In August 1970, tens of thousands gather in East Los Angeles to protest the Vietnam War. It’s the largest anti-war protest ever held in a minority community. Luis participates in the protest, with Chente’s encouragement.
Luis becomes increasingly politically active. At this time, the whole country is becoming more politically active, too: millions of people are working together to protest what they see as their country’s unjust military involvement in Vietnam (among many other issues).
Luis and his peers march through the streets, chanting anti-war slogans. The area is riddled with cops, who threaten Luis and the other protesters. The officers shoot tear gas at protesters, some of whom are children. Another officer attacks Luis and wrestles him into a “black, caged bus,” along with hundreds of other people. That night, he’s imprisoned in “murderers row” alongside rapists and serial killers—in fact, Luis has a cell next to Charles Manson. All night long, Luis hears word of an “East L.A. riot” from the prison guards.
Even though Luis is exercising his right to peaceful protest, he’s treated like a dangerous criminal and given the same treatment as a mass-murderer like Charles Manson (notorious for killing the actress Sharon Tate, among other people). What the police call a “riot,” Luis further implies, is really the uprising of the impoverished and exploited peoples of Los Angeles.
The next day, Luis witnessed Charles Manson ranting about “niggers and spics.” For the next couple days, Luis is held in his cell—on the several occasions when a hearing is scheduled, the courts cancel it, and Luis’s parents are kept in the dark about the whereabouts of their son. Finally, Luis is released in the middle of the night. He returns home and embraces his mother, telling her, “I ain’t no criminal.” She replies, “I know.”
Whether Luis is dealing with cops or criminals, the racist vitriol he hears is pretty much the same. María seems to understand that Luis has been unjustly imprisoned for his political beliefs, not for committing an actual crime.
Los Angeles undergoes some major changes during Luis’s childhood and teen years. In 1965, fires from the Watts Rebellion destroy many buildings in Los Angeles. In 1968, thousands of Latino students protest to demand equal education opportunities. This event is a milestone in the Chicano (i.e., Mexican-American) civil rights movement. Chicano activists organize protests against injustices in the prison system and publish radical newspapers and magazines. The late ‘60s are also a time of great artistic achievement for Latinos living in Los Angeles. Throughout this period, and leading into the early 1970s, L.A. gang violence decreases as gangs work together to fight bigger injustices in their city.
Luis celebrates Los Angeles’s history of political activism. Although the Watts uprising of 1965 is often characterized as a “riot,” Luis describes it in more positive language as an “explosion” of the city’s exploited, suffering people. While Watts is often remembered as a black movement, the reality is that it hastened and strengthened the developing Chicano renaissance in Los Angeles. This renaissance wasn’t only characterized by political protest, either—Chicanos celebrated their cultural achievements and understood culture to be an important part of politics (an idea that resonates with Luis’s own political activity).
Shortly after his stint in prison, Luis attends a dance at the local church. At the dance, Luis runs into Viviana, the woman he met two years ago at the carnival. They haven’t seen each other since that day, but they dance together, eventually kissing. Luis notes, “I would fall for this woman.” Shortly afterwards, Luis takes a big risk by going into Sangra territory to visit Viviana. As he bikes into the Sangra neighborhood, people give him dirty looks. At Viviana’s home, her brothers ask Luis where he’s from and try to intimidate him—however, Luis has become a big, tough-looking boxer by this point, so they don’t try to hurt him.
Viviana continues to fascinate Luis. As before, Luis is willing to betray his gang ties because of his feelings for this woman, which suggests that he doesn’t take his gang affiliation as seriously as certain other members. Luis is even ready to risk his safety (and, one would have to think, Viviana’s safety, too) in order to spend time with her.
In the following weeks, Luis and Viviana spend lots of time together. Luis feels that Viviana teaches him “poetry” just through her words and the “soul-touch” she gives him. One night on her porch they are kissing, and Luis ends up touching her until she orgasms. Immediately afterward, however, Viviana tells Luis that he needs to go immediately. She refuses to say why, but Luis leaves.
Like many of the romances in this memoir, Luis’s relationship with Viviana comes to an abrupt ending.
