An Analysis of “Blood In Blood Out”. Personal Identity Construction in Gangs

Bachelor Thesis, 2014

54 Pages, Grade: A


Table of Contents



Introduction of the Topic


Method and Process

Presentation of Primary Empirical Material and Theories (Material A)
Blood In Blood Out
Theodore Davidson
James Diego Vigil

Presentation of Secondary Empirical Material and Theories (Material B)

Jimmy Santiago Baca

Damian Chapa and Joe “Pegleg” Morgan


Presentation of the Analysis

The Plot


The History of the Chicanos

Chicano Identity Construction




The Soundtrack – In Relation to La Onda

The Time Period


The Structure of the Movie

The Conflicts

Moments of Tension

The Climax

The Themes and Mottos

Analysis of the Main Characters





Appendix A – Classification of Gang Members per James Diego Vigil
Appendix B – Terms and Concepts:
Appendix C – The Rules of the Mexican Mafia


I selected identity construction as the topic for my bachelor project in the beginning of the spring semester in 2014. The semester had barely commenced and the Spanish American Studies class, Language and Culture 2 (Sprog og Kultur 2 in Danish), had just begun. My professor in a sense led me toward the topic through the method of elimination. His objectives for the class was to introduce the Spanish and Spanish American Studies students to the identity issues often experienced by many Mexican Americans as part of the integration and adaptation process to American customs when emigrating from their native country of Mexico. Many Mexican Americans experience difficulties upon their arrival to the United States while others are second or third generation immigrants, thus essentially Americans, yet they experience similar issues. The obstacles are oftentimes more or less the same regardless of their status although for those born in the United States the language barrier itself usually is less of an issue in terms of the spoken English language. However, efficient and proficient written communication skills in English as well as in Spanish is oftentimes still a challenge for many.

In Language and Culture 1 we studied various linguistic elements of Spanish and English usage by Mexican Americans. Among those is the widely spread usage of Spanglish. Spanglish is unique to the Latin American population in the United States and offers in some respect an expanded vocabulary as it encompasses nuances in expressions not available if one speaks only Spanish or only English.

In the beginning of the semester we watched movies such as Lone Star, Real Women Have Curves, and lastly Blood In Blood Out. I had watched other Latin American movies discussing the problems immigrants experience during translocation from one country to the other. Some of the movies discussed the reasons behind the desire to relocate to the United States and what the individual hopes to get out of the move. Amongst those were Sin Nombre[1] and 7 Soles[2]. Although I found the topic of linguistic studies interesting I really could not envision writing my bachelor project about it although in respect to the motivations and objectives of translocation that would have been very interesting to work with. Real Women Have Curves addresses the issues of identity construction from a young Mexican American female’s perspective as well as culture clashes between White American customs and Mexican/Mexican American customs and expectations of a young Mexican woman contra those of her parents. The topic would have been interesting to work with but there was nonetheless something about it that in my opinion, and I cannot quite point directly to the true reasons for my elimination, didn’t quite catch my attention and much less my passion for writing.

Blood In Blood Out was a different caliber of a movie. It presented a variety of topics that one could go in depth with such as cultural conflicts, intercultural communication challenges, social developmental and adjustment issues of youths, anthropological aspects, history of the Chicano population in Southern California, linguistics, as well as niche topics such as the history and formation of the Mexican Mafia, depiction of the California penal system, culture and racial clashes in prisons, or rather in San Quentin, and identity construction. The movie appealed to me, although it wasn’t normally a movie I would personally seek out, but it was a well-written story and the kept its audience interested from beginning to end. I had never heard of the movie until it was presented in class and only knew very little of the actors involved. I had heard mention of the scriptwriter’s name, Jimmy Santiago Baca, as he is known for his poetry but also in respect to him I had next to no preconceived notions. Because of my lack of preconceived notions of the Mexican Mafia and the writer of the movie, selecting it as my source of inspiration to commencing the narrowing down process of my problem to discuss I felt was a plus as it allowed me to enter into my research and topic development unbiased

First, I must address to the readers regardless of whether they read this paper in English (a revised version of the original) or in Spanish that my knowledge of the existence of the Mexican Mafia was basically non-existent as I ventured into this project. In general I have very little interest in organized crime as a whole whether it is the Italian, Russian, Mexican, or El Salvadoran Mafia. I still to this day do not have much interest in their activities, objectives, history nor who they are warring against and why. From early on as I watched Blood In Blood Out for the first time I knew that the criminal activities of a gang of any kind was not going to be my angle of approach. I made a few notes while watching the movie; interesting aspects so to speak, but it would not by my main focus. Instead I found in the very beginning of the movie that an interesting aspect was the dysfunctional family relations of the protagonist which I quickly theorized might play a role in his decision to join gangs in the first place. The movie, however, offered next to nothing to go on in this respect. Both parents are out of the picture as fast as they are presented so that eliminated writing about the aspect of dysfunctional family relations of Mexican American families with direct reference to the movie, however, it did not eliminate the topic in terms of further research into real life anthropological research done in that area.

