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Never had I been so bluntly assaulted with questions of identity, but amidst the hardened reality of Los Angeles County Jail, racial tension and gang violence can define every moment. Where one stands and who one stands with — these things matter more than almost anything else.

The first time anyone asked me what I was, I thought they were inquiring about my criminal status. “They’re charging me with a murder,” I said hesitantly.

“No, fool. What race is you?”

A vexing question from my perspective. What race am I? Half-Chinese, half-Mexican and raised 100% American, in my mind I’ve always been one person, an individual.

Now I stood somewhere deep within the bowels of L.A.’s Men’s Central Jail, in a dank dormitory housing unit. My bleary eyes and sleep-deprived brain focused as best they could after the first three days following my arrest — three days of being processed as livestock, with no bed and only the narrow benches and filthy floors of cramped holding cells.

The men surrounding me in this dorm evoked the worst images of incarceration — sinister scowls from tattooed faces, packs of inmates posturing defensively and grouped by ethnicity. Rusted metal bunk beds lined each of the three walls facing the entrance I’d just been ushered through by the sheriffs. Three walls, three racial demographics — Black, White, Mexican. Which was I supposed to be?

But more to the point, “Who do you run with?”

L.A. County Mexicans approached me aggressively. Clearly, I’m neither Black nor White, and most people don’t see much Asian in my face. I looked a lot more like my dad than my mom.

“This fool ain’t nobody,” I heard one of them assess me. “Vato’s just a resident.”

If you don’t claim any gang affiliation, the Mexican incarcerated community will label you a resident, and that means you fall under their control. 

Who do I run with? I needed no explanation to fathom the context of the question. Looking around, I felt zero camaraderie with the Mexicans. None resembled any members of my family. The Whites were even worse. Inked swastikas and lightning bolts stood prominently emblazoned on cheeks and necks.

The Blacks seemed least alien to me, the most normal. Other than the L.A. county blue jumpsuit, they looked like any other Blacks I’d known. Far from seeming like caricatures drawn from a prison movie, they simply appeared human.

“If you really half-Asian, you can kick it with us,” a Black voice shot from the crowd. “Fuck them. We got you over here.”

Many names and faces would make lasting impressions on me throughout the almost seven years I’d end up spending in L.A. County Jail. Yet this person, the one that arguably made the biggest impact in my everyday life during that period, remains altogether anonymous in memory.

“Y’all cool with that?” I wondered aloud as I entered their ranks. 

No debate came from the Blacks, but subtle murmurs percolated from the Mexicans. Other than that, they let it lie. The Blacks warned me to be on high alert. 

I guess they all knew what I was to find out the next day — that this dorm was just a launching pad to further housing. There was barely time to find an empty bed and sleep for a few hours before hearing my name called to go somewhere else come morning.

I learned right away that Asian inmates — at least the ones designated as such on the L.A. County Jail computer — were housed in a segregated module. A vicious gang war that started on the streets between Asians and Mexicans had continued into the jail. For safety and security — and I’m sure only after some incidents of extreme jailhouse violence – Asians were no longer housed with everyone else.

Blacks and Others (a catch-all designation for anyone neither Black, Mexican nor White) generally programmed together in L.A. County Jail. Under normal circumstances, the Asians that were segregated would have been programmed as Others.

Choosing to identify as Asian — but being labeled Mexican on the computer and housed in general population, that meant I was pretty much all on my own. Except that I wasn’t. I ran with the Blacks. 

The scene would play out over and over, in every jail cell, court holding tank and dorm I hit. No one really knew what to make of me. Lots of Mexicans loathed and resented me quietly, some not so quietly. Lots of Blacks were cautious, but they accepted me. Some embraced me.

On one of my first court appearances, I walked into a Black holding tank after explaining to the perplexed sheriffs that I didn’t belong in the Mexican/White tanks. The jailers gladly locked the door behind me without waiting to see my fate.

The raucous standing room only tank went silent as I stepped in.

“You in the wrong tank, homie,” one Black circled me, full of animus and venom. “Why they put you in here with us?”

I’d taken to affecting the swagger necessary to survive these confrontational greetings. And true to my own style of discourse, I turned such exchanges into banter rather than dispute.

“I’m in here ‘cause I wanna be in here, homie,” I said through a smirk. “I don’t fuck with them other dudes. I fuck with y’all.”

But my usual confidence didn’t alleviate all concerns. “You sure you ain’t a Mexican?” said the same guy as he continued to size me up and down.

I surveyed the crowd of well over a hundred Black men, establishing eye contact with the nearest around me. “I’d have to be the dumbest Mexican in the world to walk in here alone, wouldn’t I?”

That broke ‘em all down. I spent the rest of the day playing cards and shooting the shit with them, save for the five minutes I actually spent in court. 

I knew racism existed, but I’d always looked at it as a White America versus all other colors. Here in L.A. County Jail, it was Mexicans and Whites versus Blacks — and now versus me, too.

