Friday, February 20, 2009

Sleepy Lagoon

In August 1942, José Díaz, a young Mexican-American, was found comatose at an open reservoir at Slauson and Atlantic Boulevards in Los Angeles. He died later at the hospital. The case, known as the "Sleepy Lagoon Murder," was featured in the press for months where it was referred to as a gangland slaying. The police rounded up 300 Mexican-American youths and arrested 23 of them on murder charges, without any physical evidence. During the trial, Los Angeles police Lieutenant Edward Duran Ayres testified as an expert witness for the prosecution, claiming that people of Mexican descent were biologically prone to violence and crime due to their "oriental" Aztec ancestry (Ayres 1942). Twelve of the youth were found guilty based on this racist testimony and by the time the ruling was overturned by the U.S. District Court of Appeals in 1944, eight of the youths had spent two years in the federal penitentiary.

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Sleepy Lagoon defendants in San Quentin

The racism surrounding the Sleepy Lagoon case fueled rumors of rampant crime-waves perpetrated by Mexican-American zoot-suited youth. From 3 June to 13 June 1943 hundreds of American service men in the Los Angeles area went downtown and attacked these youth, initially targeting those wearing zoot suits, but eventually beating and stripping anyone of color they could find. Chicana women were assaulted as well. The police broke up the disturbance by arresting the victims. To add further insult to injury, the Los Angeles Times featured pictures of the victims' stripped and beaten bodies on the front page. Several sources insist that such reports, which portrayed the zoot-suited victims as members of a dangerous gang who perpetuated the riots, were strictly conjectural (see Hinojos 1975, Mazon 1984, McWilliams 1943, Pitt and Pitt 1997). Writing in the New Republic magazine, shortly after the riots, Carey McWilliams, the head of the Sleepy Lagoon defense committee, portrayed zoot-suiters, known as Pachucos, not as members of organized criminal gangs but as "loosely organized neighborhood or geographical groups. . . . Many of them are, in effect, nothing more than boys clubs without a clubhouse" (McWilliams 1943).

Pachucos represent a rebellious youth culture among Chicanos. Arturo Madrid-Barela describes how the Pachuco has become a symbol of resistance against the homogenizing effects of assimilation (Madrid Barela 1973). He notes that the Pachucos' style is derived from elements of urban black culture, such as their suits and the music they listened to, but elements of Mexican culture are maintained, in essence enacting their difference through style. Francisco J. Hinojos writes that the Pachucos emphasized their difference as urban Mexican-Americans through the use of their own dialect, Caló, a mix of English and Spanish slang with Náhuatl and archaic Spanish words (Hinojos 1975. See also Gonzales 1967).

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"We were arrested just because we are Mexicans, but
being born a Mexican is something we had no control over,
but we are proud no matter what people think. We are proud
to be Mexican American boys."
- - - Manny Reyes, Sleepy Lagoon Defendant - - -


June 3, 1943 – Thursday

A group of thirty-five Mexican American boys were having a meeting at the Central Police Station. They were discussing their neighborhood problems and the possibility of forming a club. During the meeting a report came in stating that a group of sailors was roaming the Alpine area looking for zoot-suiters in revenge for beatings they and others had sustained. When the meeting ended, the boys were taken back to their neighborhoods in squad cars to prevent incident. Thirty-five sailors attacked the boys who were taken to the Alpine district soon after they were dropped off. Two boys were badly beaten. Sailors had also entered the Carmen Theater on Carmen and Figueroa Streets and beaten a boy there. That same evening, a gang of Mexican-American Youths attacked eleven sailors on the 1700th block of North Main Street (Domer, 72-73).

June 4, 1943 – Friday

Sailors enlarged their forces to about 200 men and formed a caravan of about twenty cars and taxis to hunt Mexican American youth dressed in zoot-suits. The traveled through downtown Los Angeles and the eastside of the city, out to the suburbs as far as Belvedere Gardens. Sheriff's deputies had received riot warning and were waiting in the area with seven squad cars and additional men. The sailors left the area without incident. They returned to Alpine and Figueroa Streets where the police and Shore Patrol were waiting. Seventeen sailors were apprehended and turned over to the naval officers without charges. The other sailors were dispersed. This group of sailor was seeking revenge for the beatings of some sailors and the alleged rape of sailors' wives by Mexican American gangs. Before the dispersion of the group, the sailors managed to beat four isolated youths dressed in zoot-suits at different points of their journey. All four boys were hospitalized (Domer. 74-76).

June 5, 1943 – Saturday

Soldiers and Marines join the sailors in their attacks on zoot-suiters. Servicemen walked arms linked through downtown Los Angeles, stopping anyone wearing a zoot-suit, and ordering them to put away their suit or suffer the consequences the next night. Police made little attempt to stop the servicemen. Twenty-seven Mexican American boys were arrested and jailed that evening "on suspicion." On that same evening, sailors entered a bar on the eastside and ordered two Mexican customers wearing zoot-suits to remove their clothes. One was beaten as well as stripped when he refused to comply. The other obeyed the commands of the sailors and his cloths were destroyed. Similar events occurred throughout the city. Police did little to stop the sailors. (McWilliam, 222)

June 6, 1943 – Sunday

Six cars with Sailors drove down Brooklyn Avenue. At Ramona Boulevard, they stopped and beat up eight teenage Mexicans. They severely damaged a bar on Indiana Street when they failed to find zoot-suiters in the establishment. The police arrested eleven boys who were beaten on Carmlita Street, six more were arrested one block down the road, seven at Ford Boulevard, six at Gifford Street and through the Mexican eastside housing. Forty-four Mexican boys were arrested by morning. Civilians also partook in the riots (McWilliams, 223).

