The movie begins with the ’40s Zoot Suit Riots, which to put simply, began with wartime racial hysteria and a hatred between soldiers and zoot suiters who flouted the rationing laws by tailoring flashy suits. Montoya Santana is literally a child of the riots, conceived during them after his parents are beaten and savaged by soldiers on leave in Los Angeles. The brutal beatdown turns his father bitter, and this poisons Montoya’s childhood. He runs with friends in a makeshift gang, and after a failed rumble, he and his pal J.D. break into a shop to hide, and are wounded by the owner.
Sent to juvie, Montoya is raped by a bigger prisoner on his first night, in a painful to watch scene. He immediately avenges himself, gaining a twenty year adult sentence, and an iron clad rep that brings him followers, and cements his presence as a gang leader when he is transferred to Folsom. Between the Aryan Brotherhood and the Black Guerillas, he builds his own gang, the Mexican Mafia, to protect other Latinos at first, then it becomes a full fledged criminal enterprise.
When he is released, he is faced with a world that has changed. He’s never been with a girl. He’s never driven a car. When he meets a beautiful neighborhood woman named Esperanza, he feels as innocent as the boy he was before prison, and she falls in love with that side of him, unaware that he commands La Eme, the Mexican Mafia. The Italian mafia runs drugs in their community; he moves to take it over, and in a brilliant and shocking scene, Olmos juxtaposes Montoya’s love scene with Esperanza with the rape and murder of a mafia don’s son in prison. Montoya has never made love to a woman, and once he is excited, he flips her over to take her like a jock would a prison punk, until she slaps and pushes him away.
It is very hard to watch, and three consultants to the film were later murdered for disrespecting the machismo and ethics of the Mexican Mafia, by contributing to this film. By not shying from the foundation of brutality that creates a man who can lead a murderous gang, Olmos does what Scorcese, David Chase, and other directors who’ve portrayed crime bosses were afraid to do. Show the monsters they really are, instead of feeding the glorification we give them.
While the movie gets confusing in the third act, it follows fact and makes Montoya almost a tragic and symbolic figure for the rebellion against hatred of his people. While he can never be called a hero, when thrown in the “animal factory” of prison he did what he needed to survive, protected his friends, and attempted to move from gangster to liberator, only to die before his redemption could begin. This is one of the best gang movies of the ’90s, and is still powerful today.