Wednesday, April 01, 2009

American Me

American Me posterEdward James Olmos directs and acts in the film American Me (1992), which is inspired by true events and examines the life of a Chicano mobster as he comes to understand how his life choices have affected those closest to him. First we are introduced to the poetic reminiscence of Montoya Santana (Edward James Olmos), who is in prison sifting through a box of old photographs. His musings take the plot back to the Los Angeles in the year June 1943, when his parents, Pedro and Esperanza, two proud ‘zoot suitors’ had first started to date. Their love for one another is strong, but it is overshadowed by the racial tension between Latinos and US sailors which leads to a night of sickening chaos as the couple is caught up in one of the famous Zoot Suit Riots. Sailors beat Pedro to a pulp and rape Esperanza with absolutely no remorse. Montoya then shifts to the year 1959, when he was 16 years old and starting a Latino neighbourhood gang called La Primera. The gang allows Montoya (nicknamed Santana) a reprieve from his father’s chronic anger. Members are initiated via a small tattooed symbol on the back of their hand at the bottom of their thumb. The group consists of Santana; his best friend JD (William Forsythe), who is Caucasian but walks and talks like a Latino; and the newly-initiated Mundo. The group decides to take a shortcut one night after Mundo’s initiation which brings them through the Hazard gang’s territory, provoking a chase. La Primera breaks into a shop and manages to lose their pursuers, only to encounter an enraged storeowner who shoots JD and almost kills him. The breaking-and-entering gets Mundo and Santana time in Juvenile Hall. His first night there, Santana is raped by a fellow juvenile, but then refuses further submission and stabs his rapist in the throat. That killing earned Santana a jail sentence once out of Juvenile Hall, but also the respect of every adolescent in his surroundings. Santana knows that a clica is built upon respect and so he begins to assemble a Latino gang by the name of La Ema (for the Mexican Mafia) which unconditionally welcomes JD once he is out of the hospital and also serving his sentence.

The film progresses to Folsom State Prison where the original gang has grown and the choices they have made to survive have earned them 10-25 years; but the power that they now possess by way of extortion, gambling, prostitution, drugs sales, and even charging rent to inmates, has made them the ultimate force in the prison hierarchy, with the only other gangs in the yard being the Black Gorilla Family and the Aryan Brotherhood. Santana still receives visits from his mother and much younger brother, Paulito. Other visitors secretly supply La Ema with drugs through a method of hiding the package in a series of body cavities. A riot is almost imminent between the Black Guerilla Family and La Ema when a black inmate contaminates some of the cocaine and is then set on fire and killed by Latinos as punishment; but the excitement is set back to just a solemn threat from the African American gang to Santana once the guards begin to arrive. This event causes Santana to be sent to the Hole for solitary confinement; which he only laughs at because he can still run his business from such an isolated location. But the business is beginning to fail as the prison system attempts to break-up La Ema by sending its members to different prisons. Soon Folsom sees new Latino gangs surfacing, such as Nuestra Familia headed by El Chucko. To halt this threat, Santana enlists La Ema’s newest and youngest member, Little Puppet, to kill El Chucko and restore power to La Ema. Life for Santana then begins to change as he receives news of his mother’s death and soon after JD is released. Then, after an astonishing 18 years of prison time and many years to think about his actions and their effects, Santana is finally released into a world that he has difficulty adjusting to. He is welcomed by his friends and family, all except his father, at an intimate celebration and begins to take a liking to Julie (Evelina Fernández), Little Puppet’s cousin. Julie attempts to make light of his struggle in the outside world; but Santana is unable to react as he can’t seem to think with his heart instead of his head.

It doesn’t take long for Santana and JD to get back into business by first confronting the Italian Mafia boss with their proposal of running the drug business in East L.A. and all trades with Mexico in exchange for the safety of the son of the Italian boss, who incidentally was just sent to Folsom. The boss laughs at their offer, until he hears the news that his son was raped and killed on account of La Ema. Meanwhile, Santana opens up to Julie as they get to know each other and she shows him many things for the first time such as driving, going to the beach, and making love, which Santana fails to adjust to as he flips Julie over and attempts to have anal sex with her before she runs away from him screaming. Perhaps things would have eventually worked out between them if it hadn’t been for the Italian boss’ retaliation of sending pure, uncut cocaine into the Mexican barrios and immediately causing upwards of 50 deaths, including Julie’s younger brother, Nito. After this, Santana and his father finally bond as they sit by Esperanza’s grave. It is here that Pedro tells his son about his mother’s rape and how he could never truly love Santana because he always knew that it was an indiscriminate sailor who had fathered him, and not Pedro.

The drug business begins becoming a dangerous place as the Black Gorilla Family stays true to its previous threat and kills several young Latinos by making them deeply breathe-in the pure cocaine which they are cutting for Santana. In an attempt at normalcy, Santana acts as best man at the wedding of the recently-released Little Puppet. Santana is able to talk to Julie outside of the reception and he explains that he is simply working with this reality of drugs, but Julie is repulsed and says she once cared about him, but she doesn’t know this monster who he is now. Suddenly, two police officers appear and start interrogating the two as to why they are on the street talking. After searching ‘Santana’s’ jacket (which is actually Little Puppet’s) the officers find Little Puppet’s drug stash and Santana is then sent back to Folsom. JD goes through with a plan to enlist the Aryan Brotherhood to send a message to the Black Gorilla Family, which ends up being utter bloodshed with racial overtones that Santana disapproves of. La Ema begins to quietly talk about Santana’s new weakness while they solicit Puppet (Little Puppet’s older brother) to kill Little Puppet for accidentally putting Santana back in prison. The film ends in a spirit of utter madness as Puppet reluctantly kills his younger brother, imploring him not to look him in the eyes as he does it; Santana voluntarily concedes to his murder by La Ema as they stab him with the same brutality as any other; and on the outside, Paulito follows in Santana’s footsteps as he initiates younger kids into the gang and then gives them a gun to shoot at the other neighbourhoods in the name of La Primera. But which innocent bystander should the new recruits shoot? It doesn’t matter.

Even the title of American Me taps into the identity crisis existing for Chicanos living in America. Santana says that his parents were proud pachucos, but this didn’t stamp out the Zoot Suit Riots in their era which were ignited by racism and fuelled by media coverage which hailed the sailors for ‘purifying’ America during a time of nationalistic frenzy. This prejudice continues when Santana is a teenager, especially in Juvenile Hall where the gangs are no longer segregated by neighbourhood locations, as in the Chicano barrios, but instead by race. The power hierarchy runs on machismo pride and because of its connection to survival, no ethnic groups are excluded. Near the end of the film, it is revealed that both Julie and Pedro have the Mexican gang tattoo on their hands, which Julie tries to hide with make-up and Pedro looks at with disdain. This symbolism drills home the fact that even those people in the Mexican community who don’t approve of the drug trade are still affected by it due to their connections of family and race. Julie condemns Santana’s actions by saying, “There’s no fucking hope for our kids, for our barrios, with people like you around.” And this cycle doesn’t end with Santana’s death. The message is clear: the Chicanos in this community will never be rid of the crime and drugs that pervade their streets. Malleable adolescent minds look up to the drug lords and see only the attractive shell of power which surrounds these ordinary men of flesh and blood. Everything: the racism, the clicas, the death, the drugs; will continue because the thirst for supremacy is now in that blood.

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