On August 2, 1942, Jose Diaz is murdered, and his body is found at the Sleepy Lagoon reservoir, near Los Angeles, California. Two days later, police began to round up and arrest 22 men of Mexican descent in the Los Angeles area for conspiring to kill Diaz. Despite a lack of evidence, the 22 men were eventually prosecuted for beating Diaz to death. The trial and subsequent convictions characterized a period of racial prejudice and injustice in Los Angeles during World War II.
Media coverage surrounding the trial was particularly troubling. The Los Angeles Examiner referred to young Mexican Americans as “hoodlums.” A captain from the Los Angeles Sheriff’s office told a grand jury that Mexicans had a “biological tendency” to be violent since they were descendants of Indian tribes who practiced human sacrifice. He went on to say that they had a “total disregard for human life” and an inbred “desire to use a knife or some lethal weapon. In other words, [a Mexican’s] desire is to kill, or at least, let blood.”
Despite the concerted efforts of a defense committee that had been put together by liberal activists and Hollywood actors, 17 of the accused were convicted and 12 were sent to San Quentin prison.
Over the course of the following year, hostility between white people and Hispanics became so inflamed by the press, police, and city officials that the so-called “Zoot Suit Riots” broke out the next summer. Allegedly, about a dozen sailors had been attacked by a group of Mexicans wearing zoot suits-long coats with exaggerated shoulder pads and loose pleated pants. On June 3, 1943, 50 Navy sailors responded to the assault by combing the streets in cabs, stopping to beat anyone wearing the popular Hispanic outfit. By the next day, hundreds more sailors had joined in the hunt. These unprovoked attacks continued for several days. On June 7, The Los Angeles Examiner reported that Mexicans would be out to retaliate, causing a civilian panic. The following day, the Los Angeles City Council passed an ordinance that made wearing a zoot suit a misdemeanor.
Finally, on June 8, U.S. military commanders restricted military personnel to their bases in Los Angeles, and the turmoil ended. A court of appeals eventually overturned the convictions of all 12 of the defendants in the Sleepy Lagoon case, and they were released after two years in prison.
READ MORE: What Were the Zoot Suit Riots?