The history of crime in Los Angeles is not a matter of class alone, nor of race alone—but of the intersections of these two issues. This holds true in Luis Rodriguez’s account of “La Vida Loca.” Los Angeles is one of the most racially diverse places in America, with large black, Asian, and Latino populations—yet the history of Los Angeles has been tarnished by frequent episodes of violent racism.
Even a cursory look at the recent history of Los Angeles reveals the city to be a place in which certain minority groups are under attack. From the Watts uprising of 1965 to the Rodney King uprising of 1992 (Luis makes a point of not referring to either incident as a “riot,” a word he finds insulting and oversimplifying), minorities in Los Angeles have reacted to what they perceive as systemic racism in their city. In the latter case, for example, black and Latino residents of Los Angeles staged protests and, in some cases, violent uprisings after four police officers were acquitted of the charge of excessive force, despite the fact that there was video footage of them savagely beating a black man, Rodney King. Luis makes it clear that the Rodney King beatings were no aberration. Rather, virtually every case of police brutality for decades has ended in an acquittal for the police officers.
In his own life, Luis experiences racism from white authority figures countless times. When he’s still a teenager, he’s arrested for no apparent reason, and a white officer brags that the LAPD likes to arrest black and Latino youths so that they’ll have a permanent criminal record (making it easier to convict them later on). On another occasion, Luis is arrested for drinking on the beach, a misdemeanor which, he strongly implies, would have earned a white teenager nothing more than a warning. Furthermore, the white police officers who arrest him call him a “beaner” and other racial slurs, suggesting that the arrest is partly motivated by the racist dislike or distrust of Latinos. Luis’s experiences with racism don’t end with the police, either. In elementary school, his teachers get annoyed with him because he’s an immigrant from Mexico and doesn’t yet speak fluent English. He’s told to play with blocks while the white, English-speaking children learn. Many of Luis’s Latino friends are punished for daring to speak Spanish in the classroom. In all, the memoir shows that there has been a long pattern of systemic racism in Los Angeles, ranging from disrespect for minority cultures to brutal violence against minorities themselves.
Luis depicts himself and the other characters in his memoir as responding to their city’s racism in a variety of ways. To begin, it could be argued that the growth of gang culture in the 1970s was itself a response to police racism. The cholo gangs that Luis describes are composed of Latinos. These gangs organize violent crime and drug trafficking, but they are also seen by their members as protecting the lives, communities of Latino people, and even Latino culture. For all their faults, cholos are shown to be protectors of Latino dance, music, food, and language. However, these gangs also perpetuate their own forms of bigotry against other groups. Luis’s own gang, the Lomas, encourages violence toward people of other races, even if these people have done nothing wrong. At one point, Luis and his fellow gang members attack a group of innocent Asian students for no other reason than that they’re angry and feel like hurting people who aren’t like them. Even at the time, Luis is uncomfortable with attacking the Asian students, since he knows that Asians, like Latinos, are quite often victims of racism. At many other points in the memoir, Luis recalls starting fights with white students who haven’t harmed him in any way. While this certainly doesn’t mean that Luis and the Lomas’ actions are comparable with those of the LAPD, it’s undeniable that the Lomas practice racially prejudiced behavior, echoing the violent, outrageously unfair bigotry that Latinos experience at the hands of the cops.
After he has distanced himself from the Lomas, Luis finds ways of combatting racism without resorting to violence or hatred. In high school, he stages protests and walk-outs with the goal of pressuring his principal to introduce Chicano classes. He auditions for the part of the school’s Aztec mascot to ensure that the mascot becomes a figure of respect instead of cheap humor. Luis shows that it’s possible to celebrate one’s own racial and cultural heritage without attacking other people’s identities. Because of this conclusion, Luis eventually takes an even broader view of race and racism. Inspired by his mentor, Chente Ramírez, as well as the writings of important political activists of the era, Luis comes to believe that oppressed people must begin to see that issues of race and class are inextricably linked, as are the experiences of persecution of people of different races. Luis is proud of his Latino heritage, but he recognizes that he also shares a “heritage” with African Americans, homeless people, and anyone else who is a victim of institutionalized cruelty. He argues that Latinos need to work with people from different backgrounds in order to fight the many different kinds of injustice. Understood in this way, racial injustice against Latinos is just one manifestation of the injustice that all persecuted people experience. With this in mind, he continues to speak out against racism in his city, but also speaks out about issues such as the housing crisis, corruption, and rape. For Luis, the Rodney King uprising of 1992 was a great example of how blacks, Latinos, the homeless, and other exploited groups came together to fight for a common cause, sending the message that they were united and strong.
Race, Racism, and Class ThemeTracker
Race, Racism, and Class Quotes in Always Running
I just stayed in the back of the class, building blocks. It got so every morning I would put my lunch and coat away, and walk to my corner where I stayed the whole day long. It forced me to be more withdrawn. It got so bad, I didn't even tell anybody when I had to go the bathroom. I did it in my pants.
Tino looked below. A deputy spied the boy and called out, "Get down here...you greaser!”
Tino straightened up and disappeared. I heard a flood of footsteps on the roof -then a crash. Soon an awful calm covered us.
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.
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.
The librarian looked at me through the side of her eye, as if she kept tabs on whoever perused those books.
They were primarily about the black experience, works coming out of the flames which engulfed many American cities in the 1960s.
I had a cell next to Charles Manson. They threw me in with a dude who had killed a teacher and another who had shot somebody in the Aliso Village housing projects. One of the dudes pressed a stashed blade to my neck. But I knew, no matter what, never show fear. I stood up to him, staring without blinking. Then he backed off. Soon we played cards, told jokes and stories. That night, we heard the "East L.A. riot! - this is what the media was calling it! - had escalated throughout much of Whittier Boulevard.
In prisons, where a disproportionate number of Chicano males ended up, pinto organizations and publications flowered into existence.
East L.A. also birthed artists, musicians and writers out of the wombs of conflict. […] Over the years, bands like El Chicano, Tierra, Los Lobos, Con Safo, Los Illegals and Califas carried forth the people's message through Latinized jazz-rock compositions, and later in punk and traditional corrido forms. Publications arose such as La Raza which chronicled through photos and prose the ongoing developments in the movement.
We have somebody willing to teach you," Mrs. Baez said. "He's an instructor for a folklórico dance troupe at one of the colleges. You look Indian enough with your long hair. And I think it would help involve some of the hard-core Lomas students in what we're doing if you tried out."
What do you say, Louie?" Esme asked.
They knew they had me. I accepted as a formality.
The collective explained how workers of all colors and nationalities, linked by hunger and the same system of exploitation, have no country; their interests as a class respect no borders. To me, this was an unconquerable idea.
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.