This March marked 30 years since the release of “American Me,” one of the most iconic, Chicano artistic works in the history of Hollywood. The groundbreaking movie, released in 1992, was produced and directed by Edward James Olmos, who also starred as the protagonist, Montoya Santana.
“American Me” is loosely based on the life of Mexican Mafia leader Rodolfo “Cheyenne” Cadena, adding color and legend to the history of the rise of the notorious California prison gang.
Many credit Olmos for the bravery it took to risk his career and reputation on such a violent and dark subject matter. Moreover, the anti-crime and Latino community wake-up call messages behind “American Me,” continue to resound today.
Consider: “We certainly see instances of street violence that we tie into gangs, with a lot of ready and easy access to handguns and rifles,” LAPD Chief Michel Moore said in an interview earlier this month with The Los Angeles Times. “It’s resulting in this loss of life and this high frequency of shootings.”
Less than a week before Chief Moore made his comments to the press, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the following: A 33-count federal grand jury indictment charged 31 members and associates of the Orange County Mexican Mafia with racketeering offenses, two murders and six attempted murders, and related drug and gun charges.
“The Mexican Mafia allegedly preyed on vulnerable communities through fear, violence, and intimidation,” said Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite, Jr. of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division in a press release. “This indictment sends a clear message that the Criminal Division, and our federal, state, and local partners, remain committed to protecting all of our communities from violence and exploitation.”
To be sure, authorities do not only worry about the impacts of street gangs. The Los Ángeles County Civilian Oversight Commission recently launched an independent investigation into the Los Ángeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) for potential violent and civil rights crimes related to so-called “deputy gangs.”
There are at least 18 gangs within the LASD, according to the investigation, which launched in March and includes cases allegedly tied to the deaths of more than a dozen men of color.
The investigation is set to be completed by September and aims to identify where the deputy gangs operate from and the impact they have on the communities they are policing, as reported by the Los Ángeles Times.
“American Me” is equally known for breaking ground in Hollywood as a work made for and by Chicanos. Many Latino fans call Olmos’ film the Latino-version of Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather,” released exactly 20 years prior.
The film boosted the careers of a number of Chicano actors, including Danny De La Paz and Daniel Villarreal. Both have created their own legacies of Chicano films from “Boulevard Nights” (1979) to “Stand and Deliver” (1988).
Villarreal played Chuco, the defiant and wise gang member student, in “Stand and Deliver,” as well as, Ray, in “Speed,” (1994) starring Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves, is now 61. De La Paz, who remains popular for his authentic portrayal of Chuco Avila in “Boulevard Nights,” recently turned 65.
In “American Me,” Villarreal and De La Paz play two characters who are brothers named Lil’ Puppet and Puppet, respectively. SPOILER ALERT: One brother kills the other.
What is lesser known is that those brutal roles bonded them as eventual best friends.
On a recent day, Villarreal, who ordered a plate of huevos con chorizo, and De La Paz, who instead chose his favored plate of pescado empanizado, sat down with CALÓ NEWS reporter at La Parrilla, an old school Mexican restaurant in the heart of Boyle Heights at 2126 East Cesar Chavez Avenue.
Both actors dished on opinions and perspectives about their careers in Hollywood, Chicano culture and Chicano representation in film overall.
Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity.
IN YOUR FILMS YOU PORTRAY CHICANOS AND PACHUCOS. HOW IMPORTANT WAS LANGUAGE, LIKE THE CALÓ ARGOT, WHEN BRINGING THESE CHARACTERS TO LIFE ON THE SILVER SCREEN?
DLP: I love Caló. It’s a blend of languages. I view Caló as an expression of the evolution of language. It reminds me of the interconnection between cultures. Of living in the U.S. but coming from Mexico, vise-versa or being Chicano.
DV: Caló was like a key to a door, it opened up different ways of communication. It also disarms people, the familiarity of Caló words makes people feel comfortable.
DLP: One of the reasons why people connected to those movies so much was because of the language. People were able to identify with the way we were talking, it was familiar. Caló is a shortcut of languages, a shortcut kind-of -way to understand things by the blending of the two languages.
IS CALÓ DYING?
DV: It’s not dying yet, but we are trying to hold onto it. The kids have their own thing now and it’s not Caló. But we must also be flexible with the idea that it is changing and it will disappear at some point. There will come a time when kids will no longer hang onto it. A lot of my relatives do not speak Spanish anymore, they understand some of it, but they do not speak it, even less Caló.
DLP: It’s changing, it’s different and it is not being passed down to the next generation. Today, in terms of language, people develop their own way of communicating. As an older guy who suddenly had to deal with the digital reality that came at the end of the 90’s, it takes so long for me to type a text and I can just call you and tell you in 30 seconds what I wanted to tell you. Now when I text “carnal” [slang for brother], I put a car emoji and just add “nal” at the end. People, including me, are always evolving with the way they communicate.
HOW DID YOU LAND “AMERICAN ME”?
DV: “American Me” was written in 1973 and the script had been around for a while. In 1989, the director, Edward James Olmos, told me he was going to make the movie but the studio had to approve it and green light it first. Some of the people that the role was offered to initially wanted too much money, so then it became my part. Then they told me De La Paz would be playing my brother and I was like, ‘Oh, yeah!’ He was in “Boulevard Nights.” I knew who he was.
