Luis remembers fighting with his older brother Rano. Once, when Luis was nine years old, he was sitting in the backseat fighting with Rano. His sisters, Ana and Gloria were sitting beside him. At the same time, his parents were arguing: his mother, María, wanted to move back to Mexico, but his father, Alfonso, was reluctant.
Luis’s childhood is marked by abrupt change: his parents move him from Mexico to Los Angeles, and they fight a lot about whether they should stay or go.
Luis’s family is from Ciudad Juarez in Mexico, but his parents make sure that he and his siblings are born in Texas so that they’ll be American citizens. His father, Alfonso, is an educated man who later marries María, his secretary. Alfonso is a high school principal, a powerful position in Mexico. Because he’s an outspoken critic of the local government, his enemies conspire to defeat him. He’s arrested on trumped-up charges of embezzlement and sent to jail. He’s eventually released, at which point he decides to move his family to America. María agrees to move to America with Alfonso, but she’s reluctant to do so. María is descended from the Tarahumara Indians of Chihuahua. Her mother married a railroad worker during the Mexican Revolution. Later, when her husband was killed in an explosion, María’s mother married Luis’s grandfather, a trumpeter notorious for his affairs with women.
Luis’s parents are surprisingly minor characters in his memoir. Here, however, Luis writes at length about them. Alfonso moves to the United States not simply because he thinks of the U.S. as a land of opportunity, but because he’s fleeing from the corruption and danger of his native Juarez. María complies with her husband’s plan, even though she has some strong reservations. Although she’s more emotional and energetic by nature, she’s a more passive partner in her marriage to Alfonso.
María is thirteen years younger than Alfonso. She’s never been in a relationship with another man, but Alfonso already has multiple children from earlier relationships. María is fiery and intense, while Alfonso is a “stoic intellectual.” María has three of Alfonso’s children (and later, after the family relocates to Los Angeles, a fourth).
Alfonso and María seem mismatched in almost every way. That’s partly why their early years in Los Angeles are marked by conflict and bickering, with Luis sometimes getting caught in the crossfire.
The family moves to La Colonia, a Mexican neighborhood in Watts, a predominately black area of Los Angeles. Watts is impoverished, and many cheap laborers live there. Seni, Alfonso’s daughter from a previous marriage, suggests that Alfonso move to Watts, since she lives there, too. Luis has many half-brothers and half-sisters, including Lisa, who died while she was still an infant.
Luis’s earliest memories are of Watts, a neighborhood of Los Angeles later made famous by the 1965 Watts Riots (or the Watts “uprising,” as Luis calls it). It’s odd that, even though Luis grows up surrounded by family, his family members aren’t major characters in this memoir. In part this is because Luis is a fiercely independent person who tries to carve his own path in life.
Luis’s earliest memories of Los Angeles are unpleasant. Life is hard, and Alfonso is almost always out of work. Luis sees billboards depicting happy white families and famous Hollywood actors—but these images contain “none of our names, none of our faces.”
Luis quickly comes to understand that he’s an outsider in Los Angeles, given that the city’s most powerful people are white.
Growing up in Los Angeles, Luis plays with Rano, his brother. Rano plays the part of Tarzan while Luis plays a monkey—meaning that Luis usually loses the game, and Rano sometimes hits Luis. When this happens, María whips Rano. Other kids in the neighborhood attack Rano, and sometimes he comes home bleeding. In school, Rano attends a remedial class because he speaks little English, and he’s held back another year. Rano takes out his anger on Luis.
Luis’s fights with Rano go beyond the usual sibling rivalry. Rano has to deal with much more pain and frustration than the typical child: in particular, he has to face the humiliation of being held back a year because the English-speaking school system isn’t designed to help immigrants assimilate.
Luis remembers Christmas in Los Angeles when he was a child. One year, he receives toys, which he breaks immediately, for reasons he can’t explain. He writes, “In my mind it didn’t seem right to have things that were in working order.”
Luis suggests that there’s a psychological link between pain and destructive behavior. He is so used to a life where nothing works that he begins destroying things of his own volition. In this way, the passage foreshadows his gang activities in later life.
María works as a maid, meaning that she gets to see “nice, American, white-people homes.” She’s often sick, since she suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure. Sometimes, her leg veins become so swollen that she’s forced to cut them to relieve the pain.
The contrast between the grisly details of María’s life and the pristine “white-people homes” where María works couldn’t be clearer. This further suggests that the happiness and contentment of white families in Los Angeles is dependent upon the exploitation of Latino immigrants.
