Digital History ID 605
Citizens' Committee for the Defense of Mexican-American Youth
Sleepy Lagoon was an eastside Los Angeles reservoir. It was also a swimming hole and recreation center for Mexican Americans forbidden from swimming at segregated public pools. In 1942, it became a synonym of injustice and racial hatred and a starting point in the Mexican American struggle for equal justice.
On August 1, 1942, a party at Sleepy Lagoon turned violent. Fighting broke out and twenty-one year-old José Diaz was beaten to death. The local press launched a campaign against Mexican American youth.
The early 1940s in Los Angeles was the era of the "pachuco," Latino men who favored the long coats, wide pants, and long watch chains of the zoot suit. The press did a series of articles on pachuco gangs. As public outrage about the pachucos grew, sheriff's officials conducted a sweep through the city's barrios, arresting more than six hundred young men in the Sleepy Lagoon case. A grand jury eventually indicted twenty-four for murder, making the court proceedings one of the largest mass trials in American history. The defendants were referred to in the press as "The Sleepy Lagooners," and then simply as "goons." In the courtroom they were demonized as bloodthirsty hoodlums.
Access to justice was a central issue in the Sleepy Lagoon case. Only two of the defendants had attorneys and the defendants were placed in a separate "prisoners' box." Openly biased testimony was admitted into the trial record. One Sheriff's Department expert testified that "total disregard for human life has always been universal throughout the Americas among the Indian population. And this Mexican element feels...a desire...to kill, or at least draw blood." At the trial, none of the witnesses ever testified that they saw anyone strike the victim. Some of the defendants couldn't be placed at the murder scene.
An appeals court later overturned all the convictions and severely reprimanded Judge Charles W. Fricke for displaying prejudice and hostility toward the defendants. After two years in jail and prison, the Sleepy Lagoon defendants were set free.
Strong support for the defendants came from the Citizens' Committee for the Defense of Mexican-American Youth. Excerpts from their report on the case follow.
On the night of August 2nd, 1942, one José Diaz left a...party at the Sleepy Lagoon ranch near Los Angeles, and sometime...that night he died. It seems clear that Diaz was drinking heavily and fell into a roadway and was run over by a car. Whether or not he was also in a brawl before he was run over is not clear.
On January 13th, fifteen American-born boys of Mexican descent and two boys born in Mexico stood up to hear the verdict of a Los Angeles court. Twelve of them were found guilty of having conspired to murder Diaz, five were convicted of assault. Their sentences ranged from a few months to life imprisonment.
The lawyers say there is good reason to believe the seventeen boys were innocent, and no evidence at all to show even that they were present at the time that Diaz was involved in a brawl, assuming that he actually was in a brawl, let alone that they "conspired" to murder José Diaz. Two other boys whose lawyers demanded a separate trial after the seventeen had been convicted, were acquitted on the same evidence....
What was the basis for this mass "prosecution"? Was it a necessary measure against a sudden, terrifying wave of juvenile delinquency? No. A report by Karl Holton of the Los Angeles Probation Department conclusively proves that "there is no wave of lawlessness among Mexican children.". . . Says Mr. Holton, we must not "lose our sense of proportion. The great majority of Mexican children are not involved in these delinquent activities." . . . He points out with factual clarity, the small war-time increase in delinquency among Mexican boys was much less than the increase in the total for all racial groups....
"Seventeen for one!" thundered the Los Angeles District Attorney and the Los Angeles press.... It became clear that...the ...boys were not standing alone at the bar of "justice."
It wasn't only seventeen boys who were on trial.
It was the whole Mexican people, and their children and their grandchildren....
The weak evidence upon which the conviction was obtained consisted largely of statements given by these boys after they had been manhandled and threatened with beatings or been actually beaten...to give any statement desired by the police, in order to avoid further beating. The judge and the prosecuting attorneys worked as a...team to bring about the convictions. The newspapers continued to blast their stories about the "zoos suit gangsters" and with a jury with no Mexican member....
It began to be that kind of a trial.... The Los Angeles papers started it by building for a "crime wave" even before there was a crime. "MEXICAN GOON SQUADS." "ZOOT SUIT GANGS. "PACHUCO KILLERS. "JUVENILE GANG WAR LAID TO YOUTHS' DESIRE TO THRILL." Those were...the headlines building for August 3rd.
On August 3rd the death of José Diaz was scarehead news. And the stories were of Mexican boys "prowling in wolf-packs," armed with clubs and knives and automobile tools and tire irons, invading peaceful homes....
On August 3rd every Mexican kid in Los Angeles was under suspicion as a "zoos-suit" killer. Cops lined up outside of dance halls, armed with pokers to which sharp razor blades were attached, and they ripped the peg-top trousers and "zootsuits" of the boys as they came out.
Mexican boys were beaten, jailed. "Zoos-suits" and "Pachuco" hair cuts were crimes. It was a crime to be born in the U.S.A.-of a Spanish-speaking father or mother....
After the grand jury . . . returned an indictment and before the trial...began, Mr. Ed. Duran Ayres...of the Sheriff's Office, filed a statement.
That statement is the key to the Sleepy Lagoon case.
It isn't nice reading, but you will have to read . . . it to understand why Sleepy Lagoon challenges every victory-minded person in the United States, Jew or Protestant or Catholic, Spanish-speaking or Mayflower descendant, immigrant or native-born.
"The biological basis," said Mr. Ayres, "is the main basis to work from"...: We are at war. We are at war not only with the armies of the Axis powers, but with...Hitler and with his theories of race supremacy....
When the Spaniards conquered Mexico they found an organized society composed of many tribes of Indians ruled over by the Aztecs who were given over to human sacrifice. Historians record that as many as 30,000 Indians were sacrificed . . . in one day, their bodies ... opened by stone knives and their hearts torn out.... This total disregard for human life has always been universal throughout the Americas among the Indian population, which of course is well known to everyone.... This Mexican element ... knows and feels ... a desire to use a knife or some lethal weapon.... His desire is to kill. or at least let blood....
We are at war with the premise on which seventeen boys were tried and convicted in Los Angeles, sentenced to ... prison terms on January 13th.... We are at war with the Nazi logic...set forth by Mr. Ed. Duran Ayres, the logic which guided the judge and jury and dictated the verdict and the sentence.
And because this global war is everywhere a people's war,...all of us together take up the challenge of Sleepy Lagoon.
Source: The Sleepy Lagoon Case, prepared by the Citizens' Committee for the Defense of Mexican-American Youth, Los Angeles, 1942.
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