The next topic, an obvious one, was that of East Los Angeles gangs and gang activities but as aforementioned I really had very little interest in this. The topic has been exhausted and I had no knowledge of the existence of the Mexican Mafia or if it was pure fabrication and Hollywood drama however, that part did not take much effort to verify. But gang wars are gang wars. It does not matter if they are African Americans warring against the Aryan Brotherhood or if they are Mexicans warring other Mexican gangs. Essentially the objectives are rather similar in all cases, the outcomes are the same, and the story of death, violence, hatred, and dysfunctional and racial relationships are endless. It makes for good movies, documentaries, and writing but for my bachelor topic I wanted something different and less explored.

The California penal system was an option but writing about it as depicted in the movie would most likely be a bit dry unless the target group has a specific interest in penology and the justice system, which I didn’t anticipate my audience would necessarily have. Thus I eliminated that idea right away as well.

As I was watching the movie I turned at one point to my co-student, Marie, and said “What is wrong with this idiot?” referring to the main character, Miklo Velka, “Here’s an attractive young man, relatively astute, full of energy and given a second chance, a chance many don’t get, to get back on track, get away from crime, and then the idiot goes out and kills an rivaling gang member few days after he has been released and his records would have been expunged. Is he stupid or what motivates him to get into gang life?” It was the latter question that stuck in my mind “What motivates him to get into gang life?” and what is it that the gangs provide a young man with that he does not have already? What are they substituting? What is the function of the gang on a psychological level and in terms of identity construction? I had to narrow it down as a bachelor paper is a rather short piece of writing, only twenty five pages, but the grounds were laid at that point to research gang identity construction for specifically Mexican American gangs in California. I also wanted to briefly add an interpretation of what the scriptwriter might have wanted us to learn from the tale of the main character.

I set out on my quest to explore the problem and to do my research which, as is the case with any paper you write, is a constant reading and elimination process until you find the empirical material that supports your question(s) and thesis. Students such as myself all too quickly realize that a large portion of the material you come across has little or no relevance to directly answering the questions you are looking to address. You screen a ton of material that might very well be interesting in and of itself but does not support your claim or substantiate your evidence.

The other issue is qualifying your sources; if the author of the source cannot be qualified as an expert of some sort to on the issue he or she must be disqualified. For example, a journalist writing an article or a book on a topic he or she feels strongly about and mostly only uses hearsay as support for his or her claims I disqualify the source as primary empirical material. It may be relevant to use as secondary empirical material however. An example is the source I used as secondary empirical material written by Chris Blatchford The Black Hand. Blatchford’s interviews with former Mexican Mafia member Rene Enriquez were great as secondary material to provide real evidence of the Mexican Mafia’s code of conduct but considering it had limited relevance to my identity construction analysis of the movie that I was working with I could not qualify it as primary empirical material.

Contrary to Blatchford’s work, which I thought otherwise was interesting although written in a typical journalistic, sensationalistic way, the work of Theodore Davidson and James Diego Vigil qualified as primary empirical material, beside the movie itself, as they are not only university educated anthropologists but they have worked specifically with Chicano prisoners and gang members to find out what motivates them to join gangs and how the gang members’ personality and sense of ‘self’ is constructed. The research and writing process at this level and higher is in fact a wonderful learning process which later can take you to higher levels of writing and even publication of your work.

In my case, regarding research material, although I think it is fair to say that it is oftentimes the case for many students, I felt as if I was looking for a needle in a haystack because it was a challenge to find empirical material that I could properly and rightfully qualify for my research. I did not have the opportunity to travel from Denmark to East Los Angeles, California to meet subjects of interest nor would it ever have been possible to enter as a female into San Quentin State Prison to attempt to interview specifically Chicano prisoners whom would have been residents of the prison during the time which the movie takes place, namely that of 1972-1982. Most of them, I presumed would already have been deceased as was the case of Joe “Pegleg” Morgan (1929-1993) whose persona the main character’s personality is relatively paralleled with. Contacting the California Department of Corrections was an option however I deemed it a fruitless option as my concern was that the answers I might get would be not only be standardized answers to cover their bases and avoid any misrepresentation of the penal system which they represent but the answers would likely also reflect the perspectives of the White System, to use a term by Montana (the ring leader of La Onda) and not the Mexican American prisoners’ themselves. I had to look elsewhere to find someone who had done what I wanted to do, namely get the points of view of Chicano prisoners unfiltered and unbiased. I felt as if I had found a pile of gold when my research for qualified empirical material landed me in the works of American anthropologist Theodore Davidson. As you read my translated, although in few places revised English version of my Bachelor Project of the fall of 2014 submitted to the University of Southern Denmark, you will realize why the works of Theodore Davidson became of great importance to me. Additionally, to understand the Chicano gangs’ identity construction more profoundly the works of Professor of Anthropology James Diego Vigil became invaluable.

