The Tribe essentially dies along with its president John Fabela, who’s shot in his home by rival gang members. At the time, Joaquín Lopez is already in jail for selling heroin, and the Tribe is losing its influence in the neighborhood. Tribe members relocate to new gangs.
In this chapter, Luis has to decide whether he wants to give up the gang life altogether or switch to a bigger gang.
Chicharrón tells Luis that he should join the Lomas, now the most powerful gang in the county. He explains to Luis that the Lomas will “beat on you for about three minutes,” after which time he’ll be accepted into the gang. Luis reluctantly goes to a Lomas party. As the party draws to a close, only aspiring members stick around. A gang leader named Puppet asks “Who’s in?” and Luis stands up. Just as Chicharrón warned him, Luis endures an assault of fists and boots. After three minutes, the gang welcomes him to the Lomas.
On the surface, it seems bizarre that the initiation ritual for the Lomas would be a savage beating. But this just underscores the machismo of La Vida Loca: gang members are expected to be tough and able to take a beating. Being able to accept and later dole out pain is one of the defining features of the cholo brand of machismo.
Later that night, the Lomas take Luis and the other new recruits out for the second part of their initiation. They stop a passing truck, which appears to be full of decent, hard-working people. One Lomas leader, Ragman, attacks the drivers. Puppet presses a screwdriver into Luis’s hands, points him toward one of the drivers, and orders him, “do it.” Luis does as he’s told, plunging the screwdriver into the driver’s “flesh and bone.” Luis concludes, “the sky screamed.”
In this passage, it’s implied that Luis commits a horrible crime (possibly murder) because his Lomas bosses order him to do so. Luis commits this arguably unforgiveable crime because he’s frightened, uncertain of his direction in life, and full of self-hatred—but this certainly doesn’t excuse what he does.
By the end of that year, the papers are full of headlines about grotesque acts of gang violence. Luis’s neighborhood is becoming more violent by the day. The local community center is now overflowing with injured gang members who need help. Furthermore, police officers are becoming more brutal.
Police brutality is both a cause and an effect of increased gang violence: gangs are reacting to increased police brutality, but they’re also being brutalized because of their own extraordinary brutality (as Luis showed in the previous section).
The year is 1970, and Luis feels “out of balance.” He’s a curious young man, and he wants to learn. Around this time the Bienvenidos Community Center hires a man named Chente Ramírez. Chente used to be a gang member, but he later became a grassroots political organizer. Luis is immediately impressed with Chente. Chente is in his late twenties, and seems calm and wise. He’s also a karate expert, which Luis finds cool. Chente, Luis recalls, “was someone who could influence me without judging me morally or telling me what to do.”
In this passage, Luis is at a crossroads. He turns to Chente, who ends up becoming something of a father figure to him. Chente never once tells Luis what to do. Instead, he leads by example. Put another way, he’s an important person in Luis’s life because he shows Luis what kind of adult Luis could become.
One night, Luis is out playing pool with Puppet and other Lomas. Puppet, Luis has found, rules by fear. Puppet shoots pool while Pila, his girlfriend, gets in an argument with another Loma member’s girlfriend. Puppet is quiet as the argument goes on, and Luis notes that he doesn’t seem to care about anybody.
As Luis grows older, he becomes more attuned to the psychology of other gang members. Luis realizes that Puppet is just as detached and nihilistic as he is.
For a couple weeks, Luis takes karate lessons at the La Casa Community Center. There, he meets Sal Basuto, the center’s organizer (Chente’s counterpart). Sal is frustrated by his interactions with the Sangra. They’re a small gang, meaning that they often sustain horrible losses in their fights with rival gangs. But this only makes Sangra more vicious.
Sal’s observations about the Sangra gang are very telling. The Sangra’s mission is suicidal: because they’re such a small gang, they endure heavier losses. But because of the culture of machismo—which teaches men to embrace danger—the Sangra don’t give up, sending dozens of their own members to death or injury every month.
One night, Luis hears a knock on the garage and finds Lomas, including his friend Santos, waiting for him. Tonight, he learns, they’ll be getting revenge on a group of Sangras. In the car, Luis finds rags and bottles, suggesting that they’re about to firebomb a house. The car drives to a quiet neighborhood where an important Sangra member, Chava, lives. Luis and his friends soak rags in gasoline and surround the house. Luis notices that the house looks a lot like his own. But he helps burn down the house, throwing Molotov cocktails into the backyard. The next day, Luis learns that the house burned down, but everyone inside was able to escape in time.
For the time being, Luis is a passive servant of the Lomas. He does as he’s told, even if he’s being told to do something truly horrific, like burning down a house full of innocent people (Luis never says if there were children inside the house, but he implies that there may have been). Luis has some misgivings about the life of a gang member, but he’s not yet at the point where he’s willing to go against orders.
