Luis describes a dream he’s had. In the dream, he sees his “long-dead sister Lisa … in a deathbed of bliss.” Lisa is a baby, and she’s wearing her baptism dress. Suddenly, Lisa opens her eyes and screams. Luis runs around, trying to find help. Eventually, he finds his mother, father, and siblings. His parents take Lisa to a hospital, where she’s cured of appendicitis. Luis is told, in the dream, that if she’d been brought in “minutes later, she’d be dead.”
Luis is haunted by the memory of his dead sister (actually half-sister). And yet the dream he describes here isn’t really about death, since it ends with Lisa’s miraculous survival. One could argue that this dream is a form of “wish fulfillment”—in other words, it reflects Luis’s desire to survive and help others survive, too. It’s also interesting that in Luis’s dream Lisa is on the verge of death—perhaps this is Luis’s unconscious way of telling himself that he himself is dangerously close to death.
Luis spends most of his time in the garage. Sometimes, María tries to encourage him to go back to high school. She summons Mr. Rothro, the principal of his elementary school, to convince Luis to return to school. Rothro meets Luis in the garage, and Luis shows Rothro a book he’s been writing about “what I feel about the people around me.” Rothro praises Luis’s writing and adds that he should return to school.
Luis is clearly a bright kid, but he has no interest in school—and based on what Luis has described so far, there’s no reason he should be. Luis has always thought of school as a hostile, prejudiced place, where, as a Latino, he’s treated as a second-class student. No wonder he prefers sitting in the garage writing stories.
Prior to his meeting with Mr. Rothro, Luis has attended Continuation High School, a school designed for students who “couldn’t make it anywhere else.” Luis lasts one day at Continuation and then gets expelled for fighting. At this point, Alfonso proposes that Luis come with him to his job at the local Junior College. Alfonso will enroll Luis at the nearby Taft High School, where Luis could get a good education.
This is one of the few times in the book when Luis mentions Alfonso. Even though they live together, Alfonso is a distant presence in his sons’ lives. Luis is getting a second chance at life outside of the gang when Mr. Rothro takes him to enroll at Taft.
Luis accompanies Alfonso to work every morning. Alfonso works as a lab technician, but Luis thinks of his father as an “overblown janitor.” After years of thinking of his father as a brilliant scientist, it’s hard for Luis to see the truth. Professors yell at Alfonso for misplacing equipment, and instead of yelling back, Alfonso apologizes, which enrages Luis.
Even though Luis hasn’t talked much about his father so far, he clearly thinks of his father as a smart man with a good job. But now he sees behind the veil: Alfonso has a menial job, for which he’s overqualified, and he’s too subservient to protest when people boss him around. For Luis, who’s hungry for a strong role model, this discovery is very discouraging.
At Taft High School, Luis enrolls in art, photography, and literature classes, but his counselor tells him that these classes are full. Instead, he’s placed in auto shop, print shop, basic English, and weight training. He tells himself that he doesn’t even care about art or photography. He’s the only Mexican student at his school. One day, he gets in a fight with some “hefty dudes in letter jackets.” He’s punished, but not expelled.
Once again, Luis is treated as a second-class student, not because he’s unintelligent but because people seem not to expect much from him. Luis has a lot of interest in art and literature, but he’s never given a chance to explore these interests.
After school, Luis spends time in the library, waiting for Alfonso to finish work. There, he reads some good books, including the poetry of Amiri Baraka and the memoirs of Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver. He’s inspired by these authors, who’ve emerged “out of the flames which engulfed many American cities in the 1960s.” One day, Luis shows up to English class with a copy of American Me by Beatrice Griffith (a famous book about Mexican-American immigration). The teacher irritably tells Luis that he was supposed to read Preludes by William Wordsworth, and yells at Luis when Luis suggests that he read Griffith’s book instead. Luis storms out of class and never comes back.
Luis immerses himself in the works of radical writers like Baraka (a black poet and critic who advocated for a distinctly black aesthetic in literature). Luis also dips his toe into politics by reading Malcolm X and Cleaver, both of whom supported the empowerment and eventual independence of African Americans. Because Luis isn’t allowed to read the books that he likes (and which have actual relevance to his own life), he’s branded a bad and disobedient student even though he’s clearly smart.
In 1970, there’s a months-long teachers’ strike in Los Angeles. Luis stops going to school, even after the strike. He continues going to libraries, reading William Wordsworth along with Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson. He also learns not to be angry with Alfonso. Even if he’s disillusioned with his father in some ways, he respects his father for giving him “the world of books.”
