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Essay on Labeling Theory: Analysis of American Me

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In the film American me directed by Edward James Olmos, the film follows a chicano youth by the name of Montoya Santana whom at the age of sixteen first enters the California penal system. He is introduced to the criminal justice system which in turn causes him to be caught in the path of lifelong crime until his premature death. The film being based on the Mexican mafia, portrays how Santa our main character is introduced to a racially segregated subculture in Folsom prison which in turn leads to the creation of gangs. Santana quickly rises as the ringleader of the Mexican mafia due in part to the criminal justice system’s introduction, and in turn he is caught in a permanent criminal identity that he cannot break away from. Incapable of successfully integrating himself back into society Santana finds himself back in Folsom prison and eventually dead. According to the Labeling theory it is the intervention and efforts of the state to label lawbreakers criminals that is a source of creating the very behaviors they are meant to prevent (Criminology goes to the Movies 2011), the character of Montoya Santana in American me is a testament to this.

Labeling theory makes the argument that it is social responses to deviance, which include defining individuals as criminals or labeling them that worsens criminality and behavior (Criminology goes to the Movies 2011.) Santana is a prime example of a label being able to affect one's behavior. He is introduced to juvenile hall for a minor deviant act however after killing another inmate in response to getting raped he is then labeled a “killer”. After that night and earning the new label of a killer, he finds a newborn swagger and speaks of earning respect and believing as though he had found the answer, constructing his self-image in response to interactions with others he becomes a criminal and later the leader of the strongest mafia in prison. Through killing a boy at a young age, according to Labeling theory Santana goes through a process of internalizing the identity of criminal and begins to create a life around criminal activity. This labeling process creates a self-fulfilling prophecy for Santana which occurs when people cause their perceptions of themselves to become true. This belief of himself being a criminal is the cause for eventually turning him to creating a life around the mafia. However this process is not done without creating the consequences that later appear once he is released from prison.

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Once released from prison he attempts at a normal life outside of prison, although he is still involved with the mafia he strives for a life without useless crime and violence once he meets a woman. However he soon finds out that reintegration into society is difficult, according to labeling theory, stigma follows offenders from prison as they reenter society and attempt to find employment, access education and rebuild their relationships (Criminology goes to the Movies). Santana trying to recreate relationships is a prime example, he has an argument with his now wife who claims she sees him as two different people. One as a child who had his childhood stolen from the justice system and another who kills and sells drugs for money. He like many criminals who are stigmatized for being criminals soon find out that access to a normal life is more difficult than life in prison which may cause them to continue to commit crimes and reenter the system. Santa then asks rhetorical questions like “What do you want from me? To get a job? To become a citizen?” he knows these solutions could never be possible due to the labels that have been placed on him by the justice system, the only future he can have is pressure to pursue crime as a means of survival. The label of gangster is permanently fixed on Santana and the cause for the weakening relationship between he and his wife. Through the use of Labeling theory we can also understand that through isolation from society he has no education through the use of labels he also has no future in having a nine to five job, he becomes what he is described as: a gangster.

In Conclusion, the film does a great job of depicting how men and women are faced with more dilemmas and denied access to opportunities when tagged with Labels. Santana is an example of what hardships an American can face in society once they go through the justice system, anywhere from failure at finding employment, denied access to education and failures in relationships. The Labeling theory aims at placing the blame on the Labels, which are set to convicts due to society labeling certain acts deviant. Through the use of film we can understand just how much power they may have over one’s identity and life.


  1. Madon, Stephanie, et al. “The Role of the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy in Young Adolescents' Responsiveness to a Substance Use Prevention Program.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology, vol. 43, no. 9, 2013, pp. 1784–1798., doi:10.1111/jasp.12126.
  2. Olmos, Edward James. American Me.
  3. Rafter, Nicole Hahn., and Michelle Brown. Criminology Goes to the Movies: Crime Theory and Popular Culture. New York Univ. Press, 2011.
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