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Tu Vez Blast-From-The-Past Truck: American Me

Marty McFly and Doc Brown had the Delorean to go travel through time; We have the Tu Vez Blast-From-The-Past Truck. Every week, we’ll hop in our time traveling machine, gun it to 88 MPH, and go back in time to bring you the best from the good ol’ days. Will it be a clip from an old telenovela? An old school music video? Stick around and find out!

There is no one Latino experience in America. We all come from different countries, groups, classes, and live very different lives. Yet, some things resonate with us no matter where we live. The 1992 film “American Me” was like that for me. The film is about the rise and fall of the founder of the Mexican Mafia prison gang. That is about as far removed from my reality growing up as you can get. My friends and I went straight from our Catholic prep school to the cineplex in our comfortable suburban upper-middle class neighborhood to see this movie about Chicano gangbangers from East L.A. Yet, the movie’s themes of honor, manhood, and the cyclical nature of violence struck a chord with my friends and I. That or we just liked the way they talked and acted all tough. We started using words like “carnal” and “oralé”, and referring to ourselves as a “cliqua”. As cool as we thought the movie was, we did learn one important lesson from “American Me” that stuck with us to this day: Don’t go to prison because they will rape you and stab you with a shiv.

“American Me” was the directorial debut of the great Edward James Olmos, who also stars as Montoya Santana. It tells the story of Santana starting with his parent’s involvement in the zoot suit riots of the 1940’s and the pachuco gangs of that era. The young Santana and his buddies get in trouble with the law and are sent to juvie. Santana then kills a kid that tries to rape him and is sentenced to big boy prison. Now, at the young age that I saw this movie I did not know about prison rape. This movie was my first introduction to this lovely tradition. I guess I had always assumed people who went to prison just lived like monks or something. Shows what I knew. There is a lot of prison rape in this movie. It was one of the first films to openly -and graphically- deal with the subject. Santana and his buddies go on to found the Mexican Mafia prison gang. When Santana gets out of prison, he continues building the Mexican Mafia empire outside the penn, turning it into a drug cartel. Later, he decides to straighten his life out after falling in love. Unfortunately, he gets sent back to jail where his former homeboys kill him for having grown too soft in a brown people reenactment of the assassination of Julius Caesar.

“American Me” was praised by critics for how realistically it portrayed prison and gang life. It was the precursor to shows like “The Wire” and “OZ”. Olmos’ status as both an actor and director also went up and he was seen as a major American talent. The film obviously hit a nerve, because it really pissed off the real-life Mexican Mafia. The character of Santana is loosely based on Rodolfo Cadena who actually founded the Mexican Mafia. His buddies didn’t like the way he had been portrayed, the way he was killed by his own guys, or all of the prison rape the Mexican Mafia does in the movie. They said these things violated their “code of ethics.” One of Cadena’s lieutenants even tried extorting money from Olmos. Three consultants on the film, that had formerly been associated with the Mexican Mafia, were killed on orders of the new bosses. You know your movie is dealing with some real stuff if people are willing to kill for it. That ain’t cool, carnal.

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