American Me
Despair in the barrio

by Carmen Huaco-Nuzum

from Jump Cut, no. 38, June 1993, pp. 92-94
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1993, 2006

Reminiscent of film noir in which the hero recounts his story through the use of flashbacks, AMERICAN ME opens with a medium close up of the main character Santana, played by Edward James Olmos, seated in his maximum security cell a short time before he is killed by other chicano inmates. Through the use of a female voice over, later identified as the chicana Julie (Evelina Fernandez) with whom he has an affair, we are allowed to enter Santana's internal consciousness in which Julie's voice says,

"You are like two people, the one who doesn't know how to dance or how to make love…that is the one I care about. The other one I hate…the one who runs drugs and knows how to kill people."

Through a series of flashbacks and flashforwards, Santana's life unfolds, from the beginning of his life in the barrio to the present of his prison cell.

Santana is a composite of many histories and complex social realities, which have made him who he is: a killer and a victim of his environment and social conditioning. Santana presents a stoic facade perfectly executed by Olmos, a figure devoid of affect who, when threatened by perceived danger, is able to mobilize quickly as a panther to disarm and exterminate his adversary — whether it be a member of his own "familia" or a rival gang.

AMERICAN ME is centered on a male discourse, and Olmos has succeeded in providing the viewer with a glimpse into the complex formation of a mexican chicano hood. He borrows liberally from Octavio Paz' "The Sons of La Malinche" by portraying Santana as the archetypal mestizo product of the violent union between two cultures, who serves throughout the narrative as the vehicle for Paz' discourse.

Through flashbacks we return to Los Angeles, California and the period of the pachuco persecutions to witness the rape of Santana's mother by a group of white sailors. Rejected by his chicano stepfather and a reminder to his mother of her violation, Santana in vain searches for the father and mother who have emotionally abandoned him. In retaliation he establishes his own "familia" through the "klika," who in the end betray him when Santana shows signs of vulnerability by sparing the life of a gang member who is responsible for his re-incarceration.

The "klika" interpret Santana's action as a sign of weakness, which reflects back onto them as a group, decentralizing their established modes of functioning. For it is through their use of brutal force and antisocial behavior that they survive and maintain positions of power within the mexican mafia subculture. Thus Santana becomes a liability to the "klika" after he meets the chicana and former gang member, Julie, because she is able to get him in touch with both sides of his character, both his brutality and the capability to feel, which he covers up with a shield of impenetrable machismo.

After meeting Julie, Santana toys with the idea of reintegrating back into society. In a touching scene, Julie guides Santana across the dance floor as he awkwardly moves with the music like a wounded bird. Again, the problematic of gender responsibility emerges once more through the male discourse of AMERICAN ME, to imply that Julie, as woman, is responsible for taming and socializing the wild beast harbored inside Santana.

In another scene with Julie, Santana conveys his justification for destroying human life, even a member of his own group, as long as it gains him respect and status for his "klika." "I was proud not to let my feelings get in the way," he tells Julie. "Killing one of our own gained us more respect." The laws of the criminal subculture pits friend against friend, brother against brother as Santana further confesses to Julie, "We cannot accept that we are weak, but it is worse to have others believe we are weak." What emerges out of this dialogue is a transcultural legacy of the conquest, which, as a people, we have not been able to shake off our backs. For raza folk continue to function from a position of "de los de abajo," as opportunity to rise to the top is continually denied and suppressed by social institutions of power.

On the outside, Santana's impenetrable armor prevents him from adjusting to daily social interactions, whereby he continues to function more by instinct than by reason to internal and external forces which he perceives as threatening. This is played out in a scene in which Julie helps Santana find a more stylish pair of shoes. Santana forgets he is outside of the prison and when informed by the salesman to wait his turn, he quickly reacts confrontationally ready to disarm his adversary, whom he interprets as being disrespectful. Santana is at war with himself and with society at large. He is unable to distinguish the inside/outside spaces of his social environment. The film attempts to convey the ongoing polemic that prisons only harden the individual by rendering them antisocial and unable to re-adjust to the social community outside the prison.

Santana's position of power is more vulnerable on the outside because the stakes are higher and the racial denominators and borderlines are not as clearly defined as inside the prison. On the outside, Santana is also exposed to human beings like Julie who help to put him off center. Santana is unable to reconcile the two sides of his character; he is only familiar with the brutal unfeeling aspect of his personality. This concern is voiced by Santana when he informs Julie, "I loved it in there," referring to his position inside the prison as leader of the mexican mafia. Inside prison, Santana is able to define who he is in relation to others through his acts of brutality, acts which help to enhance his power. And his self esteem is nurtured by the adulation which he receives from the chicano criminals for whom he represents a role model and paternal figure. However, back in prison Santana allows himself to feel compassion, for which, in the end, he is killed by his own familia of hoods who, as members of a marginalized prison group, now perceive him as weak, and thus a threat to their position of power, which they must maintain to survive.

