The Mexican Mafia vs. Hollywood
A leader of La Eme (pronounced em-MAY), a prison born Mexican-American gang so powerful it’s often described as the Mexican Mafia, is trying to explain to a federal prosecutor why the group would target one of its own members for assassination. According to this accused murderer, the target in question was in a fight with police when he did something that, by La Eme standards, is utterly unforgivable: He cried.
La Eme places an emphasis on image and honor that may seem absurd to some, but is no laughing matter to its members. Mess with either, as some say actor-director Edward James Olmos did when he made the 1992 movie American Me, and you’re looking for trouble. Shortly after American Me‘s release, something worse than trouble caught up with three people associated with the production: They were murdered-conceivably in retaliation, though the connection is by no means clear cut, for the film’s depiction of gang life. The perceived disrespect shown by scenes of sodomy and betrayal allegedly required La Eme to avenge its honor. Olmos himself, the director, co producer, and star of the movie, reportedly responded by applying for a concealed- weapons permit and surrounding himself with bodyguards. Olmos, some said, was targeted for death.
Within four years of the release of American Me, members of La Eme were on trial for the murders of the three individuals involved with the movie (and for four other homicides as well), creating a moment in moviemaking history where the line between life and art has become a messy blur. Utilizing the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statute normally reserved for organized crime cases, the federal government began presenting its case against the accused-twelve alleged La Eme kingpins and one associate-on November 19, 1996, in a trial that proceeded through a very hot summer. Charged with 29 counts of criminal activity, including six attempted murders, conspiracy to commit eight others, extortion, and narcotics distribution, the defendants include Benjamin “Tope” Peters, 54, who is considered one of La Erne’s founding members; his involvement with the gang dates back to 1957. Another defendant, Daniel “Black Dan” Barela, was allegedly voted into La Eme sometime in the mid-1970s. And Ruben “Tupi” Hernandez, 35, has worked his way into the upper stratum over the past fifteen years, according to the prosecution.
The initial indictment against the thirteen defendants also named Olmos as extortion “Victim Number 1,” and although that count has now been dropped, one La Eme member is quoted in court papers as calling Olmos “fair game.” Neither the U.S. Attorney’s office nor Olmos will say if he will take the stand against the organization he cinematically confronted, but references to American Me are present throughout the latest indictment document. When Olmos chose to do away with the typical romanticism associated with Hollywood’s depiction of gangsters, celluloid and the real world crashed and burned.
The Mexican Mafia got its start as the memory of the Zoot Suit Riots still raged in the minds of Los Angeles’ Latinos. On June 3, 1943, in what is widely accepted as a racially motivated event, U.S. servicemen brutally attacked Mexican-American civilians dressed in showy zoot suits (at the time an ostentatious fashion craze among nervier Latinos), initiating a riot that would last more than a week. After the violence subsided, the Los Angeles City Council proposed a law making it a misdemeanor to wear a zoot suit, further stripping the city’s Chicanos of their pride.
About ten years later, fighting against their status as a minority on the streets and in prison, incarcerated Latinos made a bid for power where they had had none. As one American Me character observes, “Belonging felt good, but having respect, that feels even better.” The main characters in American Me are inspired by two preeminent leaders of the prison movement that gave birth to La Eme-Rudolfo “Cheyenne” (or “Shy”) Cadena and Joe “Pegleg” Morgan. Cadena educated himself while in prison, and became a fierce proponent of Chicano empowerment and cultural unity. While trying to forge peace between two waging Latino groups, he was slain by his rivals in what was “a hit that shouldn’t have happened,” says Floyd Mutrux, who wrote the American Me screenplay in the early ’70s, shortly after Cadena’s death. The La Erne leader was instantly transformed into a legend, and, Mutrux says, the mantra became “Shy’s in the sky.”
