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To Alcatraz, Death Row, and Back

[ Biography/Memoir ]

To Alcatraz, Death Row, and Back

Memories of an East LA Outlaw

By Ernie López and Rafael Pérez-Torres

A graphic, insider’s account of doing time in Alcatraz and on death row in San Quentin.

2005

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Paperback

6 x 9 | 246 pp. | 8 b&w photos

ISBN: 978-0-292-70683-5

When Ernie López was a boy selling newspapers in Depression-era Los Angeles, his father beat him when he failed to bring home the expected eighty to ninety cents a day. When the beatings became unbearable, he took to petty stealing to make up the difference. As his thefts succeeded, Ernie's sense of necessity got tangled up with ambition and adventure. At thirteen, a joyride in a stolen car led to a sentence in California's harshest juvenile reformatory. The system's failure to show any mercy soon propelled López into a cycle of crime and incarceration that resulted in his spending decades in some of America's most notorious prisons, including four and a half years on death row for a murder López insists he did not commit.

To Alcatraz, Death Row, and Back is the personal life story of a man who refused to be broken by either an abusive father or an equally abusive criminal justice system. While López freely admits that "I've been no angel," his insider's account of daily life in Alcatraz and San Quentin graphically reveals the violence, arbitrary infliction of excessive punishment, and unending monotony that give rise to gang cultures within the prisons and practically insure that parolees will commit far worse crimes when they return to the streets. Rafael Pérez-Torres discusses how Ernie López's experiences typify the harsher treatment that ethnic and minority suspects often receive in the American criminal justice system, as well as how they reveal the indomitable resilience of Chicanos/as and their culture. As Pérez-Torres concludes, "López's story presents us with the voice of one who—though subjected to a system meant to destroy his soul—not only endured but survived, and in surviving prevailed."

  • Introduction
  • Part I: Education
    • One. The Judgment against Me
    • Two. My Formal Education
    • Three. The Federal Case
    • Four. Escape
    • Five. Freeman's Revenge
    • Six. Returned and Resentenced
  • Part II: Training
    • Seven. The Welcome Wagon
    • Eight. Isolation
    • Nine. Escape from Alcatraz
    • Ten. The "Riot" of '46
    • Eleven. "What About the Plum Juice?"
    • Twelve. My Life as a Free Man
  • Part III: Survival
    • Thirteen. Haunted by Alcatraz
    • Fourteen. Judgment Once More
    • Fifteen. Condemned
    • Sixteen. My Fight for Life
  • Epilogue
  • Afterword
  • Works Cited

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The story you are about to read reflects a world where crime follows punishment and persecution shades into injustice. The life that Ernie López has led seems like a cross between a Dickens novel and a potboiler. But the events recounted here are real.

Born into poverty in East Los Angeles, a young boy finds himself committing petty crimes because he fears the abuse of his father. Subject to harsh beatings if he doesn't bring home money to contribute to the family's expenses, the boy learns to survive as best he can through petty criminal activity. As his misdeeds escalate, he gets committed to a brutal youth camp after a harmless joy ride through the streets of Los Angeles. His criminal involvement leads ultimately to incarceration in three infamous prisons: McNeil Island, Alcatraz, and San Quentin. Though dramatic and powerful, the events told here are conveyed as accurately as possible. These events, related during hours of interviews, form the basis of this first-person narrative in which I have attempted to convey in writing the flavor and tenor of Ernie's vivid stories.

Why read the story of a man who has spent the majority of his life in prison? What significance is there to the life of a career criminal? My own involvement in the writing of this book is due entirely to the sense of humanity that fills the story. After years of brutal incarceration, Ernie conveys a strong sense of humor, a firm code of his own ethics, and a burning sense of defiance. The U.S. prison system is designed to break men of their will. Ernie has refused to succumb. Though one might not envy or approve of Ernie's choices in life, there is much to learn from his example about self-reliance and fortitude in times of adversity and suffering.

