Column: This forgotten man’s death led to Zoot Suit riots

Jose Diaz’s grave is in an elevated section of Calvary Cemetery in East Los Angeles overlooking the 60 Freeway and the Metro Gold Line. You can see a good portion of the Eastside from here.

What you can’t tell from here is how Diaz’s death has profoundly changed LA. His final resting place is one of thousands of long-forgotten graves in one of the city’s oldest cemeteries. He deserves so much more.

In the early morning hours of August 2, 1942, the 22-year-old was found on the side of the road in what is now Montebello with a broken skull, broken finger, turned-down trouser pockets and stab wounds to the stomach. Diaz, who had just left a party where a fight broke out, died hours later at Los Angeles County General Hospital.

Within days, police officers rounded up hundreds of young Mexican-American men in the case that became known as Sleepy Lagoon after a reservoir was used as a swimming hole by Latinos when public pools were segregated.

The district attorney charged 22 of them with Diaz’s murder; a jury sent 12 of the accused to San Quentin; A judge sentenced a group of teenage girls to a reform school for refusing to cooperate with authorities.

The local press – including this paper – demonized Mexican youth as inherently violent and un-American, particularly because of the big coats, bigger pants, and big hairstyles they wore in the face of wartime rationing. Less than a year later, that racist stew evolved into the so-called Zoot Suit Riots, in which white soldiers attacked Mexicans in and around downtown LA and Boyle Heights while law enforcement largely looked on and the media cheered.

The dual injustices of the trial and the riots upset the Mexican-American community. The Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee, supported by Hollywood stars like Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth and Crusade journalists Carey McWilliams and Charlotta Bass, paid for the successful appeals of all the defendants found guilty of Diaz’s murder and publicized their case. Subsequent generations of Chicanos healed the communal scar of the Zoot Suit riots through mythologization pachucos and pachucas — a once derogatory nickname for the Chicano lads and gals of the era who dressed the role — as rebels opposed to a racist justice system.

This story is repeated many times in Southern California in movies, plays, television shows, songs, and social media. There is only one person who is almost always overlooked in this story.


So this month, on the 80th anniversary of his death, I went to his grave to pay my respects – and to see if anyone else could do the same.

At 8am the only sounds were the distant groundskeepers mowers and the crunching of dried grass under my feet.

Ants crawled over Diaz’s tombstone, a concrete slab covered by a metal template of a cross surrounded by roses. His full name and years of life were in the middle, along with the legend “Recuerdo de sus padres y hermanos‘ – ‘A memento of Jose’s parents and siblings.’ In the upper right corner was the abbreviation EPD for en paz descanse – Rest in peace.

While waiting for other mourners to arrive, I refreshed myself with the reading material I had brought for the day, which revealed that Diaz never found peace in death.

No one has ever been convicted of Diaz’s murder, which remains an open case, and no one has ever provided legitimate leads to authorities.

I was flipping through a fundraising pamphlet published by the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee, which stated, without any evidence whatsoever, that Diaz died because he fell into a ditch while drunk and was then hit by a car.

I skimmed Zoot Suit, the cult play by Chicano legend Luis Valdez that morphed into a cult film starring another Chicano legend, Edward James Olmos. On stage and screen, Diaz’s murder deserves just a few lines, lest it detract from the supposedly greater tragedy of what happened to his accused killers and the victims of rampaging sailors and soldiers.

I pulled up on my phone a 2020 story by my colleague Carolina A. Miranda about a proposed memorial to the Sleepy Lagoon trial and Zoot suit riots at Riverfront Park in Maywood, across the Los Angeles River, where Diaz’s body was found, and just down the river 710 Freeway from Calvary Cemetery. The memorial’s creators described what happened to Diaz as an “incident” that was not meant to overshadow anything else that followed.

I waited. Nobody came by. I went to lunch.

A page of a newspaper with the headline "Zoot suiters learn lesson in fighting with soldiers."

Coverage of the Zoot Suit riots and a Congressional inquiry into Japanese Americans in the June 7, 1943 edition of the Los Angeles Times.

