Below is an excerpt from Danny Trejo’s upcoming memoir: Trejo: My Life of Crime, Hollywood, and Redemption, published by Atria Books. He and his co-writer Donal Logue will host a virtual book signing event on June 29, which you can check out here.
In 1991, two Chicano scripts rolled through Hollywood that both centered on the formation and growth of La Eme, the biggest Mexican gang in the California prison system. Since I was a high-profile Chicano who’d done time, both movies reached out to me. They knew my involvement would give them credibility. One was called American Me, directed by and starring Edward James Olmos. The other was Blood In, Blood Out.
When I sat down to read American Me, I was excited. Olmos was just coming off an Oscar-nominated performance in Stand and Deliver, and now he was making a movie about a world I knew intimately. But my initial excitement quickly changed to dismay. Ten pages in, I knew there were going to be problems. In the opening scene, the mother of Montoyo Santana, the character Edward James Olmos plays in the film, is raped by sailors the night of the Zoot Suit Riots, leaving her unsure of who Montoya’s real father is. That was straight-up untrue. I knew it was untrue because Olmos’s character was based on a real guy in the Mexican Mafia named Rodolfo Cadena (aka Cheyenne).
That wasn’t the only problem. About twenty pages later came a shocking scene in which something violent happens to Santana in juvenile hall. Because of what happened later, I won’t mention what it was. The whole thing was a fire started in falsehoods I don’t want to add fuel to. [Ed. note: the character Montoya Santana is sexually assaulted in prison.] The truth is Cheyenne had never been abused in that way and the fact that (in the script) he immediately got revenge on his attacker didn’t matter. I know this sounds harsh, but no person who’d ever been violated in that way could ever rise to the top of a prison gang. They could be killers and bad motherfuckers, but they’d never run a gang. It wouldn’t happen. More importantly, it didn’t happen.
Another big concern I had was that any movie about the Mexican Mafia would have to be okayed by the OGs in prison. Before I signed on to either project, I was definitely going to have to find out what the shot-callers thought about it.
And, finally, somewhere before page thirty in the American Me script, I saw that the writers called the gang La Eme. This is the actual name of the Mexican Mafia, and I had a feeling using it would be a big no-no for Joe Morgan and some of the La Eme bigwigs I’d known since my days in juvie and San Quentin.
I knew just how serious and deadly La Eme was. I’d come up with the
guys, but my uncle Gilbert was the one who really knew the older shot-callers. I was lucky; because Gilbert was so respected in the pen, I got that level of respect passed on to me. When I got to prison, Gilbert cautioned me about joining the Mafia. He said that was a contract for life and we shouldn’t have any part of it, so I stayed away, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t friends
with the guys. Gilbert was good friends with all of them, especially Joe “Peg Leg” Morgan, the current head of the Mexican Mafia.
Even though we weren’t members of a gang, Gilbert and I were classified as “sympathizers,” a designation that wasn’t casual. Ramon “Mundo” Mendoza, a hit man for the Mexican Mafia, later commented on my friendships within the organization. Mundo said, “Danny Trejo is blessed. He was friends with people on both sides of the line, but always got respect.”
I’d done time with these men. They were serious vatos. Their world and their lives were being represented—or, I suspected, misrepresented—in the film, and I couldn’t imagine they’d be happy about it.
Edward James Olmos had arranged a meeting to discuss the script. We were to meet in Jerry’s Famous Deli in Encino. Edward was bringing his agent, and I took my friend Eddie Bunker, a screenwriter who had done time with me. I knew if anyone could suss out truth from bullshit, it would be Bunker. We were sitting in a booth, waiting for them to arrive, when Eddie glanced up and said, “They’re here.”
I turned around and saw Edward in full cholo wear. He was in a County blue shirt buttoned up at the top and flying open on the bottom. He wore County blue pants. The only thing he was missing was a hair net. This was a business meeting. Eddie and I were dressed like casual businessmen.