Enjoy the read…


With focus on the 1993 Blood In Blood Out movie and according to investigations by many experts I analyze how gang identity is constructed and the reasons why some feel attracted to this lifestyle. Using qualified empirical material I examine personal as well as group identity construction of particularly Chicano gangs. I examine the role of machismo as an element of the identity, the socioeconomic elements of members in general, and the general gang structure of Mexican American gangs.

My interpretation of the construction of the personality of the main character is that it is based on a combination the late Mexican Mafia member, Joe “Pegleg” Morgan (1929-1993) and partially the life scriptwriter Jimmy Santiago Baca mixed lightly with the life of actor Damian Chapa.

In addition to using the movie itself as my empirical material I include the research done by 1) Cultural Anthropologist Theodore Davidson who studied and researched Chicano prisoners for more than twenty years during the 1960s and 1970s which is relevant to my work, and 2) interviews focusing on identity construction. I will focus on how criminal identities are constructed, family related factors, and likewise on the importance of machismo in relation to identity construction of a Latino man/Chicano.

I discuss the theories developed by Anthropologist James Diego Vigil pertaining to East Los Angeles gangs as discussed in his work Barrio Gangs (1993). To gain a profound understanding of the problem experienced with gangs one must first gain an understanding of the elements that provoke the necessity for some youths – and primarily youths - to resort to gang lifestyle not just in the movie but also in the past and present community.

Using selected, traditional elements of movie analysis, my empirical material, and the chosen theories I will analyze the problem of East Los Angeles gangs and its influence despite numerous initiatives by law enforcement and other authorities to debilitate the gang presence in the community. Through the use of the motion picture I provide a profound picture of gang identity construction as a phenomenon as well as the subculture of gangs.

In my work I present an analysis using selected interesting aspects of the motion picture Blood In Blood Out. I analyze how the main character’s persona has been constructed based on the scriptwriter’s own background as depicted in Jimmy Santiago Baca’s A Place To Stand. In constructing Miklo Velka it is my interpretation that Baca was also inspired by the life of late Joe “Pegleg” Morgan. I use the history of the Chicano people in the United States, anthropological research focusing specifically, and uniquely, on Chicano prisoners in San Quentin between 1966 and 1968. Additionally, research pertaining to gang mentality construction is of importance in my work.

It is to be understood that the purpose of this paper is not in any way to pass judgment on any gang’s activities. I will not discuss any specific organized crime related cases nor will I take a stand on whether or not gang’s activities are justified in any way. I will not condemn nor applaud anyone’s conduct outside of Blood In Blood Out. By making occasional references to former Mexican Mafia member, Rene Enriquez, I am not condoning nor condemning his past nor present activities. I use him as an example for specific purposes such as an example of a veteran gang member. The purpose of this paper is to discuss the theories and facts behind identity construction of particularly East Los Angeles gangs.

Introduction of the Topic

In the last fifty years gang related crime in Southern California has increased exponentially causing a serious problem for law enforcement, in particular in certain parts of Los Angeles. Gangs are responsible for numerous homicides inside and outside the correctional facilities annually. One of the most violent gangs known is the Mexican Mafia which has obtained a level of power as never seen before. According to many verifiable sources it is involved in drug trafficking, extortion, armed robberies, kidnappings, and homicides every year. The extreme level of violence is only one side of the Mexican Mafia however. The other side of gang life is that which tends to attract certain young men in particular offering a sense of identity, camaraderie, unity, companionship, belonging, friendship, and loyalty. In a way one can say that the Mexican Mafia functions as a type of substitute mother. In conclusion, the gangs, for many, satisfy a basic need for an individual which the individual is missing from his own family – thus also the often used name La Familia which makes reference to the gang and not one’s biological family. Because of that it is necessary to gain an understanding of the general social and family constructions of gang members as well as an understanding of philosophy behind gang mentality.

