Luis Rodriguez is a gang member for many years, beginning when he’s in grade school and continuing, on and off, until he’s in college. During this time, he becomes acquainted with the various aspects of Los Angeles cholo (i.e., gang member) culture: drug use, dismissive treatment of women, and, above all, violent clashes with rival gangs. Luis personally commits some reprehensible crimes as a gang member. Though he never seems to ask for his readers’ forgiveness, he uses his memoir to pose the question of why Los Angeles gangs were formed in the first place—and why, furthermore, so many people turn to violent crime.
In answering these questions, Luis speaks from personal experience, but also outlines a more general theory about gangs and crime. Luis joins a gang because he sees himself as—and, in fact, is—a victim of a corrupt and racist society. Even as a child, Luis witnesses LAPD officers stopping Latinos without clear cause and using excessive force on Latino women and children. The racial epithets “Spic” and “beaner,” frequently used by police officers, become painfully familiar to him. Surrounded by reminders of the LAPD’s unwarranted aggression and his own helplessness to protect himself, Luis resorts to joining a gang—or, as he initially thinks of it, a club. The stated purpose of Luis’s first club, formed with handful of grade school friends, is to protect its members from the dangers of the city—first and foremost, the dangers represented by the police force. Of course, half a dozen sixth graders can’t do much to protect themselves, or each other, from cops. Nevertheless, Luis’s gang gives him some much-needed psychological support. His gang helps him feel empowered and capable of standing up to the dangers he encounters in Los Angeles every day. The first half of Luis’s memoir, then, establishes a clear cause-and-effect relationship between gangs, crime, and social corruption in general. Luis turns to gangs and crime—“La Vida Loca,” or “The Crazy Life”—as a reaction against the injustices he witnesses and the fear he feels as a result of his oppression. In short, Luis is not born a criminal. Rather, he turns to gangs and crime as a source of strength in a world where he feels powerless.
As Luis grows older, however, he begins to think about La Vida Loca in broader and more explicitly political terms. Crime is partly a reaction to the racism of the LAPD, but it’s also a rational response to economic inequality. As Luis writes, the vast majority of the criminals in Los Angeles would turn away from crime if they could just find a decent nine-to-five job. But in the 1960s and 1970s, these kinds of opportunities often aren’t available to people living in the neighborhoods of outer Los Angeles, where there aren’t always even paved roads or working sewage systems. In the absence of job opportunities, stealing or selling drugs becomes one of few seemingly viable alternatives. Luis also comes to understand crime as a psychological response to the feeling of despair that economic inequality often engenders. Luis goes through many periods of deep depression in response to the difficulty of his life. Convinced that he has nothing to work towards and nothing to aspire to, he takes out his frustration on himself by cutting himself and doing hard drugs, and on other people by bullying them and beating them up without cause. However, as Luis begins to educate himself and think about his time in Los Angeles more critically, he realizes the truth. At the most basic level, he has turned to crime because his poverty fosters a feeling of hopelessness and a desperate need for money that more privileged people never have to struggle with. The same goes for hundreds of thousands of other people in his city. Once Luis realizes that he and other gang members are suffering from the same “diseases”—poverty, racism, fear, and despair—he finds it easier to feel compassion for them. He sees beyond the petty gang rivalries that fuel La Vida Loca and instead tries to help the poor and end the cycle of violent crime in Los Angeles.
Too often, Luis writes, politicians suggest that criminals are born violent and depraved. Instead, Luis suggests that there is no such thing as a born criminal. The gang members in Los Angeles, as cruelly as they sometimes behave, are themselves victims responding to racism, responding to depression, or responding to economic need. Luis doesn’t suggest that criminals should be forgiven without question, or that they shouldn't be judged and punished for their crimes. Rather, Luis believes that criminals should be held morally accountable for their actions—not because he believes in punishment for the sake of punishment, but because he wants to help criminals learn to be better. Luis is living proof that criminals and gang members aren’t inherently dangerous or “beyond help”—on the contrary, they’re capable of great things when they’re treated with respect and compassion.