Afterwards, Viviana stops returning Luis’s calls. He tries to see her, but she won’t even answer her door. A month later, they reunite at another dance. Viviana tells Luis that she has to tell him something, but then disappears. An hour later, Luis sees her kissing another man. He’s so angry that he tells his sisters, who are also at the dance, about what happened, and they offer to “jump” her after the dance. At first, Luis entertains this idea, but then he thinks better of it and goes home.
Even though Luis’s relationship with Viviana comes to a disappointing end, it clearly left a mark on Luis. Luis doesn’t want to hurt Viviana, even though she’s betrayed him for another man (perhaps suggesting that he still has feelings for her, or even that he’s beginning to move past the “eye for an eye” mentality common in his gang).
In the fall, Luis returns to high school. The principal there, Mr. Madison, is new, and wants to encourage Lomas to enroll in school. He says that he’ll do his best to be fair to Lomas, but only if they behave.
Mr. Madison doesn’t go out of his way to be an ally to gang members, but he rightly believes that they have a right to get an education.
That fall, Chicano students start a club called ToHMAS, or To Help Mexican American Students. The club’s sponsor is a Chicano teacher named Mrs. Baez. Luis becomes more and more active in this club, which is intended to promote Chicano culture in the classroom and at school events. He doesn’t say much at the meetings, but he attends almost all of them. Sometimes, meetings end early because there’s a fight in the halls.
The purpose of ToHMAS isn’t just to celebrate Chicano culture—it’s to make sure that Chicano students are respected. To repeat a famous adage from the ‘60s, the personal is political, and this can be taken to mean that the students’ personal relationship with their culture can take on political significance at school (as Luis will show).
ToHMAS is mostly run by women. The club deals with two main aspects of the student experience: first, repairing the school’s physical deterioration; second, respecting the dignity of Chicano students. At Luis’s high school, the mascots are a pair of Aztecs, one male, one female, who are nearly always played by white students. Some of the ToHMAS officers suggest that Luis and another ToHMAS member, Esmeralda Falcón, try out for the Aztec parts. Luis reluctantly agrees to try out and learn authentic Aztec dance techniques.
Luis and his friends have long felt uncomfortable with the use of an Aztec figure as a mascot for a high school, since the mascot trivializes Aztec and Latino culture. The ToHMAS members decide to try to give the mascot some dignity instead, and they enlist Luis for this task.
Luis and Esmeralda study Aztec dance for weeks, and María, along with mothers of other ToHMAS members, designs the Aztec costumes. Weeks later, Luis and Esmeralda are ready.
Luis takes his preparation very seriously, suggesting that, despite his reluctance to dance, he’s committed to honoring Chicano culture.
During their audition, Luis and Esmeralda act very serious, unlike the clownish white duos who audition for the part. Their costumes are beautiful, and their dance is precise and impressive. As they come to a finish, the judges and audience members burst into applause—Luis and Esmeralda are the new school mascots.
Luis and Esmeralda succeed in bringing new dignity to the Aztec mascots and, by extension, to Chicano culture at their school. This isn’t just a symbolic victory for Chicano students—it’s a literal victory, since it shows the school that Chicano students will not be disrespected.
Luis and Esmeralda’s success inspires other Chicano students to join ToHMAS. The group puts on dances and plays, three of which Luis writes himself. Luis’s most controversial play is about the wars between the Lomas and the Sangra. In the play, gang members fight for turf, only to learn that their land will be the site of a new mall. When the play is performed for the school, some Loma members watch. The play ends with Esmeralda speaking about how to end the violence between neighborhoods.
Luis uses writing to discuss important themes, including some that he wouldn’t be allowed to discuss with his fellow gang members. In other words, he uses art to interrogate big ideas and make daring claims about the way society should be—one definition of political theater. Notice, also, that Luis’s play touches on one of Chente’s key ideas: different gangs should be working together against the forces of capitalism and gentrification, and when they don't, big business (symbolized by the new mall) wins.
Luis enjoys his work for ToHMAS, but becomes frustrated that things aren’t changing for Chicano students quickly enough. He suggests that the school sponsor a Chicano class, with a Chicano teacher—Chente. He tries to convince the ToHMAS teacher sponsor, Mrs. Baez, to support his idea, but she refuses. Luis has an idea to stage another walkout, protesting the lack of Chicano classes at his school.
