American Me is a biographical film based on the life of a fictional character Montoya Santana depicting the life of a real-life gangster Rodolfo Cadena. The movie begins by showing Zoot Suit riots that happened during World War 2, setting the mood for the rest of the film which depicts the difficulties with Mexican Americans integrating into the mainstream American culture. Santana lives in East Los Angeles where the population comprises majorly of Mexican Americans. Through a series of events Santana and his friends: Mundo and JD are arrested by the police and sent to a juvenile prison. While in prison, a boy rapes Santana and is killed by him. Santana is then sent to Folsom state prison for the murder of the boy. The rest of the movie revolves around prison life. The Chicano aesthetic is accomplished in the film through the issues the film addresses, the use of Spanish and the narrative itself.
The main issue the film addresses is the issue of gangster life of drugs, guns, and crime which is used to achieve the Chicano aesthetic. The Chicano community is depicted to approve of this lifestyle and even accord respect to those on the top of it. The first instance we encounter gangster life being viewed as something to look up to is in the conversation between young Santana and his friends. They hold the following dialogue:
Young Santana: [Mundo is being inducted into the gang] Come on, give me your hand. You know what, ese, White Fence, Maravilla, Lomita, theyve been around here longer than us, you know. Its cool. Weve got our clika, strong clika. Finally getting into our own, gaining respect.
Young JD: Our clicka, our barrio, our family thats all weve got, ese.
Young Mundo: Simon.
Young JD: When we were kids, belonging felt good. But having respect, that feels even better.
Young Santana: Cause La Primera lives through us. It gives to us. It is us. We make it, carnal, we dont fake it, we just take it. Cause La Primera, ese.
Young JD: Always has been and always will be.
Young Mundo: Orale!
Young JD: Orale!
Young Santana: Welcome to the clika, carnal!
Young Mundo: Por Vida, ese, Por Vida (Edward, Olmos).
From this dialogue, it is very apparent that the Chicano teens are portrayed to accord gangs with a lot of respect and had always aspired to be a part of one to feel the acceptance and respect that comes with it. There is also the use of Spanish by the characters which also plays a role in the depiction of the Chicano aesthetic in the film. The stereotypes against Mexican Americans are also portrayed in this dialogue. The dialogue insinuates that the Mexican Americans mainly the teens celebrate gangster life which is associated with drugs, guns, and crime. The stereotypes against Chicanos is also evident in the scene where a police car stops near a bus stop, where Santana and Julie had stopped after attending the wedding and were still in the outfits they wore for the wedding. It was late at night. The policeman comes out of the car and asks Santana if he has been to prison. The action of the policeman is precisely stereotypic, how can you just look at someone and know theyve been to jail? (Rodriguez 45).
The positive portrayal of gangster life among Chicanos by the film is also seen in the scene where Santana is in prison. The other inmates regard him with a lot of respect just because he is a gangster. He says, the respect I earned made me think Id found the answer. In prison, this continues, and Santana climbs up the gangster ladder and becomes the leader and founder of a gangster syndicate called La Eme that operates within prison walls and also in the outside world.
The depiction of Chicanos as people who glorify gangster life is seen in the later scenes of the movie. The decision by Santana to opt out of the gangster life by leaving his position as the leader of La Eme and also the cessation of membership is not taken well. It is perceived as a sign of weakness by his fellow gang members. The decision to leave gangster life gets Santana killed by his fellow gang members. The following dialogue they hold shows the dissatisfaction by the other gang members on Santanas decision:
Santana: I hear Little Puppets name is on a piece of paper, ese.
JD: That punk got you kicked back in the hole, set us all back. Now hes running around talking loud shit about how he wants out of La Eme. His numbers up homes.
Santana: I said Im taking it off, ese.
JD: Whats gonna happen is gonna happen. Dont try to stop it. You understand me? Im asking you, carnal.
Santana: Is that where it has gotten to, ese?
JD: Brothers are talking about you.
Santana: What are they saying, ese?
JD: They are saying you are not showing them anything (Edward, Olmos).
Santana: You know, a long time ago, two best homeboys, two kids, were thrown into juvie. They were scared and thought they had to do something to prove themselves, and they did whatever they had to do. They thought they were doing it to gain respect for their people, to show the world that no one could take their class from them. No one had to take it from us, ese. Whatever we had, we gave it away. Take care of yourself carnal.
From the dialogue, the Chicano belief that ruling the drugs and crime life is a plus on ones status is portrayed in what Santana says. The idea is stereotypic of Chicanos (Tatum 60).
In the scene where Santana and Yolanda are talking, the stereotype of Mexican Americans as people too deeply rooted in the drug and crime culture is depicted. Through what Yolanda says, the film presents the situation of Chicanos in the drug world as hopeless. Yolanda accuses him of being nothing but a cold-blooded murderer and dope dealer with no hope for change. Also, there is the portrayal of Chicano peoples disgust for homosexuality through Yolandas ridicule of Santanas inability to sleep with a woman and his wanting to have anal sex. The stereotypes that Mexican Americans are not accommodating towards homosexuality and that they are deeply rooted in drug dealing is depicted (Noriega & Lopez 7).
In conclusion, the movie American Me uses gangster life which is associated with drugs and crime to bring out Chicano aesthetic. The film also depicts the stereotypes against the Chicano. The achievement of these is through the various characters in the movie.
American Me. Directed by Edward J. Olmos. 1992. Universal Pictures, 1992.
Noriega, Chon A, and Ana M. Lopez. The Ethnic Eye: Latino Media Arts. U of Minnesota P, 1996.
Rodriguez, Clara E. Latin Looks: Images of Latinas and Latinos in the U.s. Media. Westview P, 2008.
Tatum, Charles M. Chicano Popular Culture: Que Hable El Pueblo. The U of Arizona P, 2017.
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