The grace, irony, and humor Ernie demonstrates are somewhat characteristic of Chicano culture. The stories Ernie tells reflect the wry, often understated humor that marks one way Chicanos express themselves. A kind of gallows humor proves useful when approaching the inevitable trials and setbacks that life deals. So while Ernie's story is interesting because it offers an insider's picture of Alcatraz and San Quentin, it also shares qualities found in other aspects of Chicano culture and storytelling. Ernie's history is one of struggle and survival, of endurance and triumph. The philosopher Walter Benjamin says that the history of the underclass is a story of suffering and defeat told with "courage, humor, cunning, and fortitude," those qualities that bring to our lives refinement and spirituality (254-255). An attentive reader may find these qualities evident in this story.

The events recounted here are ones few of us are likely to have shared. While it is, unfortunately, becoming more and more common for people in the United States—especially among its racially and ethnically subordinate populations—to experience incarceration, few men have endured the kind of inhumane treatment meted out to Ernie López. Fewer still have responded with such burning ambition and fiery defiance. Finally, few have survived with their integrity and humanity intact. Ernie has. As these pages will reveal, at every turn possible Ernie sought to beat a system of justice and punishment that seemed out to destroy him. No matter how one may feel about the things he has done, his survival is a testament to the will and the power, both light and dark, of the human spirit.

I suppose my childhood was very much the same as that of any other kid who was born and raised in East LA, particularly during the Depression years before World War II. I was born April 5, 1922, the fourth boy and seventh child. Everyone I came to know in East LA had the same things in common: we were all poor, from large families, and doing everything we could to survive. By the time my two younger sisters came along, I had five sisters and three brothers as well as my mother, Dolores, and father, Jesús. Eleven of us had to be fed and clothed. Store-bought children's toys were an unheard of luxury and—starting at the age of seven—my after school hours were spent on a street corner selling newspapers. This was the beginning of the Great Depression, and often people just didn't have enough change to buy a paper, and many times I would walk along and coax or badger pedestrians to buy a paper so I could sell out my stack. This was one step away from outright begging, which I couldn't bring myself to do.

Often I would start selling newspapers at 2 in the afternoon and wouldn't come home until 8 or 9 p.m. because sales on my corner went so slowly. Saturday and Sunday were even longer days. There were times when I just couldn't sell papers to anybody, and on days like that I felt I had to do something to come home with some money. My father would accuse me of sloughing off if I didn't sell out the entire stack, which meant on a very good day bringing home eighty or ninety cents. Usually I brought home less, on average fifty or sixty cents, and my father would accuse me of having gambled the money away. The reality was I simply had had a slow day selling papers. I couldn't explain to him that people just didn't want to buy papers. So when I had bad days I would make up for it by stealing whatever I could get my hands on.

I really wanted to please my father, but I found I rarely moved him, no matter what I did. He never knew how many times I stole money to make him think that I had sold all my papers. I hated selling papers. On those occasions that I was able to steal enough, I relished tearing up my stack and stuffing them in the sewer gutters.

Whenever I failed to live up to his expectations, my father was quick to give me the strap. So I found it easy to steal when I had to because I had such a strong desire to please him and avoid his punishment. By contrast, my mother was as loving and tender as my father was strict and unfeeling. She could see how hard I was trying and would attempt to make my father understand, but though she tried to defend me, she never argued with him. He was sole master of the castle.

***

I spent hour after hour standing on my street corner selling newspapers. There were times I would leave my corner to deliver a paper to a regular customer. One was an old man who had a little store a short way down the block from where I peddled my papers. He sold cigarettes, cigars, gum, all sorts of little things. The store was so small that the man didn't even have a cash register, just a little drawer where he kept his money, which was usually just change anyway. He had a little bell attached to the inside of the door that rang when a customer came in.

Every once in a while, the old man would come shuffling out of his little store holding his hands behind his back, looking at the window displays of other stores. When he did shuffle out, he would slowly make his way to my corner to buy a newspaper from me. He usually came around noon when the intersection at the street corner was busy with traffic and people walking to go home or some small diner for lunch. But there were other times that I would walk down to his store to sell him a newspaper, which is why I knew about the little bell inside his door. When I would take him the paper, he would pull open the drawer of change and pay me.

Another one of my regular customers worked at a hardware store about a block away from my corner. Every afternoon I would deliver a newspaper to him at the hardware store. When I went to go make my delivery, I would stack all my newspapers against the side of the corner drugstore building next to where I sold papers. Sometimes while I was gone people getting off from the yellow streetcar would take a paper and drop their money on top of the stack.

