The Tomb of the Unknown ‘Wetback’

Gustavo Arellano discovers a long-forgotten grave in Orange County—and the secrets it keeps.

A black headstone marks the grave of Juan Peña Diaz, an undocumented worker from Mexico who was killed by Anaheim police in 1953.
A black headstone marks the grave of Juan Peña Diaz, an undocumented worker from Mexico who was killed by Anaheim police in 1953.
JOHN GILHOOLEY

The tears were still fresh on my cheeks as workers lowered my mother into her final resting place at Holy Sepulcher Cemetery in Orange. We had just said goodbye to Mami with a beautiful May funeral: mariachi, wails, and so many wreaths that the lawn surrounding her coffin looked like a Tournament of Roses float.

A backhoe was readied to fill in the grave as I turned to thank some of my cousins for attending. Then the Holy Sepulcher staffer helping my family that afternoon asked to speak with me privately.

“Juan can finally rest,” she said. “Do you want to see him?”

I excused myself from bewildered family members and followed the staffer. I had to. I couldn’t believe the miraculous news.

We walked a short distance and soon found the polished, black-granite gravestone of Juan Peña Diaz. An inset of Jesus surrounded by sheep was next to Juan’s dates of birth and death. Below that were the inscriptions “May You Have Found Your Peace and Justice” and “No Serás Olvidado.”

A social-justice message in English. “You won’t be forgotten” in Spanish. Universal and personal.

The staffer and I looked at Juan’s marker in silence. I had so many questions, but my grieving family waited.

“I’ll be back, Juan,” I said. “I promise.”

For more than 65 years, this Mexican immigrant had lain unloved here: killed by a police officer, erased by his brother, and ignored by relatives. But now the beautiful headstone suggested that Juan had finally received what the world never gave him while he was alive: dignity.

THE ORANGE GROVE

I first learned of Peña in the summer of 2016, when I was the editor of OC Weekly, Orange County’s alternative newspaper. Presidential candidate Donald Trump was mouthing what would become his draconian immigration policy, one in which family separations, deportations, and the demonization of undocumented immigrants would be the norm.

While many gnashed their teeth, I wasn’t surprised. Anti-immigrant rhetoric is a favorite sport of politicians. So to show that the past in California, to paraphrase William Faulkner, is not even past, I planned to write a feature story on Operation Wetback, the 1950s-era federal program that deported an estimated one million Mexicans.

The lessons from before seemed painfully relevant to the present: a country mired in malaise needed a scapegoat and found it in Mexicans.

I narrowed my research to focus on how Operation Wetback played out in Orange County. For weeks I scrolled through vinegar-scented microfilm of long-gone newspapers on creaky machines in library basements, printing out any mention of raids, any incendiary editorials. A manila folder of clippings quickly fattened, but no story jumped out to me as particularly memorable.

Until I came across the front page of the March 17, 1953, edition of the Orange Daily News.

“AUTOPSY PERFORMED ON BODY OF WETBACK SLAIN BY POLICE,” blared a headline.

A brief, straightforward article dispassionately summarized the killing that preceded the medical examination. “Juan Dias Pena” had led Anaheim police on a high-speed chase at around 1:30 in the morning and crashed into a ditch next to an orange grove in nearby Fullerton. He fled into the orchards, and an officer made what authorities described as a “clean kill” with a .38-caliber revolver. According to the article, an inquest into what had actually happened would occur within a few days.

The circumstances were outrageous enough, as was the missing tilde in Peña’s last name. But the Daily News’s headline disgusted me in a way few things ever had in my career.

Operation Wetback had so dehumanized undocumented immigrants that the newspaper’s editors had reduced a human to an ethnic slur in an article about his death. And the paper wasn’t an exception: in other articles I found about Peña, reporters freely referred to him as an “alien” or a “wetback.”

Even worse, the Fullerton News Tribune published a grainy black-and-white photo of Peña’s corpse on its front page, limp in the dirt and lying in what appears to be a pool of blood.

Even in death, Peña got no respect—and not just from newspapers.

If a police officer shot at—let alone killed—an undocumented immigrant today, there would be nationwide attention, rallies, and lawsuits. None of that happened with Peña. I found no evidence that anyone took up his cause—not the Mexican Consulate, not local activists, not the ACLU, not even mainstream Latino organizations, which actively opposed illegal immigration in the 1950s.

The “wetback” headline found a home on the wall at my OC Weekly office, a daily reminder that I had a story to uncover.

I learned that Peña’s killer, Anaheim officer Everill Heaton, originally told reporters that he had shouted a warning, then fired his gun into the base of a tree, and that the bullet had somehow hit Peña. But the autopsy, per an article in the Anaheim Bulletin, revealed that Heaton had shot Peña in the shoulder while his back was turned and that the bullet had ripped through his lungs and aorta. Peña bled to death in the dark.

A coroner’s jury nevertheless ruled his killing accidental. Heaton went on to head Anaheim’s juvenile delinquent department before winning the Irish Sweepstakes lottery in 1964 and retiring to Exeter, California.

