Halfway through American Me, the Edward James Olmos biographical crime drama about Mexican Mafia founder Rodolfo Cadena, a middle-aged Mexican American man named Montoya Santana, Olmos himself, is out on a date with his girlfriend, Julie. Santana is handsome, masculine, decisive, yet he seems almost like a teenager. He doesn’t know how to buy clothes. He threatens a harried shoe store clerk for disrespecting him. He can’t drive. He’s never had sex with a girl. Julie, Evelina Fernández, feels almost maternal.
Montoya Santana is no ordinary 40-year-old virgin. He is founder of La Eme, the Mexican Mafia, one of the most powerful prison gangs on the west coast, recently paroled after spending decades behind bars for killing his rapist in juvenile detention. Santana has also fired the first shots in what will become a destructive gang war between Mexican and Italian organized criminals for control of the heroin trade in East Los Angeles. We flash to a parallel scene inside Folsom prison, where Santana still wields great power. Days before, he had ordered the execution of the son of an Italian crime boss. We don’t know much about the young man, who’s doing a six month sentence for unspecified crimes, other than that he’s not very bright. When a group of Mexican prisoners tell him that La Eme and his father’s organization has come to amicable terms and invite him to a “party” he readily agrees.
What follows is clearly based on the famous contrapuntal sequence in The Godfather where Michael Corleone attends the christening of his sister Connie’s son while his lieutenants murder his rivals. The young Italian gets high with his new Mexican friends. As Santana and Julie make love, the Mexicans beat up then rape the Italian. Soon, Santana and Julie aren’t making love. Not only has Monoya Santana never had heterosexual sex. He’s never had consensual sex. He penetrates her. She screams for him to stop. He doesn’t. We cut back to Folsom prison. We cut back to Julie’s apartment. We cut back to Folsom prison. Finally Santana seems to find something inside of him that’s able to pull back from the abyss. He pulls out of Julie and climbs off her. The Italian in Folsom isn’t so lucky. The Mexicans ram a huge serrated blade up his ass, and he dies. Santana pays no price for the murder, but Julie does. The Italian crime lord, distraught over the loss of his son, takes revenge by releasing pure, uncut heroin onto the streets of East LA, a move guaranteed to kill Mexicans, but no Italians. Julie’s younger brother dies the next day of a drug overdose.
American Me never turns into a feminist parable where the love of a good woman helps a sinful man turn his life around. For Julie, Montoya Santana is two men, the naive 40-old-teenager she teaches to drive and takes for his first long walk along the beach, and the murderer and drug dealer ultimately responsible for her brother’s death. Santana has spent so much time in jail it has transformed his consciousness. I can have anything I want inside, he tells her, not even aware that there are simple things, like walking along the beach, that even being the biggest swinging dick on the inside won’t let you have. Earlier, after we saw him threaten a shoe store clerk for being disrespectful, and she scolded him that the man was only doing his job, you get the sense that yes, that’s what she thinks he should do. He should turn his life around. But it’s too late for Montoya Santana. Women, and the heterosexual world, have always been a far off, unattainable ideal. Julie is only a brief glimpse of the life he could have had outside the prison industrial complex. On their next date, he gets rearrested on a petty drug charge, and put away for good.
If the Olmos lacks the skill of a Martin Scorsese to flesh out anybody but his major characters — it’s a little difficult sometimes to know who is who — it’s more than made up for by his prophetic, morally uncompromising vision. For a Mexican American, the United States is a prison. Inside, outside, it’s all the same. We are a Darwinian society that corrupts masculinity, pits black against white, white against Mexican, Mexican against everybody, and destroys us body and soul. Entire generations are cut off from women, from honest work, from the possibility of ever having a family or a decent life. Montoya Santana was doomed even before he was born. He’s a “rape baby,” conceived during the “Zoot Suit Riots” in the 1940s when some white sailors beat up his father, held down his mother, and gang raped her. His father has always resented him.
As a teenager, Santana joins a gang, gets arrested for a minor breaking and entering charge, and sent to juvenile detention. For Edward James Olmos, rape isn’t just a problem, it’s the very spiritual foundation of the prison industrial complex. One night Santana, who expects to get out by his 18th birthday, is held at knife point, anally raped, and kills his attacker. This could have been the basis for a entire movie. What’s the morality behind a man killing his rapist? But Olmos never entertains the naively optimistic idea that you can stop rape in prison without tearing down the prisons. Santana is sent away on a 20-year-sentence that has the force of inevitability. Montoya Santana never really had the choice. Conservatives and people who talk about “personal responsibility” might dispute the film’s fatalistic assumptions. But, once out of juvenile detention and up at Folsom, Santana proves himself to be a capable man. He probably would have succeeded in civilian life if the socioeconomic odds had not been so completely stacked against him. He, JD, a white friend, Mundo, another Mexican, and a calm but brutally efficient enforcer nicknamed El Japo, quickly gain control of Folsom, and establish a thriving drug trade that gives them influence that extends far beyond the prison’s walls.
“I could run things from solitary,” Santana boasts in the voice over narration.
If Santana seems unable to cope in the civilian world that’s only because, Olmos suggests, the outside world is a foreign country. Santana becomes, in effect, the head of a Chicano state within the prison industrial complex. It’s a harsh, Darwinian state where rape is used as social control, people get hooked on smuggled drugs, and where senior members of La Ema can order an execution with a nod or a tap on the shoulder. But, as Santana later tells Julie, it was better than what came before it, a Hobbesian state of nature where, “if someone wanted your cigarettes or your manhood and he was stronger than you he just took it.” Santana maintains that he thought of La Ema as a foundation for a Chicano revolutionary movement. He read books. He studied politics. He prepared himself as a legitimate political leader. For all we know, he’s telling the truth. But he’s also living a dream that will never happen. After he’s put away the second time, Santana runs up against La Ema’s own code of justice, its brutal dictate that any member who weakens the organization will pay with his life. This is, of course, the nature of a secret society. Revolutionary groups routinely enforce a rough code of justice on their own members. Jean-Pierre Melville’s great film about the French Resistance, Army of Shadows, show us exactly that. But Olmos is a harsher, more uncompromising moralist than Melville is. Indeed, he harkens back to the spare Puritanism of William A. Wellman and films like The Public Enemy. Criminals don’t become revolutionaries. They live and die as criminals, their manhood violated, their morals corrupted, their bodies consumed.
Montoya Santana has only two options, an honorable death now, or a dishonorable one later. Like a Chicano Christ, he makes the right choice, but it’s doubtful that, by doing so, he saved anybody’s soul. American Me is one of the darkest, most unsparing visions of the dark underbelly of American capitalism ever put to film.