Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon: Zoot Suits, Race, and Riot in Wartime L.A.

Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon: Zoot Suits, Race, and Riot in Wartime L.A.

Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon: Zoot Suits, Race, and Riot in Wartime L.A.

Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon: Zoot Suits, Race, and Riot in Wartime L.A.


The notorious 1942 "Sleepy Lagoon" murder trial in Los Angeles concluded with the conviction of seventeen young Mexican American men for the alleged gang slaying of fellow youth Jose Diaz. Just five months later, the so-called Zoot Suit Riot erupted, as white soldiers in the city attacked minority youths and burned their distinctive zoot suits. Eduardo Obregon Pagan here provides the first comprehensive social history of both the trial and the riot and argues that they resulted from a volatile mix of racial and social tensions that had long been simmering.

In reconstructing the lives of the murder victim and those accused of the crime, Pagan contends that neither the convictions (which were based on little hard evidence) nor the ensuing riot arose simply from anti-Mexican sentiment. He demonstrates instead that a variety of pre-existing stresses, including demographic pressures, anxiety about nascent youth culture, and the war effort all contributed to the social tension and the eruption of violence. Moreover, he recovers a multidimensional picture of Los Angeles during World War II that incorporates the complex intersections of music, fashion, violence, race relations, and neighborhood activism.

Drawing upon overlooked evidence, Pagan concludes by reconstructing the murder scene and proposes a compelling theory about what really happened the night of the murder.


Dies irae, dies illa calamitatis et miseriae;
dies magna et amara valde.

Day of wrath, this day of calamity and misery;
a great and bitter day.

The blows cracked hard against his head and body, bruising him like someone had picked up a two-by-four and flailed against him mercilessly. Twenty-two-year-old José Díaz tried to duck under his lean arms to shield himself from the punishing beating, but he could feel his strength slipping away. He struggled to defend himself, punching into the dark night at the men who surrounded him, but his aim was bad. Fear surging through his mind caused him to swing wildly, and he was almost too drunk to keep his balance. He hit someone, though, three or four times, hard enough to skin his knuckles and break his finger.

What did they want? Why had he ever come to this party? He had told his mother earlier that evening that he had a strange feeling about going. His neighbors, Amelio and Angela Delgadillo, had spent weeks preparing their small shack for the birthday of their twenty-year-old daughter, Eleanor Delgadillo Coronado. the Delgadillo and Díaz families were friends and lived about a hundred yards away from each other in bunkhouses clustered around a small pond, where Italian, Chinese, and Mexican farm workers made their homes on the Williams Ranch in rural Los Angeles County. Several weeks earlier friends and neighbors had helped the Delgadillos pour a slab of cement on the patio, and they were eager to put it to good use dancing and eating good food on Saturday night, 1 August 1942.

José was one of the invited guests, and although he was not normally one to attend parties, this was his last weekend at home, and this party would be the last time he would see his friends and neighbors. Because he was born in Mexico, he was not subject to the draft, but he felt it was his duty to fight on behalf of his adopted country, and he was to report to the army recruitment center for his induction the following Monday. After confiding . . .

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