyst for his relentless pursuit to identify everyone who died in that crash. You can almost picture him carefully placing an old vinyl record on a turntable, immersing himself in Guthrie’s voice, “some of us are legal, and some of us are not wanted,” maybe spending hours pondering the lives of those anonymous deportees.
The novel begins with Hernandez, the writer and historian, standing at the hospital bed of his grandfather, armed with a new tape recorder, recognizing the imperative of recording the stories that must not be forgotten. He wanted to know his grandfather’s story. He wanted to know his people’s story.
One of the most remarkable aspects of this narrative is the serendipity of events in his investigation. The plane crash in the song occurred in his own homeland, just outside of Fresno, where he grew up. It was a mere 20-minute drive to the canyon where the plane crashed.
This may have ignited his determination to move beyond the label of “deportees” and grant these individuals the dignity of names.
“All They Will Call You” is not just a book; it’s a community project, a labor of love that spans years of research, encompassing countless records, interviews and oral histories. The book serves as a monument to the Mexican lives that were lost in that plane crash, giving them the dignity they deserved.
There’s a beautiful chapter toward the end, where the names of all the passengers are whispered across the page, not in linear paragraph form, but all over the place, resembling a postmodern poem. The names, written in different shades of ink, resonate with a powerful sense of voice, as if giving them the dignity to speak their own names.
The book tells the historical account of this plane crash, and conveys what it felt like to be one of those “deportees,” offering readers a visceral connection to a human drama.
In “All They Will Call You,” Hernandez resurrects a forgotten chapter of history and gives a voice to the voiceless. He has transformed a simple refrain – “all they will call you is deportees” – into a multi-dimensional narrative that reclaims the humanity and identity of those who were reduced to a number.
This novel transcends the boundaries of Chicanx literature and history; it shows how the power of storytelling can bridge the border between past and present, between us and them.
“All They Will Call You” is an indispensable addition to the canon of American literature.
Daniel Chacón is a professor in the Creative Writing department at the University of Texas at El Paso. His latest novel is “The Cholo Tree.”
El Paso Matters Book Club discussion
Signed copies of “All They Will Call You” are available at Literarity Book Shop, 5411 N. Mesa. Profits from sale of the books at Literarity go to El Paso Matters.
Learn more about the book in a free discussion with Hernandez at 5:30 p.m. September 20 at El Paso Public Library José Cisneros Cielo Vista Branch, 1300 Hawkins Blvd, El Paso, TX 79925.