Cruising Towards Memory: On Boulevard Nights

Screenshot from the trailer for Boulevard Nights
Boulevard Nights | Warner Bros. (photo: YouTube screenshot)
A Map

The boulevard in Boulevard Nights (1979) is Whittier Blvd. It’s named after John Greenleaf Whittier, a 19th century Quaker poet and abolitionist. The four-lane thoroughfare runs 14 miles,  anchored on one end by East L.A., which has been known for decades as home to a large Latinx community, and on the other by the entrance to Orange County, long considered a white conservative stronghold to L.A.’s south.

Visionary poet that he was, Whittier could never have predicted that a grand avenue named for him would become, by the middle of the 20th century, a weekend destination for car cruisers. Starting in the part of East L.A. closest to downtown, the social life of many Mexican-American teenagers coalesced into a parentless vehicular parade, slowriding in cars as long as boats, blasting Black R&B ballads they claimed—in the absence of Latinx artists with record deals—as their own. Then, about the midpoint, just as the highway bends, the bejeweled Chevys carrying cholos would turn around, and the road would fill in similar promenade fashion with tow-headed surfers in tricked-up muscle cars and vans with air-brush paintings on their side panels; white-lipsticked blonde girls rode shotgun and the radios blasted the harmonizing Beach Boys into the night air.

Whittier hoped for an American racial paradise. Sixty years after his death, the street that bore his name was a place of testosterone-infused cultural division. If a cholo’s lowrider should travel too far on Whittier and violate unwritten teen border laws—or if a root beer-hued El Camino with longboards in the back should creep past the wrong signal—all music stopped and there’d be hell to pay.

Boulevard Nights (1979)

There’s a rich movie to be made about a weekly Latino vs. Anglo socio-clash, a real-life The Outsiders, but Boulevard Nights isn’t it. Directed by the (white) Michael Pressman and written by a young (Japanese-American) Desmond Nakano, the script focused on tensions between impoverished Latinx youth in rival barrio neighborhoods. The severity of escalating “gang violence” was making “Eyewitness News” headlines in L.A. (although by today’s levels of syndicate criminality, what you see in the film almost feels sparse) and Boulevard Nights had the aura of social problem exploration—or, possibly, exploitation.

Unfortunately for the film, it didn’t just portray headline concerns, it made them. Hollywood studios released five gang-themed movies that year. The Warriors came out in February of ’79, and The Wanderers would be released in September; there was also Over the Edge and Walk Proud (which covered similar territory as Nights, albeit with white teen idol Robby Benson donning brown contact lenses to pass as a Chicano). Boulevard Nights debuted in March, one month after intense media coverage of several riotous and injurious fights at movie theaters showing The Warriors. Boulevard Nights tragically provoked a similar response—contagious violence—causing some theaters to pull it early in its run. Protests from Latino-American organizations claiming Nights perpetuated stereotypes further clouded its release. With such a paucity of films about or featuring Latinx people—then as well as now—Spanish-surnamed actors too often found their audition prospects relegated to “cartel” or “gang” or both. Boulevard Nights, did have a Latinx cast, but the controversies around it, and poor reviews, affected its reputation—there wouldn’t be another major studio movie about Mexican-Americans until La Bamba, eight years later.

Warner Bros. claimed the movie was misunderstood and pushed it as a family drama, and they would say that. The studio had a long history of gangster movies featuring a good brother and a bad brother, and Boulevard Nights plays out in that familiar, blood-oathed vein. The film begins by tracking two brothers as they leave their small house, pass their dirt backyard, and walk onto the adjacent concrete L.A. riverbed. Cinematographer John Bailey captures streaky coral and purple evening skies, but thereafter, the movie is mostly starved of lyricism. Raymond (Richard Yniguez) shows his authority by breaking up another gang’s tagging session; his younger brother Chuco (Danny De La Paz) can’t resist going back with a can of spray paint to re-mark the territory. The entire conflict of the film is thus previewed: Raymond, early 20’s, wants to escape gang life and go clean, but teenage Chuco sees the confining embrace of such a violent fraternity as a form of cultural duty that will lead to self-fulfillment. This was always the recruitment promise of East L.A.’s “armies.” 

Nakano and Pressman attempt  to contextualize their gang tale within a theme of toxic machismo; early on in a skirmish, one young man degrades another with a pronounced homophobic slur. It’s hard to navigate this subject in Latino culture without perpetuating stereotypical tropes, and the filmmakers, though sincere, get it muddled. An early scene of Raymond trying to mentor Chuco involves backyard barbell training; his idea of transcending the gang’s web is to work with only other men at a car customizing shop (where he gets Chuco a job). Raymond has assignations with his upwardly mobile girlfriend, the curiously nicknamed “Shady” (Marta DuBois), at a cheap motel, then assumes she’ll say yes to his casual marriage proposal.