One early afternoon I had gone on a delivery and left some money on top of the stack as usual so people would know to leave their change when they took a paper. Returning from the delivery I found all the money on the stack and almost all my newspapers gone! Right away I suspected that some of the kids who used to hang around the corner shining shoes were the culprits. Everyday I would see them come and go with their shoeshine boxes strapped to their backs, calling out to passersby if they wanted a shine. They used to charge five cents to shine a customer's shoes. Like me, these were poor kids from the neighborhood, hustling for what little money they could earn. But now they had gone and taken all the money I had earned that day.

Though it was still early, I had nothing to show for all my hard work, and I even owed the newspaper boss money for the papers that had been stolen. Since I didn't have enough money to pay off the boss, let alone have any left over to take home, I figured I was going to be beaten but good.

In desperation, I decided to steal some money from the old man's store down the block. I waited until he came out from his little store, tottering very slowly as he always did toward the corner. With my newspaper apron on and a couple of papers tucked under my arm, I crossed the street very quickly, trying my best not to act suspicious. I walked across the street from the old man heading in the opposite direction, passed the man's storefront, crossed the street as casually as possible and made my way back to his little store.

Very slowly I pulled the door open, making certain that the little bell didn't make any sound. I went directly to his money drawer and quickly stuffed as much money as I could into my apron pockets. My heart pounding, I rushed back to the door and peeked out to see how far the old man had walked. He was just halfway to the corner. Mindful that the old man couldn't see me, I came out of the store with my newspapers under my arm, looking around to make sure that nobody else was eyeing me. I crossed the street again, scurried back to the end of the street, and casually crossed to my own corner. With his slow shuffle, the old man hadn't even reached my corner yet. As I tried to look as nonchalant as possible, the man finally came up to me, bought a paper and turned back to his store just like normal.

***

As soon as I could, I counted out the change I had scooped from the drawer. It was the most money I had ever seen. There might have been about $35 or $40, which was a good amount of money for those days, especially for a little boy. I felt pretty clever for just having grabbed the money, sneaking out, and getting back to selling my papers before the old man even turned around.

Well, now I had a new problem: I didn't know what to do with all that money! My best friend at the time was Alberto Silva, whose father owned a butcher shop on the corner of First and Rowan where I sold papers. His father was just like my father when it came to using the strap freely, so he understood the kind of torment I went through at home. I told Alberto about stealing the money, even offering him some of it, though he wouldn't take it. We put our heads together to figure out what was best to do next.

"I want to give my father some of it," I told him.

"Oh, no, Ernie," he said. "Don't do that. Hide it somewhere where nobody knows about it. Everyday, give him a little of the money and that way you won't get in trouble."

This seemed like a smart plan, so every day I'd take a bit of money from my stash and bring home eighty or ninety cents.

On these days, my father would look down at me and say, "Hmm, ahora se portó bien"—today you behaved well. I would just nod, and accept the compliment I was so hungry to hear.

"Vaya a comer. Tu mamá tiene algo pa' ti." So off I would go to my mother and get something to eat, happy that my father was treating me so much better.

The next day I would do the same thing, and the day after again. Between using the money to fool my father and buying small treats for myself, the day finally came when I ran out of money. I had little by little used up everything I had hidden. Then the same old pattern started up again when I brought home less than the full amount he wanted. He accused me of keeping the money for myself or gambling it away, and he took to whipping me every night.

Given the circumstances, I had to come up with another plan.

Down the block from First and Rowan, about halfway down from my corner and only two doors away from the old man's store, was a little restaurant called Joe's Hot Dog Joint. Behind the counter there was a wall with an open window for clean dishes to be passed through once they were washed. In that window, Joe kept a big tip jar full of quarters and nickels. The bathroom for Joe's was out behind the restaurant in a little driveway that came to a dead end. It was always locked up tight with a padlock, and anybody who wanted to use the toilet had to ask Joe for the key.

The bathroom had an old fashioned toilet, the kind with the water box above the toilet. You had to pull a long chain that hung from the box whenever you wanted to flush. Above the water box was a rusted screen that was so old it was corroded and disintegrating. The screen connected the bathroom to the back storage of Joe's restaurant, a small dusty room that was practically empty and always dark.

