California

Man murdered, crime blamed on “gang” with no evidence against them (1942)

August 2, 1942
Los Angeles, California
22-year-old José Gallardo Díaz is found unconscious and dying, indirectly sparking the Zoot Suit Riots

Díaz was found beaten, stabbed, and unconscious by a group attempting to move their vehicle from a ditch. He was taken to a hospital but died the same day, never regaining consciousness. The coroner examining Díaz’s body noted he had a fractured skull, seemingly from being struck by a car, as well as stab wounds, bruising, and bloody knuckles.

Police immediately suspected and arrested 25 Hispanic teens and young men who lived on and near 38th Street, and who often had run-ins with police for various incidents including racing cars and fighting. The media blamed a surge in “Mexican crime” on the “zoot suiters,” using Díaz’s murder to substantiate their claim. Additionally, during trial, the defendants were not permitted to change clothing as the judge wanted the jury to see the “hoodlums” in their zoot suits. The judge also allowed E. Duran Ayres, the chief of the Foreign Relations Bureau of the Los Angeles sheriff’s office, to testify against the defendants, stating that, due to their Mexican heritage, they had a “biological predisposition” to kill, and referenced Aztec human sacrifices as his proof. Of the 25 arrested, 17 were indicted and 12 found guilty.

On the coattails of the boys’ arrests, a further 600 Hispanic people were arrested on August 10 for various crimes ranging from theft to assault. The increasing tensions between the Hispanic community and the police force, as well as white citizens angry over the rise of Mexican workers filling the vacant positions of soldiers fighting in World War II, eventually culminated in June of 1943 in the Zoot Suit Riots. Though the riots lasted a week, no one was killed.

In 1944, the defendants’ convictions were reversed due to insufficient evidence presented against them. The judge presiding was also criticized for his bias against the defendants and for not giving them their due process. Additionally, a Citizens’ Committee addressed the issue of racism in the Díaz case and the subsequent targeting of Hispanics, stating “In undertaking to deal with the cause of these outbreaks, the existence of race prejudice cannot be ignored.”

Diaz’s murder remains unsolved.

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