More baffling to modern eyes, in a movie that centers heterosexual male aggression, is the way the camera homoerotically gazes at Raymond. Stylized to look like a Mexican John Travolta—Saturday Night Fever, whose Tony Manero has a similar story arc, was a hit one year before—Raymond is frequently photographed shirtless or otherwise sexualized, his black feathered hair a lacquered helmet sitting atop a 70s version of a muscular male body. Chuco, with a missing father, is clearly searching for a masculine role model. If the movie posits a future for Raymond and Chuco in which they abandon macho ways, it’s still one in which women are tangential; Shady and the young men’s mother do little more than plead for the men in their lives to stop playing games. The way the film discounts these characters’ potential to be more dimensional mirrors the dismissal the film’s men show them (even as they purport to revere women).

After Chuco ignores Raymond’s advice and participates in a gang attack during an otherwise light-hearted session of cruising Whittier, the plot of Boulevard Nights becomes a familiar story of revenge and reprisal, Jets vs. Sharks set on the opposite coast. The movie has the tidy symmetry of a grad school screenplay, with cholo “ese” and “vato” slang peppered in.

While Yniguez and DuBois struggle to make more of their characters (and if you blink, you’ll miss the great Carmen Zapata as Shady’s mother), De La Paz steals the film. His Chuco is short-fused, wiry, heedless of consequence. A bigger budget and more directorial attention might have elicited better line readings, but Dios mio—those haunting eyes! De La Paz’s big black orbs tell you everything you need to know, while still suggesting he’s got secrets in reserve. When Chuco looks up as Raymond berates him, De La Paz conveys the technique of a great silent film star, and for this reason alone you may wish that the industry made more films that utilized him, the way it did for Euro-descended actors like De Niro and Pacino. (De La Paz was also memorable in Miracle Mile, but his next big film role would once again be as a gang member in another controversial Chicano crime family saga, 1992’s American Me).

Boulevard Nights feels like it’s made from the outside looking in and disappointingly settles into predictable melodrama. It’s lean to a fault, with little of the complexity of The Godfather films made just a few years before. Still, it has flashes of wit and color that suggest a more vibrant Chicano depiction wanting to break free. When Raymond ditches an upscale restaurant and takes Shady to a Boyle Heights Mexican food stand, he caps off his carnitas taco order with a request for an apple pie, the kind of offhand detail that economically captures the Chicano culture’s slide into mainstream American assimilation. 

Though he aspires to macho cred, Chuco fastidiously irons his cholo uniform—Pendleton wool shirt, sharply creased khakis, and snow-white t-shirts—and then frets with the hairnet harnessing his pompadour. While the Southern California heat makes a less self-conscious Raymond rip his shirt off, Chuco stays primly buttoned up to the collar. (Having grown-up with cholos, I can assure you these details are amusingly authentic.) The lowriders in Raymond and Shady’s wedding procession are decorated with Kleenex roses, and when the couple leaves the church, the drivers trigger their hydraulic brakes into a synchronized bounce-off; it’s a sui generis pantomime of sympathetic horniness.

The color comes from the staging of the East L.A. car cruising early in the film, and it’s the best part of Nights. Like many a teen film before it, adults shake fists of warning, but their kids heed the Saturday night siren call of the streets. With nary a thought for the future consequences of wasting fossil fuel, Raymond, Shady and Chuco rush to join other Latin youth on an asphalt river of Chevys, Fords, and Pontiacs. For a few fleeting but electric moments, we see Whittier transform into a flotilla of Impalas and Rivieras, Buicks and Bel-Airs, lit by high beams and dashboard neons. Yards-wide auto hoods gleam with embellished Aztec fiberglass paintings, while crowds make way for a 40s-era Chrysler. Unfortunately, though, the juvenile delinquent plot of Nights kicks in, and too soon the curtain closes on this magical, vaudevillian glimpse of Chicano dandiness.

In 2023, you can still find aging lowrider veteranos who praise Boulevard Nights on Facebook with a nostalgic fervor that is touching but doesn’t feel earned. Danny De La Paz is active on the autograph and memorabilia circuit. There’s a demonstrable hunger for the Chicano past, but due to major studio neglect, barely anything to satisfy it. In a state that houses the film industry, but which used to be Mexico, there should be more films for Mexican-Americans to find their histories in. While white movie lovers can see their pasts at least partially reflected in everything from American Graffiti to The Breakfast Club to Dazed and Confused—and, of course, many titles from years prior—Latinx people have precious little. When contemporary festivals want to feature Chicano-themed films during Hispanic Heritage Month, it’s almost always Selena, La Bamba, and the great Coco. Nostalgia for times past, as prompted by movies, is a form of cinematic privilege that only some get the access to indulge.

