American Me, Explained

Edward James Olmos’ crime drama ‘American Me’ reminds one of ‘The Godfather‘ in its visceral portrayal of the partially true accounts of the foundation and consolidation of power of the Mexican Mafia on American soil. Blending poetic sensibility with erratic violence, the epic-scale narrative depicts the life of juvenile delinquent Montoya Santana as he grows up to gain prominence in the criminal underworld of racially segregated America.

Olmos himself plays the larger-than-life figure of Santana, and through his eyes, the underlying disturbances within the Mexican American neighborhoods come out in the open. Brilliantly shot and scripted, the ending of the underrated film endows tragic grandeur to Santana’s character as he comes of age later in the day. If you are left looking for reasons behind the tragic fate of Santana, we may be able to illustrate the ending for you. SPOILERS AHEAD.

American Me Plot Synopsis

The film begins with Montoya Santana going into jail. In flashbacks, we see his Mexican roots and his journey of becoming a notorious drug mafia. Santana remembers his beauteous mother, Esperanza, one of the Zoot Suiters. Post-war America was torn apart by racial violence. In the aftermath of WWII, Zoot Suiters allegedly caused riots in upstate Los Angeles. In retaliation, a hate group of white sailors attacks Esperanza and her gang. Santana’s to-be father Pedro is beaten on the street, and his mother is raped. Santana grows up to be a troublemaker.

At the age of 18, he and his amigos J. D. and Mundo form a gang and go on little misadventures. While evading another street gang, they break into someone’s house. J. D. is shot by the house owner while Santana and Mundo are sent to juvenile jail. Santana is raped by another inmate, but then he stabs the rapist and earns respect among the prisoners. J. D. turns up in the prison a year later, and the old friendship is revived. For the murder, Santana earns himself a place in the Folsom State Prison.

Infamous gangs such as the Aryan Brotherhood and the Black Guerrilla Family vie for dominance in the prison territory, but soon, the charismatic figure of Santana gains the trust of the fellow Chicanos. Santana’s gang La Eme gains prominence in the underworld behind bars. La Eme smuggles drugs and other illegal items into the prison through their established networks on the outside. When a drug package is stolen by one of the inmates, La Eme gets in direct conflict with the Black Guerrilla Family as they kill off the drug thief.

The rivalry gets bitter and more people get killed in a domino effect set off by Santana himself. The Chicanos kill one of their own, Pie Face. A new member, Little Puppet, is ordered to kill a Black Guerrilla leader, and he does the job with some difficulty. Things change rapidly for Santana. J. D. completes his sentence, and Santana gets to know from his brother Paulito about the death of his mother.

After being released from prison, Santana finds it difficult to adjust to the outer world. J. D. wants to extend the gang’s influence in East L. A., and they visit the Italian mafia boss, Mr. Scagnelli, to offer protection for his son against control over the drug trade routes. Scagnelli is not interested, and in jail, La Eme members rape his son.

Scagnelli intentionally ODs teenagers in the barrio. In the meantime, Santana meets single mother Julie, and sparks of interest erupt between them. Santana reflects upon his violent ways and has a change of heart. But the world is a cruel and ironic place, and Santana gets sent back to prison for possession of drugs. In jail, he is stabbed by his childhood friend Mundo.

American Me Ending: Why Do They Kill Santana?

In the final scene of the film, Santana gets stabbed by his old amigo Mundo and is thrown off the rails. As the epic saga of the larger-than-life, tragic hero comes to an end, we are left to reflect upon the series of incidents that led to Santana’s death. It seems that Santana is slaughtered due to his realization that power always does not lead to revolution.

By the end of the film, he has come a long way from being the naïve teenager who was hungry for power and respect. As he is made to reflect upon his past by his newfound love interest Julie, he realizes the futility of the violence orchestrated by him and his gang. On the eve of Little Puppet’s marriage, he regrets to J. D. about the shooting spree in Compton, noting that the violence “came out as racial.” To this, J. D. remarks that Santana has fallen soft with age.

He even suspects that Julia is behind Santana’s change of mind, which is actually partially true. Other than that, he comes to realize that the drugs on the street are ruining the lives of children in the barrio. But ironically, Santana is caught for possession of drugs by the police and is sent back to prison just when he starts to refigure his life. He is confronted by Mundo and other gang members.

Mundo says that Santana has too much heart before stabbing him to death. Previously, Santana set a precedent by getting Pie Face killed, and his fellow gang mates follow his footsteps to kill him to maintain their integrity. Santana suffers from hubris throughout the film, and the final reversal of fortune ascends his character to tragic significance while revealing inherent flaws in the brotherhood.

Why is Santana Sentenced for the Second Time? Why is Little Puppet Killed?

On the eve of Little Puppet’s marriage, a gang member gives him two little balls which seem to contain drugs. Little Puppet gets excessively drunk and talks trash about the gang. Previously, while on the mission to kill the Black Guerrilla leader, Little Puppet’s palm got injured, virtually ending his aspirations of becoming a tattoo artist, and he evidently conceals hatred for the gang. The old Santana would get him killed on the spot, but Santana has come to recognize his own tragic flaws. Now, as he takes a miserably drunk Little Puppet home, a scornful Julia accompanies him.

Little Puppet leaves his coat on a bench and goes to wash his face. In the meantime, Julia divulges to Santana that Santana is nothing but a pathetic “dope dealer,” to which Santana shows no anger. A patrolling police car sees them in the middle of the fight and connects Santana to the drugs they find in Little Puppet’s coat. Santana gets sentenced, and he gives his word to Puppet that his brother will not be harmed by anyone.

But the gang has spread its branches beyond Santana, and the members pressure Puppet to kill his brother, telling him that if he doesn’t, somebody else will kill him. When Puppet comes out of prison, Little Puppet comes to receive him. Afraid for his own life, Puppet kills Little Puppet on their way back. It seems that Little Puppet was killed not because he is responsible for the imprisonment of Santana but because he was badmouthing the gang.

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