The Chicana/o gang story begins with the literary appearance of the pachuco/a figure in newspapers, rumors, gossip, and the vernacular and folkloric imaginations of Mexicans, Chicanas/os and Anglos from El Paso, Tejas, to East Los Angeles and even Fowler, California, in such works as Beatrice Griffith’s American Me (1948) and José Montoya’s “El Louie” (1972). It evolves to include tell-all stories by former Mexican Mafia and Nuestra Familia members, who detail their disenchantments with these pinto organizations and the very real dangers they represent. Complementing these literary representations of the pachuco and the cholo figure is Hollywood’s cinematic rendering of them in early Chicana/o gang stories, such as Kurt Neuman’s The Ring (1952), and in later films, such as Taylor Hackford’s Blood In, Blood Out (1993). Despite the different narrative forms, all these gang stories, with few exceptions, operate as cautionary tales of lives wasted away in gang membership. Some stories moralize; others simply seek to render a realist representation of gang life without judgment; still others seek to contextualize gang membership in complex ways to subtextually call for addressing the root causes of these “social problems.”
Most of these narratives fall into one of two primary ideological camps. The first is the dominant camp; it seeks to represent gang life as deviant and destructive and functions to socialize Chicanos/as through these cautionary tales. The second is the insurgent camp, in which gang members represent themselves as products of the socioeconomic conditions of the barrio; it therefore relies heavily on understanding gang life as part of a barriocentric vernacular capitalism that renders those stories inherently valuable.
The result of the first camp’s lens is that Chicana/o gang fiction (that which is represented by outsiders and non-gang members) and other fictionalized gang narratives often rely on oversimplified snippets or sketches of life in the barrio. They thus create inauthentic, one-dimensional, or stereotypical representations of Chicana/o gang members and the barrio itself. This leads to the continued barrioization (Villa) of Chicana/o life and Chicanas/os themselves. Most mainstream Hollywood Chicana/o gang films reproduce these logics. In fact, the majority of Hollywood Chicano gang films are set in East Los Angeles or the “greater Eastside”—an area that includes Northeast Los Angeles, Echo Park, Boyle Heights, and the unincorporated area of Los Angeles east of the Los Angeles River. What this means is that East Los Angeles remains Hollywood’s localized “heart of darkness.”
By contrast, the second ideological camp relies on lived experience or what I term a “barrio-biographics” that privileges the barrio as the site of and cultural foundation for the gang member’s narrative and her or his epistemological and ontological formation, creating a “barriological” framework (Villa). These barrio-biographics are the core literary forces that drive authentic Chicana/o gang stories. It should also be noted, however, that pinta/o narratives differ from Chicana/o street gang narratives in that pinta/o narratives foreground the experience of imprisonment and the author’s or main character’s interactions with the carceral state as an added layer of their own epistemological and ontological formations in the barrio.
Chicana/o gang narratives, broadly defined to include pinta/o stories and gang films, operate as cautionary tales but also as tales of coming into a “complete literacy,” as Luis J. Rodríguez would describe it. This complete literacy, in turn, allows Chicana/o gang members to articulate their own lives and choices, and complicates any impulse to moralize or render Chicana/o gang figures simply as “deviants.” Thus these Chicana/o gang figures and their narratives remain part of a history of real, realist, and fictive representations of themselves in the American imagination that provides them the space to contest their own cultural significations. Overall, some narratives celebrate and glamorize the Chicana/o gang figure as a revolutionary in the fight against white supremacy, while others that see this figure as regressive, violent, and, arguably, equally oppressive.