Luis has been inspired by his friendship with Chente, who has used walkout techniques in the past. Luis believes, quite reasonably, that his high school has an obligation to teach its students about Chicano culture (since many of the students are Chicano).
Soon after, Luis and many Chicano classmates—at least 300—walk out of their classes. Mrs. Baez has an angry meeting with Mr. Madison, in which Madison accuses her of helping organize the walkout. He complains that he can’t let some “disgruntled students” control what he does. But Mrs. Baez is able to convince him to listen to his students and organize an assembly where they can present demands.
By practicing civil disobedience—the refusal to comply with unjust laws and regulations—Luis and his peers show disapproval for Madison’s policies without resorting to destructive violence. Clearly, Luis’s actions attract Mr. Madison’s attention—and this was Luis’s original goal.
At the school assembly, Luis speaks on behalf of the Chicano movement. He emphasizes that he and his classmates are not protesting white students, but rather the prejudiced school system. The student body president, a white student, accuses Luis and his Chicano peers of being lazy and refusing to get involved with the school. But in the end, Mr. Madison approves a new course on Chicano history and culture, and promises that a Chicano will teach the course. Luis is triumphant, but he knows, “We had only just begun.”
Luis makes a crucial distinction between targeting white students (i.e., the kind of reactionary bigotry that Lomas have practiced against white and Asian bystanders) and protesting the school system itself. One implication of this is that white students can be allies in Chicano issues. Luis’s activism pays off, showing that civil disobedience, if backed up with a compelling message, can accomplish important political goals.
Around the same time, Shorty learns that one of her close friends, Fernando, has killed himself. Fernando, who’s only fourteen, had a crush on Shorty, and the night before his death, he called her to talk as they often did. That night Shorty was tired, though, and asked if they could talk tomorrow. The next morning, Fernando’s parents found his body hanging from a pole in his closet.
Even while Luis achieves success, he gets constant reminders that his life is still hard and miserable. His friends, and friends of friends, die suddenly and tragically. Some of them struggle with depression, like Luis—but unlike Luis, they may not all have politics, art, music, and literature to help them come to terms with their feelings.
At The Collective, Luis learns about the importance of social science. Chente emphasizes that it’s not enough to rely on personal experience: one must dig deeper and grasp the systemic problems underlying one’s experiences. Chente also teaches Luis valuable lessons about dignity and respect: for instance, that there’s nothing shameful about being a janitor. Above all, Luis embraces the “unconquerable idea” that exploited people of all colors and nationalities have a common interest, rooted in their “interests as a class.”
Here, Chente makes a distinction similar to the one Luis made in his speech to Mr. Madison: a distinction between personal experience and systemic problems. This distinction is important in the Marxist tradition, and so it comes as no surprise when Luis raises the quintessential Marxist point that exploited people have a “common interest” as a result of their having a shared class. Where many in Luis’s life emphasize racial divisions, Luis and Chente emphasize the importance of trans-racial unity, encouraging people of different races to work together.
One night, at a party, a man rushes in and shouts that some “white bikers” tried to attack him. Luis joins his friends in driving to find the attackers. Eventually, they do—only to find that the attackers are armed with shotguns. They fire at Luis and his friends, who are forced to run. Luis’s friends tell him to get a gun immediately and come back as soon as possible.
One of the most perplexing things about Luis’s life is the way he goes from studying with Chente to joining the other Lomas in acts of brutal violence. Luis is beginning to believe Chente, but in the meantime he’s still a gang member. One could argue that his violence is becoming more defensive and politically motivated, but he’s still ignoring the “big picture” as Chente described it.
Luis runs to his friend Roger Nelson’s house and asks to borrow a rifle. Roger lends Luis a weapon, and Luis returns to where the white bikers were staying, bringing other friends with him. At the site of the fight, Luis fires on a biker and shoots him in the butt. Before long, however, the police appear and order Luis and his friends to surrender. They do so, and the police drive them to the San Gabriel jailhouse. They’re booked for “Assault with intent to commit murder.”
Just like that, Luis is arrested for a serious crime. In many ways, his situation reflects the point Chente was making earlier: on a personal level, Luis has become embroiled in a conflict with some white bikers. But in a broader sense, Luis is just one small part of a racist system—the same system that now intends to send him to jail for a long time.