Morgan, who died in 1993 at the age of 64, was of Slavic descent-not Mexican at all. A youth spent in the heavily Latino neighborhoods of East Los Angeles instilled in him a Chicano identity that he expressed through a fierce command of the language, the customs, and the culture. He was also well steeped in violence-his first trip to prison came at age 16, for murdering the husband of his 32-year-old lover with a tire iron and burying the man in a shallow grave in Malibu. His final incarceration was for the murder of another man, and although he was considered the top man of the La Erne hierarchy, he succumbed to cancer before the antiracketeering trial could begin.
By the time of Morgan’s death, in November of 1993, La Erne’s control inside California’s federal penitentiaries had reached mythic proportions. The group had become so formidable that it was able to wield its power outside the penal institutions. At the point American Me hit theaters, La Erne was allegedly levying “taxes” against the individual Latino neighborhood gangs, controlling drug trafficking, and assaulting or murdering those who disrespected its command. Ironically, La Erne also used its power to stop violence. In the early ’90s, the organization ordered other gangs to stop drive-by killings and to settle differences one-to-one, or face La Erne’s rage. The immediate drop in the area’s murder rate was remarkable. But officials saw no altruism in the move, calling it a bid to lessen police presence so that La Erne could increase its drug-trade profits unencumbered.
Back in the 1970s, however, when Mutrux first scripted American Me, he saw Cheyenne Cadena’s attempt to organize Latinos as a noble quest for honor at a time when prejudice ruled. “These kids were being treated as third-class citizens,” says Mutrux, “and [La Erne] grew out of
that. It was all about dignity and respect. Cadena stood up for his people.” Mutrux, whose credits as writer and/or director include Aloha, Bobby and Rose, American Hot Wax, and The Hollywood Knights, watched his script languish in development hell for two decades, despite the acclaim attached to it. At various points along the way, Al Pacino signed on, Lou Adler was expected to produce, and Hal Ashby became interested in directing. When Edward James Olmos got involved, Mutrux was initially pleased. But as Olmos began to rewrite, Mutrux’s pleasure soon turned to anger. According to Mutrux, Olmos’s revisions brought a Manichaean perspective to the script; the writer felt Olmos was ruthlessly stripping the characters of the qualities that had compelled Mutrux to chronicle them in the first place, dehumanizing rather than deglamorizing them. “It was a great story of a warrior and a visionary,” Mutrux says. But Olmos didn’t necessarily see it that way. He wanted to make a flat-out cautionary tale, the more harrowing the better. This meant, whether calculatedly or not, hitting La Erne in its most vulnerable place: its pride.
In fact the same Olmos inserted scenes that infuriate Mutrux also apparently angered La Erne. Early in the film, the character named Santana, a barely veiled Cadena, is sodomized at knifepoint. Many years later, when Santana is released from prison, he experiences sexual dysfunction, and in the middle of making love with his girlfriend he flips her over and begins to sodomize her. Finally, while Cadena was stabbed almost 70 times by his enemies, Santana’s vicious death comes at the hands of his fellow gang members, a turn of creative license that flies in the face of La Erne’s strict sense of honor. None of the scenes are part of Mutrux’s original screenplay, and he accuses Olmos of trying to make a “message” movie by replacing what he considered Cadena’s dignified attempts at empowerment with scenes of brutality. “Not only is it not true but it is a horrible piece of fiction to put on the leader of the Mexican Mafia,” Mutrux says, still enraged at what he sees as a personal betrayal. “[American Me 1 was a love story. But Eddie fucked me, he fucked the Mafia, he fucked the studio, and he fucked himself.”
TAYLOR HACKFORD-who directed Blood In Blood Out (also known as Bound by Honor), another film that originated from a Mutrux script and has similar themes-does not share the screenwriter’s vehemence. But he does agree that American Me violated La Erne’s number-one credo, thus creating the potential for reprisals. “Their whole system is based on respect-respeto and these people are very, very serious. If you put things on the screen, they are going to react.” Hackford changed the name of La Eme to La Onda in his film at the urging of his
writer, Jimmy Santiago Baca, who had spent time in jail and was keen to avoid La Erne’s wrath. Hackford explains: “First off, you have to protect the people working on your film from immediate and obvious coercion, and secondly, you must have a certain respect within your piece for this group, who live their lives a certain way . You are visiting in their lives, and this isn’t a life that’s make-believe. To deny that ‘ is to invite a response, and in American Me, well, people may have died because of that movie.”