June 7, 1943 - Monday

Five thousand people filled the downtown area near Main Street. Large numbers of civilian were also among the rioters. Some were there simply for the excitement, others to aid in the hunt for and beating of zoot-suiters. Those were dressed in these suits were stripped and there cloths were destroyed, often by fire. Street cars were halted and searched for zoot-suiters. But they were no longer the only targets of the sailors and civilians. Blacks and Filipinos were also attacked. One black man, a defense worker in his work clothes was severely beaten. Another black man lost an eye when seventy-five servicemen attacked him (Domer, 83-84) Servicemen searching for zoot-suiters invaded Meralta Theater on First and St. Louis. Again, police did little to stop the servicemen, although thousands of reserve officers had been called on duty. At midnight, the military authorities declared the downtown area of Los Angeles "out of bounds" for military personnel. Arrival of the Military Police and Shore Patrol ended the riots (McWilliams, 225)

A star from on high, falls out of the sky, and slowly grows dimmer.
"Sleepy Lagoon," music by Jack Lawrence

The Sleepy Lagoon was the larger of two reservoirs used to irrigate crops on the Williams ranch in rural Los Angeles, in what is now Bell, California. For many young people in the area, it was a swimming hole by day and a lover's lane by night. The reservoir, nicknamed after a popular song of the times, was frequented mostly by Mexican American kids who were often denied access to city-owned recreation facilities. On August 1, 1942 the Sleepy Lagoon became part of Los Angeles history when the murder of a young man on the Williams ranch resulted in a violent clampdown by the police against Mexican American young people.

The night of August 1, 1942, began with romance and ended in death. In the early evening several young couples from Los Angeles' 38th Street neighborhood arrived at the Sleepy Lagoon to spend some time together. Among the couples were Hank Leyvas and Dora Barrios. Hank was one of the oldest boys that spent time on 38th Street, and was feared and respected by many. Dora was his girlfriend. As they sat in their car, under the light of a waning full moon, they were suddenly and viciously attacked by a group of boys from a rival neighborhood. Hank and Dora were beaten mercilessly.

Later that night an injured Hank returned to 38th Street and gathered reinforcements. Finding people to accompany him was not difficult. Hank was immensely popular and the boys they were going after had violated an unwritten rule by beating Hank's girlfriend Dora. Close to thirty young people -- boys and girls -- piled into cars and headed for the Sleepy Lagoon.

That same night José Díaz, born in Mexico but raised in the United States, had decided to attend a birthday party on the Williams ranch where he and other immigrant families worked and lived. José had reason to join the party: in just a few short days he would report for induction into the Army and head for boot camp. The traditional fiesta was lively -- with food, music, dance and plenty to drink.

The spot where Hank Leyvas had been beaten earlier that evening was deserted, but he and his friends could hear the sounds of the birthday party at the Williams ranch. Convinced that the boys who assaulted him were there, Hank and the others converged on the small house. The fighting was brutal. Men and women, boys and girls struggled for about ten minutes. The fight had all the markings of an Los Angeles teenage rumble, except for what neighbors discovered shortly after the fighting. Lying in the shadows was José Díaz. He had been beaten and stabbed. He died later that night at Los Angeles General Hospital.

The governor, Democrat Cuthbert L. Olson, was becoming increasingly concerned about juvenile delinquency. He used the murder of José Díaz as a call to action. The Los Angeles Police Department (L.A.P.D.) rounded up more than 600 youth -- mostly Mexican Americans known as "zoot-suiters" for the ballooned pants and long coats they wore -- and indicted Hank Leyvas and twenty-one others for José Díaz's murder. The subsequent trial dominated headlines in the City of Angels for months. The 38th Street boys were convicted in Los Angeles' tabloid journals -- and the jury agreed. Hank Leyvas was sentenced to life in San Quentin.

Within months of the convictions, Los Angeles erupted in the Zoot Suit Riot. For the better part of a week, sailors and other servicemen dragged kids off streetcars, from restaurants, and out of movie theaters. The boys were beaten and often stripped of their zoot suits. Thousands of white civilians cheered them on and helped the sailors. As the riot progressed, Mexican American boys moved to defend their neighborhoods, setting traps for sailors and assaulting them in their cars. The L.A.P.D. let the riot continue for the better part of a week. After the riot ended, the Los Angeles City Council banned the wearing of zoot suits on Los Angeles streets.

Within a year of the riots Hank Leyvas and the boys were released from prison. Their convictions in the Sleepy Lagoon case were overturned on appeal. The court ruled that there had been serious errors in the trial: a biased judge, the denial of counsel, and a lack of evidence. Authorities declined to retry the case. Whoever killed José Díaz got away with murder.

When Hank and the boys returned, the City of Angels, and their place in it, was changed forever. In little time the zoot suit style faded from view. And eventually the small reservoir known as the Sleepy Lagoon fell victim to urban sprawl and was filled in.

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