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Trials Reawaken Memories of Sleepy Lagoon

Before the beatings of Rodney King and Reginald Denny, there was Sleepy Lagoon.

It’s one of the darkest pages of L.A. history, replete with many of the issues that surround today’s court proceedings involving King, the black motorist, and Denny, the white truck driver. There were charges of racism and an unfair judicial system. Unfair trials lead to race wars, many warned.

Despite the passage of 50 years, many of the problems that plagued Los Angeles then still exist.

To this day, many who lived through the Sleepy Lagoon case recall the period with sadness and rage. The Mexican kids of that era--terms such as Latinos and Mexican-Americans were unheard of then--learned that they were hated. Others didn’t like the way they looked, the way they dressed or the way they talked. A longtime family friend recalled for me an incident in 1942 that typified the feelings of the period. At the time, Juanita Valencia Goodwin was an impressionable 16-year-old who was pregnant.

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“I was walking in downtown and there were these four soldiers, walking abreast coming toward me on Broadway,” Goodwin remembered. “I had nothing on my mind, I was just walking. They stopped me and jostled me around. They were very disrespectful. Well, it didn’t occur to me then, but they were doing it for a reason. That’s the way a lot of people treated Mexicans in those days.

“Would they have done that to a white woman? I think not.”

Sleepy Lagoon wasn’t a lagoon at all. It was an abandoned rock quarry on a ranch near the present-day Eastside intersection of Atlantic Boulevard and Slauson Avenue. It was a swimming hole for youngsters and a lovers lane by night.

In the summer of 1942, a party attended by a host of Mexican youths was held in a ranch house near the swimming hole. Gate-crashers found their way to the fiesta and fighting quickly broke out. In the melee that followed, one man, Jose Diaz, was found dead.

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L.A.'s media, led by the Hearst newspapers, demanded that authorities round up the killers. Three hundred Mexicans were detained; 22 of them were indicted on various charges, including first-degree murder and assault. Eventually, they went to trial.

Included in the evidence in the 1943 case was the assessment of Mexicans by a Sheriff’s Department “expert” on foreign relations. Said the expert:

“Let us view it from the biological basis. . . . Total disregard for human life has been always been universal throughout the Americas in the human population. And this Mexican element feels a desire to kill or at least to draw blood.”

The defendants, most of them minors, weren’t allowed to shower at times during their trial. They weren’t allowed to wear clean clothes. They were allowed to consult with their lawyers only at lunch and during rest periods in the proceedings.

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The anti-Mexican bias in the trial also was felt in the streets. Acting on complaints that U.S. servicemen were being harassed by Mexican youths, more than 1,000 uniformed servicemen, armed with clubs and bottles, went on a three-day rampage in L.A., attacking anyone thought to be Mexican or dressed in the stylish zoot suits of the era.

Police looked the other way as thousands of innocent youths were clubbed, stripped of their clothes or had their hair sheared.

For Mexicans--many of whom had children overseas fighting Hitler’s Nazism or Japanese imperialism--the zoot suit riots made them question America’s legitimacy as a democracy.

So, in the midst of the street violence against Mexicans, it was no surprise that 12 were convicted of murder and assault. Five others were convicted of lesser charges. And five were acquitted.

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The papers gleefully reported the convictions, crowing that the “goons"--a nickname coined for those accused in the Sleepy Lagoon case--got what they deserved.

Although the convictions were reversed in 1944, L.A.'s Spanish-speaking community was emotionally wounded by Sleepy Lagoon and the racism that accompanied the case.

It would take racism in L.A.'s public schools and the Vietnam War to galvanize the Sleepy Lagoon generation to put away years of ambivalence about World War II L.A. and demand justice for themselves and their Chicano offspring.

This Saturday night, a dinner to benefit the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research in South-Central L.A. will be held in Santa Monica to mark the 50th anniversary of the infamous case.

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The dinner talk, no doubt, will be about King and Denny and how L.A. still suffers from Sleepy Lagoon.


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