Peña’s death certificate gave specific details on some matters but left out a few important facts. There was no cause of death given and no date of birth, although the coroner estimated Peña’s age as “about 30.” Listed were the names of Peña’s parents, his social security number, his employer, where he lived, and a burial site: Holy Sepulcher Cemetery.

Everything was in place for a great story, I thought. I just needed to visit Peña, pay my respects, and then paint the scene of a long-abandoned grave that held a disturbing story.

More weeks went by, and on a muggy autumn afternoon, I visited the campo santo—or “holy grounds,” what we Mexican Americans call cemeteries. A staffer—coincidentally the same one who later assisted my family—looked up the location of Peña’s plot. I told her about his sad saga, and she was moved enough to join me.

He was buried in the section of the cemetery named after Saint Anthony, the patron saint of lost things. We had the exact coordinates, along with the names of individuals buried around Peña to make locating him easier. But we couldn’t find any evidence of a tombstone.

“That’s weird,” the staffer said. “Maybe our records are wrong.”

We went back to Holy Sepulcher’s main office and found that Peña had been buried in an unmarked grave.

His death certificate listed Macario Peña as the informant, the person who had provided the coroner with information about the deceased. I needed to track him down.

Juan Peña Diaz was buried more than 65 years ago by his brother in an unmarked site at Holy Sepulcher Cemetery in Orange, California.
Juan Peña Diaz was buried more than 65 years ago by his brother in an unmarked site at Holy Sepulcher Cemetery in Orange, California.
JOHN GILHOOLEY

THE 1930 CENSUS

Church records in Mexico show that Juan Peña Diaz was born in 1911 in Atoyac, Jalisco, the fourth of 10 children of Francisco Peña and Camerina Diaz. The 1930 Mexican census listed him as an 18-year-old literate farmworker. He was the oldest son left in the Peña household; one older brother had married and moved to his own house.

And the other, Macario, was living in the United States.

The 1930 U.S. census described Macario as an illiterate 20-year-old Fullerton fruit picker who lived on a farm and spoke only Spanish. Immigration files show that in 1926, he and his father came to the United States through El Paso and ended up in Orange County. Francisco returned to Mexico shortly after, but Macario remained in el Norte.

The files also show that he returned to Mexico only once—in 1935, the year he married.

It seems Macario created a new life for himself. He became a Methodist and took in the two children his wife, Tabita, had from another marriage. Yet he never quite forgot his heritage. He fathered two children: Rudolph Mac and Aurora, named after Macario’s oldest sister. He and his wife became civil rights activists. Newspaper accounts reveal that Macario sang during Mexican Independence Day celebrations in Orange County and Tabita fought to desegregate Anaheim’s main public swimming pool.

Juan arrived in Orange County in the late 1940s, and he and Macario both worked at the Hunt-Wesson cannery in Fullerton. Diocese of Orange records tell that in 1953, Macario arranged for Juan’s funeral at Saint Mary’s in Fullerton and his burial. Two years later, Macario Peña became an American citizen.

Each fact I unearthed raised more questions: Why would Macario bury his younger hermano in an unmarked grave? Why would Macario lie to the authorities about his brother’s age? (Juan was 41, not 30, when he met his end in an orange grove.) Why didn’t Macario publish an obituary for him in the local papers? Why would an avowed champion of Mexican American rights not protest the killing of an undocumented immigrant—one who happened to be a sibling?

Macario passed away in 1962 (his family published an obituary in the Anaheim Bulletin), so I sought out his two biological children. The oldest, Rudolph, had been a celebrated cabaret singer in the gay nightlife of cities from Chicago to Palm Springs to Laguna Beach who went by the name Rudy De La Mor (Rudy of Love). His flamboyant persona, glittering outfits, and piano playing earned him enough money to take care of his widowed mother. Palm Springs honored De La Mor by including him on the city’s Walk of Stars shortly after his death in 2013.

Meanwhile, Macario’s daughter, Aurora, had lived an all-American life: a member of various scholastic clubs at Anaheim High School, wife to a World War II veteran, mother of two. She went by the name Penny. At 84 years old, she didn’t respond to my interview request in the summer of 2017, so I contacted one of her sons, Rod Lucio, via Facebook.

He initially denied knowing any siblings his grandfather Macario “may have had,” as he wrote via Facebook Messenger. When I told him I had Juan’s death certificate and newspaper clippings documenting his tragic end, Lucio’s reply was to ask me why I had “interest in this (old) incident.”

What an odd answer, I thought. So I told him everything I knew about his granduncle Juan—how police had killed him, how the media had reduced him to a “wetback,” and how Macario had buried him in an unmarked grave.

Lucio’s response: “My family has no comment on this incident of 63 years ago.”

I went on to discover why the killing of an undocumented Mexican might not be his cup of cerveza.

In various posts on his Facebook page (viewable to the public in 2017, when I reported this portion of the story), Lucio emerged as a vocal Trump supporter critical of undocumented immigrants.

As the child of a former mojado—“wetback” in Mexican Spanish—I considered Lucio’s lack of interest in his family history as bad as Macario’s nonaction following his brother’s death and the demeaning press coverage. A case of police brutality and anti-immigrant violence had turned into an assimilationist farce.

