GANSTAS

Oh, how I hate their stupid sign language, occult and crooked palmings, finger-Chinese. I hate their Puritan black. Their fat heads shaved like Roundheads in the age of Cromwell--the penitentiary look--not Cavalier. I hate their singlets. I hate their tattoos, sentimental prick-roses. I hate their jargon. I hate their bandannas. I hate rap.

Anyway, there I was at my sissy gym the other day--read the Wall Street Journal, lose a few pounds on the StairMaster--and what do you think accompanied me through the canyons of Wall Street, but insidious black, male, heterosexual rap. There it was--the music of thump--blasting through the blond pagan house of abs and pecs.

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I hate the rhymed-dictate. Rap dictates not thought but rhyme, encourages rhythmic sloganing and jingle--monotony posing as song, attitude posing as thought.

Is there a more complicated love affair going on in America? We know for a fact, those of us who read the Wall Street Journal, that white middle-class children buy more rap than black children. We don't know why. Or we say we don't.

Forget the sociological abstraction! The other day, I was looking through some snapshots of my niece and nephew that my sister had left on the drainboard. Snow. Tent. Skis. Birthday party. Clowns. Balloons. And then this: the nine-year-old boy and the six-year-old girl are posing in the backyard of their suburban house as gangstas. The boy with a bandanna on his head, a mustache and goatee painted on. The girl with a T-shirt and dangling earrings. They were both signing with their fingers. They had dead eyes.

My initial reaction was amusement at their charade. Even pride. They got it so right. MTV, I guess. But to what reality are my niece and nephew drawn?

We adults do most heartily deplore what is happening in the "inner city." Those of us who live elsewhere are shocked by the mayhem--little pops and flares in the night and answering sirens, far away. We deplore all of it. And when something hideous happens, which it does, in the morning paper or on the news, then we mutter something, a thought--not a thought--a blank bubble, like an unmarked van, passes through our consciousness and its freight is obscene loathing we dare not enunciate: ANIMALS. SCUM.

The commercial on the eleven o'clock news is a rap for cola, with black children in black, mouthing a mindless jingle which celebrates the elixir. And the eleven o'clock news, which leads with an "Animals on the Loose" story, ends with five minutes of contract mayhem--pro football and ice hockey fights and baseball teams in Baltimore or basketball players in Boston duking it out before cheering fans.

I went to a fancy benefit for some Mexican-American charity. The entertainment, alternating with the sentimental mariachis, included several famous comics and actors doing "street stuff"--Edward James Olmos, for example, did his famous pachuco bit, the slouch, hands in his pocket, the head cocked back, the legs far out in front. HEY MANNNNN, WHA'S HAPPENIIIIING? The standard black jargon with an East L.A. whine. Like, "no steenkin' badges, mannnnn."

What I like best about Joe Rodriguez's photographs is that they are devoid of middle-class nostalgie de la boue. Still, part of the turn-on of these photos is that we can stare without fear of being killed. None of us should stare at such faces in real life.

They get on the bus in their Raiders jackets, their ears plugged with huge brainstorms of rap--that's what they hear; we hear a tiny, metallic tish, tish, tish leaking from their earphones--they board the city bus in groups, talk loud, for they are giants, pirates . . .

It would be a smart idea not to look at them--no, I mean it--these are children, but they are children with machetes and guns and no point of ref-france, so betta show me def-france, or you are outta breff, once I blow your brains to hell.

Keep your eyes to yourself. Read your paperback. Read your magazine. Do not make eye contact. They are children so wary of any "dis" they might "smoke" you for staring.

Stare instead at Joe Rodriguez's photos, the Mexican-American chapter of youthful offenders. Examine their four-block piece of L.A. Look at the neat houses of some of them, not exactly lead-peeling, stinkin' tenements in Spanish Harlem. East L.A. is not Spanish Harlem. And L.A., like Miami, has a better climate for child murder than New York or Chicago. On a sweetly scented January night one can hang out, throw rocks at buses or at the cars on the freeway.

Some of these children are good-looking, some not. (They seem, in either case, unaware of the difference.) They look more American than Mexican to my eye, with an American irony on their faces, especially the child-women who look like they are made up for Elektra.

Clearly, Joe Rodriguez has put in his time with these children. What his camera does not explain is why they look so dead to conscience. Mother Church had always told us that the "age of reason" begins around the age of seven, well before hormones sprout domes. Is it that they know we are watching? Gangsta life reduces to an attitude, a pose. These children appear prisoners of street theater, even when they are in the family kitchen. Only one, the child staring into the Los Angeles night sky, has an expression to which a caption of "wonder" might fit.