Joe's stayed opened until late at night, and one evening I made my way to his restaurant. With the little money I had, I ordered myself a hot dog. I asked Joe for the key to the bathroom, as I had done many times. But instead of relocking the door, I left the padlock open, went back to the counter, and returned the key to Joe.

Later that evening when it was good and dark I returned to the unlocked bathroom. Once in, I climbed on top of the toilet and started to work the decomposing wire screen back and forth. I could hear the late-night crowd ordering their food and chattering noisily just on the other side of the storage room. I managed to push a hole in the screen large enough for me to climb through, and I carefully lowered myself into Joe's back storage room.

My plan was to make my way slowly from the storage room to the front where the clean dishes were piled in stacks next to the tip jar. With any luck, the dishwasher would be out collecting dirty dishes and Joe would be busy with the bustling crowd. It was dark in the back, and with all the people eating in front, the little restaurant was pretty noisy. I was going to reach around through the window and grab the large jar, slowly creep out through the storage room, pull myself up with my loot into the bathroom, and snap the padlock shut as I left. Unfortunately, things didn't exactly work out as I had planned.

Just as I was about to jump down into the storage room, I unintentionally made a loud noise. Joe started hollering, "Who's back there? Who's back there?"

I got scared and leaped back into the bathroom. As I was doing that, the money I held in my newspaper apron fell out and scattered on the floor. I stumbled and hit my head on the wall, cutting myself just above my eye.

I managed to hightail it out of the bathroom before Joe came running down the alley, but now I had less money than when I started! It was already 7:30 at night and I would have to go home empty-handed. I was tired, bleeding, and dispirited. Instead of walking directly home down First to Indiana, the way I always went, I turned left on Townsend Street toward Third. As soon as I made the turn on Townsend where it was dark, I started crying.

Just then I noticed an old lady walking toward me—well, at least I thought she was old. She must have been about twenty years old, and she was actually very pretty. I wish now I had been about ten years older. In any case, she was walking along with her husband and stopped when she heard me crying.

"What's the matter kid? Is something wrong?"

I don't know why, but I said, "I got robbed. They robbed me right over there by the house on the corner with the hedges."

The lady knew me from sight and told her husband, "This is the kid that sells papers over by First and Rowan." She bent down to comfort me and told her husband over her shoulder, "Call the police."

The poor guy had to go house to house until he could find somebody who had a phone, a utility not so common in East LA back then. I think he went to about three houses before he found one with a phone. The whole time, the woman held on to me, hugging me, trying to console me.

Pretty soon a squad car came around with its spotlight shining on all the yards of the houses. They finally got to where we were standing, and two cops with uniforms and badges and flashlights got out of the squad car. I had never seen a policeman like that in my life. One came over and the woman started explaining that I was walking home from selling papers when some kids behind the hedges jumped me, hit me, and took my money. That explained the cut I had over my eye.

The cop said, "Sounds like they were waiting for him." Then he turned to me, "Do you come this way every day?"

"Well, not often. But I do come through here sometimes."

"Yeah, they were waiting for you," the cop said with finality. "Don't worry, we'll catch 'em!"

He offered to take me home, and the lady insisted that she accompany me. We got into the back seat of the patrol car and were driven to my house. My father answered the door with my mother standing behind him. The police explained how I was robbed and hit over the eye, how the thugs were waiting to ambush me, but not to worry, they would catch the guys. My poor mother started crying and hollering. "If he doesn't get beaten up here at home, he gets beaten up in the street. He can't win. My poor boy can't win! I don't want him selling any more papers!"

She was going on like that for some time when the next thing I knew the truck from the Herald Express, which was the paper I sold on the corner, pulled up to my house. These men with cameras and notepads came out and knocked on the door.

"Who's little Ernie? Ernie, I wanna see you. You little Ernie?"

I said yeah.

"Aw, they robbed you, huh, kid? C'mon over here, I wanna take your picture."

They took me to the front lawn and were taking pictures of me, asking me to put on the Herald Express apron, to hold a paper up like I was hustling it on the street, taking one shot after another. It came out in the paper the next day that the newspaper boy from First and Rowan got robbed the night before, and the story got picked up by La Opinión and other papers. My mother collected all the clippings and kept them for years.

