The story is an autobiography about the life of Luis Rodriguez from being a young boy to a gang member as a teenager involved in gang activities and eventually making a decent living out of the horrors he had experienced. The memoir is set out during the 60s and 70s in Los Angeles, where the author resided at the time. The crime rate in the city during this time had skyrocketed fueled by the gang wars and police brutality against the minorities. Arguably, increased inequality and discrimination against the minority groups fuels their level of engagement in crime.
Growing up in Los Angeles was a challenge for Luis as the streets were dangerous for him to go outside without any worry, mostly because of the brutality perpetrated by the Los Angeles Police Department(LAPD). Teachers at his school were quick to mock him for not knowing how to speak English, further fueling his anger towards society at large for not treating him as equals to the other children(Rodriguez 56). This anger drives him to join the gangs as he feels empowered and capable of dealing with the dangers he encountered in the city’s everyday life. The gangs acted as psychological support he much needed. During this time, he becomes acquainted with the various deeds of the gang culture such as drug abuse, the negative treatment of women, and clashes with rival gangs. He continued with his life in crime at the hands of the gangs beating up people and stealing from them in order to churn out a living until he met his mentor, Chente Ramirez, who he credits for saving him from his imminent death in crime. He encouraged him to rediscover himself and be politically engaged at the height of political activism in the 1970s.
Luis experiences periods of depression as a result of the difficulties he experienced in his life as he sees no way out of the crime-infested life he is living. He is convinced that he has nothing to work towards in this life as a gang member (Rodriguez 82). Luis comes to understand the dynamics of the gangs and how many Latinos are sucked into this miserable life where the only way out foreseen was death at the hand of the LAPD or rival gangs. The theme of this story seeks to understand why the gangs were founded in the first place and why the gangs appeal to some members of the society.
Reasons for Gang Involvement
During the 1960s and 1970s, most the people of color and minority groups in Los Angeles joined gangs. Luis, like many people of color, joined the gangs as a form of retaliation from corruption and racial discrimination in society. The racial discrimination at the time directed to the Latinos made them feel powerless in the face of police brutality directed towards the minority (Rodriguez 78). Luis also recalls how he suffered from discrimination in elementary school, where the teacher told him to play with blocks while the other students who were predominantly white were being taught. This disrespect towards the minority was the catalyst that sparked the minorities to form gangs in order to consolidate power within themselves to be able to fight back against the oppression they faced in their everyday life.
The police highly contributed to the gang life chosen by the Latinos and most people of color at the time. The police often used excessive force on the Latinos, especially women and children, without any clear cause and would often refer to the Latinos as spic or beaner, terms that were used to degrade them and make them feel humiliated (Rodriguez 94). The dangers of police brutalities brought the people together as a way of protecting themselves against unwarranted aggression. They deemed this as the only way to survive in the crime-infested city. Luis himself turns to the gangs and crime-La Vida Loca, as a reaction against the injustices he experienced and the oppression he witnesses done to his fellow Latinos. There is a butterfly effect relationship between the gangs and the social injustices in the memoir.
The minority groups formed the gangs asan immediate response to economic inequalities subjected to the immigrants. Due to the discrimination of the minority, job opportunities were limited; hence the people had to find a way to fend for themselves. There was general despair by the minorities living in Los Angeles as they saw no way out of their poverty-stricken life apart from joining the gangs. Stealing and selling drugs was one of the few viable alternatives that the people had in the absence of job opportunities. A vast majority of the gang members in Los Angeles would easily shun the gang warfare would a job opportunity come their way (Rodriguez, 145). However, this was not the case as the majority of the job opportunities were often available for whites only. With no hope of a steady income, the Latinos turned to crime to make a living to support their failing dreams.
