The Sleepy Lagoon Case

Sleepy Lagoon

Sleepy Lagoon Case

After World War II Chicanos returned home to their barrios with new hope. The G.I. Bill provided Chicano veterans with new opportunities for education, job training, and home loans that were never possible before. Economic competition for semi-skilled industrial jobs created tensions between Chicanos and whites in the greater Los Angeles area.

One major event was the "Sleepy Lagoon case." On August 2, 1942, José Díaz was found unconscious on a rural road near Los Angeles, apparently the victim of a severe beating. He passed away never regaining consciousness. His death was a result of a fracture at the base of the skull. No weapon was found or proof of murder established. Díaz had participated in a gang rumble the preceding evening at a nearby swimming hole. As a result 23 Chicanos and 1 Anglo who had participated in the fighting were charged with murder.

Two of the indicted youths asked for the separate trials and were subsequently released. The other 22 were tried together on 66 charges. The Judge Charles W. Fricke made it known of his bias against Mexicans, and the prosecution repeatedly called attention to the racial aspects of the trial. Throughout the court proceedings the defendants were denied haircuts and a change of clothing. They wanted the defendants to resemble the prosecution's stereotype of the unkempt Mexican.

In January 1943, the jury found 3 of the youths guilty of first-degree murder, 9 guilty of second-degree murder, and 5 guilty of assault. The remaining 5 were found not guilty. In October 1944, the California Distract Court Appeals unanimously reversed the lower court's verdict, dismissing the charges for lack of evidence.

Even though the charges were dropped, The Sleepy Lagoon case had widespread negative repercussions. The Los Angeles papers exploited the situation by using sensational journalism to emphasize Chicano crime. The pressure was now on the police to stop this so called "crime wave." The police reacted with systematic roundups of Chicano teenagers. This included police harassment of Chicano youth clubs, arrests based on race and mere suspicion, and over policing of Chicanos barrios. It got to the point where Washington put pressure on the newspapers to stop using the word "Mexican" in crime stories. The papers replaced it with nonspecific but negative racial epithets of "Pachucos" and "Zoot suiters".

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