by Joseph Rodríguez

I see Los Angeles as a post-modern Wild West where everyone has a gun and they use it. It is an uncontrolled and slightly scary place, a land of dreams and beauty, playing by its own rules. My aim in photographing gang life in Los Angeles has been to get to the core of violence in America, not just the physical violence against one another, but the quiet violence of letting families fall apart, the violence of segregation and isolation.

La vida loca, or the crazy life, is what they call the barrio gang experience. This lifestyle originated with the Mexican Pachuco gangs of the 1930s and 1940s whose own style and language in the barrios of America was linked to the urban youth style of major Mexican cities, and was later recreated with the Cholos (a term meaning "low life," appropriated by Chicano barrio youth to describe the style and people associated with local gang make-up). It became the main model and influence for outlaw bikers of the 1950s and 1960s, the L.A. punk/rock scene in the 1970s and 1980s, and the Crips and Bloods of the 1980s and 1990s. As Leon Bing commented in her 1991 book Do or Die (Harper Collins): "It was the cholo homeboy who first walked the walk and talked the talk. It was the Mexican American Pachuco who initiated the emblematic tattoos the signing with hands, the writing legends on the wall."

Although there have been truces among many of the gangs since theriots of 1992, many gang wars still continue. East L.A. has long been a neglected neighborhood with a predominately Mexican population. It has one of the nation's highest drop out rates from schools, youth unemployment hovers around seventy-five percent in the most neglected areas, and teenage pregnancy is at an all time high in this community. There is an aspect of suicide among many of these gang kids (between ten and twenty-one years old) whose options have been cut off-no education, no work, and no opportunities for advancement. They stand on street corners and parks, flashing gang signs, inviting bullets. Its either la torcida (prison) or death: a warrior's path when even self-preservation is not at stake. And if they murder, the victims are usually the ones who look like them, the ones closest to who they are-their mirror reflections. They murder and they're killing themselves, over and over.

Joseph Rodríguez

Joseph Rodríguez can be reached at:

Excerpts from Rodriguez's journals, written while living in Los Angeles, 1992-94

[ We recommend for your comfort, that you save to your computer the following extended essay by Ruben Martinez]

These photographs are published in the book East Side Stories:Gang Life in East L.A., by powerHouse Books, New York, November, 1996. East Side Stories also includes an essay by Rubén Martínez, author of The Other Side: Notes from the New L.A., Mexico City and Beyond (Vintage), and an interview with Luis J. Rodríguez,author of Always Running, La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A. (Touchstone, Simon & Schuster). Contact the publisher for more information at 212-982-3154, or e-mail at