Latino Studies Sleepy Lagoon Murder Trial
by
Eduardo Obregón Pagán
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199913701-0022

Introduction

In early August 1942 a fight broke out at a birthday celebration in rural Los Angeles County. In the aftermath, twenty-two-year-old José Díaz, a guest at the party, was found mortally wounded near a reservoir popularly known as “the sleepy lagoon.” In response to his death, and to ongoing public fear that the wartime law enforcement agencies were inadequately staffed, the governor’s office urged Los Angeles law enforcement agencies to crack down on juvenile delinquency. The police and sheriff’s office coordinated a massive dragnet, arresting hundreds of young people, and eventually charged twenty-two young men with Díaz’s murder. The trial People v. Zammora, dubbed the “Sleepy Lagoon murder trial” by the press, was held from October 1942 to January 1943. The prosecution based part of its case on the “distinctive appearance” of the accused, arguing that their love of jazz fashion was evidence of their social deviancy. Despite the lack of evidence or eyewitnesses, seventeen of the accused were given sentences that ranged from life in prison to a year in the county jail. Five were found innocent. A diverse group of community activists were convinced that the trial was improperly conducted and drew on Hollywood celebrities such as Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, and Anthony Quinn to raise money for a retrial. All the charges against the defendants were dropped two years later on appeal. The death of José Díaz remains officially unsolved.

General Overviews

Very soon after the conclusion of People v. Zammora, community activists began circulating tracts to argue that powerful interests in Los Angeles conspired to convict the young men. Written by a Hollywood screenwriter, Endore 1944 was the first to argue that the jurors had been manipulated by publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, who used his Los Angeles newspapers to fuel “anti-Mexican hysteria”—a deep-seated hatred of Mexicans for their racial, cultural, and linguistic differences—and to affect the outcome of the trial. Greenfield 1943 echoes Endore’s assertion, although the author’s real purpose was to highlight what she saw as racial prejudice in the case. McWilliams 1949 expands on Endore’s charge, accusing the Los Angeles mayor’s office and military authorities of conspiring with Hearst to promote attacks on Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans. Luis Valdez’s Broadway musical and 1981 movie Zoot Suit, inspired by Endore’s tract, renewed popular interest in the trial, although scholarly works such as Acuña 2011, Mazón 1984, and Escobar 1999 include the trial as part of larger discussions of the social climate of wartime Los Angeles. These works utilize a variant of Endore’s thesis to explain the outcome of the trial, that anti-Mexican hysteria motivated the jurors to find the accused guilty of Díaz’s death. Two book-length studies have taken a comprehensive look at what happened in the Los Angeles courtroom, and, in so doing, break with that thesis. Pagán 2003 explores the flawed nature of the criminal investigation into Díaz’s death and shows how the personalities involved in the trial, from the judge to the attorneys, and the jury, both clashed and cooperated in a way that contributed to the trial’s outcome. Weitz 2010 brings the perspective of a former professor of history and practicing attorney and sheds new light on the significance of the trial, the legal context of the court’s ruling in the case, and the courtroom dynamics to legal history.

  • Acuña, Rodolfo. Occupied America: A History of Chicanos. 7th ed. Boston: Longman, 2011.

    E-mail Citation »

    The first overview of Mexican American history from a Chicano nationalist perspective. Acuña utilizes the anti-Mexican thesis—the notion that white Americans despise Mexicans because they are Mexican—to interpret the ebb and flow of Mexican American history and to explain how white Americans came to dominate land that once belonged to Mexico. Devotes part of a chapter to the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial.

  • Endore, Guy. The Sleepy Lagoon Mystery. Los Angeles: Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee, 1944.

    E-mail Citation »

    This short booklet provided an interpretation to why the jury convicted the accused despite the lack of evidence, and why the Zoot Suit riot broke out some five months later. Endore charged that William Randolph Hearst used his Los Angeles newspapers to foment anti-Mexican hysteria. Reprinted in 1972 (San Francisco: R and E Research).

  • Escobar, Edward J. Race, Police, and the Making of a Political Identity: Mexican Americans and the Los Angeles Police Department, 1900–1945. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

    E-mail Citation »

    Sweeping political reforms in Los Angeles, in reaction to the rampant vice of the 1920s and 1930s, led to the creation of stringent police policies and practices that affected the minority neighborhoods of Los Angeles with special harshness, according to Escobar. The crackdown on criminalized social practices led to the creation of the perception that minority youth of the 1940s were out of control.

  • Greenfield, Alice [McGrath]. The Sleepy Lagoon Case: A Pageant of Prejudice. Los Angeles: Citizens’ Committee for the Defense of Mexican American Youth, 1943.

    E-mail Citation »

    McGrath sought to document the poor treatment of Mexican Americans in the United States and argued that the trial’s outcome was simply one more demonstration of racial prejudice.

  • Mazón, Mauricio. The Zoot-Suit Riots: The Psychology of Symbolic Annihilation. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1984.

    E-mail Citation »

    Uses psychoanalytic theory to explore why sailors experienced anti-Mexican hysteria in rioting against zoot-suited youth, arguing that they were enacting rituals of erasure against civilian youth that they themselves had been subjected to when inducted into the military.

  • McWilliams, Carey. North from Mexico: The Spanish-Speaking People of the United States. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1949.

    E-mail Citation »

    The first survey of Mexican American history written for a popular audience. McWilliams sought to highlight a history of racial injustice and devoted a chapter to the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial. In so doing, he strove to present evidence that Mexican Americans could contribute positively to American society when given the chance, despite the obstacles before them. New edition published in 1990 (New York: Greenwood), updated by Matt S. Meier.

  • Pagán, Eduardo Obregón. Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon: Zoot Suits, Race, and Riot in Wartime L.A. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

    E-mail Citation »

    Arguing against the anti-Mexican thesis as the sole cause for the social crises of the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial and the Zoot Suit riot, Pagán explores how a number of social tensions prior to and during the war, among them city planning, racism, and a street-level revolt against segregation, culminated in the social clashes of the 1940s.

  • Weitz, Mark A. The Sleepy Lagoon Murder Case: Race Discrimination and Mexican-American Rights. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010.

    E-mail Citation »

    Argues that in 1942, no codified rules of judicial conduct existed, and thus a number of legal safeguards that could have protected the rights of the accused were ignored or bypassed in the rush to prosecute.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.

Article

Up

Down