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What comes next for the Sleepy Lagoon boys?
That was being asked even at the moment they were released. Before they had finished greeting their parents and friends.
There was a deputy sheriff in the crowd who had an answer. "Them guys? They'll be back here. Back here before you know it."
The boys themselves have a different answer. For the immediate future they can't plan too much. They all expect to go into the service soon. Some are going to try for the merchant marine right away. Just take a few to bask in the glorious feeling of being free. The others expect to get jobs and work until they are called for the service.
But that just answers part of the question. To get the rest of it you have to go back a bit. Say about two years.
Take the three boys who were convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. What were your plans on the day of January 13, 1943? What were your ambitions, Henry Leyvas? What did you figure to do, Bobby Telles? And how about you, Chepe Ruiz? You were young. Henry, 19, and Bobby and Chepe 17 years old. Lots of years ahead of you.
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The greatest ambition then was to do "good time." If you do good time, and the breaks are with you, you can make it out of the joint in ten years - maybe twelve, fifteen. You figure this way —17 and 15 makes you 32. Still a young man. You say, "People sure must hate Mexicans to do this to us."
That's the way it stacks up in January, 1943.
Unless......unless a miracle happens. And it did. The miracle of
― 2 ―a lot of people - each one helpless alone to do something - joined together in indignation and fury to become strong. The miracle of a tiny voice of protest grwoing[sic] into a roaring demand for the freedom of the victims of race hatred. A roar that echoed through the State Capitol, through the Hall of Justice in Los Angeles, across the country, dwon through Mexico and South America, and banged against the steel doors at San Quentin.
The defense committee persisted ..grew. Important names and anonymous individuals took a stand. Big organizations, little groups came forward to offer help.
No newspaper told the real story of the case at first. Then a few. Gradually the number increases until after a few months it is not too surprising to see favorable stories in papers from New York, Dallas, Chicago, Denver, Mexico City..
A pamphlet is printed about the case. Forty thousand distributed. Forty thousand people reading about the case. Who are they? A booklet is written by a famous novelist. Another 35,000 people read that. They are aroused. Send in money to pay for the campaign. Labor contributes to the campaign. There are parties, meetings, concerts. All to help the case.
People come to visit San Quentin. They say, "We are with you." And letters. From all over. "We are for you," they say.
Attorneys are working on the case. Good attorneys. The best.
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What do you say, fellows? What do you plan now?
Well, it seems there is hope. We're almost afraid hope, but, well, with all those people helping.....
There's where you find your answer. For month after month they watched,
― 3 ―almost incredulous, the growth of the popular support of their case. They said over and over, "If we ever get out of here we will nover be able to pay back what the people are doing for us. We wish we could thank every single person."
Then they were told — You have a way. A better way than you think. You can take your place with these people. This is only one battle one. You can take part in the fight to unify the Mexican people, in the fight to end discrimination not only in the courts but in every aspect of the life of our nation, in the fight to give dignity to the lives of all the people. This is your way to say thanks. To show you understand for what we fought. To continue the fight.
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The first day of their release, Bobby Telles, Chepe Ruiz and Henry Leyvas appeared on the CIO Radio Program OUR DAILY BREAD. They told the audience, "We couldn't wait to get here. We know what labor has done." Chepe said, "When you are prison you have a lot of time to think. We used to think about Judge Fricke and get mad. Then we used to think about the people who were helping us and it made us feel good." Henry can't vote, even though he is now 21. Little matter of not being able to register at San Quentin. But he said, "The next best thing to being able to vote for Roosevelt is to tell everybody I know to vote for him. I figure if Dewey Gets elected worse things than the Sleepy Lagoon case will happen — and they won't have a happy ending, either." Bobby says, "I guess we'll go in the service pretty quick now. That's ok with me. I figure there's something to fight for."
We can be proud of them. They went to prison young, Mexican-American boys not knowing why they went. They have come out with an
― 4 ―understanding of the deep significance of the Sleepy Lagoon case. Ready to fight the conditions that made it possible. Those are their plans for the future.