There ought to be a Mexican-American Graffiti in our cinematic past, with richer, layered stories that don’t have to be anchored in gang warfare. But movies that could prompt memorias and epiphanies and the passing on of historia just don’t exist. 

Or, I guess I should say, my history. Now edging past middle-age, Chicano, raised in southeast L.A., a professional educator, I’ve been engaged in an affair with movies that has lasted a lifetime—and I’ve realized I’m always riding shotgun myself when it comes to truly sharing a common film past.

So for me, I look at those brief moments of a Whittier Blvd car ritual in Boulevard Nights and a rare time portal opens, transporting me to…

A Boulevard Night (1965)

In 1965, I’m seven and my sister Julie is six. There is a debate flaring over how we will be babysat that night—a hot, summery Pico Rivera (read: Mexican-American L.A. suburb) Saturday night. Our eyes dart back and forth above us as my mother and her best friend Nina Margaret fling Spanglish trying to decide our fate. Nina Margaret is a Latina Auntie Mame who wears plastic jewelry that clacks in echo of her telenovela gestures, even when she’s stirring a pot of her famous refried beans and whispering her secret (“Stir in milk”). 

Sylvia, Margaret’s sensible teen daughter, occasionally chimes in, as do her coterie of high school age female cousins—Yolanda, Esmeralda, Linda, and Veronica (pronounced Ve-doh-nee-cah). Margaret’s tract home has been transformed into a temporary beauty salon preparing for the night’s events: my parents and my (divorced) Nina are going to a parish dance, while the primas plan to cruise Whittier and debut Sylvia’s 16th birthday present, a shiny new Ford Galaxie.

It’s hard to plumb the origins of my queer consciousness, but I know something pleasurable is awakened in me by the way these capri-clad Latinas wield cans of Aqua Net like sorceresses, lacquering their black hair into beehives, pulling bobby pins from gossipy mouths to fasten wiglets, and painting thick black eyeliner with practiced precision.

My mother sees little choice but to skip the dance and stay home when, finally, Sylvia stops teasing Yolanda’s hair and says, “Grace, why don’t you just let them go with us? We’re all babysitters. They’ll be fine.” I rush to assure my mom that we’ll indeed be fine; outnumbered and out-solutioned, she agrees with an “Ay, Dios!” sigh.

The hours creep until our twilight departure. Julie and I are watching a boring Western when the bedroom doors finally open and out marches a troupe of Chicana Amazons; I’ve never seen such glamor. The incense of Mademoiselle perfume arrives before they do; their hair towers graze the doorways; they wear sparkling sleeveless shells, tight skirts. Crimson lips hum as they arm and seal their purses, but then they turn their cosmetic-school eyes towards us.  Within seconds we are seated in front of chiffoniers; within minutes, my black hair is Brylcreemed into a pachuco’s pompadour, and my sister emerges smiling at the miniature bouffant on her head. The first lesson of Chicano cruising is thus imparted: dress up!

Each cousin protects the other’s high hair as they duck in and load the roomy bench seats, perching us in the back, window view. On the way over, the girls search the AM radio for KJLH, which plays soul music oldies, and declare they don’t go crazy for The Beatles like “the white girls.” We drive for so long that Julie and I begin to grow sleepy, but then, just as the cousins sing bloodline harmonies to “Hello Stranger,” Sylvia arrives at the Whittier Blvd intersection, pilots the wheel left, and we become just one shiny four-wheeled showboat among hundreds: a whole sea of them. Red taillights are night blooms. Cruising is an intentional traffic jam. Slowness is the point, and it holds a promising tension: frightening, alluring, and grown up all at once. In an America of burgeoning hippies and frivolous blonde Beach Blanket Bingo youth, these streets are filled with stylized Latinx adolescents; in a world that finds myriad ways to negate them, they are vitally themselves here.

Every car has their radio turned to the same station, and the “oldies” bounce off storefront windows, echoing “Angel Baby” choruses. We jostle to take it all in. We see curvy girls with Cleopatra eyes, and flaquito brown boys who could be their attendants. The cars are like floating, star-dusted barges, and chrome script spells out their exotic names: Impala, Continental, Bonneville, Bel-Air, Skylark. 

Since the 1940s, Latinx youth who wanted to defy assimilation and convey an edge called themselves “pachucos” and “pachucas.” Sylvia and her cousins were more concerned with mid-60s beauty magazine trends and were “good girls” who resisted the pachuca label, but the boys who circled around us: they wore the pachuco uniform. Torso-clinging Ban-Lon short sleeves, loosely draped slacks, spit-shined black shoes—young men aspiring to bad-boy status through fashion.

