“In 1991, it is estimated more than 3,000 gang related deaths in the United States” is the final phrase for the classical movie American Me. This very phrase reflects the message of the whole movie as well as the situation with gangs and related violence in America. “One gang story” shown in American Me is a truthful combination of thousands of similar stories. “La Primero” or “the first” is the foremost thing gangsters care about, and they are able to sacrifice the lives of their near and dear in order to protect it. However, there are plenty of important causes that make Latin youngsters join a gang. Poor financial background, lack of work and schools, racial and ethnic discrimination, hatred and violence in the family are the main, but not the only reasons for boys going to the streets (Vigil, 1997). Young boys usually become trapped in the vicious circle of violence, leading such felonious lives for generations. The story of American Me, based on real events, highlights the reasons and consequences of young boys joining gangs.
The gang subculture is not as easy and clear as it seems to be. Initially, it was not about violence and killing, but about gaining respect. “East L.A. has long been a neglected neighborhood with a predominately Mexican population” says Rodriguez (n.d.) and thus indicates a constant struggle for respect by the Mexican people. Being neglected, living in poverty and being disrespected for not belonging to “the proper” ethnicity, it seems obvious that these people wanted to be respected. When it all began, in the 1930s-1940s, the attitude to Mexicans was negative (Vigil, 1997). In the very first scenes of the movie, one can see how men were beaten, and women were raped by sailors just because they were wearing “wrong” clothes and were Mexicans (Olmon, 1992). Obviously, violence leads to violence, and gangs were some kind of answer to the behavior of whites.
The audience can understand from the concluding scenes of American Me that everyone in the neighborhood was somehow related to the band. Joining a gang was “inherited” by boys, and the principle “prison or death” was, in fact, their code (Rodriguez, n.d.). Being in jail or dying on the streets was the sign of manhood, of being a real man – “macho.” Despite all the gang violence, killings, drug dealing and alcohol consumption, there was something attributed to ancient Mexican traditions. Fathers and older brothers still tried to teach youngsters how to be “hombre noble” – a “noble man”, as it initially was in Mexican families (Rodriguez & Gonzales, 1997). The difference is in values they were teaching. From the early childhood, Mexican boys were taught that attributes of “hombre noble”, i.e. respect, responsibility and honor, can only be gained by violence. Educational institutions could do nothing with that since they were not able to meet those boys’ requirements. Due to poverty, they had either to work from an early age or to join a gang and make money from killing and selling drugs (Vigil, 1997).
The main character, Santana, says at the beginning of the movie that he “was going to the streets to save [his] mind” (Olmon, 1992). For Santana, this phrase had personal reasons. Nevertheless, for hundreds of other boys streets were the only place to hang out and socialize (Vigil, 1997). They created gangs to run away from the surrounding reality and create their own world where they are respected and honored. “Prison or death” credo dictated their behavior. As a matter of fact, prison was their main education. The majority of gangsters got into jail at a very young age (for example, Santana was sixteen) and stayed there for most of their lives. Obviously, they copied the “prisoner” behavioral model to the real life after the release. In prison, the main evidence was violence, and they made violence the main tool in the real world as well. Santana says that he thought he learnt everything in prison, even how to live outside (Olmon, 1992), and, as it could have been expected, he applies what he had learnt successfully, being a role model for young gang members (Vigil, 1997).
Perhaps, there were the same reasons to create gangs in other ethnicities, for example, in African Americans. They also created their gangs, fought for respect of the neighborhoods and had the same “prisoner” mode of action. At the end of the movie, one can see that gaining respect for ethnicity has “obtained racial background” (Olmon, 1992). At the end of the movie, a thirteen-years-old boy shoots at a family of African Americans carrying an infant (Olmon, 1992). This is the clearest evidence of tension between ethnic gangs, which was the reason for many innocent victims. This tension still exists in the society and is supposed to free from racial concerns and ethnic arguments (Leonard, 2010).
