One morning, while Luis is a teenager, he wakes up in the garage to the sound of his sister’s yells. He gets up from the pile of blankets where he sleeps and bickers with her. The previous night, unbeknownst to anyone, Luis had tried to commit suicide. That night, Luis comes home drunk and high. Depressed, he tries to cut his wrist with a razor blade. But as he holds the blade in his hand he realizes, “I couldn’t do it.”
Depression is rampant among gang members, and it’s not hard to understand why. Luis is surrounded by danger, and because of the strict machismo culture of La Vida Loca, he’s not allowed to show any weakness. Frightened and lonely, he first tries to suppress his feelings with drugs, and then tries to take out his feelings on his own body. And yet, for now, Luis refuses to end his life.
For months, Luis has been “exiled to the garage.” María has grown exasperated with pulling him out of jail cells and hearing about his gang exploits. For a time, Luis stays with Yuk Yuk’s family and later with other friends. Eventually, he starts sleeping by the railroad tracks or in abandoned cars. Frustrated, he comes home and works out a deal with his mother, whereby he’s allowed to stay in the garage but forbidden to enter the house without her permission.
Luis’s mother clearly doesn’t approve of her son’s gang life, but she isn’t sure how to “steer him straight.” She doesn’t want to kick him out of the house altogether, because this will only encourage him to spend more time with his gang. But she clearly wants to punish Luis in some way, to let him know that she doesn’t condone La Vida Loca. The garage is the compromise she comes to.
Luis attends high school, but he’s “loco” all the time. He notices that white students tend to take the hardest classes, play on sports teams, and join clubs. Latino students take the “stupid classes” and are often on the verge of dropping out. By this time, Luis has become a quiet, sullen kid. He knows everybody assumes he’s a “thug,” and so he dresses like one, reasoning that he might as well be proud of his thug identity.
Luis spends much of his time in the garage, listening to jazz and Motown records. He learns how to play the saxophone, and sometimes plays gigs. After gigs, he drinks heavily, gradually becoming an alcoholic. Many other gang members are musical—for instance, Joaquín Lopez plays the harmonica in shows.
Like many gang members, Luis turns to music as an outlet for his emotions. It also makes sense that Luis is drawn to jazz and Motown, two musical genres in which many of the artists sang about racism and social oppression.
One afternoon, when Luis is fourteen, Joe accuses him of stealing his records. Luis tells Joe, “Fuck you,” and Joe attacks Luis and then destroys Luis’s saxophone. Still furious, Joe leaves the house and doesn’t return for three days. All Luis can think about is the “lost melodies.”
Luis is genuinely interested in playing the saxophone—it’s more than just a hobby. When his brother destroys his musical instrument, Luis feels that he’s lost one of the only outlets he has for expressing his sadness and loneliness.
It’s Fiesta Day in San Gabriel—the day when Latino residents celebrate their heritage. That night, Luis and his friends wander past the neighborhood parade. While Luis is hanging out with his friends, he crosses paths with a beautiful young woman named Viviana. The two flirt and agree to ride a Ferris wheel together.
San Gabriel is mostly Latino, and the residents come together every year to celebrate their ethnic identity. Luis is clearly attracted to Viviana, and she seems to be attracted to him, too.
As the night goes on, families start to leaving the carnival area—the only people left are cops and rival gang members. Viviana confesses to Luis that she hates Los Angeles gang culture. Noticing that some of the rival gang members are glaring at him, Luis realizes that Viviana is from the Sangra part of the county, and she’s here with two of the lead Sangra cholas (female gang members), Cokie and Dina. He suggests that they go somewhere else. Luis wants to be “with Viviana, away from the war cries, the bloodshed.”
Luis has stumbled into a Romeo and Juliet-type situation: he likes Viviana, even though she’s from a rival gang. Viviana clearly has some misgivings about the gang culture of Los Angeles, and yet she’s also closely tied to this culture, as evidenced by the fact that she’s at the Fiesta with Cokie and Dina.
Viviana and Luis walk toward a school building and climb onto the roof together. Suddenly, Luis notices a group of gang members, some of them Sangra, some of them Tribe, fighting. Luis tells Viviana he has to join the fight, but Viviana begs him to stay. Luis hesitates, then decides to stay. He kisses Viviana, feeling like a traitor to his gang.
Luis starts to distance himself from La Vida Loca. He’s depressed, even suicidal, and gang life is arguably the source of his depression. So perhaps it’s no surprise that he “betrays” his gang by kissing Viviana—the romance represents a “way out” for him.
Every year, there’s a football game between Luis’s largely Latino high school and the mostly white neighboring school. At the game, Luis and his friends delight in yelling at rival students. Luis notices that when white students are in the neighborhood, there are always lots of police officers stopping the Latino students, often without reason.
Football games are often a playful way for two communities to compete with one another. But at this particular football game, the playful competition between two high schools becomes a serious fight, with the LAPD harassing and bullying Latinos.