Edward greeted me with an “Orale, ese, qué onda?” I was confused, obviously not by the greeting but by his appearance. Edward was an actor, a great actor. He’d never been part of a gang, and he’d certainly never done time in prison, but here he was, playing like he was an OG from the streets. I figured he was most likely employing some kind of Method approach to the role he’d be playing in the film.
My father was a verdadero zoot suit gangster from 38th Street, the gang at the center of the controversial Sleepy Lagoon murder case, the focus of the movie Edward starred in called Zoot Suit. My mom was from Ford Maravilla, the same gang that Joe Morgan came up in in the late 30s. I had too many personal connections to the liberties Edward was taking with the story for any of it to sit well with me.
But honestly, my biggest problem probably had as much to do with my insecurities as with what Edward James Olmos was doing. Him dressing up as a cholo made me question whether Edward, an incredible actor, a lifelong devotee to the craft, wanted to bond with me not as a fellow artist but as a gangster of some sort. Did he look at me and see the person I’d been in my past life—a life I’d worked so hard to put in my rearview mirror?
It wasn’t the first time I’d experienced this dynamic. It was something I was overly sensitive about, but I felt like certain Latinos in Hollywood viewed me as a gangster, not a peer. To them, I was a circus curio from the hood, a world they’d certainly recognized, but never inhabited.
The meeting was off to a confusing start.
We ordered sandwiches and matzo ball soup and started talking about the film. Edward got straight to the point and asked if I was interested in working on the project. Eddie Bunker immediately raised one of our chief concerns.
He said, “Edward, did you talk to Joe about this film?” He was referring to Joe Morgan.
Olmos said, “I met with Joe. He gave the okay”
Immediate red flag. As soon as Eddie asked Edward the question, I could sense his demeanor shift. If prison had taught me anything, it taught me when someone was backing up. There seemed to be a hint of deflection and deception in Olmos’s answer. I glanced at Eddie Bunker and saw that he shared my doubt.
I got down to business. “Look, Edward, the problem is there are things in this script that aren’t true.” I told him some of my concerns.
Edward said, “I know, but it makes more theatrical sense for the piece.”
I was hoping he’d say, I know and we’re going to address that, or, We’re going to figure out a way to tell our story without twisting the truths of real people, but he didn’t. He was married to the idea that the fictional arc of the script was more important than letting truth get in the way of a good story. This might be true in the offices of Hollywood producers, but it wasn’t in the world I knew. I couldn’t believe how casual he was about details that were so critical.
Still, I tried to be diplomatic. I liked Edward James Olmos and had deep respect for what he meant as an actor in the Hispanic community. I made a statement couched in a joke. “Edward, the people you’re talking about are not theatrical people.” Eddie Bunker and I shared a dark laugh at that one.
I was full of unanswered questions. The biggest was what the La Eme bigwigs really thought about all of this. All the talk of theatricality and “interesting character arcs” set my mind racing. Hollywood has always told stories of gangsters, some loosely based on their lives, others taken straight from court transcripts, but I had never found myself so squarely in the intersection of fiction and reality.
Looking back, I honestly believe Edward James Olmos’’s utter brilliance and mastery in the world of acting and film blinded him to some degree to the deadly seriousness of prison politics and how much sway it carried on the streets—even if (in a deeply ironic way) it was the central theme of the script he was directing. There’s no poetic license when you’re pissing off the wrong people.
Eddie Bunker leaned in. He said to Olmos, “Edward, are you sure about all this?” He was trying to make Olmos see where this whole thing could go sideways. But Olmos was clearly determined to make this version of the film.
We finished our meal, and I agreed to meet Olmos at his office the next day to continue discussing the project. I was hoping he would sleep on some of the issues we’d raised and rethink some things, but my gut told me he was set on the story he wanted to tell.
The next day I got my answer.