IN TRUTH, THE ACTUAL links between the three well-publicized deaths and American Me seem somewhat tenuous. Although the first murder occurred just twelve days after the opening of the film (on March 25, 1992) and victim Charles “Charlie Brown” Manriquez, 53, was carrying an American Me business card when he was shot down at the Ramona Gardens Housing Projects (where several scenes were filmed), it’s said that his advisory role on the picture was minimal. One thing is certain, he was no innocent bystander, although he allegedly had once been a dominant La Eme leader, he had become an intravenous drug user and petty criminal-s-hardly the image of a La Eme warrior. The next and most prominent murder happened less than two months later. Ana Lizarraga, 49, a gang counselor who worked on film as an adviser and has a small role as – grandmother, was gunned down execution style on May 5, 1992, in her driveway, as she was packing her van to go to her mother’s funeral. Employed by Community Youth Gang
Services, an agency bent on steering kids away from the gangs, she had taken a four-month leave to work on the film. Although the court documents indicting alleged La Eme members linked her involvement in American Me with her murder, prosecutors took a different tack during the early portion of the trial. Instead, they contend she was killed because she was considered a snitch. Her many years working among the gangs could easily have earned her enmity in the projects, totally separate from the film.
The final homicide remains the most remotely connected. Rocky Luna was shot to death, also at Ramona Gardens, on August 7, 1993, about a year and a half after the movie came out. His advisory capacity on American Me was nebulous, but his gang activity was notorious. Even director Hackford admits, “Maybe these deaths are unrelated. The unfortunate reality of that community is that some people will not be alive a year from now.” Hackford himself had a drive-by shooting on the set of his Blood In Blood Out in which a 27-year-old caterer was seriously wounded. And Arturo Jimenez, a nineteen year- old with a bit part in American Me, was killed, again at Ramona Gardens-but this time it was a sheriff’s deputy rather than a gangster who wielded the gun.
Still, the idea that La Eme retaliated with murder because of the film remains firmly lodged in the minds of many in Hollywood. One young director, Miguel Arteta (whose independent and edgy Star Maps was recently picked up for $2.5 million by Fox Searchlight), recalls hearing of the shootings while making his film in East L.A. “We were definitely intimidated when we heard, and the idea that Eddie was in jeopardy because of it made me sad. That Latinos are killing other Latinos makes me sad, and I respect Eddie for trying to tackle the subject matter.” (Other requests for interviews were declined, including by Edward James Olmos, who hasn’t commented on the subject since the trial started.) Hackford, on the other hand, is dubious about the wisdom of Olmos’s project: “To try to [make a movie that aims to] convince little chavalitos [to stay out of gangs] may feed a certain machismo, but it is not away to go.”
It is possible that Olmos, who is known for his attempts to reach youths, may have risked La Erne’s wrath in order to try to deter gang involvement. His activism is a defining part of his character: He constantly visits schools, counseling at-risk teens against violence. He also promotes voter registration; organizes food relief for residents of Chiapas, Mexico; works as an ambassador to UNICEF; and more. He has even participated in the organization of a truce among warring gang factions. His films often reflect this commitment, including his Oscar-nominated performance as a math teacher in Stand and Deliver. But American Me was big-time-a $16 million opportunity for Olmos as an actor, producer, and director to try to make a difference, and interviews with him at the time of the movie’s release indicate that that was his intent.
Olmos is not the first to face consequences for controversial thematic material: There are rumors that Francis Ford Coppola was threatened by the Italian Mafia because of TheGodfather, and the death threats leveled against Martin Scorsese by religious-right extremists for The Last Temptation of Christ were widely reported. One of the most famous instances, of course, is the fatwa pronounced against author Salman Rushdie. But even if La Erne’s members are not guilty of murderous, movie-motivated retribution, the trial once again exposes the ugly conspiracy of powerlessness and violence that often exists in certain parts of the Latino community something Olmos had tried to address in American Me.