But I had to drop Juan’s story. Shortly after making contact with Lucio, I quit OC Weekly to protest the owner’s planned evisceration of the paper. The death certificate, obituaries, and news clippings that I had collected gathered dust over the next two years as various publications rejected my freelance pitch. It was too convoluted to turn into a cogent narrative, they said. And there was no news hook or real resolution without comment from Juan’s remaining relatives.

His tale would never get told, I feared. So I moved on. The picture of Juan’s corpse stayed on the desktop screen of my laptop, a reminder to never forget Juan’s specific story, yes, but also of how undocumented immigrants remain maligned to this day—and how descendants of immigrants can so easily turn their backs on where they come from.

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Then came my mother’s funeral on May 3, 2019, and the surprising news about Juan’s tombstone.

It’s the only part of the day I clearly remember—a jolt of clarity. I vividly recall staring at his shiny black marker, kneeling and touching it, thinking, Who? How? Why?

The Holy Sepulcher staffer told me that Juan’s case was so unique that she couldn’t forget it and that she had misplaced my contact information and couldn’t get in touch with me—until now.

And there we were standing by Juan, completing the task I had begun three years ago.

The cemetery worker wouldn’t reveal who had purchased the tombstone for Juan or when, citing confidentiality. Maybe the Lucios, racked with guilt about my inquiries, finally coughed up the cash for it, but I seriously doubt it. In one of the last Facebook posts I saw before writing this story, Rod described San Francisco as a “shithole by the bay” for its progressive stance on issues like immigration.

My family beckoned. In my hand was the program for my mami’s funeral. Nearly 1,000 people had gathered for her rosary the night before, and hundreds had accompanied us to the campo santo. So many had shown her and my family love—love denied to Juan for decades.

A group of mourners, led by Alta contributing editor Gustavo Arellano, gathered on September 14, 2019, to commemorate the passing of Juan Peña Diaz, the unknown “wetback.”
A group of mourners, led by Alta contributing editor Gustavo Arellano, gathered on September 14, 2019, to commemorate the passing of Juan Peña Diaz, the unknown “wetback.”
JOHN GILHOOLEY

A COMMUNAL PRAYER

Four months after my mom’s passing, I put out an invitation on Facebook to hold a memorial service in Juan’s honor: “This Saturday, at 11am somewhere in Orange County, I plan to hold a short memorial service for an undocumented Mexican immigrant who was shot to death by a police officer in Fullerton, then buried in an unmarked grave.”

My Holy Sepulcher angel and eight other people joined me on a Saturday morning—friends and fans and a Chihuahua-dachshund mix. We placed flowers around Juan’s grave; I stood behind it to give a short speech. I began with what little I knew of his story, described his killing, then handed everyone a copy of the “wetback” headline that had angered me so long ago.

“We’re here to bear witness to the injustices undocumented immigrants faced then and now,” I said. “And to never forget.”

I passed around the photo of Juan’s corpse to those who wanted to see it—not for exploitative purposes but to show how the press had reduced his killing to a sensationalistic yarn.

When I mentioned Macario burying his brother in an unmarked grave, people shook their heads in sadness. When I mentioned Rod Lucio’s xenophobia, everyone snickered and rolled their eyes.

By the time I dove back into the story this fall, his public pronouncements had turned nastier. He was now railing about chain migration and “illegal alien over run California,” using the same language the press had once used against his granduncle Juan.

And despite having a tío who was an LGBTQ celebrity, Lucio whined that a proposed gender-diversity curriculum for elementary school children in a Ventura County school district was “criminal intentional assault and confusing of our children” by, among others, “the force of the homosexual lobby.”

“I got some assholes like that in my family, too,” a woman at Juan’s grave said to murmurs of approval.

I urged everyone to remember not just Juan, but also the undocumented people held in President Trump’s detention camps and those who had died trying to enter the United States. I asked the group to turn any grief they felt for Juan into advocacy for immigrants. And as a closing prayer, I explained that we’d listen to Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee.”

Covered by everyone from Pete Seeger to Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton to Joan Baez, the folk song was penned by Guthrie after he heard a report about a 1948 plane crash in Los Gatos Canyon that had killed 32 people. The account didn’t name any of the 28 Mexican nationals on board—just the white crew and guard whose job it was to make sure the immigrants didn’t escape.

“They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves,” Guthrie wrote, his 71-year-old lyrics foreshadowing Juan’s final minutes and today’s headlines.

For Juan, I chose my favorite version, a mournful, jangly take by the Byrds. I noted two things before tapping Play on my iPhone: a headstone bearing the names of the 28 victims Guthrie eulogized was erected at Fresno Memorial Cemetery in 2013, and a commemoration has been held every year since.

For Juan, I told those in attendance, this might be his only one.

And unlike the deceased at Los Gatos, who were at least granted the relative dignity of being labeled “deportees,” all Juan Peña Diaz was to the world that night in a moonlit orange grove was a “wetback.”

But not anymore. No serás olvidado.

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