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COLUMN ONE : Film Leaves a Legacy of Fear : For more than a year, 'American Me' has haunted its maker, actor Edward James Olmos. He worries that the Mexican Mafia may seek vengeance against him because of his harsh anti-gang tale.

June 13, 1993|JESSE KATZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a discreet corner booth of the Colima Restaurant on Sunset Boulevard, while armed marshals stood watch outside, a former Mexican Mafia hit man confirmed what actor Edward James Olmos feared.

Since the release of the movie "American Me," his harsh tale of Chicano prison gangs, Olmos had been shaken by rumblings that the Mexican Mafia wanted him killed. Seeking an insider's assessment of the danger, he bought breakfast last November for Ramon (Mundo) Mendoza, a convicted assassin who has been living under government protection after testifying against the organization.

Over steaming bowls of menudo and pozole, Mendoza explained that the movie had insulted his ex-comrades' sense of honor, depicting one of their most revered leaders as being sodomized in jail, impotent with a woman and knifed by his own gang brothers--sacrilege to a secret society that equates disrespect with death.

"Don't underestimate these people," Mendoza warned Olmos. "If they're obsessed with getting to you, there's nothing you can do to stop it."

Today, more than a year after the premiere of "American Me," its legacy continues to haunt a man who hoped to scare youngsters straight with the most dreadful images of gang culture.

Although the movie lost money at the box office and received mostly tepid reviews, it has triggered a wave of unexpected aftershocks, drawing Olmos into a real-life drama that echoes the treachery he portrayed on screen.

Shortly after the movie opened in March, 1992, two of Olmos' consultants were slain execution-style, though it is uncertain whether anger over the film was a motive in the attacks. Olmos, troubled by rumors and threatening letters, told police this year that he feared the prison gang had a contract on his life. He has tried to obtain a permit for a concealed weapon.

"Eddie," said one close friend, "is living with this 24 hours a day."

Because the Mexican Mafia is a clandestine operation whose members do not even acknowledge its existence, there is no way to confirm firsthand whether such suspicions are justified. But at least one sign of the gang's displeasure with Olmos has entered the public record. A lawsuit has been filed by the Mafia's reputed godfather, who contends that a character based on his life appeared in the film without permission.

The perception of danger is so pervasive that the mere mention of the Mexican Mafia--known on the streets as La EME, Spanish for the letter M --has left many people reluctant to talk. Olmos, who continues to make frequent public appearances, will say only that the movie's positive aspects outweigh any negative fallout.

But interviews with others involved in the making of "American Me," as well as law enforcement officials and sources knowledgeable about the Chicano underworld, tell of an odd collision between art and life. Hollywood, forever fascinated with gangsterism, took on a merciless prison gang that does not enjoy the limelight.

"It may be just a movie, but not to the Mexican Mafia's way of thinking," said Lt. Leo Duarte, who is in charge of monitoring gang activity at Chino state prison, where several scenes were filmed. "This is their world, their environment. If they think you did something disrespectful, even if they're wrong, there's going to be repercussions."

As the film was originally conceived, the Mexican Mafia might even have liked "American Me."

Drafted in the mid-1970s by screenwriter Floyd Mutrux, it was to be a Latino version of "The Godfather" epic--a romantic saga of the honor and corruption of the EME's founding fathers.

Among the Mafia leaders who inspired the script was Rudolfo (Cheyenne) Cadena, a slight man with a fierce sense of pride, whose heart and wit impressed even prison officials. Slain by rival Latino inmates in 1972 while trying to forge a peace pact, he became an instant martyr--a warrior who allowed himself to become a target in the name of cultural unity.

The other legendary EME figure was Joe (Pegleg) Morgan, an Anglo man from East Los Angeles with a mastery of Spanish slang. He first went to prison when he was 16, for murdering the husband of his 30-year-old lover. Now 63 and serving a life sentence for another killing, Morgan is regarded as a wily businessman and the de facto kingpin of the organization.

"Whatever these guys may have become, they joined together out of a need for dignity and respect," said Mutrux, who used Cadena and Morgan as models for the movie's primary characters, who were later named Santana and J.D. "If it wasn't for them--and what they stood for--I wouldn't have written the story."

For 15 years, as it bounced from one studio to another, Mutrux's script was widely regarded as one of the most interesting films never made. Then Olmos, who had kept his eye on the screenplay since his "Miami Vice" days, hit it big in 1988 with an Oscar-nominated performance in "Stand and Deliver" and a portrait on the cover of Time magazine.

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