(Los Angeles Times)

When I came back, Cavalry had a new soundtrack – crying. funerals. The living remember those who have recently died. Wreaths and coffin flowers embellished the scene. None have bloomed for Diaz yet.

He was buried in an area where almost everyone around him had died in 1942. A few steps from his tomb was a ward for infants and young children. Many had the same headstone design as the one Diaz’s family chose – but under “EPD” they featured bubble glass portraits of the deceased.

On my phone, I was looking at notes from an interview with Eduardo Obregón Pagán, an Arizona State professor of history. His 2003 book, Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon: Zoot Suits, Race, & Riot in Wartime LA, remains the only major work dealing with who Diaz was.

“It’s a series of injustices that came out of his death,” Pagán told me. “After that he was completely lost.”

Pagán’s book revealed that Diaz was a farm laborer, the eldest son of a Mexican immigrant family, who was due to report to the army boot camp the day after his death. The professor tracked down two of Diaz’s surviving siblings, who said their family was devastated by his death and felt pain every time Chicanos defended the Sleepy Lagoon defendants. They felt that Diaz was little more than a sacrificial lamb at the altar pachuquismo.

“Joe was emblematic of so much indifference towards Mexican workers,” Pagán said, referring to Diaz by the name his siblings gave him and which he had signed on his draft card. “He meant nothing to the public other than the contributions he could make to them.”

Pagán did not discount the legal travesty that was the Sleepy Lagoon trial and the Zoot Suit riots. But he did partially tie the erasure of Diaz’s history to Valdez’s “Zoot Suit” play.

“Given its purpose of telling the story of defiant Chicanismo in the face of oppression, Joe’s story doesn’t really fit,” he said. “As a piece of advocacy art, [the play] was very effective. But it’s not history.”

Two men in zoot suits in a parking lot full of cars.

Manny Alcaraz, 72, and Art Zamora, 45, co-organizers of the Zoot Suit Riots Cruise, pose in the parking lot of the Commerce Center in east Los Angeles.

(Steve Saldivar / Los Angeles Times)

I left Calvary for a few hours to run some errands and returned around 4, now with flowers I bought from a street vendor and a Virgin of Guadalupe prayer card from a Catholic gift shop. The funerals were over, the janitors were gone. Families visited other burial sites. Ice cream trucks rang in surrounding neighborhoods. The bells rang at Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine across 3rd Street, north of the cemetery.

Messages I sent to Diaz’s surviving family were never returned. But as I approached his grave, I saw the telltale plastic wrap of a bouquet of flowers. Did I miss a visitor? No, the flowers were on someone else’s grave who died in 1942.

I stayed until the cemetery closed at 6am. No one came to leave him return.

A week later, Pagán sent me transcripts of interviews given to American Experience by two of Diaz’s deceased siblings, Lino Diaz and Soccoro Diaz Blanchard. The PBS history series aired an hour-long episode about the Zoot Suit riots in 2002, but never used the interviews and reduced Joe Diaz’s life to the only known photograph of him: a slight smile, a sharp mustache and a pachuco-style shirt with a wide collar.

Lino told director Joseph Tovares that his family was wronged. He says the Sleepy Lagoon defendants mocked his brother’s death by giggling during their trial while the local papers “never explained anything about our family, our background.” Worse, his father suffered a nervous breakdown after his brother’s death and avoided Lino’s son for the simple reason that the boy’s name was also Joe.

Blanchard felt the same sadness. “We hadn’t even started to get over it [Joe’s] death,” when the Sleepy Lagoon defendants were released, she told American Experience. At one point, someone at work handed her a petition asking for the accused murderers of her brother to be released. She tore it up.

“All the publicity was for her,” Blanchard said, “and nothing about what happened to mine [family], Nothing. It was always about these young men.”

Much attention will be paid to these men next June, on the 80th anniversary of the Zoot Suit riots. There will be symposia, car tours, lectures and much more. We should remember the injustices inflicted on the Sleepy Lagoon defendants pachukos be beaten and humiliated in public just for being Mexican and make sure Los Angeles is never gripped by racial hysteria again.

But in the midst of all this, I hope someone leaves flowers on Jose Diaz’s grave. Column: This forgotten man’s death led to Zoot Suit riots

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