As actors, they seem only to exist in the plural. Dress the same. Spell identically with their fingers. They shave each others' heads and watch each others' backs. The gang regards the greatest sinner to be the member who wants out.

These children of East L.A. puzzle us for being so intensely communal. We Americans honor the idea of the youthful rebel. We have taken our meaning from the notion of adolescent rebellion. (James Dean rebels against the mad British king.) Huck Finn is the nineteenth century's romantic hero, free of the schoolmarm, free of his drunk pappy, free as a runaway slave on a raft.

If within the neighborhood the lost-boy brotherhood is the only society going, outside--in the city of adults--the child appears solitary, defiant. It is in this defiance the child is most interesting to the city. The rapster becomes Huck Finn. The stance, the dress, the music of this outsider exercise erotic appeal.

In the fall 1993 issue of Esquire Gentleman, a magazine of no distinction or exception, there is an article by Mark Leyner called "Gangsta Allure." ("What becomes a man most? Evil, of course. Smug, sinister dudes get all the hot action. Here's how to look like a real Reservoir Dog.") In Paris recently, at a show of Jean Colonna's "outlaw chic," the models fired blank cartridges at the photographers at the foot of the runway.

Bang! The theatrical turns real and then we of the audience are horrified. Look, my God, look, the baby in his tiny coffin, draped with gauze.

MONSTERS! ANIMALS!

On the other side of the fascination with the rebel is this high moral distancing. Consign the gangsta to subhumanity. But when this child falls, he leaks blood. They are not monsters, after all.

If, as God's silence to Job suggests, there is something inexplicable about evil--either the evil the night commits against us or the evil we inflict on each other--there is also less mystery to the cruelty in East Los Angeles than we otherwise pretend.

Is it so inexplicable that a child never embraced might be seduced by the cult of power? An Oakland cop says to me: "Have you ever been in a physical fight? It may be the only moment in your life when you can control the outcome."

These photographs do not tell us about crack mothers or schools that don't work or pappy dead or in prison. Documentary without a hint of narrative comes dangerously close to the vision Diane Arbus saw in her madness. Children appear grotesques. Spawn of some hideous neighborhood (not ours) without trees or sun or air. A land of roaches and rats and unnatural mothers.

No man is an island entire of itself. Didn't we learn that in high school? There is no possibility of a healthy suburb radiant from a corrupt inner city. The children of East L.A. live in the same city as Madonna and Tom Bradley and Harvard-educated screenwriters who use coke for inspiration to sell a believably tarnished vision of the world to the children of the crack mother in Compton. In this Los Angeles an Austrian muscle man becomes kin to the Kennedys, and a movie mogul who kills with dead eyes.

And look: there is always a TV in the houses of East L.A. And it's always on. In the suburbs we use TV to watch the mayhem of the inner city. But on the TV in the inner city, they watch us. The bejeweled pimp in his gold BMW parodies the Beverly Hills matron on Rodeo Drive. The baby with the gun in his chubby fist is spiritual heir to John Wayne and his feminist cowgirl wife Annie Oakley, and to the country that was settled with guns in the cowboy movies, and in truth.

The political left used to speak of "community" when Americans were more interested in the separation of the rich from the poor. But lately the left has gotten involved with the self-actualization movement, a most American movement for being so centered on the individual. Now the talk is all about my right to do my own thing with my own body and it's nobody's business if I do. The right responds with a nostalgic creak about "family values," as though this country was ever a place of family values, and not a country where healthy families prepared their children to leave home.

We are people who believe in the first-person singular pronoun--which is our strength. But our weakness is that we don't comprehend our lives in common, the ways we create one another in the American city. As Americans we have always feared the city; with Huck we have always wanted to escape. Thus do we look at the faces of East L.A.: we consign the children to some remote kingdom of THEM.

Thirty years ago, I grew up listening to the black Protestant hymns of the civil rights movement. In the 1960s, black America was perceived by most Americans as the moral authority of this nation. Today we are to believe that the inner city is so bereft of moral life that children must be taken out of town--taken where? To moral Walnut Creek? Moral Evanston?

Even black intellectuals and smart filmmakers propose that what is needed is to get the children out of the city. It is a romantic notion that has survived into our century. Transport street children, get them away from concrete and broken glass and piss smell, expose them to a redemptive green world. This notion credits to trees powers that we used to assign to the soul. And it assumes that what is needed to heal the children of East L.A. is something leafy rather than the human touch.

We do not believe in souls. We believe in pecs and abs. We do not believe in the city. We believe in nightmares and monsters. Finally, these photographs do not embarrass us, though they should. Looking at these faces, we never guess why we use the music of violence to build up our skinny arms.

Richard Rodriguez, an editor at Pacific News Service, is the author of Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father (Viking Books, 1992).