Around this time, Gloria, Luis’s younger sister, has joined her own Lomas crew and begun going by the nickname Shorty. One night, Gloria is at a school dance. There, some Sangra girls notice Shorty and remember that she and Luis are siblings. The Sangras decide to attack Shorty when they get a chance, as revenge for Luis’s involvement in the firebombing. Later that night, Joe gets a call from Gloria, begging him to pick her up immediately. Joe drives to the dance, only to see Gloria running out of the building, chased by armed Sangras. Joe manages to pick up Gloria and drive away, chased by bullets.
Just as Chava’s family is punished for Chava’s actions as a gang member, Luis’s family (i.e., Gloria) is targeted because of Luis’s actions. It’s an endless cycle of violence and revenge.
As time goes on, life gets worse in Luis’s neighborhood. Rape becomes common, to the point where it’s “a way of life” for some cholos. One night, some Lomas offer Luis and Chicharrón a chance to “get in on this”—in other words, rape a naked, unconscious young woman. Luis says, “I ain’t with it,“ and Chicharrón agrees.
One of the most disturbing aspects of gang culture is its treatment of women. For many cholos, women are objects, and as a result, women are harassed, intimidated, and raped. However, Luis makes it clear that he doesn’t participate in this contemptible behavior, nor do his close friends.
One evening, Yuk Yuk, Luis, and some other friends are leaving a quinceñera (i.e., fifteenth birthday party). In their car, they find another friend, Paco, with two girls, both of whom have been doing heroin. As they drive off, Luis sees Paco groping one of the girls, who’s almost passed out. The girl looks no older than fourteen. Meanwhile, Yuk Yuk begins kissing the other girl. Luis is disgusted. When the Lomas park the car, Luis wanders off to throw up.
Luis is surrounded by men who take advantage of women in despicable ways—and some of them, like Yuk Yuk, are people with whom he’s friendly and does business. Luis doesn’t take advantage of women in this passage, and he’s disgusted by the people who do, but he’s still unwilling to speak out against what he sees.
Wilo and Payasa move to a new neighborhood, partly to escape the violence. Just before they leave, Luis reunites with Payasa, who’s been in rehab. She seems more energetic than she was when Luis last saw her. She greets Luis and says that she’ll always remember their time together. Luis says goodbye to Wilo, too, adding that he owes Wilo for saving his life. They hug, and Wilo says, “You don’t owe me nothing. Just pay yourself back.” Ten days later, Wilo is killed in a gang attack. Later on, Payasa gets pregnant and ends up “in a prison of matrimony.”
There’s something devastating about the way Luis (as the narrator) follows this emotional moment between himself and Wilo with a sudden, matter-of-fact description of Wilo’s death. And this, Luis suggests, is the true horror of La Vida Loca: anyone he knows could die at any time. The passage is also interesting because it describes marriage as a “prison.” This echoes some of Luis’s earlier assessments of his mother’s life: he describes María as being tethered to her husband and children, unable to return to Mexico as a result.
Luis and his friends’ lives revolve around death. They flirt with death by pursuing fights with cops and rival gangs, and by doing heroin and other dangerous drugs. They feel as if they had a “fever … weakening and enslaving us.”
The life of a gang member is often nasty, brutish, and short—so dangerous, in fact, that it’s only made possible by a culture of machismo that glorifies death and danger, and encourages its members to do copious amounts of drugs to mask their pain.
Luis stops inhaling sprays but starts experimenting with meth, PCP, heroin, mescaline, and pills. Luis, Yuk, and Chicharrón work together to steal heroin. Sometimes, he and Chicharrón go to new neighborhoods and pretend to be high school students. There, they meet girls and get into fights.
Luis continues using excessive amounts of dangerous drugs—in part, it’s implied, because they provide him a momentary escape from his depression. He becomes more adventurous in his daily life, as if he’s obsessed with “living on the edge.”
One night, Luis and Chicharrón go driving around the neighborhood. They pick up two girls named Roberta and Xochitl, promising to take them to a party. They end up driving out to the neighborhood housing protects and making out with the two girls. From then on, Luis spends time with Roberta and Chicharrón starts seeing a lot of Xochitl. Luis has sex with Roberta, and sometimes sleeps over at her place.
Luis and his friends are never lacking for romantic partners. In part, Luis suggests, this is because cholos are respected, but they’re also feared, and many women may be too intimidated to turn them down.
Luis eventually finds out from Roberta’s sister Frankie that Roberta “turns tricks.” When he learns this, Luis is furious. He’s even more shocked when he discovers that Xochitl is a prostitute, and Chicharrón has become her pimp. That same night, Frankie kisses Luis, and the two of them sleep together. In the following days, Luis avoids Roberta. He’s fallen in love with a prostitute, but he never wants to see her again. He begins doing more heroin.
It’s interesting to contrast Luis’s behavior with Chicharrón’s: Luis seems interested in developing a close personal relationship with his girlfriend, whereas Chicharrón seems more interested in exerting power over his girlfriend (hence his willingness to become her pimp). As before, Luis drowns his depression in drugs.