DLP: In the early days I was going to play Little Puppet, but by the time the production began I was too old to play that character, so I played the big brother, aka Puppet. It’s crazy to think that if the production would have begun earlier then I would’ve played Little Puppet and [Villarreal] probably wouldn’t have been in the movie at all.
DID THE CULTURE YOU GREW UP IN HELP YOU PORTRAY THESE CHARACTERS?
DLP: I grew up more middle class. There were no cholos or gangs, and there was no one coming up to you asking where you were from. There was no Caló. There were Mexican-Americans and there were Brown people and white people living in peace together.. In “Boulevard Nights,” production hired real life cholos to point me in the right direction. They were actual cholos from different barrios who would not normally interact with one another, but they were forced to work with each other in the movie and they got along great. What they did for me, they have no idea how valuable it was for me. They taught me everything: how to dress, how to walk, how to wear my hair and how to carry myself. I was 21, they were looking at me, and I knew they thought there was no way I would be the guy who would play Chuco’s part. But I did and they saw how serious I was.
DV: I grew up out here in Boyle Heights, this was my neighborhood. My family and I moved from Texas when I was 12 and since then this has been my home. I got into gangs, and we would hang out on Brooklyn Avenue, which is now Cesar Chavez Boulevard, just across the street from where we are eating now. I got into the arts as a photographer, I took pictures at concerts, but I didn’t begin acting until I was 18. By the time I did “Stand and Deliver,” I was 26. I was supposed to be a production assistant in “Stand and Deliver,” but then I got the role of Chuco. By that time, I had long since stopped associating with the gang culture. But since that’s what I grew up with, it was just a matter of remembering and recalling old ways.
DLP: We started from different routes but we came to the same place.
LATINOS OR CHICANOS ARE OFTEN PORTRAYED IN ROLES THAT INVOLVE CRIMINALITY, POVERTY OR IMMIGRATION. DOES THIS BOTHER YOU?
DLP: I’ve always heard that my whole career, ‘How can you play negative stereotypes?’ I don’t think of these characters as a stereotype. I didn’t see Chuco in “Boulevard Nights” as a stereotype, in fact it felt like my job to not make him a stereotype. My job was to bring the realities and truth to this character, to show people that he was a human being. Yeah, Chuco made bad choices, but who doesn’t make bad choices in life? He was a kid. I didn’t play him as a gangster, I played him as a human being. I tried to bring some dignity to the role.
V: For me, playing Chuco in “Stand and Deliver” was part of the whole story, so it was OK. I didn’t want to celebrate a negative lifestyle, but it fit into the story, and now the movie is shown as a triumph movie. It is being used as an academic tool in a lot of Chicano Studies classes.
DLP: We have watched our old movies now, the two of us, and we can see all the problems, things that we could’ve done better. But there’s something very pure and organic about what we did at that moment. And we both gave what we could give at that time.
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR EXPERIENCE IN TRYING TO SHOW THAT YOU WERE ABLE TO PLAY CHARACTERS OUTSIDE OF GANGSTERS?
DV: After I did “Stand and Deliver,” I did not want to play gang members, so for two years I did not work at all. I finally told my agent to bring me in and I ended up with that type of part again. But that’s how it was back then, even though you didn’t want to play these parts there were not a lot of other parts.
DLP: I was able to step into alternative roles. I was able to do a lot of non-cholo parts. It was not easy, but I did it. But my character always had a gun, they were not cholos, but they were always up to something.
DV: Now I don’t do anything that I don’t want to do. I can no longer waste our God-given talent on things that are not for us. I have to like the script.
DLP: Toward the end of my career, since I’m kind of retired now, I would read certain scripts that were given to me and I would instantly want my community to see me doing this for money? There were a lot of things I said no to.
WHAT MADE “AMERICAN ME” DIFFERENT FROM OTHER CHICANO FILMS LIKE “STAND AND DELIVER” AND “BLOOD IN BLOOD OUT?”
DV: I had already made “Stand and Deliver” when we did “American Me” and when I initially read the script it was like, ‘Damn!’ I feel like one of the reasons why everybody loved “Stand and Deliver” was because it was so positive, so when I read “American Me” I had the feeling that we were making a more intense movie.
DLP: I had that same feeling. I even asked Olmos on the phone one time, I was like, ‘You are really going to do this, you’re really going to go forward with this?’ And he said yes and explained to me his view on gangs. He said this whole situation with the gangs was a cancer and that our culture had been always trying to sweep it under the ground, trying to cover it up with makeup or hide it. He was like, ‘Here is the sun and here is all of our bullshit.’ And he said, ‘Let’s put it under the light and whatever happens, happens, but shedding light to all that darkness cannot be a bad thing.’
DLP: “Blood In Blood Out” was Disney’s version, it had a different aesthetic. It is not quite as explicit. It’s more of a Hollywood type of film. “American Me” is very cool, blue and grayish. And “Blood In Blood Out,” is filled with all the Mexican colors, the mariachi music, the trumpets are glaring, Dia de los Muertos and the Aztec dancers. We don’t have any of that in “American Me.” You’re just getting it straight up. No chaser. You don’t get water, you don’t even get ice.
To purchase “American Me” and Boulevard Nights” merchandise, as well as to learn more about De La Paz’s and Villarreal’s career and projects, you can visit their website HERE.