I thought to myself, "Jesus, what did I get myself into?" I swore I would never tell anyone about what had happened. In fact I never did say one word about it until years later when I got to Alcatraz. I told the story to one of my best friends, who was celled next to me.

He laughed when I finished and said, "Ernie, you're just a born criminal."

***

When you're little, you think that the fact your father whips you and ties you up is a normal part of life. You don't know why he's doing it; in fact, you don't even wonder why he's doing it. To you, it's just the way things are. Only later, when you're older and start thinking about these things, do you start to question what was going on. All I knew was that I hated my father with a passion.

He was a well-educated man from Mexico, and had been married there with many children, though I never knew any of them. He used to read all the time and was able to talk about almost any subject. I remember people would come over and talk to him about all sorts of topics.

He was especially interested in talking about religion, because he was strongly anticlerical. He had gone to Catholic school as a child, and one of the priests had molested him. This drove him to read all about religion. He learned about the Inquisition and the garrote and other tortures, and read about the popes and all the power they had. He knew the history of seemingly anything you wanted to talk about. That was his life, reading, and he would read everyday, all day long, up until midnight.

He fled the Mexican Revolution in the 1910s and seemed pretty bitter at the world after that. With me, I always thought that he just hated me, that maybe I shouldn't have been born. I was not allowed to have friends over and was never permitted to play in the yard. Over time, he got it in his head to teach me Spanish. I think this was really just a pretext to figure out another reason to punish me. He didn't behave like a father who really wanted to teach something to his son. He had absolutely no patience, and everything had to be done his way. Whenever he was going to teach me a lesson, the first thing he did was to pick up a stick or his belt. Then he wrote down words in Spanish for things like "dog," "cat," "house," etc. I had no idea what the letters he scribbled on the paper meant.

He would point to a word and ask me, "What's this?"

When I got the answer wrong, he would hit me. My sister saw me going through this torment and she pulled me aside.

"Listen," she told me, "the next time he calls you for your lessons, look here. See this right here? This word means 'house.' I'm going to put a little roof over the word. Remember, that's 'house.'"

She would faintly trace a little roof over the word so I would remember what it meant.

"And see this right here?" She would point to another word. "That's 'cat.' See the little ears I'm putting here? That's 'cat.' And this over here is 'dog.' And this is 'mouse.'"

I must have been six years old at the time when he called me for these Spanish lessons. He would hold his belt in one hand and the piece of paper in the other. He'd stand over me and point to a word.

"¿Bueno, qué es esto?"

I would see the little roof my sister had traced and remember it was the word for "house." "Casa," I would say.

I think he was a little surprised I knew the word, but he grunted his approval and then pointed to the next one. On that one I could see the little cat ears, so I said, "Gato."

After a while he became suspicious and started to figure that there was something amiss. He looked carefully at the paper where the words were written.

So he said, "Okay, now we're going to do this without these little marks here." And he got an eraser and rubbed out the little signs my sister had lightly traced in.

Well, I couldn't read those words to save my life. First he whipped me for lying, and then he whipped me for not knowing the lesson. He called me all kinds of names: sin vergüenza, baquetón—shameless, rotten. All kinds of names.

When I was even younger he used to put me in the highchair and tie me up tightly with a rope. Then he would get a small funnel and pour castor oil down my throat. I would sometimes vomit the awful oil out, which made him even madder. He would hit me, slap me on the face, call me all sorts of names. My mother caught him doing this one time, and she tried to put a stop to all that.

I wasn't the only one who suffered my father's abuse. He used to whip my two little sisters, Florence and Sophie, as if they were dogs. He couldn't control himself and didn't know when to stop. My sisters were not older than seven or eight at the time. My father would whip us if he caught us playing in the backyard, something he prohibited. He never worked, as far as I can remember; but he never took us out any place, not even around the block for an evening walk. Instead he spent his whole life, as I said, reading from morning to night. He wanted all of us to stay inside the house, as he did, which is something that is very hard to do for a small child full of energy.