When I stepped in Edward’s office, I found him decked out in cholo wear again. Edward wasn’t the only one who’d slept on the issues we’d covered the day before. After leaving Jerry’s Deli, I struggled to identify what really bothered me so much about his costume. I knew my conflict was deeply rooted in all the time I had spent as part of gangs or in prison. While I appreciated his dedication to portraying a life he didn’t live or even know—that’s what actors do—what bothered me lay in the heart of my own feelings of what being a cholo meant. When you take the dress and the code of a cholo, or a Crip, or a Blood, or a Mexican Mafia member—or an Aryan Brother, for that matter—you become something that is no longer Mexican, or Black, or white. When it comes to gang wear, how you are dressed is not merely a costume, it’s a declaration that you are committed to a life of crime, for which you’re willing to sacrifice the well-being of those around you—moms, dads, wives, sisters, brothers, children.
To me, real Mexicans, whites, and Blacks were the kind of men who worked hard and took their kids to Little League practice when they got home. Perhaps I was overreacting. After all, I was already interested in taking the part of Geronimo in Blood In, Blood Out, another prison gang movie where we’d all be decked out as cholos. But these were the feelings I was feeling, for better or worse. I guess you could also argue that I myself was playing by gang rules in arguing against the liberties Olmos took with the script. But the untruths made me deeply uncomfortable. I’d watched plenty of movies about organized crime, but I never knew the players personally before. And I knew too much to keep my mouth shut. I didn’t want to play the middleman, but I smelled danger.
We left it with me telling Edward I would have to run it by my agent. But one thing I didn’t mention was that right before I went to the meeting, my cousin Sal had called me from LA County. When I picked up the phone, Sal said, “Danny, Joe Morgan wants to call you.” They were both in High Power, a section of LA County for high-profile or especially dangerous prisoners.
Sal sounded concerned. “Are you alright?”
We both knew a phone call from Joe could be ominous.
“I’m good, Sal. How are you?”
“You know how it is. Just facing this case.’
“Just call me if you need anything, okay?”
“Yeah, Joe is going to call you at five p.m. at Bunker’s house.”
I knew what he wanted to talk to me about had to be serious business. By calling me at Eddie’s, it was clear Joe Morgan didn’t want to put a red light on me by calling my house.
“Tell him I’ll be there. Be good.’
“You know it, holmes.”
He hung up. Of course Big Joe knew about the movie and of course he already knew I’d met Edward James Olmos the day before. From his cell in San Quentin, Chino, or LA County, very little went down in the world that Big Joe didn’t know. And this upcoming phone call confirmed my suspicions. Joe wasn’t happy about the film.
Joe Morgan was the son of an Irish American father and a Croatian mother, but he grew up in Mexican neighborhoods. He was as hard as they came. He’d joined the Maravilla gang when he was a kid and quickly rose through the ranks. Joe had lost his leg from a gun blast and got the nickname “Peg Leg.” The loss of his leg didn’t stop him. Joe was still one of the best handball players I’d ever seen. He spoke Spanish perfectly and had an incredible presence. When you got near his cell, the molecules in the air got heavy. Joe only talked to people if they were his best friends or if he wanted them dead. I knew Joe didn’t want me dead, but he wanted something from me.
That afternoon, I headed over to Bunker’s. He’d already put on a pot of coffee. Eddie Bunker made the best coffee in the world. At five p.m. on the button the phone rang. Eddie answered.
“What’s up, Big Joe? You good? Yeah.” He listened for a bit. “Yeah, he’s right here,” and handed me the phone.
I hopped on the line.
“Danny? Que pasé?”
“I’m good, holmes.”
He said, “I hear you’re up for that movie, American Me.”
“I’m up for both of them, Blood In, Blood Out, too.”
He got straight to the point. “Which one are you going to do?”
I said, “C’mon, Joe. I’m going to do Blood In, Blood Out, holmes.”
He was happy. He said, “Good, that’s the cute one!” We both laughed.
Then he said, “La Onda,” stretching out the word. La Onda was the name of the fictional Mexican gang in Blood In, Blood Out. I always laugh thinking about Joe Morgan calling Blood In, Blood Out, a movie about a gang of stone-cold killers, “the cute one.”
