On August 2, 1942, 22-year-old José Gallardo Díaz was murdered near the “Sleepy Lagoon”, a popular hangout in Los Angeles. Governor Fletcher Bowron decided to use Díaz’s murder to justify an increase in policing people of Mexican decent. Intensified racial profiling resulted, causing the LA Police Department to interrogate over 600 Mexican and African Americans and arrest 22 suspects. After news broke, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, published articles that portrayed the suspects as persons of Mexican ancestry, exhibiting criminal and delinquent gangster behavior, creating a vivid and influential image.
The resulting court case, People v. Zammora found 12 defendants guilty: 3 of first-degree murder and 9 with second-degree murder. Their convictions were overturned a year later, after unveiling a lack of incriminating evidence. Díaz’s murder remains a mystery today, but the case symbolically exposed a prejudiced justice system and biased media coverage.
Justice for Díaz’s murder was not a priority. Instead, the police used the murder to damage perceptions of Mexican Americans and immigrants and increase racist policing. White American violence towards Mexican Americans escalated. The media exploited the suspects and people of color before and during the trial, resulting in senseless and merciless anti-Mexican hysteria and convictions for decades to come.