One evening while Luis is ten, he is walking through his South San Gabriel neighborhood with his friend Tino. They come the chain-link fence surrounding their school. Ignoring the “No Trespassing” sign, Tino climbs over the fence and then encourages Luis to follow, and Luis does so.
The chapter begins with a simple, childish misdemeanor—ignoring a no trespassing sign—that turns out to have major ramifications.
The two boys horse around for a while. Then, suddenly, they hear voices—police officers are standing by the fence, waving batons. Tino yells for Luis to run—if they’re caught, the officers will beat them up. The boys run toward the school and try to climb onto the roof. The officers tackle Luis, but Tino runs past them. Over the officers’ cries of “greaser,” Tino climbs up the side of the building. But then he slips and, a moment later, Luis hears a crash.
Even though the two boys’ crime is very minor, the LAPD officers intimidate them with racist slurs and aggressive behavior. Luis and Tino can hardly be blamed for running away. This, unfortunately, is representative of the relationship between Latinos and the LAPD more generally: the menacing, armed, racist LAPD using excessive force to punish the most trivial crimes.
Luis steps back to explain what happened in the year between the end of Chapter One and the beginning of Chapter Two. He and his family remain in Los Angeles and survive with the help of a poverty agency. Their new community, San Gabriel, is on the edge of Los Angeles (technically it’s part of the city of Rosemead in the 1960s), and until recently it consisted mostly of cornfields and factories. Many of the poorest parts of Los Angeles are counties like San Gabriel. These areas often lack paved roads or sewage systems, but they have lots of police officers.
Walking around San Gabriel, it couldn’t be clearer that Luis and his family are seen as second-class citizens in their new city: their neighborhood is run-down and doesn’t even have a good sewage system, suggesting that the municipal authority ignores Latino immigrants. In fact, the only municipal authority with any visibility in the neighborhood is the LAPD, suggesting that the city thinks of Latinos as criminals first and foremost.
Luis’s neighborhood has many interesting characters, including an old woman who’s rumored to be a witch. One day, the police arrest the woman—she’d been babysitting three small children who later turned up “in a playpen next to the morning garbage.”
Almost every kid grows up hearing scary stories about a nearby house. But in Luis’s case, the scary stories have a basis in fact.
San Gabriel is largely Mexican, and many of the men who live there are field workers. Most of the neighborhoods in the area have Spanish names. Over time, some parts of San Gabriel become middle-class suburbs, populated by white families fleeing the inner city. But one neighborhood, called Las Lomas (literally, “the hills”), takes a different direction. It becomes an “incubator of rebellion,” or, as the media dub it, a “haven of crime.” In other words, Las Lomas sees a huge increase in gang activity.
Luis describes the process of gentrification by which impoverished, largely minority-populated areas of the city are taken over by affluent, mostly white families. Notice, also, that Luis doesn’t describe gang violence in purely negative terms. Instead, he characterizes it as a form of rebellion. While Luis is critical of gang violence, he’s also realistic enough to see it for what it is: a rational response to racism, poverty, police brutality, and cultural genocide in Los Angeles.
Luis joins a gang at a young age, but he doesn’t think of it as a gang so much as a club. Five years after the death of Tino, Luis and his friends create a group called “Thee Impersonations” (“the” is spelled the old English way). Miguel Robles, the president, tells the members to pledge to protect one another.
Luis describes his friend’s death using just one short phrase at the beginning of a sentence. And yet Luis still shows that he joins a gang in large part because of Tino’s death, highlighting the fact that he sees gangs as a form of protection from violence and the LAPD.
The boys form their club “out of necessity.” One day, an up-and-coming club called Thee Mystics comes to Luis’s school, waving guns. The members fire at the school’s windows, and others attack some of the students. Luis is horrified but also drawn to Thee Mystics—he remembers, “I wanted the power to hurt somebody.” He, Miguel, and the others found Thee Impersonations because they need protection. Around the same time, many other new “clubs” pop up.
Luis is very honest about his motivations for joining a gang. He’s appalled by the brutality of gang life, but because he has already experienced brutality in his own life, he wants an opportunity to dole out pain instead of receiving. As Luis sees it, he’s trapped in a “kill or be killed” situation, and he chooses the former.
Alfonso gets a job as a lab technician, and Luis begins junior high school. His school is ranked one of the worst in the state—the dropout rate is about fifty percent. Luis enjoys school if for no other reason than that it lets him look at some of the girls, who suddenly seem very attractive. Luis begins dressing like a cholo, or gang member. He still has vivid memories of gang graffiti on the walls and gang fights breaking out in the halls.