“Vacay un chingon de pedo—there’s going to be a lot of problems with that other movie,” Joe added.He talked about Olmos directly. “That baboso is running around saying he met with me in Chino and got my approval. It’s all bullshit. I refused to see him. There’s a lot of bullshit in that script.”
“That’s what I tried to tell Eddie.”
He said, “You know, Danny, you could do that other movie . . ” He was saying he wouldn’t hold it against me if I did American Me.
I said, “No, Joe. I’ve got too much respect.”
“Gracias, holmes. Vatos got enough respect for you that you could get away with it.”
“Thanks, Joe.’ Then I asked him, “Hey, Joe, what about the crew and the other actors?”
He laid any concerns I had to rest. “The crew and the actors are just workers, holmes. They’re just getting a paycheck.”
That was a load off my mind. I knew many of the actors involved in American Me and didn’t want them to have any trouble. Joe said, “Be good, Danny. Good checking in with you,” and hung up.
The crazy thing is that Blood In, Blood Out was a movie that covered many of the same themes as American Me—racial politics in prison, murder, betrayal. The difference was that Blood In, Blood Out was a piece of fiction. It never tried to present itself as the real story of the Mexican Mafia.
Months later, when we were up in San Quentin shooting Blood In, Blood Out, I heard that American Me was running into problems in Folsom. In fact, someone from Production reached out to me to offer me a job if I would go to serve as a “consultant” on American Me for two days. My suspicion was they needed diplomatic clout to help them. But I didn’t want any part of it.
I had no idea just how bad things were going to get. The word on the street was at least eight people died because of their involvement in American Me, maybe ten. Four outside and four to six inside. One of the guys murdered was a Mexican Mafia member named Charlie Manriquez who had fallen into disrepute because of his drug use. He was given a pair of Levi’s, some tennis shoes, and money to buy weed to be an extra in a scene and act as an unofficial “technical advisor” before being gunned down in Ramona Gardens.
Another guy was shot seven times just for being in the deep background of a scene where he sits in a car. A community gang liaison named Ana Lizarraga, the top consultant on American Me, was executed outside her home in front of her son. Besides being warned about not getting involved in the project, like Olmos, Lizarraga falsely claimed that she, too, had met
with Joe Morgan and gotten his approval. Olmos was like a kid playing with a grenade, thinking the whole time it was a sparkler. The violent aftershocks rumbled for years. Southern vatos I knew, who were in prison in the years that followed, hated the fact hits were out on Surefios who’d been involved in the production. A lot of these men were simply drug addicts who needed money for a fix when they agreed to be extras or do bit parts in the film.
It’s a horrible chapter made worse because it was all so avoidable. The average viewer or film critic wouldn’t even know the difference between American Me and Blood In, Blood Out. I do not condone the violence. But even if it’s wrong, it’s irresponsible to pretend there might not be repercussions.
The American Me saga brought my past life as a convict front and center. However far I’d come from the fire didn’t mean it wasn’t still hot. Edward James Olmos had just come off an Oscar nomination; his star was in the ascendant. I think that might have blinded him to what otherwise might have been more obvious. Those of us who had done serious time on the streets and in prisons knew threats from prominent gangs could and should never be dismissed, but not everyone has that background. Producers and Hollywood don’t always necessarily understand the nature of the people they are representing. I will never discount the contribution Edward James Olmos has made to Hollywood and his constant advocacy for Latinos, but the whole episode was, in my view, unnecessarily reckless. If Edward James Olmos had studied Cheyenne a little more, maybe he could have told a deeper story while still not glorifying violence and crime.