Julie and Santana serve as catalysts for each other. She helps to awaken in him feelings of hope and Santana, in turn, assists Julie to see her potential. For Santana the only escape out of the barrio is through violence and death. Olmos portrays the chicano male as an endangered species with some degree of validity, given the national statistics on chicano youth. However, Olmos manipulates the character of Julie to offer the chicana spectator a possibility of escape out of the barrio through the pursuit of higher education.

The problematic representation of chicanas, with the exception of Julie, are portrayed as Octavio Paz describes them:

"…woman is never herself, whether lying stretched out or standing up straight, whether naked or fully clothed. She is an undifferentiated manifestation of life, a channel for the universal appetite. In this sense, she has no desires of her own."[1]

The mexicana, according to Paz, appears to be historically bound to subservient passivity inherit in the legacy of being "la chingada" or the violated woman-the passive, long suffering female in servitude to the macho. This form of passive female representation is best exemplified by the portrayal of Santana's mother and the wife of one of the mexicano hood members who, on the night of her wedding, is unable to articulate her disgust while she silently watches her inebriated husband engage in histrionic outbursts. However, the portrayal of the chicana Julie stands out in sharp contrast to the other chicana characters as she is able to exercise her desire and agency over the social forces which function to keep her trapped inside the barrio. Nevertheless, as previously noted, AMERICAN ME problematically represents the chicana when it assigns sole responsibility to the character of Julie as the only vehicle out of the barrio.

The theme of rape functions throughout the narrative (physical, social, moral and racial) to convey that the mestiza/mestizo cannot divest itself easily from the legacy of the Spanish conquest until social institutions of power begin to re-address their relationship to the social needs of the mestiza and mestizo american in contemporary society.

The most difficult and violent scenes of the film are played out in the inside and outside social spaces of prison and Julie's bedroom. The love scene between Julie and Santana is shown in parallel action to the events that unfold inside the prison. What begins as a love scene between Santana and Julie is quickly accelerated into an act of violence. Santana, symbolically becomes the "chingon" of Paz who

"rips open the chingada, the female who is pure passivity, defenseless against the exterior world. The relationship between them is violent, and it is determined by the cynical power of the first and the impotence of the second" (Octavio Paz, p. 77).

The strength of the mexicana, according to Paz, lies not in resisting the violence of her male assailant, but rather in her stoic inaudible passivity and endurance to pain. (Octavio Paz, pp. 38-39). But Paz' description of the mexicana does not fully apply to the character of Julie. Santana makes love to Julie with all the violence and rage he has internalized and in the end sodomizes her while she struggles in vain against his physical power.

The sexual tension of this scene is contrapuntally played out against the prison scene in which the son of the Italian mafia boss, on orders of Santana, is first sodomized and then killed by the chicano mafia hoods who ram a knife up his rectum at the same moment in which we watch Santana reach orgasm. It is through her rape that Julie awakens to the reality that Santana's character, formed out of violence, will remain violent, unable to function inside the perimeters of a society which demands other codes of behavior. After the rape scene Julie terminates her relationship with Santana but he is unable to understand the violence of his actions. Confused by Julie's assertive initiative to disengage from him and pursue her desires, Santana, once more, recoils back into the stoic silence of wounded macho.

AMERICAN ME raises multiple concerns regarding issues of race, sexual desire, homosexuality, socio-cultural problems and only subtlety touches on conflicts of gender and the homoerotic relationship between Santana and JD, his anglo carnal childhood friend who ultimately betrays him when he gives the order for Santana's execution.

The film ends with a tragic message on the present social conditions of the barrio; and the younger male generation who, like Santana's younger brother, characterizes the chicano adolescent hood that will follow male role models established by the mexican mafia. Kid Frost's musical rendition of "There ain't no sunshine" reinforces the theme of despair of the chicano male trapped between the criminal atmosphere of prison and the drug-infested environment of the barrio. The implicit socio-political message in AMERICAN ME conveys that the economic and racial marginalization of the chicano and chicana in the barrio functions as a form of social containment built into the socio-economic apparatus to prevent the mexican/american from ever achieving parity or integration with the rest of society.


1. The Labyrinth of Solitude: Life and Thought in Mexico (New York: Grove Press, 1961), p. 37.