One day, Rano and Luis go to the grocery store to buy food for their mother. While they’re there, two older boys call them “Spics” and beat up Rano. Weeping and covered in his own blood, Rano makes Luis swear never to tell anybody that he cried. Luis swears.
Rano (and later Luis himself) learns how to swallow sadness and tolerate pain. Both brothers are trained from an early age to see their community as a hostile, racist place in which Latinos aren’t welcome.
Luis begins school at the age of six. One of the first things he remembers about school is his teacher’s complaint that many of the students speak no English (at the time, Luis can understand English but can’t speak it well). Another teacher sends Luis to a remedial class and tells him, “Play with some blocks until we figure out how to get you more involved.” For most of the rest of the year, Luis sits in the back of the class and plays with blocks.
The school system in Los Angeles is so bad that no effort is made to assimilate Luis into English-speaking society. Instead, he’s treated as a permanent outsider. Public school reform was a cornerstone of the movement for Chicano rights, as activists recognized the importance of education for Latino immigrants.
School is challenging for Luis because he doesn’t speak English well. At the time, most schools in Los Angeles offer no extra help for Spanish-speakers, and often Latino students are punished for speaking Spanish in school. However, Luis makes some friends at school, including Jaime, a boy who lost his arm in a nasty accident as a toddler. Another of his friends is Earl. Luis befriends Earl after Luis is punished for Earl’s misbehavior in the classroom. Earl comes by Luis’s house and thanks him for “taking the rap” by offering him his prized marble collection. Jaime, Earl, and Luis explore their neighborhood together.
As a direct consequence of the school’s policies toward Spanish-speaking students, Luis begins goofing off in class and getting into trouble with other students. The implication is that Latino immigrants fall behind in class and eventually turn to crime because they’re treated like outsiders from the moment they set foot in the classroom.
Luis and his family change houses many times because they’re evicted. Alfonso has trained as a teacher in Mexico, but he’s unable to find work in America. Eventually he gets a job as a substitute teacher, teaching Spanish to “rich white kids.” With the money, Alfonso moves his family to Reseda, a slightly wealthier part of the city.
Because of the appalling lack of job opportunities for even educated Latinos in Los Angeles, Alfonso is forced to take a job for which he’s humiliatingly overqualified (he was the principal of a high school in Mexico).
In Reseda, Rano becomes the toughest kid in school, meaning that bullies no longer pick on him or Luis. But María is unsatisfied with her new neighborhood, partly because the other women tend to be healthier and better looking than she. Still, she knows that she’ll have to follow Alfonso wherever he goes.
As Luis has suggested already, Rano learns to be tough in order to mask the fact that he’s very lonely. Luis’s mother copes with similar feelings of loneliness, but instead of resorting to violence she swallows her sadness and remains loyal to her husband.
Alfonso is dismissed from his job after students complain that they can’t understand his accent, and after he writes letters to the school board proposing new methods of teaching Spanish. Next, Alfonso and his family move in with Seni, who lives with her husband and two daughters. Because the house is crowded, Rano and Luis spend most of their time outside.
Alfonso is punished for going above and beyond his job and suggesting a better way to teach students Spanish—in other words, he’s fired for doing the school board’s job. This suggests a deeply conservative and prejudiced environment in Los Angeles.
One night, Luis and Rano come home to find the house surrounded by police. It turns out that Seni had an argument with her husband, during which she stabbed him in the arm with a nail file. Soon afterwards, the landlord evicts Luis’s family. At this point, María and Alfonso decide to separate.
Luis doesn't delve into why Alfonso and María decide to separate, but their decision seems to be due to a few factors: the unpleasantness of life in Los Angeles, the lack of a friendly community for María, and María and Alfonso’s personality differences. One thing is clear: the life of an immigrant in Los Angeles is not easy, and puts a strain on relationships of all kind.
Luis returns to the scene from the beginning of the chapter: that day, while he and his brother were fighting in the car, his parents had separated, and Alfonso was driving María and the children to the station so that they could return to Mexico. At the station, Alfonso says a quiet goodbye to his children and then turns away, without even looking Luis in the face. Suddenly, María embraces Alfonso and cries out that she doesn’t want to take the children to Mexico, since she won’t be able to find any work. Alfonso and María announce that they’re not leaving after all—they’re going to stay together, here in Los Angeles. Luis feels like a ball bouncing from one place to another.
The course of Luis’s life hinges on this decision: instead of splitting up, María and Alfonso decide to remain in Los Angeles. Like it or not, Luis is in Los Angeles for good, and that means that he’ll have to find some way of adjusting to life in this strange, intimidating place.