Luis matures early, and it’s not hard to see why: every day at school, he’s surrounded by violence, danger, and sex, seemingly without real adult supervision.
Luis develops a crush on a girl named Socorro. Socorro likes Luis, too, but she insists that Luis has to give up the cholo lifestyle, or else she’ll leave him. Luis refuses, and Socorro breaks up with him. Luis’s next girlfriend, Marina, encourages his cholo activities and even suggests he get a tattoo. The tattoo, on Luis’s arm, shows a cross with the words “Mi Vida Loca.”
As the passage makes clear, Luis’s early romantic experiences are closely tied to his experiences with the gang world. His most successful relationships reinforce his connections to gangs. Furthermore, Luis’s tattoo suggests that at this point in his life, he’s willing to embrace the gang lifestyle permanently and without any question.
In junior high, Luis feuds with his teachers. Some of the teachers are very dedicated, but many others seem like “misfits” themselves. One day, Luis and his classmates are tormenting their shop teacher. Because he’s distracted, the teacher accidentally cuts of his own finger with a rotating saw. Someone steals the finger, and in secret the students pass it around.
Luis and his fellow students don’t seem to get along with their teachers at all. At this point, more generally, Luis seems to lack a mentor or role model who can steer him in the right direction. The students’ fascination with their teacher’s amputated finger suggests a comfort with violence and the macabre that likely extends from the violence of everyday life in their community.
Alfonso learns that Luis is getting into trouble at school. He doesn’t discipline his son, leaving this up to María. Luis’s mother is an intense woman who punishes Luis whenever he misbehaves. She knows that Luis is attracted to the cholo life, and she wants to ensure that he stays away from gangs. Once, the vice-principal of the school meets with María to tell her that Luis is too smart for gang life. Luis’s parents decide to ground him every day after school to ensure that he doesn't spend more time with gangs. But by this time Luis is thirteen and already “tattooed,” “sexually involved,” and “into drugs.”
María does much more than her husband to ensure that Luis avoids the gang member lifestyle, but even she can’t do enough. As Luis shows here, gang members are recruited early on. Because young Latinos in Los Angeles are often surrounded by danger, they quickly decide that they should stick together and embrace a violent lifestyle—and so, by the time their parents get around to steering them away from gangs, it’s already too late.
Around this time, Luis and Rano drift farther apart. One day, two bullies who are upset that Rano has beaten them in a track race confront Luis. Luis claims that Rano is better than either one of the bullies, and they attack him. Later, Rano asks Luis why he stood up for him. Luis replies, “I did it because I love you.” It’s the last time he ever says these words. Rano—who starts going by Joe—skips grades in school, plays in bands, does well in sports, acts in plays, and generally becomes a “Mexican Exception.” He doesn’t interact with Luis very much.
Rano undergoes a surprising transformation when he begins to assimilate at his new school. His decision to go by “Joe” suggests that perhaps he wants to hide his Latino identity. In many ways, Rano represents “the road not taken” by Luis. Where Rano turns to school and athletics to give himself a sense a purpose, Luis embraces La Vida Loca instead.
Around the age of thirteen, Luis starts spending all his time with some friends named Clavo, Wilo and Chicharrón—together, “The Animal Tribe.” The Animal Tribe (or just “The Tribe”) is a powerful gang, and Luis is proud to be in it. Teenagers from across San Gabriel join The Tribe, consolidating their small gangs into one big organization.
By the time he’s in middle school, Luis has become a dangerous gang member. Latinos throughout the neighborhood understand that they have to work together to be strong—the alternative is to be divided, weak, and easy targets for the police.
It is Miguel Robles who first introduces Luis to The Tribe. At a school dance, Miguel greets Luis and invites him to dance with Tribe members and their girlfriends. Miguel tells Luis and his friends that they need to join a big gang that can protect them. He warns Luis that he’ll need to choose between the Tribe and the large Sangra gang.
The bitter irony of gangs in Los Angeles is that, even though gangs are formed to protect members from the violence of the LAPD, gangs create a new, arguably even worse form of violence: gang warfare. Thus, there’s a deadly war going on between the Tribe and the Sangra—a war in which Luis is now caught.
Luis tells Miguel that he wants to join The Tribe. Miguel talks with Joaquín Lopez, an important Tribe leader. Later that night, Luis witnesses a cholo having sex with a young woman, and someone tells him, “She’s being initiated into The Tribe.”
One of the most shameful parts of gang life is the gangs’ treatment of women. Women play an important role in the gangs’ machismo culture. There are cholas (i.e., female gang members), just as there are cholos (male gang members), but as this passage suggests, women in gangs are often forced into a passive role and valued purely for their bodies. The hostility of gangs toward women becomes more overt as the book goes on.