American Me movie cover Movie Locations Guide

Where was American Me filmed?

1992

About American Me

If you’ve never heard of 1992 crime drama American Me, you’ll wish you had. This under-rated film is just as watchable and relevant now as it was when it was made some 30 years ago, so it’s one to add to your must-watch list.

Directed by, produced, and starring Edward James Olmos, American Me tells the story of Mexican mafia boss Montoya Santana (Olmos) as he rises to the top of a feared gang. But there are many deeper themes at play here, as the film explores the rise of LA gangs from the 1950s onwards and the devastating impact that mob violence and gang loyalties have on society as a whole.

As a Mexican American teenager, Montoya just can’t seem to stay out of trouble. He forms a gang with friends J.D. (Steve Wilcox) and Mundo (Richard Coca), and inevitably, their first forays into crime soon land young Montoya in prison. And once you’re inside, it can be very hard to get back out again.

Montoya is raped by a fellow inmate in juvenile hall and later gets his revenge by murdering the rapist. His sentence is extended as a result, and Montoya ends up in Folsom State Prison. There, he becomes the leader of La Eme, a brutally violent gang that soon becomes feared both inside and outside the prison walls.

In fact, upon his release after 18 years behind bars, Montoya finds that La Eme’s drug-running operations and murderous activities have infiltrated many areas of wider society. And when he falls in love with the beautiful Julie (Evelina Fernández), who is disgusted by Montoya’s violent ways and La Eme’s insidious influence on her local community, Montoya comes to realize that he wants nothing more to do with gang life.

But he’s about to discover that leaving the mafia is a whole lot easier said than done. La Eme is now a fearsome beast that’s much more powerful than just one man, and the gang he founded isn’t just going to let Montoya walk away from his responsibilities. He’s about to learn that once you get caught up in a cycle of violence, it can be near impossible to get out.

City Locations

Los Angeles, California

Location Types

American, Apartment, Police/Jails, Studios

Location Styles

Bus, Dated/Retro, Dilapidated/Neglected

American Me Locations

Want to visit some American Me Locations for yourself? You can! This gritty and realistic portrayal of prison gangs was filmed at a host of locations around Los Angeles, so it’s easy to see where some of the more memorable scenes from this 1992 movie were shot.

The apartment that the Santana family call home sits on Mathews Street in Boyle Heights, on LA’s eastside. Nearby locations like Evergreen Cemetery and Santuario de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (Our Lady of Guadalupe Sanctuary) also feature. However, the violent scenes depicting the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 were filmed on so-called New York Street in the Universal Studios backlot.

Of course, with so much of the film’s action taking place behind prison walls, a big chunk of shooting for American Me took place in real-life institutions. The opening scene with the prisoners being processed, for example, was shot at the California Institute for Men, while Montoya also spends time in L.A.’s Central Juvenile Hall. American Me was even filmed in the intimidating environment of Folsom State Prison, which definitely adds extra authenticity to the action on-screen.

We’ve put together a collection of some of the best scenes in American Me (spoiler alert!) and where they were filmed. Keep reading for details of three important American Me locations.

Fun fact:

The character of Montoya Santana is based on real-life Mexican mafia boss Rodolfo Cadena.

Opening scene in American Me

California Institute for Men, 14901 Central Ave, Chino, CA

As the opening titles roll, we’re introduced to a wizened older version of Montoya Santana. At first, we hear prison guards leading new inmates through the stark realities of processing and cavity searches. As the first images appear, we see that Montoya is unfazed by this dehumanizing process. He’s been through this before and is calm and thoughtful as he’s deposited into a cell.

Overlaid on top of these images we hear the voice of Julie talking to Montoya: “You're like two people. One is like a kid. Doesn't know how to dance, doesn't know how to make love. That's the one I cared about. But the other one. The other one I hate.”

The prisoner processing scenes were shot at the California Institution for Men in Chino, about 40 miles east of downtown LA. This is the same prison where Rodolfo Cadena, the mafia figure on whom the character of Montoya is loosely based, was murdered in 1972.

Zoot Suit Riots scene in American Me

Universal Studios Hollywood, 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City, CA

To learn how Montoya becomes the man he does, we first need to learn a little of his backstory. To do that, we must head back to the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, which Montoya’s parents Esperanza (Vira Montes) and Pedro (Sal Lopez) were caught up in.

We see Esperanza stepping onto a streetcar in LA and immediately attracting hostile glares from other passengers. Stepping into the role of narrator, Montoya explains why: “In June of 1943, America was at war, not only overseas but with itself. The racial tension was running high against everyone that was different.”

Esperanza is heading out for a date with Pedro, but the tension in the heart of LA is palpable, and it’s only long before racial hatred boils to the surface. Pedro is attacked and viciously beaten by a group of sailors, stripped of his clothes and thrown onto the street, while Esperanza is gang raped.

These confronting scenes of the Zoot Suit Riots were filmed on New York Street in the Universal Studios backlot, which was most recently rebuilt in 2009 following a 2008 fire.

Montoya visits his mother’s grave scene in American Me

Evergreen Cemetery, 204 N Evergreen Ave, Los Angeles, CA

Fresh out of prison, Montoya is still adapting to life on the outside. La Eme’s power stretches far beyond the prison walls, but the impact of gang violence on the wider community is starting to take its toll on the weary life-long criminal. And when he accompanies his father to visit his mother’s grave, Montoya is about to learn a shocking truth about his family.

Montoya apologizes to his father for whatever he did to make the older man hate him so much growing up. It’s then that Pedro reveals how Esperanza was raped as a 19-year-old during the Zoot Suit Riots. “After it happened, we never talked about it. We got married and we tried to forget,” Pedro reveals, gazing at Esperanza’s headstone.

Then, he turns to Montoya. “When you were born, I tried to love you. But every time I looked at you, I wondered who your real father was,” he says tearfully.

This American Me filming location is Evergreen Cemetery. You can find it in the Boyle Heights neighborhood on the eastside of LA, less than three miles from the heart of the city.

Conclusion

It may not be the best-known silver-screen portrayal of the brutal reality of gang life, but American Me is as authentic as they come. This often-forgotten drama is a rugged and realistic look at the rise of the Mexican mafia in California prisons during the second half of the 20th century, and one that leaves an impression long after the final credits have rolled.

There are also a host of American Me locations to be found around the LA area. While some, particularly the prisons, are off-limits for the average film fan, there are others you might want to check out for yourself.