Gangs and Crime ThemeTracker
Gangs and Crime Quotes in Always Running
Following me, Ramiro was a second-generation gang member. My involvement was in the late 1960s and early 1970s in Los Angeles, the so-called gang capital of the country. My teen years were ones of drugs, shootings and beatings, and arrests. I was around when South Central Los Angeles gave birth to the Crips and Bloods. By the time I turned 18 years old, 25 of my friends had been killed by rival gangs, police, drugs, car crashes and suicides.
With little productive to do, drug selling becomes a lucrative means of survival. A 10-year-old in Humboldt Park can make $80-$100 a day as a lookout for local dealers. The drug trade is business. It's capitalism: Cutthroat, profit- motivated and expedient.
In the barrio, the police are just another gang. […] Sometimes they come up to us while we linger on a street comer and tell us Sangra called us chavalas, a loose term for girls. Other times, they approach dudes from Sangra and say Lomas is a tougher gang and Sangra is nothing. Shootings, assaults and skirmishes between the barrios are direct results of police activity. Even drug dealing. I know this. Everybody knows this.
Already a thug. It was harder to defy this expectation than just accept it and fall into the trappings. It was a jacket I could try to take off, but they kept putting it back on. The first hint of trouble and the preconceptions proved true. So why not be proud? Why not be an outlaw? Why not make it our own?
I felt torn. There I was, a vato from Lomas staring into the eyes of a Sangra girl. This made me a traitor. But at the same time, all I could think about was her touch, her scent — those eyes.
Maybe the whites didn't care for them either, but at least they had their money' status and grades. But one Asian guy got into our face. It wasn't so much he thought he was white. It was more in defense of what was "right." It was wrong to jump on innocent people. It was wrong to focus on the color of skin. It was wrong to throw rocks at cars, police and homes.
"You can't do this," the Asian guy clamored. "We didn't do anything to you!
Five guys jumped on him.
A naked girl, passed out, lay in the back seat. A black patch of pubic hair stood out on a shock of white skin which looked as if she had been immersed in flour'
"Chale, homes," I responded. "I ain't with it." Chicharrón nodded the same sentiment.
I could see my mom and dad with a couple of Bienvenidos staff members in the front desk area. I looked over where Night Owl was still holed up.
"Hey dude, here's for Sangra," and I stuck out my hand.
Night Owl looked at me for a second, then smirked, and shook my hand through the bars.
Babies are easy too. Many homegirls become mothers, although they are unfinished children. Whatever comfort and warmth they lack at home is also withheld from their babies. Girls drop out of school. Homeboys become fathers even in their early teens. But there's nothing at stake for them; at the most, having a baby is a source of power, for rep, like trophies on a mantle.
"You all know I'll take on anybody," I countered as I stood up. "They were my homeboys too. But think about it: They were killed by a speeding car, both of them shot right through the heart. Nobody yelled out nothing. Who's trained to do this? Not Sangra. I say the cops did this. I say they want us to go after Sangra when we were so close to coming together."
"We have to use our brains," I continued, talking to every, one. "We have to think about who's our real enemy. The dudes in Sangra are just like us, man."
Then Puppet stood up.
"Only pinche putos would tell us to back off on Sangra, talking bullshit about uniting barrios."
"Leave her alone - can't you see you're hurting her?" At this, a couple of deputies pounced on me. I fell to the ground. Officers pulled on my arms, picked me up and threw me against a squad car. I felt the blows of a blackjack against my side and back. I tried to pull them off me, when suddenly eight other deputies showed up. As they pounded on me, my foot inadvertently came up and brushed one of them in the chest.
Money talked here. Big money. Similarly a good part of the Hills found itself swept away with the massive land deals and influx of investments during the 1970s and 1980s. Between the police, Pacific Rim money and developers, the Hills didn’t have much of a chance.
"There’s some things to fight for, some things to die for - but not this. Chava, you're alive. I feel for you' man' but you're alive. Don't waste the rest of your days with this hate. What's revenge? What can you get by getting to me? I'm the least of your enemies. It's time to let it go, it's time to go on with your life."
The heart of the L.A. uprising was in the African American community. But it soon involved large numbers of Latinos (who make up almost half of South Central's population) and whites - Latinos were the largest group among the 18,000 arrests; at least 700 of those detained were white. Some called it the country first "multi-ethnic" revolt; the common link was the class composition of the combatants.