Windows down, the prime objective of cruising revealed itself: to find dates, smoke, flirt, shout teasing put-downs. Yolanda, Linda and Ve-doh-nee-cah quip like front-seat comediennes with a talent for improv. Julie and I think that we shouldn’t laugh at their rejoinders and insults if we are to be seen as well-behaved, but stifling our giggles only makes us shake and goads the cousins on.

I could stay in this car forever, crawling by puff-finned coupes bouncing their hydraulics, but our babysitters crave burgers and pull into Dino’s; they placate us with onion rings and grape soda. The girls are summarizing the night, ready to leave, when a platoon of boys in a candyflake red Fury park next to us. Pachucos for sure, except for the one in a Marine uniform; home from Vietnam, he embodies something impenetrable.  

They’re all handsome like Mexican black velvet paintings of Elvis. I want to show them I have a black pompadour too. These car-leaning dudes only have eyes for Sylvia and her primas, relentlessly trying to entice them to “go to the park.” Sylvia finally begs off with the excuse they need to get the little kids, us chamacos, back home. One tall boy with a lit Salem points at me and offers to take the “lil’ puppet” in their car. Seven-year-old me is scared and yet hopes Sylvia will say yes, even if it’s only for one block. There’s something I can’t yet identify that wants to be squeezed in among them, smell their barbershop after-shave, ride like I belong.

Then this same guy turns to me and punctures the mood when he asks: “What are you doing riding with the girls anyway, ese? You don’t want to be a girl, do you?” All the other pachucos laugh.

Back then there were no bullets on Whittier Blvd; only pocketed switchblades. And I feel like one has knifed my heart sharp and deep.

What’s wrong with riding with the girls? I wonder. I love it. I love the way they harmonize. I love the way they laugh. This night has been better than Disneyland!  And I feel safer with them. Why does enjoying riding with them mean the door to the boys’ car must slam shut? In his question, I sense a shadow of what awaits me in the future. Real pachucos heed rules.  

My cheeks burn. Ve-doh-nee-cah says “leave him alone, he’s just a kid.” To be defended by a young queen makes it worse and better at the same time. Julie hides behind me. Linda finally diffuses the tension by asking to bum a Chesterfield.  

I hurt inside, but I don’t want the night’s spell to end, so I stuff the feeling that somehow I should be ashamed deep, deep down in my mind’s trunk. Sensible Sylvia shakes the keys to signal taking us home; these tough guys whimper in protest. I note that girls gain power by depriving boys. Even so, phone numbers are exchanged.

On the ride back, I tell myself that someday I will be like those boys, and I will want to date girls like these, and that I don’t have to worry about it; all those feelings will happen automatically, as soon as I become a teenager. Being “normal” is something that just happens to you, tucks into you as you grow. My sister falls asleep against me, and I against the door.

My father is waiting for us when we pull in, and though I’m secretly awake enough to walk out of this magical Galaxie on my own, I feign sleep so I can feel my Dad’s burly arms lift me up as he transfers me to the back of our toy-ridden station wagon. I hear my Nina Margaret’s bracelet clack as she mimes a blessing over us.  

Then I hear my mother scream a little at the sight of my sister’s tiny bouffant. With that, our boulevard night ends.


It’s appropriate that Boulevard Nights closes with morning/mourning. It’s a familiar feeling for Chicanos. The social sins of Hollywood’s history, including the denial of a cinematic past to Latino-Americans, can be addressed moving forward, but it can never achieve retroactive absolution.  

The problem with formulaic plots, like the one in Boulevard Nights, is that in service of hitting its story beats, all the interesting stuff—the true mine of cultural richness—gets pushed to the side. In its rush to portray the latest cinematic version of American juvenile delinquency, Hollywood deployed the Blackboard Jungle template while richer stories of beehived girl drivers, sexual identity, and cultural assertiveness went ignored. Yet in staging and documenting even a glimpse of that culture, perhaps the real benefit of Boulevard Nights is that it’s become an inadvertently precious time capsule.

The poignancy of nostalgia is how it makes you reach for the ineffable, like trying to grab evening vapor. I feel this way, even decades later, about the night I cruised Whittier Blvd; something makes me want to evoke the singalong of an oldie playing from an Impala radio, not just for myself, or for mere indulgence of the past, but as a clue to my present and a record for the future. Lowriding in East L.A. wasn’t and isn’t a trend to be mined for contemporary stylization, nor dismissible as adolescent ritual; it was full of Mexican magic, romantic politics, mysterious spells. I worry this magic will stay harbored like secrets in too many bodies like mine as we move down the long street and meet the red light. 

Maybe what I grapple with is best stated by a poet. As John Greenleaf Whittier once wrote:

The sport of Time, who still apart
The waifs of life is flinging;
Oh, nevermore shall heart to heart
Draw nearer for that singing!

A song that lends to winter snows
The glow of summer weather.

They ought to carve those words onto the asphalt of the boulevard that bears his name.