Every once in a while my father would leave the house for the day, and while he was gone we would go out to the backyard and play baseball. We couldn't really play baseball because we didn't have a baseball bat or a real ball. Instead my sister Florence would make a ball out of old torn socks that she sewed together using needle and thread. For a bat we used a stick we'd find in the yard. We would place a rock on the ground for home plate, and another for first base. When we hit the ball, we had to hit it far enough so that we could run to first base and back to home plate. Otherwise we were out.

Up on a hill about half a block away was an apricot tree. From there, when he was on his way home, my father could spy down into the backyard and see if we were playing against his wishes. He was such a mean bastard that he would intentionally sneak around the apricot tree, keeping out of sight, to catch us playing in the yard. When he did catch us, he would come home, change his clothes, get out his strap, call us all together and whip the holy hell out of each one of us.

He would be shouting in Spanish that he saw us. "¡Los miré, los miré!" he would scream over and over.

I remember seeing the fear in my four-year-old sister's face while he whipped us. She would run behind an old heavy piano and hide, trembling and trying to escape punishment. When the whipping was over, I would go behind the piano and hug my little sister and put a cold towel on her little face because she was crying and trembling uncontrollably from fear. I would calm her as best as I could, but I was only a child myself, and I didn't really know what to do. The terror in our house was so great that I hardly ever saw my three older brothers and older sister because they stayed away from home as much as they could. They were almost never there.

***

If my father was my torment in my young life, my mother was my salvation. She had been a teacher in Mexico, but she ended up owning a nursery in Los Angeles because she loved plants and knew a great deal about how best to take care of them. In fact, she started the nursery because she had seen an old man who owned one near our house. She had given him advice about when it was best to transplant some shrubs and how best to prune back some bushes. He was so impressed with her skills that he left the nursery to her when he died. She ran the nursery until she passed away in 1967. Then my oldest brother took it up. He still runs the nursery today.

After selling newspapers all week long, I would sometimes get ten cents from my mom on Sunday to go to the show. The money we earned, my brothers and I, on the paper route was for the household. But on Sunday I could try to get away to see the show at the Muni Theatre, which was my only recreation. Even then, many times my father said that I had not behaved properly during the week and took my ten cents away as punishment.

My mother was always kind and gentle with me. When she came home from work, I would go out into the backyard and work in the garden with her so that I could be near her. At night I would help her baking or cleaning up or helping in whatever way I could. I was small, but I used to pick up and help her with things around the house. My father didn't like that. He used to call me pegajoso, meaning I stuck around too much.

My mother would get mad at that. "Why do you call him like that? What are you bothering him for?"

She had many arguments with my father on account of me. She used to go out onto the porch to talk with him. I would sit right behind the bedroom window, listening to everything they said.

She would ask, "Why do you treat him that way? What has he done? Tell me! If he's done wrong, I'll punish him myself."

He would call her an alcahueta, meaning she pampered me. "He's spoiled on account of you!"

"But what does he do? Tell me!"

He could never explain to her.

The mistreatment went on. Sometimes he would lock me in the closet and feed me boiled beans. If I didn't want to eat, again he would whip me. "You're not the boss around here!" he would yell. Sometimes I was left in that cramped, dark closet for hours. In fact, when I got to Alcatraz and was threatened with being put in the dark hole, the lightless isolation cell, I just laughed.

"This ain't nothing," I taunted the screws. "I've spent my whole life in the hole."

***

It seemed I was always out in the street doing something to supplement the family income. There were many times I was awakened at midnight to get dressed and go stand in line at the local bakery door to get the bread that hadn't been sold the day before. I had to get there in the early morning hours since the line would be long by 3 a.m. The bakery door never opened before seven, and I was often the first one in line. On those mornings, I would spread out a newspaper and lie down to sleep and wait. The bakery rarely had enough bread for everyone in line, and sometimes only a few people were lucky enough to get what was left over. My job was to be one of those lucky few.

When things seemed too unbearable for me, I would run away from home. I only ever stayed away for three or four days at a time. The first time I ran away, I was nine years old and I had no place to go, so I just wandered around town until dark. Later when I would run away, I would sleep at night in the restroom of a gas station or sneak into an all-night movie house. I couldn't stay away too long without money or food, and when I returned home my father couldn't wait to punish me for having made my poor mother worry so much. I guess the times I ran off just made things worse between my father and me, and he became more distant. I found that no matter what I did, I just couldn't please him.