But that’s not an absolute statement. I’d often find myself snared into frank but peaceful dialogues with non-Blacks about my decision to run that way. Quite a few Mexicans told me — off the record, of course — that they wished they had a choice. Pragmatically, the Black program was way more palatable than theirs. 

“You’re hella lucky you’re half-Chinese, so you can get away with it,” they said. Mexican politics in California jails and prisons entailed a whole set of self-enforced disciplines they push on themselves through brutal rule. It ain’t a fun ride.

Blacks politick each other as well, but there’s a lot more emphasis on independence and personal freedom. “We’re all on our own man,” they told me.

Most Mexicans and Whites in L.A. County openly held great disdain for me since I sided with the so-called “inferior race.“

How can you stand being around them? They’re dirty. They stink. They’re loud and obnoxious. They got no respect for themselves or anyone else,” they said. Such proclamations included heavy doses of the N–word as well as other offensive synonyms.

The ugliness and hatred behind perceived stereotypes became clearer each and every day. Even the sheriffs were in on it. The jailers, who didn’t fully understand my relationship with the Black population, would candidly criticize and denigrate the guys I ran with. 

It shocked me how well adapted the Blacks were to bearing the brunt of all that racism and animosity. Although there was that deep subtext of anger and agitation, they seemed to live their lives free of grudges and spite. Despair never entered the picture. 

They gave anyone of any race the benefit of the doubt. The way the Blacks took me in without holding anything against me made me rethink my own biases. Being around them, I couldn’t help but learn to open up my heart a bit more.

I had never felt comfortable cliquing up with any group in my previous life outside, but to be connected and associated with thousands of L.A. County Blacks — I wore that as a badge of honor and distinction.

Without any other Asians on the mainline with me, I was almost always the only non-Black within a group of Blacks. It would be almost two full years before a street truce led to the end of the Asian module, and I would finally begin to see other Asians housed alongside me. By then, my situation was well known wherever I went.

“You can’t be telling people you run Black,” Asians would advise me. “We don’t run Black, we just function with them. We run our own program, especially when we get to prison. We do our own damn thing.”

Asians are a small segment of the overall jail population. And even with us, Blacks and Others are invariably outnumbered by Mexicans and Whites in any dorm setting. Nevertheless, we split things down the middle, fifty-fifty.

My newfound Asian partners, they were right there with me on the Black half of the dayroom, waiting our turn to use the Black pay phones, to share the Black copy of the Los Angeles Times, to work out on the Black pull-up and dip bars, to shower in the Black rotation.

Whether we labeled it running, programming, functioning — or whatever, at the end of the day it boiled down to the same simple truth. We were in it together.

There were times when my presence added strife inside the delicate balance of a dorm’s political ecosystem. But more so, I served the de facto purpose of a diplomatic go-between. Before lines were drawn, feuds declared and blood shed, most guys of all races looked for peaceful compromise. I tried to facilitate those accords whenever I could.

I may not have fit into any clean niche of ethnic designation, but neither was I completely unrelatable to any of them either. Never would I have believed that I’d stumble upon such profound firsthand lessons in sociological reasoning in L.A. County Jail of all places.

After a jury convicted me and I became part of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations (CDCR), I experienced more of the separation between Asians and Blacks. 

The new dynamic, for me, was all the sub-groups within that sphere of Asian designation – Cambodians, Chinese, Filipinos, Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese and Pacific Islanders, too. The racial politics got murkier and murkier. The Asian module in L.A. had been notorious for turbulence between the various factions of Asians, but when push came to shove, we all rode together.

My first mainline level four state prison was in the southern part of California. Gang affiliation and identity went hand in hand.

Eventually, as my security level dropped after years of consistent good behavior, I moved to lower level Northern prisons. Now almost no one knew me, and it really irked me to feel Blacks lumping me in with Mexicans based on sight — not to mention all the times Hispanics just assumed I spoke and understood Spanish. My Asian homies like to say I’m not really a real Asian.

At San Quentin, racial divisions are as minimal as ever. It’s a good thing, although that inevitably means I’m judged more by my appearance at first blush. 

What am I? Where am I from? Who do I run with? These questions blur and hold less significance.

As miserable as L.A. County Jail was in most respects, a part of me misses those days of running with the Blacks. There was a vital energy that surged through each moment. There was a mental acuity that sprung from clear cut boundaries and agendas. You knew where to stand. You knew who to stand with.

I’d never want to return to that existence, but I look back on it all with fondness and awe. Those experiences solidified my belief in self and helped me actualize the person I’ve always known I am. 

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Joe Garcia is a journalist and PJP correspondent incarcerated in California. Garcia was previously a staff writer and the chair of the Journalism Guild for San Quentin News. In addition to prison publications, his work has appeared in The New Yorker, the Washington Post and the Sacramento Bee.