In the early 1990s, the writer, artist, and political organizer Luis Rodriguez is inspired to write a memoir about his early life in Los Angeles after he learns that his son, Ramiro, is getting involved in “La Vida Loca,” as he calls it—the life of a cholo or gang affiliate.
Luis spends the first two years of his life in Juarez, Mexico. He’s the son of Alfonso, a quiet, intelligent principal, and María, a fiery, half-Native American woman. When Luis is two, Alfonso moves his family—including Luis, Luis’s older brother Rano, and Luis’s two sisters—to Los Angeles, where they live in a poor, mostly Latino neighborhood.
Growing up in Los Angeles is a challenge for Luis. His neighborhood is dangerous, and in school he’s mocked by his teachers for not knowing how to speak English. He spends most of his time outside, playing with his friends Earl and Jaime. Early on in life, Luis learns that the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) isn’t to be trusted. When he’s just a child, he witnesses LAPD officers chasing his friend Tino and yelling “greaser.” Tino tries to climb a building to escape the officers, and ends up falling to his death.
Luis is attracted to the gang lifestyle because he associates it with protection from the LAPD. He and his good middle school friend Miguel Robles form a “club” called Thee Mystics, essentially a gang. In middle school, Luis begins to use drugs, becomes sexually active, and drifts away from his brother Rano, who is becoming more interested in running and music.
At the age of thirteen, Miguel Robles convinces Luis to join The Tribe, a large, “big-time” Los Angeles gang. As part of his new membership in the gang, Luis begins wearing Tribe colors and spending time with other Tribe members. He also gets into fights with rival gangs, sometimes getting seriously hurt. Finally, Luis comes to realize the extent to which he’s a victim of racism. One year, LAPD officers arrest him and his friends for drinking on the beach, and brag that they’re doing this in order to fingerprint Luis and his Latino friends so that they can monitor them later on.
Luis’s criminal behavior becomes increasingly dangerous. He and his friend Yuk Yuk rob houses and sell the goods to their business partners. He also begins to suffer from serious depression, which he later learns is extremely common among gang members. In school, he’s moody and always getting into fights. However, Luis finds relief in listening to music. He also begins writing poetry and teaches himself how to play the saxophone.
At the annual Fiesta Day parade, Luis meets a beautiful young woman named Viviana, who belongs to the rival Sangra gang. Although he knows he’s acting like a traitor, Luis spends time with Viviana, and eventually kisses her.
That year, Luis is a sophomore in high school. One day at a football game, LAPD officers harass him and his friends, and in retaliation Luis and the other Tribe members start a riot. They attack white bystanders even though they know that these are innocent people who mean them no harm.
Luis begins using drugs, including meth and heroin. One night, he inhales clear plastic and becomes so high that his heart seems to stop. His friend Wilo prevents him from inhaling any more of the clear plastic—an action which, Luis later realizes, probably saved his life.
The Tribe is beginning to fall apart, since its leaders are either dead or in jail. Luis and the remaining members decide to merge with the Lomas, a large and powerful gang. As part of his initiation, Luis is savagely beaten for three minutes, and then ordered to attack (and possibly kill) an innocent person with a screwdriver. Luis follows orders. The year is 1970, and Los Angeles is rife with political activism. Luis meets a young man named Chente Ramírez, who becomes his mentor. Chente encourages Luis to become politically engaged, telling him that he has a connection with all the exploited and impoverished people of the world—not just other Latinos. While Luis is inspired by Chente, he also continues with his gang activities, even firebombing a rival member member’s house.
With Chente’s encouragement, Luis participates in an anti-Vietnam war protest. At the protest, Luis is arrested. In high school, he becomes involved with the school’s Chicano cultural club. He auditions to become the school’s mascot, an Aztec, as the club reasons that it’s better for this character to be played by a Latino who can bring dignity and authenticity to the role. Luis also begins to stage protests and walk-outs in response to what he sees as his school’s indifference to Chicano culture and Chicano students. While this frequently puts him at odds with his principal, Mr. Madison, it also pressures Madison to hire Chicano teachers and introduce Chicano culture classes to the school’s curriculum.
One night, Luis and other Lomas go to attack some white bikers who previously attacked one of Luis’s Latino friends. Luis arms himself with a rifle, but the LAPD arrests him before he can find the bikers. He faces trial but is not convicted of any crime because the bikers refuse to cooperate with the police.
Miguel Robles is arrested and shot by LAPD cops. Luis is infuriated by the death of his old friend, who had been “going straight” for more than a year at the time of his death. The police officers who killed Miguel are not convicted of any wrongdoing. Shortly afterwards, two of Luis’s gang friends, Indio and Santos, are killed under mysterious circumstances. The leader of the Lomas, who is called Puppet, wants a retaliatory strike on the rival Sangra gang. However, Luis protests that this will only cause more violence, and notes that the killings could have been the work of LAPD cops trying to incite gang warfare. Puppet becomes so furious at Luis’s opposition that he punches Luis in the face. Afterwards, Luis begins to distance himself from the Lomas.
Luis finishes high school and goes to Cal State-L.A. for college. He signs a contract to publish a book, and also arranges to design the murals for a local building, but his career is sidelined when he witnesses two police officers beating up a woman, and intervenes. Luis is arrested for attacking police officers, and ultimately sentenced to a few months in jail. During this period, he meets a woman named Licha, with whom he has yet another brief romantic relationship.
After his release, Luis reunites with Chente, who continues to inspire him to fight for justice. Luis tours the country, organizing rallies and protests. He also becomes involved with a young woman named Camila Martínez, who later becomes the mother of his eldest son, Ramiro. One night, years later, Luis runs into a former Sangra warrior named Chava. Chava is now a frail, middle-aged man, but he’s still full of hatred and rage. Luis is disgusted by the sight of Chava, but is also sympathetic. This, he realizes, is what he could have become had he continued to be a cholo. He realizes that he no longer hates any cholos—he just wants to help them move past their anger and self-hatred.
In the memoir’s epilogue, Luis notes that his son, Ramiro, has been avoiding gang life. Like his father, Ramiro reads poetry and listens to music to deal with his emotions. Luis concludes by celebrating the aftermath of the Rodney King beating, during which Latinos and blacks across Los Angeles worked together to protest oppression in their city.