In the winter of 1991, Luis Rodriguez, the narrator and author, resides in Chicago. His eldest son, Ramiro, is involved in gang life. Luis is reminded of his own gang involvement in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s. Although dozens of his closest friends were killed or imprisoned as a result of their gang affiliations, Luis managed to become a successful writer. He’s worried that his son might not be able to do the same. “La Vida Loca” (i.e., “the crazy life”) is slang for belonging to a Latino gang. Luis wants to save his son from this kind of life.
The Preface explains Luis’s rationale for writing his memoir: he wants to discourage his son from joining a gang, as Luis himself did in the 1960s. Of course, this isn’t the only reason he’s writing his book. His project is at once personal and universal: he’s coming to terms with his own early life in order to educate other people, not just his son, who might be struggling through some of the same problems he went through.
That winter, Luis gives his son “an ultimatum.” Furious, Ramiro leaves the house, and Luis chases after him, begging him to come home. Ramiro ignores his father and disappears into the night.
Luis tries many ways of discouraging his son from joining a gang—for example, telling him that he has to choose between living at home and joining a gang. But nothing works, and Ramiro grows apart from his father, establishing an early opposition between gang life and family life.
Luis remembers when Ramiro was born in the late 1970s, just before Luis turned twenty-one. Two years later, Luis broke up with Ramiro’s mother, Camila, and moved to Chicago, leaving Ramiro in Los Angeles. At the time, Los Angeles had over a hundred thousand active gang members. The East Los Angeles school system was infamously poor. Without a good education, many East Los Angeles residents turn to a life of crime and drug use because it provided an alternative to a traditional career, which was out of reach for many.
The setting for this memoir is Los Angeles, one of the biggest and most culturally diverse cities in the United States. One important aspect of the history of Los Angeles is its history of gang violence. Right away, Luis makes it clear that this isn’t going to be a simplistic critique of gangs and gang life. He is harsh in his assessment of gangs, but also sympathetic: unlike many writers, he recognizes the forces that drive people to a life of crime.
In 1991, Ramiro runs away for two weeks. Luis is so furious that he replaces the locks on the doors to keep Ramiro out. Eventually, he finds Ramiro living in a hovel and talks him into coming home. Ramiro admits that he’s been dealing with psychological problems, some of them stemming from abusive stepfathers. He agrees to see a psychiatrist, and lately he’s been making what seems like steady progress, recognizing that La Vida Loca is dangerous.
Ramiro is attracted to the gang lifestyle not simply because gangs are seen as cool but also because he is struggling with psychological problems that have left him unstable and frightened. For many people, including Luis himself, gang membership offers a way of keeping fear and anxiety at bay.
Also in 1991, Luis begins seriously considering writing a memoir. He is inspired by the Rodney King beatings, as well as other stories of police brutality. Luis believes that “criminality in this country is a class issue.” Criminals are victims of poverty who turn to crime because they lack basic life necessities. Luis wants to explore this idea by discussing his personal experiences with poverty and crime. He feels a deep responsibility, in writing his memoir, to save “the Ramiros of this world” from the allure of La Vida Loca.
In part, Luis was inspired to pen a memoir after the Rodney King beatings, in which Los Angeles police officers’ brutal attack on a black man was recorded on video. The passage also establishes Luis’s firm belief that all exploited, working-class people (not just Latinos, blacks, and other minorities) have something in common, and need to work together to fight injustice. By depicting gang members as victims of poverty and fear and not simply as vile criminals, Luis offers a nuanced look at crime.