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Miguel Estrada returns home to his Spanish Harlem tenement after serving a one-year prison sentence for assisting some racketeers in the commission of a crime. On the way to his family's apartment, Miguel visits his friends in the Carlos Mendoza mob, not to take up his old position in the gang, but rather, as he tells them, to celebrate old times. Refusing to believe that Miguel really wants to go straight, Mendoza argues that the first generation of Puerto Ricans born in the "land of the big dollar" can either make it "the slow, hard way," or "break out fast at the point of a gun." With Miguel's intelligence and loyalty, Mendoza argues, the gang could crush the rival mob of "Boss" Juan Cortez, a crooked politician, and take control of the barrio . Miguel adamantly rejects Mendoza's offer and then, somewhat apprehensively, goes home, where his family is celebrating the birth of his uncle Alberto Estrada's seventh child. Just before Miguel appears at the door, his father, whom everyone calls "Papa," tells the young man's mother and sister Tina that Miguel has disgraced the family name. Everyone except Papa is happy to see him, but the old man grudgingly allows him to enter. Although he is glad to be with his family, Miguel wants desperately to get them out of the "rat trap" they share. His father assures him that his children will escape the barrio , but Miguel, who notes that the Irish, Jews and Italians "busted out before us," is impatient for a better life for both his own and his father's generation. The next morning, Miguel returns to his old job at a laundry establishment owned by Cortez, who secretly uses the business as a front for his illegal activities. At work, Tina's young sweetheart Emilio asks for Miguel's benedición , or blessing, on their planned marriage, hinting that he has amassed money illegally. When the laundry boilers suddenly explode, Miguel realizes that Mendoza has paid Emilio to jam the valves and boldly orders the gangster to "lay off Emilio." Later, as he is leaving Mendoza's nightclub, he is mesmerized by one of its "hostesses," the beautiful Sarita, and agrees to meet her after work. That night, Mendoza's men trick Miguel into committing a robbery, but he thwarts their plans. In retaliation, they beat him. Miguel staggers up to Sarita's room, where he remains for the next ten days. Having fallen in love with Sarita, he proposes to her, but she insists that marriage would tie her down. When an immigration officer appears downstairs to arrest her, Sarita admits that she is an illegal immigrant from Cuba. Following her arrest, Miguel asks Mendoza to arrange for her release. Sarita then marries Miguel and moves in with his family, while Miguel, eager to give his new wife everything she desires, asks Cortez for a raise. Cortez refuses this request but offers the young man twice his current salary to maintain the laundry's dangerous machinery. Miguel accepts and returns home, only to find that Sarita has left him. Furious, Miguel offers to work for Mendoza if the crook finds Sarita for him. Mendoza orders Miguel to lead his men, including Emilio, in a robbery, and during the heist, the police arrive, forcing the robbers to hide in the cellar. Toro, a Mendoza thug who has always been jealous of Miguel, threatens his rival with a knife, and during the fight, Miguel kills him. Later, in the penthouse apartment Miguel has rented with the stolen money, Mendoza arrives with Sarita, and when she angrily declares that she has to be free, he locks her in the bedroom. The police question Miguel about Toro's death, but he remains silent, even when they threaten to question Emilio, who at that moment is buying a wedding dress with Tina. Seeing the police, Emilio panics and races in front of a car to his death. At the boy's funeral, Tina blames Miguel for the loss of her fiancé, and Papa publicly disowns his wayward son. Half crazed by guilt and frustration, Miguel decides to rob the Cortez laundry, a plan Mendoza labels as suicidal. Before the robbery, Sarita tearfully apologizes to her husband, but he declares that he no longer has feelings for her. The daring robbery proceeds as planned until Papa arrives for work and pulls the burglar alarm. Miguel escapes the subsequent shootout, but because he has botched the job, Mendoza's men decide to kill him. Two of the thugs chase him across a rooftop, and when he tries to leap to another building, he falls. Papa and Sarita, kneeling over Miguel's broken body, blame themselves for his misfortune, but just before he dies, he absolves them of guilt and receives his father's cherished blessing.