Luis’s self-education seems to give him a new perspective on life. He’s no longer consumed by anger and self-hatred. Literature serves the same function that music did: it gives him an outlet for his frustration and confusion, and allows him to live life more peacefully.
One day, Luis sits in his garage, listening to jazz. Chicharrón knocks, calling him outside. Chicharrón introduces Luis to his friend Arnie and tells Luis they’re going out to dinner. At the restaurant, the three order expensive food, then realize that nobody has brought any money. They decide to run out of the restaurant. Luis tries to run, but two employees tackle him and wrestle him to the back of the building.
Even though Luis is educating himself, he still gets involved in trouble just like he always has—and here, he suffers the consequences for trying to steal from a restaurant.
In the back of the restaurant, Luis finds himself face-to-face with the owner, a man named Charles Kearney. Kearney tells Luis he’s called the police, and asks why Luis stole. Luis explains that he’s unable to afford food for himself. Luis goes on to describe how the police have beaten him up and how, in general, they take advantage of Mexicans. By the time a police officer—Cowboy, a cop Luis knows—shows up, Kearney has decided not to press charges. He tells Luis to leave and never return.
This passage represents one of the first times in the book when Luis makes a political statement: he criticizes the systemic racism of the LAPD. It’s also one of the first times in the book when Luis uses words to get out of a jam. Finally, it’s one of the first scenes in the book to show cooperation between a Latino character and a white character. In all, this passage is something of a game-changer: it foreshadows the way that Luis will become more politically active and use communication to empower himself.
Luis attends a youth center to see Chente speak. Afterwards, Chente summons Luis to his office for a talk. There, he offers Luis a job working for the Neighborhood Youth Corps. However, Chente also wants Luis to go to school. He believes that Luis could be a great leader.
Chente is an important influence in Luis’s life because he believes that Luis could be a successful man if he applies himself while he’s still young. Chente believes that a summer job could instill a sense of responsibility in Luis and perhaps keep him away from the influence of gangs.
That summer, Luis works for the Neighborhood Youth Corps, thanks to Chente. He becomes deeply involved in the Youth Corps, often waking up at the crack of dawn to work on charity projects. That summer, he takes up boxing at a gym owned by an ex-boxer named Daniel Fuentes. He practices almost every day. His coach is a man named Rubén Navarro, a contender for the world featherweight title. Navarro works with Luis and other aspiring boxers. Boxing is fierce, and Luis and his peers are competitive.
Luis’s summer job turns out to have exactly the effect that Chente wanted: it makes Luis more interested in politics and charity. However, Luis’s interest in boxing seems to pull him in another direction. Boxing encourages Luis to be aggressive and competitive—but it also gives him a sense of purpose and an outlet for his energy.
Luis is nothing special when it comes to boxing, but he has “heart.” As a result, Daniel Fuentes invites him to fight in a big match. Luis is so excited that he invites his entire family to watch him. The fight begins with Luis throwing wild punches at his opponent, who barely fights back. But after a few minutes, Luis gets tired, and his opponent surges ahead to victory, viciously beating Luis. Luis’s family isn’t sure whether to congratulate Luis, and María simply cries.
Luis’s brief boxing career comes to an end with this painful experience, as his mother is forced to watch her son endure a brutal beating.
Soon afterwards, Luis learns that Yuk Yuk and his friend have stolen a car and gotten into a horrible accident. Fleeing from the police, their stolen car swerved off the road at 120 miles per hour and rolled over multiple times. Yuk Yuk and his friend’s bodies were “practically disintegrated.”
Luis is still surrounded by death and danger. Almost every month, it seems, a close friend of his dies under horrible circumstances.
Luis attends a group called The Collective, organized by Chente. The group studies politics, philosophy, and economics, which Chente sees as the three pillars of revolution. One day, soon after Yuk Yuk’s death, Luis shows up to The Collective, very high. Chente confronts him, and Luis admits that he’s been distracted since Yuk Yuk’s death. Chente angrily says that drugs are making “mincemeat out of your brains.” He encourages Luis to keep studying with him, adding, “There are a lot of people involved in your life now. When you win, we win; but when you go down, you go down alone.”
Although Luis is surrounded by danger, he finds a sanctuary in his time with Chente. Chente is an important influence on Luis because he encourages Luis to strengthen his mind through education instead of weakening it with drug use. Even more importantly, however, Chente celebrates the importance of unity, in politics and in life. His belief that people should help one another is the exact opposite of the code of machismo, which glorifies rugged independence above all else.