During Luis’s sophomore year of high school, cops stop Luis’s friend Carlito after the football game and, when Carlito asks an officer, “Why are we being harassed?” they beat him with a baton and choke him. Carlito passes out, and the others are afraid the cops have killed him. Paramedics arrive and take Carlos away (after being delayed by the police), and soon a fight breaks out, with Luis and his fellow gang members leading the attack on the police. They also attack white bystanders. Luis’s friends attack a group of Asians who attend the rival high school simply because one of them accuses Luis’s friends of hurting innocent people. Luis knows what he’s doing is unjust—whites harass Asians almost as much as they harass Latinos—but he doesn’t care: he just wants to fight.
The police targeted Luis and his friends because of their race. Luis and his friends seem to respond in kind, attacking students who are white, even if these students have done nothing wrong. Luis even attacks Asian students, showing how his thirst for violence makes him irrational and pointlessly destructive. In passages like this, Luis reminds readers that he’s not a “good guy”— he’s done some horrible things in his life. It’s also clear that the LAPD have trained Luis and his friends to think in racial supremacist terms: the LAPD attacks non-whites, so Luis and his friends retaliate by attacking non-Latinos.
Luis attacks more white bystanders outside the football game. As the night goes on, the fight spreads, and gangs burn cars and break windows. Though Luis eventually goes home, the fights continue next Monday at school. Latino students attack white students at their high school. White students fight, too, bringing baseball bats to school with them. Toward the end of the day, a white student attacks Luis’s friend Santos with a bat, and Chicharrón hits him with a tire iron. The police come to break up the fight, arresting only Latinos, including Luis and his friends. Luis is brought down to the station and later expelled. He doesn’t care.
The incident between Luis and the police incites a full-scale riot, releasing all the racial tensions that had barely remained under the surface during the football game. White and Latino students are equally to blame during this riot, and yet, because the LAPD is compromised primarily of white officers, Latino students end up paying more for their behavior. Luis’s behavior in this passage is out of control: he just wants to hurt someone, and he doesn’t care what happens to him.
At the age of fifteen, Luis buses tables in a restaurant in San Gabriel. Many of the clientele are middle-class whites who treat him offensively. Luis retaliates by spitting in customers’ food and “accidentally” spilling water on them. The Latina waitresses at the restaurant are harassed, both by the staff and the customers. Every so often, cops come to the restaurant and arrest undocumented employees. Luis gets used to carrying his birth certificate with him wherever he goes.
Luis finds little ways of retaliating without getting sent to jail, and he learns how to defend himself from the threat of deportation. Notice, also, that Latina women are harassed by white and Latino men alike. This mirrors some of Luis’s earlier discussion of the way women are harassed and objectified in his community.
Luis and his friends get high every day, often by inhaling gasoline, clear plastic, or paint. One evening, Luis gets so high on clear plastic that he begins to feel like “water.” He tries to move toward a bright light in the distance. Even as he loses consciousness, he keeps on inhaling more clear plastic. Then, suddenly, he feels his friends shaking him awake. As he regains consciousness, Luis tries to get even higher, but his friend Wilo sternly tells him, “Give me the bag.” Luis learns that he stopped breathing for a moment—and, in a way, he died. Luis thinks, “I wished I did die.”
Luis’s suicidal behavior is reflected in his drug use. He inhales clear plastic, even though it’s very dangerous to do so, because he doesn’t care if he dies. And indeed, Luis tries to inhale more plastic even after he has almost died—confirming that he really doesn’t care what happens to him. One thing is clear: in this passage, Wilo saves Luis’s life.
Wilo’s sister, Payasa, has a crush on Luis, and they begin dating. Luis notices that Payasa gets high all the time, and becomes reckless whenever she does. He breaks up with her when he starts to realize that she can only be intimate with him when she’s high. She later goes to a rehabilitation clinic.
Even though Luis himself struggles with drug abuse, he’s smart enough to recognize the same destructive behavior in other people and distance himself from those people.
Luis returns to the scene he described at the beginning of the chapter. He holds a razor blade in his hand, trying to muster the courage to cut himself. But as he does so, he begins to remember “a sense of being, of worth,” and decides that he’s alive for a good reason, even if he doesn’t know what this reason is. He throws the blade away and goes to sleep.
Luis sometimes feels overcome by sadness and despair, but for reasons he can’t entirely put into words he chooses not to give in to despair. However, it’s worth remembering that many other gang members do give in, choosing to end their own lives rather than endure the harshness of La Vida Loca.
The next morning, Luis enters the house, breaking his agreement with María. María ignores him. But when he asks if he can eat breakfast in the house that morning, she turns around, smiles, and replies, ‘Of course … When you’re ready to visit, with respect to our house, you can come to eat.” Luis kisses his mother and then goes to the table to eat.
In this surprising conclusion to the chapter, Luis finds that his mother will let him back in the house without a fight. Perhaps this is because she senses that Luis is ready to respect his family and is beginning to distance himself from La Vida Loca. Or perhaps María just misses her son.