In 1934, when I was twelve, I got arrested and booked into juvenile hall on a charge of burglary. A Buster Brown shoe store had been burglarized about 1:00 a.m., and a bunch of shoes had been stolen. I had known beforehand that the store was going to be burglarized, and I was actually supposed to be in on it. The store was only about a mile from my sales corner.

On the day of the robbery, I didn't wake up in time to join the others, and so I assumed that they would postpone the job until they could find out what had happened to me. By this time my paper job had changed hours from evening to early morning, so I got to my corner at about 5 a.m., after the heist, and had just begun unbundling my stack in preparation for the day. I didn't know that the burglary had taken place, that the police had already picked up some neighborhood kids, and that one of them had implicated me in the burglary. He was also a paperboy, and he had known about the planned burglary but didn't want any part of it. He knew that I was supposed to be in on it, so he gave the cops my name when they picked him up. The cops were already waiting for me when I showed up at First and Rowan that morning.

***

The juvenile authorities didn't believe me or the other guys who said that I wasn't part of the burglary, and I was kept in juvenile hall for three months. That took away a lot of my passion for mischief for some time.

When I finally returned home, I attended school and worked at odd jobs to help make ends meet and make up for the trouble I had gotten into. Nevertheless, at thirteen I was again arrested, this time for auto theft and joyriding. What had started out as an afternoon of fun, just riding around in a stolen car, turned out to be damn near a life-and-death situation.

There were five of us who had managed to hotwire a car. I drove as we cruised around town for a few hours. A police car spotted us and made a U-turn to come in our direction. The only thought I had was to get away so I wouldn't have to go back to juvenile hall. I stepped on the gas and made a run for it. What I didn't anticipate was the police reaction to this move. As soon as I sped up, they turned on the siren and red lights, which had a very frightening effect on all of us.

When I didn't pull over, the cops pulled out their guns and started shooting. Later they said that they were only trying to disable the car, but from where we were sitting, those bullets were aimed at our heads. There was just no way I was going to stop now. I wasn't even going to slow down. After leading three squad cars on a high-speed chase all over Los Angeles, we finally managed to elude them.

That was enough excitement for one day. We ditched the car and ran home, trying to act as if nothing had happened to us that day. The cops scoured my neighborhood all evening and into the night and finally apprehended one of the boys. He told them where everyone else lived, and late that night I was arrested while at home in bed.

The cops were furious, and when I was taken down to the jail the arresting cops gave me a good working over. I was hit and pushed among them, one throwing a punch, one shoving me against the wall. Finally one of them threw a swift kick to the pit of my stomach. That wiped me out, and I wasn't even able to stand up on my own. I was eventually taken to a hospital, where they discovered I had a ruptured appendix. They rushed me to the operating room for emergency surgery. I stayed in the hospital for a few days until I was able to walk, but my recovery only meant that I was brought before a juvenile court for disposition of the auto theft and joyriding charges.

Because I had been the driver, the authorities claimed I was the ringleader. At the age of thirteen I certainly wasn't any leader of that bunch, and in fact I wasn't as old as most of them, which is a big thing among kids at that age. But the judge had his mind made up and handed down the punishment the way he viewed the situation. Three of the boys were given probation, one was sent to Whittier School for Boys, and I was committed to the Preston School of Industry, a state reformatory at Ione, California, which was used to house hardcore juveniles.

My family was very upset by the judge's decision, especially my mother, and we were all stunned that I had received such a sentence. Even my probation officer was surprised. He had argued on my behalf that I was not a "hardcore" juvenile delinquent, showing the judge evidence that I helped support my family by working at odd jobs after school. He also brought some employers to court to testify to my character and that I was a hard worker. This was a lot more than the other boys had going for them, since none of them worked and they couldn't make a claim that they were any more disadvantaged than I was. Still, I got the severest sentence by far, which seemed to set a pattern that held up throughout my life whenever judgment was pronounced against me.

Ernie López is today a free man living in Los Angeles.

Rafael Pérez-Torres is Professor of English at UCLA.

"This is an absolutely riveting read....This book has the potential to become a classic."

—James T. Campbell, Associate Professor of American Civilization, Africana Studies, and History, Brown University