Violence shown in the film may seem exaggerated, but the essence stayed the same – L.A. gang culture leads to thousands of deaths and broken lives. Showing the causes of gang appearance gives the audience an understanding that neighborhood and social position have a strong influence on the future. However, in the end, American Me also cautions that everything depends on a personal choice –one can join a gang or go to college, enabling the family to have a secure future.
- I think that the film lacks a scene when Santana says sorry to his mother. As a matter of fact, I would like to rewrite the dialogue between Santana and his father Pedro. I would replace Pedro with Esperanza. I think she deserves this excuse more than Pedro since she sacrificed more and loved Santana in spite of everything:
Santana: Mama, all I have done to you and father, all you have been through because of me… I’m sorry.
Esperanza: It’s Ok, son, I love you no matter what, but your father… When I was nineteen, I was raped by the sailors because I was Mexican and beautiful. After that, I and your father got married, pretending nothing happened. But he still fails to love you as his son.
E.: I’m sorry too, my son, for not telling everything from the very beginning. But I still love you and that will never change.
[They hug and cry together.]
I think such a scene would restore justice for the woman since she died and was never able to say she is sorry.
- From my experience, I can say that stereotypes about machos are not true. Machos are simple men who are honored and respected. They value true attributes of men, and their main purpose is to teach a young generation their ancient values and beliefs, enabling them to become machos as well. The distorted attitude to machos as gang members consists in understanding no other language than violence, and it has nothing to do with classical Mexican machos.
- When watching scenes of violence in the movie, I felt a mixture of disgust, fear and a pity. As a viewer, I was shocked by the scopes and perspectives of violent scenes, and at first, I thought they were extra. I thought it was unnecessary to show closely and in details the hit of a knife in a living body or suffocation. However, after contemplating about this movie, I understood that violence was motivated by showing the viewers both sides of a murder, i.e. what a victim and a murderer feel. It multiplies the psychological effect of the movie and gives a picture of the world these people lived in, including the violent atmosphere children were raised in.
- From the filming technique viewpoint, I like the way the scene of Santana’s murder was shot. The camera operator chose a perfect camera angle to shot the scene. He used zoom in and zoom out by camera lenses to become murderer’s face either focused or unfocused as if his face comes out of the darkness. In addition, the shot of Santana flying down the gallery is very powerful: one moment he flies down, and the next moment he dissolves, and his dead body is lying on the floor.
- This site is full of pictures taken in “riot” areas of Los Angeles, depicting children playing on the debris, youngsters, showing off and being proud of their affiliating to a gang, common people thinking and doing their daily routine, and children playing with guns. All the pictures are black-and-white, giving them a special meaning. These pictures seem to be common and usual, but only one fact makes them disturbing – they are real. These photos show the reality, real debris, real children and real gangsters. Looking at those pictures and knowing that those scenes happened in reality disturbs the mind and makes think over what leads people to such a life. In addition, the mundane character of the scene also awakes worries and concerns about what is happening in L.A.
- This film affected me with its truthfulness and honesty. I was shocked and depressed by the abundance of violence, drugs and alcohol on the streets of East L.A. However, I was especially upset by the age of boys. It makes me worried and sad that those boys at their thirteens or even earlier start to deal with drugs, alcohol and guns.
Specific scenes that shocked me as a viewer were, of course, the scenes of violence. I like the filming techniques that were used because they affect the viewers as strongly as possible. First, operators change shots in almost every scene – they interchange from a short shot to a long one and vice versa. Operators frequently use fading to switch from one character to another. What makes me really enjoy the scenes is the lack of blood. It may seem strange, but usually when the character is hurt, blood is fountaining from the wound, soiling everything and everyone around. This seems unnatural to me. In American Me there are no “bloody” scenes with rives of blood and general wounds. These scenes are very natural, not exaggerated, and it seems like it is real blood.
Another scene I want to highlight is the one where a boy shoots from the car window. It is slowed down, and only the gun is focused, the rest is on the background, including the boy’s face. One can see only the expression on the shooter’s face, but it is like in a fog. It creates an impression that he shoots at the viewer and point out that innocent people can be injured by violent behavior of Mexican gangs.