History of Latino Gangs in California: Part I – The Sleepy Lagoon Murder & The Zoot Suit Riots

zootsuitThe majority of my story, The Poe Consequence, takes place in modern day Los Angeles, and prominently features two fictional Latino gangs – The Alvarado Street Diablos and The North Rampart Lobos. The following is a brief history of the origin of Latino gangs in Los Angeles.

The L.A. area has had a long history of gang activity. As early as the 1920s, Latino youth formed “boy gangs” patterned after earlier social groups of Latino and Chicano men known as palomilla. These gangs were mostly made up of Mexican immigrants who faced discrimination upon settling in Los Angeles. In the following decades, gangs continued to multiply as youths came into conflict with the authorities.

During the 1940s, two historical events would unify the Latino population and turn much of the youth into gang members – the Sleepy Lagoon murder, and the Zoot Suit Riots.

The Sleepy Lagoon Murder

On August 2, 1942, a young Latino named José Gallardo Díaz was discovered unconscious and dying on a road near a popular swimming hole called Sleepy Lagoon. He was taken to a hospital, but died.

Despite insufficient evidence, the police arrested 17 Latino youths who were members of the 38th Street Mexican gang. The youths were charged with murder and they went on trial. The way the trial was handled angered many in the Latino community because the judge was viewed as clearly prejudiced against them. The accused were not permitted to change their clothes during the trial on the grounds that the jury should see the defendants in the zoot suits that were “obviously” only worn by “hoodlums.” Nine of the youths were convicted of second-degree murder and sent to prison. The rest were charged with lesser offenses and got locked up as well.

Eventually, the convictions were reversed in 1944 when the state Court of Appeals unanimously decided the evidence was not sufficient to sustain a guilty verdict.

Despite the reversal, stories of trouble caused by Latino youths did not stop, and the Sleepy Lagoon murder case would act as the trigger to the Zoot Suit Riots in 1943.

The Zoot Suit Riots

By the beginning of 1943, America was deeply engaged in World War II. People in Los Angeles felt vulnerable to an attack by Japan, and there were patrols throughout the city as well as anti-aircraft guns. Furthermore, tens of thousands of servicemen could be found in Los Angeles on any given weekend.

After the Sleepy Lagoon trial, the authorities singled out zoot suiters and started to associate them with crime and violence. The local press didn’t help matters either as they continued to inform the public that zoot suiters and gangsters were one and the same.

Tension came to a head on June 3rd, 1943, when eleven white sailors reported that they were attacked by zoot suiters. In retaliation, military servicemen and citizen mobs targeted and beat up anyone wearing a zoot suit. After several days, more than 150 people had been injured and police arrested more than 500 Latinos on charges ranging from “rioting” to “vagrancy”. The local press even praised the attacks by the military servicemen, describing the assaults as having a “cleansing effect” that was ridding Los Angeles of “miscreants” and “hoodlums”.

As the riots subsided, nationwide public condemnation of the military and civil officials followed. But the damage had already been done. Although the riots united the Latino community, it also made many young Latinos believe that they needed to join gangs in order to keep themselves safe.


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