Unfortunately Blood In Blood Out, by Taylor Hackford and Jimmy Santiago Baca, did not receive quite the attention it deserved. American Me (1992) by Edward James Olmos and Blood In Blood Out were in a sense rivals. Both movies are based on the founding of the Mexican Mafia and both movies contained elements of brotherhood and criminal activity but there are contracts. Contrary to American Me, Blood In Blood Out, under the surface, is not just predominately about a gang’s formation and its criminal activity but it is also about identity construction of the three cousins, which are the three main personalities, and particularly the main character is in focus. Part of the identity in this case is based on the role of machismo. The other part is based on the history of the Chicanos and the complicated family relations of Chicanos. The objective of the movie according the Jimmy Santiago Baca is to tell the true story of the lives of many Chicanos. Baca, through Blood In Blood Out and its main character contrary to many other films, describe the anthropological elements as well as the history of the Chicano people in the United States. Because of that I find that it deserved more appreciation than its rival of the time although I am by no means classifying American Me as inferior. It just didn’t support the same objectives and topics I was looking for. The motion picture functions as empirical material which I contextualize with empirical material of Theodore Davidson and the gang theories of James Diego Vigil. Additionally I contextualize with secondary empirical material in forms of interviews.


The overall theme of this paper pertains to theories on identity construction in which questions such as “Who am I?”, “Where do we come from?”, and “How do we think?” become central. It is many respect an abstract discourse to discuss “What is identity?” nonetheless our identity is fundamental in discussions on “Who am I?” On a pedagogical level we seek to discover ourselves during our adolescence particularly. This period in our lives is of extreme importance as it is during these years that the formation of our personal development into adults takes place. It is during this period that we first meet the main character in the film that I will be using as my basis.

Cultural studies, such as those used in this paper by Davidson and Vigil, investigate among other topics how human beings construct their identities. Cultural studies experts often view identity construction as a phenomenon that is rooted in social constructions although the term “I” refers to singularity and not plurality. Concepts such as ‘oneness’ and ‘sameness’ are unavoidable in the discussion of the concept of identity construction as it is the ‘sameness’ of one subject (here referring to an individual) with another which connects the two. For example, an individual feeling socially and culturally rejected by the masses due to his or her color of skin or cultural background will necessarily feel ‘sameness’ with an individual who feels the same societal rejection based on the same reasons thus the two subjects can be said to identify with one another.

The concept of identifying with someone is not to be confused, however, with the concept of identical as they are undeniably two quite different matters. An individual who identifies himself with a pier may tend to position himself in relation to others in similar ways as the other. For example in terms of how he positions himself toward other individuals of dissimilar cultural, ethnical, or racial backgrounds will be similar to the person he identifies with. Identity pertains to what and how one thinks of him or herself. It is the perception of ‘self’ which comes into question. This again determines how he or she will position him or herself in relation to others. The concept of identical, however, pertains to being the exact same or the exact copy of something or someone. That is not the same as identifying with which just refers to that of being similar to or having in common. It is important to make this distinction when we discuss identity construction and feeling ‘sameness’ with someone.

Miklo, to take the example of our main character, positions himself differently depending on whom he socializes with. He perceives ‘whiteness’ as a negative characteristic of a person due to the negative experiences he has had with his father who is white thus psychologically explanation for his exponentially growing disconnect and disappointment in his cousin Paco who in Miklo’s eyes represents the ‘White System’ and ‘whiteness’. Miklo’s construction of ‘self’ is based on his yearning for his mother’s love, affection, and acceptance – which is part of his perception of the concept of ‘brownness’ – which ultimately he seeks by joining La Onda. It is through social acceptance through La Onda that Miklo’s ‘self’ is manifested; his identity is in other words constructed through La Onda where he becomes aware consciously of his ‘self’. Thematically speaking ‘Who we are’ is what is answered when we speak of the topic Identity Construction.

Method and Process

I am going to utilize various elements of different analysis models for cinematography in combination with the theories I have selected and the empirical material I have carefully selected to answer my question ‘What causes some people to join gangs?” Although I am analyzing a fictitious product I believe that there are elements of the analysis model that I can effectively use to answer my question. For example, the Hollywood analysis model uses elements such as location, milieu, and character analysis which in using these elements allow me to narrow down the root of the issue at hand thus I will be using these particular elements of the model to assist me in providing an answer to my theme question.

The movie functions, as aforementioned, as empirical material and not just inspirational source. I commence my work with an introduction of Chicano prisoners in San Quentin State Prison via the works of Theodore Davidson. I will discuss subsequently the theories of James Vigil pertaining to young Chicanos in the barrios[3] in East Los Angeles, and I will use relevant elements and points obtained via my interviews with selected individuals to answer my theme question.


[1] Mexican American thriller. 2009. Directed and written by Cary Jofi Fukunaga.

[2] Directed by Pedro Ultreras. 2008. Studio: Venevision International.

[3] Spanish word for neighborhood.

Excerpt out of 54 pages


An Analysis of “Blood In Blood Out”. Personal Identity Construction in Gangs
University of Southern Denmark
Spanish and Spanish American Studies
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
1764 KB
blood in blood out, damian chapa, taylor hackford, chicano, gangs, identity construction, los angeles
Quote paper
Karina Schmitt (Author), 2014, An Analysis of “Blood In Blood Out”. Personal Identity Construction in Gangs, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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