Late winter Chicago, early 1991: The once-white snow which fell in December had turned into a dark scum, mixed with ice-melting salt, car oil and decay. Icicles hung from rooftops and windowsills like the whiskers of old men.
For months, the bone-chilling “hawk” swooped down and forced everyone in the family to squeeze into a one-and-a-half bedroom apartment in a gray-stone, three-flat building in the Humboldt Park neighborhood.
Inside tensions built up like fever as we crammed around the TV set or kitchen table, the crowding made more intolerable because of heaps of paper, opened file drawers and shelves packed with books that garnered every section of empty space (a sort of writer’s torture chamber). The family included my third wife Trini; our child, Rubén Joaquín, born in 1988; and my 15-year-old son Ramiro (a 13-year-old daughter, Andrea, lived with her mother in East Los Angeles).
We hardly ventured outside. Few things were worth heaving on the layers of clothing and the coats, boots and gloves required to step out the door.
Ramiro had been placed on punishment, but not for an act of disobedience or the usual outburst of teenage anxiety. Ramiro had been on a rapidly declining roller coaster ride into the world of street-gang America, not unexpected for this neighborhood, once designated as one of the 10 poorest in the country and also known as one of the most gang-infested.
Humboldt Park is a predominantly Puerto Rican community with growing numbers of Mexican immigrants and uprooted blacks and sprinklings of Ukrainians and Poles from previous generations. But along with the greater West Town area it was considered a “changing neighborhood,” dotted here and there with rehabs, signs of gentrification and for many of us, imminent displacement.
Weeks before, Ramiro had received a 10 day suspension from Roberto Clemente High School, a beleaguered school with a good number of caring personnel, but one which was an epicenter of gang activity. The suspension came after a school fight which involved a war between “Insanes” and “Maniacs,” two factions of the “Folks” (“Folks” are those gangs allied with the Spanish Cobras and Gangster Disciples; the “People” are gangs tied to the Latin Kings and Vice Lords, symbolic of the complicated structures most inner-city gangs had come to establish). There was also an “S.O.S.”—a “smash-on-sight”—contract issued on Ramiro. As a result I took him out of Clemente and enrolled him in another school. He lasted less than two weeks before school officials there kicked him out. By then I also had to pick him up from local jails following other fighting incidents—and once from a hospital where I watched a doctor put 11 stitches above his eye.
Following me, Ramiro was a second-generation gang member. My involvement was in the late 1960s and early 1970s in Los Angeles, the so-called gang capital of the country. My teen years were ones of drugs, shootings and beatings, and arrests. I was around when South Central Los Angeles gave birth to the Crips and Bloods. By the time I turned 18 years old, 25 of my friends had been killed by rival gangs, police, drugs, car crashes and suicides.
If I had barely survived all this—to emerge eventually as a journalist, publisher, critic, and poet—it appeared unlikely my own son would make it. I had to begin the long, intense struggle to save his life from the gathering storm of street violence sweeping the country—some 20 years after I sneaked out of my ’hood in the dark of night, hid out in an L.A. housing project, and removed myself from the death-fires of La Vida Loca.
La Vida Loca or The Crazy Life is what we called the barrio gang experience. This lifestyle originated with the Mexican Pachuco gangs of the 1930s and 1940s, and was later recreated with the Cholos. It became the main model and influence for outlaw bikers of the 1950s and 1960s, the L.A. punk/rock scene in the 1970s and 1980s, and the Crips and Bloods of the 1980s and early 1990s. As Leon Bing commented in her 1991 book Do or Die (HarperCollins): “It was the cholo homeboy who first walked the walk and talked the talk. It was the Mexican American pachuco who initiated the emblematic tattoos, the signing with hands, the writing of legends on walls.”•
Excerpted from Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A., by Luis J. Rodriguez, with permission. Copyright © 2005 by Luis J. Rodriguez.