What’s Changed Since Juan Peña Diaz Was Killed?

Gustavo Arellano still has no idea who bought a tombstone for Juan Peña Diaz. A 41-year-old undocumented Mexican immigrant living in California, Diaz was killed by an Anaheim police officer in 1953. He was casually referred to as a “wetback” by newspapers of the day, and his dead body was splashed across local front pages and promptly forgotten. Arellano, who stumbled upon the vintage reports of Diaz’s death, held on to the story for three long years until an extraordinary coincidence—or, as Arellano believes, a heavenly hand of fate—connected the pair in a deeply personal way. Read “The Tomb of the Unknown ‘Wetback’.”

Arellano joined the Alta Podcast to take us behind the scenes of his incredible story, and one of the things we discussed was the blatantly racist and offensive language used by the press at the time. While words like wetback have disappeared from use in the mainstream media, some racist tropes remain. 

“You would never put the corpse of a white person, like that, on any newspaper. But for Latinos, it’s perfectly OK,” remarked Arellano, citing the infamous 2019 image of drowned migrants as a present-day example. 

“I’m not trying to sensationalize it, but I want you to know,” said Arellano, “the more things change, the more they remain the same.”

To that point, last Wednesday (about 67 years after Diaz’s death) the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals announced that it will allow President Donald Trump to divert billions in military funds for his border wall, which he’s building in part to keep out those Trump has deemed “bad hombres.” 

The next day, a court in Texas decided to allow an independent group led by former Trump adviser Steve Bannon to build its own barrier walls on private land in Hidalgo County, Texas. The proposed wall has faced many barriers of its own, not least of which are the landowners on whose property the wall is slated to be built. Read Alta’s report “Who Owns the Border?

While last week’s court decisions seem to support the anti-immigrant rhetoric so often found on Trump’s Twitter feed—and in Orange County newspapers of 1953—some decisions have swayed in the opposite direction. For example, last October, the Yolo County Board of Supervisors voted to end a federal contract to house migrant children in the county’s detention center. We wrote about that, too.

Juan Peña Diaz’s grave can now be found at Holy Sepulcher Cemetery in Orange, California. If he’s free, Arellano will gladly meet you there.

Beth Spotswood

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Altatude: This Week’s Cartoon
“Text Dad, he’ll know.”

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Our recommendations for this week’s best writing about California and the West.
Two States. Eight Textbooks. Two American Stories. — New York Times

• The Delta’s Sinking Islands — San Francisco Chronicle

She Embodied the Hopes for L.A.’s Cannabis Program. Can She Overcome Its Stumbles? — Los Angeles Times

Regional Buses Serving Yosemite Are Going Electric — Streetsblog

Newly Free from Prison, a Man Who Killed at Age 14 Atones for His Past and Looks to His Future — San Diego Union-Tribune
Support Alta and our event partners at these upcoming events:
Tonight: There are few places where mobility has shaped identity as widely as the American West. In her book Collisions at the Crossroads, Genevieve Carpio argues that mobility, both permission to move freely and prohibitions on movement, helped shape racial formation in the eastern suburbs of Los Angeles and the Inland Empire throughout the 20th century. By examining policies and forces as different as historical societies, Native American boarding schools, bicycle ordinances, immigration policy, incarceration, traffic checkpoints, and Route 66 heritage, she shows how local authorities constructed a racial hierarchy by allowing some people to move freely while placing limits on the mobility of others. Details: Huntington Library, 1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino, 4 p.m., free.
Monday, January 20: Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Katherine Ellison discusses her compelling memoir, Mothers & Murderers: A True Story of Love, Lies, Obsession...and Second Chances. The book takes readers on a wild tragicomic ride from the criminal courtrooms of California’s Silicon Valley to the Himalayan mountains of Pakistan to the deserts of Ethiopia. In delightful, insightful prose, Ellison reflects on her mistakes and her triumphs as she weaves together the stories of how her acclaimed career almost ended before it began, how she nearly missed marrying the love of her life, and how she unwittingly got drawn into a stranger-than-fiction murder case. Details: Books Inc., 1875 S. Bascom Ave., Ste. 600, Campbell, 7 p.m., free.
Wednesday, January 22: Come meet Kevin Thaddeus Fisher-Paulson, beloved all over the San Francisco Bay Area for the stories of family he has told as a weekly columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. While telling his stories, he has stumbled over more than a few truths about foster care, gay marriage, interracial family, rescue dogs, and cupcakes. Many thousands of print readers in Northern California, as well as digital readers around the world, are touched every week by those truths. How We Keep Spinning...! is the first bound collection of his selected columns. These are the stories of Fisher-Paulson, a cop, and his husband, Brian, a dancer, along the journey of raising two challenging boys in the Bedlam Blue Bungalow of the outer, outer, outer, outer Excelsior, that most mysterious edge of San Francisco. These stories have drawn a loyal readership of interracial and adoptive families, families dealing with learning challenges and disabilities, gays and lesbians, and people who love S.F. Details: Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera, 6 p.m., free.
Tuesday, January 28: Acclaimed writer, bestselling author, and founder of Salon magazine, David Talbot has brought us masterful and explosive stories for over 25 years with books like BrothersThe Devil’s Chessboard, and Season of the Witch. Now for the first time, he turns inward in Between Heaven and Hell, an intimate journey through the life-changing year following his stroke—a year that turned his life upside down and ultimately saved him. Talbot examines the physical, emotional, and psychological impact his stroke has had on his identity. Along the way, he offers readers insider stories on the early days of internet journalism and insights into the new tech culture, the down and dirty of Hollywood, and much more. He’ll be in conversation with Blaise Zerega, managing editor of AltaDetails: Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera, 7 p.m., free.
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