What Saved him from the Gangs
Luis considers himself profoundly lucky for being able to escape the gangs and lead a better life. He accredits his luck to meeting his mentor, Chente Ramirez, who inspires him to change the course of his life and adopt a life away from gang involvement. Luis explains that he is among the few lucky individuals from the minority populations who managed to escape from the gang life. Despite the immense challenges that he faced as a member of a minority group and as a gang member, he ultimately managed to move from the gang life and distance himself from the gang activities. Luis takes up the advice of his mentor after distancing himself from the gangs and the gang activities that were highly popular at the time. He becomes more engaged politically in the activism that was popular in the 1970s. Luis explains his luck by the fact that most of his friends who engaged in the gang activities ended up dead. He elaborates that “By the time I turned 18 years old, 25 of my friends had been killed by rival gangs, police, drugs, car crashes and suicides” (Rodriguez 16). Following the explanation of his luck, Luis suggests that he could have faced a similar fate as the rest of friends in the case that he failed to be lucky enough to leave the gangs and the gang activities. He implies that his continuous engagement in the gangs could have led to him either facing in a prison term of ending up dead.
Luis explains that most of the individuals from the minority populations joined the gangs as a result of the significantly few alternatives that were present for them. Following the increased racial discrimination practiced at the time, most of the individuals from the minority populations were not able to find jobs to enable them to fend for themselves and take care of their families. Despite the numerous opportunities in Los Angeles, the minorities were highly disregarded. Luis elaborates the point through by pointing out; “We were invisible people in a city which thrived on glitter…” (Rodriguez 29). Most of the individuals from the minority populations were not able to afford decent livelihoods. The children from the minority populations were also equally disadvantaged as they were unable to get equal educational opportunities as the white populations (Rodriguez 34). With difficulty to efficiently fend for themselves, the individuals from the minority populations realized that they were forced to turn to gang activities. Despite the unlawfulness of the gang activities, they increasingly proved useful and necessary to the individuals from the minority populations as they seemed to provide the highly required solace and comfort for the highly marginalized and discriminated communities.
Reasons why the Gangs are Appealing
Various reasons make the gangs highly appealing, especially to the individuals from the minority populations. As most of the gang members are young, they are attracted to easy options of earning a living. The gangs provide seemingly easy ways of earning money. Through the organized gangs, the young individuals engage in drug usage and trafficking, robbery, among other unlawful ways of earning money. In comparison to the high levels of hard work and discipline that the individuals could have to employ if they engaged in honest work, the gangs provide a seemingly effortless way of earning money and a living (Rodriguez 75). Rodriguez explain this through his experience in the gang. He points out, “He “commissioned” teenagers like us to steal certain cars he needed, on order” (Rodriguez 77). The ease and the absent of hard work related to earning money and a living through gang involvement consequently make the gangs appealing.
The involvement in gang activities provide significantly protection to the gang members. Rodriguez explain that they formed their gang, Thee Impersonations because they needed protection (Rodriguez 49). Through the involvement in gang activities, the young individuals seemingly acquire a sense of liberty, dominance and independence the individuals develop a sense of victory and triumph over the difficulties and the harsh situations that they face as a result of the effects of marginalization. Following the fact that most of the gang members could be facing the adulthood crisis stage, the sense of victory and triumph that they experience from the gang involvement help in building and shaping their esteem. The money that the gang members earn help in building the sense of independence that some of the gang members highly desired. The gangs are also inherently attractive to young individuals who have had painful and traumatizing childhoods as a result of discriminations. Such individuals develop hatred and anger issues that lead them to join the gangs as a way of promoting their identities.
From the narration of Luis, he was mainly forced to join gang activities due to the challenges he faced growing up in Los Angeles at a time when racial discrimination was highly prevalent. He explains that the individuals from the minority groups did not have many choices, a factor that left them with no alternatives than to join the gangs. Luis explains that unlike most of his friends, he considers himself lucky to have left the gang and the gang activities. He attributes his luck to leave the gangs to meeting his mentor, Chente Ramirez. Following the narration, various factors make gang involvement attractive to the youths from the minority populations. The minority populations are highly attracted to the gangs as a result of the sense of independence that they generate from the gangs. The gangs also provide easy ways of earning money, in addition to enabling the gang members to deal with the frustrations they face as a result of the discriminations channeled towards them.
Rodriguez, Luis J. Always running: La vidaloca: Gang days in LA. Simon and Schuster, 2005.