That might be my biggest problem with American Me. While the producers said they wanted the film to encourage kids not to follow that path, the movie made a California prison gang known only to prison insiders into an entity with worldwide fame. Ramon “Mundo” Mendoza later spoke about the recruiting power the film American Me had on Chicano youth. He said American Me “elevated the public awareness of an organization that was becoming more than just a prison gang.” And he added that this was something that was “not lost on the impressionable, aspiring gang members who now viewed joining the Eme in the same light that a kid from the other side of the tracks would aspire to join our country’s armed forces.”
This story isn’t new. It’s well documented that there was no shortage of voices cautioning Olmos, finding contradictions in things he’d said, or expressing dismay at the final product, including police officers hired on the film and an associate warden hired as a consultant. But he couldn’t hear it from anyone. The train had left the station, and I’d said all I could say.
The first few weeks on Blood In, Blood Out were spent in Los Angeles rehearsing and doing wardrobe fittings. While I was comfortable with the script, I found myself still walking the line between my two worlds—my past as a convicted felon and my new vocation as an actor. Maybe because of my conversations with Olmos, I was feeling sensitive to the differences between my background and the way I became involved in the film industry. I know this was more my issue than theirs, but it seemed to me that the other actors in Blood In, Blood Out spent a lot of time in rehearsal talking about where they had studied, what school of acting they came from—Stanislavski, the Method, the Actors Studio, whatever. They talked a lot about Shakespeare. I think they were doing it with each other to establish who had more cred in that world and to remind me that, in their world, I had no cred.
I talked about it with my friend George. I’d gotten him a job doing extra work on the film so he was in heaven. He joked that I was the greatest agent in the world. I said the actors were talking about Shakespeare all the time in rehearsal because they knew that wasn’t my scene. He told me not to take it personally, that it was simply the language of their court, and who better to play a prisoner in San Quentin than me, a man who’d been through it?
When it was finally time to start rolling film on Blood In, Blood Out, the whole production moved to San Francisco. Taking the van to San Quentin brought me emotionally back to where I was in 1965, more than twenty-five years earlier. We parked outside the prison’s walls and George turned to me and said, “Danny, one of the actors is packing a knife.”
It was true. I said, “Give me that knife.”
The man said, “I’m not going to let one of those motherfuckers disrespect me!”
He was like a fish who protested too much when told to strip and spread ‘em. I said, “Listen, we’re actors, they’re killers. Give me the fucking knife.’
I handed George the knife and he stashed it under a seat in the van.
When we stepped onto the Yard, everything was quiet at first until a massive noise erupted. If you’ve never heard it before, it’s the most intimidating sound in the world. It’s the sound of three thousand prisoners screaming and banging. I call it “The Motor.” Inmates were yelling my name and things like, “Hey, Trejo, we told you you’d be back! Danny, move into my cell! You look better now!”
The effect on my fellow actors was obvious. They fell into step behind me as if by staying close, they’d be safe. George whispered in my ear, “Ask them where’s Shakespeare now, motherfuckers!”
Even with their trepidation, the actors didn’t fully understand the dangers in prison. Right off the bat, we were all handed safety vests to wear when we weren’t filming. Some actors refused to wear them—they said it disrupted their ability to stay in character.
Taylor Hackford, the director, asked me to explain why the vests were necessary.
I said, “If anything happens, the guards will know who not to shoot.”
Everyone put on their vests.
Being back at San Quentin was heavy enough, but it didn’t fully hit me until filming moved to the South Block. We were climbing the stairs to the set and with every step, my heart pounded harder. At the top of the steps we hung a right, and the assistant director led us to the block of cells where we were going to rehearse. The production had the cells C545 to C550 blocked off for filming. C550. My former cell. I glanced at George. He looked like he was going to cry. He pointed to the heavens.
After rehearsing the scene, when the actors broke off for wardrobe and hair and makeup, George suggested we pray. We went into my old cell and got down on our knees and thanked God for our freedom from drugs and alcohol, our freedom from prisons, and we thanked Him for our kids and our lives. I’d come full circle.
Copyright © 2021 by Danny Trejo. From the forthcoming book TREJO by Danny Trejo with Donal Logue, to be published by Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed by permission.