Rodríguez, Luis J. 1954–
Rodríguez, Luis J. 1954–
Born July 9, 1954, in El Paso, TX; son of Alfonso (a laboratory custodian) and Maria Estela (a seamstress and homemaker) Rodríguez; married Camila Martinez, August 10, 1974 (divorced, November, 1979); married Paulette Theresa Donalson,
November, 1982 (divorced, February, 1984); married Maria Trinidad Cardenas (a business/bookstore manager, editor and interpreter), March 28, 1988; children: (first marriage) Ramiro Daniel, Andrea Victoria; (third marriage) Ruben Joaquin, Luis Jacinto. Ethnicity: Chicano. Education: Attended California State University, 1972-73, Rio Hondo Community College, California Trade-Technical Institute, Watts Skills Center, Mexican-American Skills Center, East Los Angeles College, 1978-79, University of California at Berkeley, 1980, and University of California at Los Angeles. Politics: "Revolutionary." Religion: "Indigenous Spirituality."
Home— P.O. Box 328, San Fernando, CA 91341. Office— Tia Chucha Centro Cultural and Bookstore, 10258 Foothill Blvd., Lake View Terrace, CA 91342.
Worked variously as a school bus driver, lamp factory worker, truck driver, paper mill utility worker, millwright apprentice, steel mill worker, foundry worker, carpenter, and chemical refinery mechanic, 1972-79; Eastern Group Publications, Los Angeles, CA, photographer and reporter for seven East Los Angeles weekly newspapers, 1980; reporter for newspapers, including San Bernadino Sun(CA), 1980-85;People's Tribune, Chicago, IL, editor, 1985-88; computer typesetter for various firms in the Chicago area, including the Archdiocese of Chicago, 1987-89; writer, lecturer, and critic, 1988—; part-time news writer for WMAQ-AM in Chicago, 1989-92. Director of mural project for the Bienvenidos Community Center, 1972; public affairs associate for American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFL-CIO), 1982-85; publisher and editor of Chismearte,1982-85; director and publisher, Los Angeles Latino Writers Association, 1982-85; facilitator of Barrio Writers Workshops, Los Angeles, 1982-85; board member of KPFK-FM, Pacifica Station in Los Angeles, 1983-85; founder and director of Tia Chucha Press, 1989—; writer-in-residence, Shakespeare and Company, Paris, France, 1991; writer-in-residence, North Carolina's "Word Wide," 2000; founder of organizations, including Rock a Mole (rhymes with guacamole) Productions, League of Revolutionaries for a New America, the Guild Complex, Youth Struggling for Survival, and Tia Chucha's Café Cultural. Mosaic Multicultural Foundation, Washon, WA, elder and teacher, 1993—; Increase the Peace, Chicago, participant, 1995—. Conductor of talks, readings, and workshops in prisons, juvenile facilities, public and private schools, migrant camps, churches, universities, community centers, and homeless shelters throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Central America, and Europe, 1980—. Has made appearances on video recordings, including El Poeta, by PBS-TV, 2002;Matters of Race, Part II, "Race Is/Race Isn't," for PBS-TV, 2003; and Beyond Brown: Pursuing the Promise (50 Years after Brown vs. Board of Education), for PBS-TV, 2004.
Best of the Los Angeles Weekly,1985; Poetry Center Book Award, San Francisco State University, for Poems across the Pavement,1989; Illinois Arts Council poetry fellowships, 1992, 2000; Lannan fellowship in poetry, 1992; Dorothea Lange/Paul Taylor Prize, Center for Documentary Studies, Duke University, 1993; Carl Sandburg Literary Award for nonfiction, and New York Times Book Review Notable Book, both 1993, and Chicago-Sun Times Book Award for nonfiction, 1994, all for Always Running: La Vida Loca—Gang Days in L.A.; Hispanic Heritage Award for literature, 1998; Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Writers' Award, 1996; National Association for Poetry Therapy Public Service Award, 1997; Paterson Prize for Books for Young Adults, 1999;Skipping Stones magazine honor awards, 1999 and 2000; Silver Book Award,Foreword magazine, 1999; Parents' Choice Books for Children Award, 1999; Illinois Author of the Year Award, 2000; Americas Award for Children's and Young Adult Literature Commended Title, 2000; Premio Fronterizo Border Book Festival, Las Cruces, New Mexico, 2001; Unsung Heroes of Compassion award, 2001; PEN West/Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence, for The Concrete River; California Arts Council Fellowship and Sundance Institute Arts Writing Fellowship, both 2002; Local Hero of the Year Award, 2006, Union Bank of California/KCET-TV; Paterson Poetry Prize, 2006, for My Nature Is Hunger: New and Selected Poems 1999-2004; City of Los Angeles Individual Artist Fellowship in Literature, 2006-07.
Poems across the Pavement, Tia Chucha Press (Chicago, IL), 1989.
The Concrete River(poems), Curbstone Press (Willimantic, CT), 1991.
Always Running: La Vida Loca—Gang Days in L.A.(memoir), Curbstone Press (Willimantic, CT), 1993.
América Is Her Name(for children), illustrated by Carlos Vazquez, Curbstone Press (Willimantic, CT), 1998.
Trochemoche: New Poems, Curbstone Press (Willimantic, CT), 1998.
It Doesn't Have to Be This Way: A Barrio Story(for children), illustrated by Daniel Galvez, Children's Book Press (San Francisco, CA), 1999.
Hearts and Hands: Creating Community in Violent Times, Seven Stories Press (New York, NY), 2001.
The Republic of East L.A.: Stories, Rayo (New York, NY), 2002.
Music of the Mill: A Novel, Rayo (New York, NY), 2005.
My Nature Is Hunger: New and Selected Poems, 1989-2004, Curbstone (Willimantic, CT), 2005.
Seven(hand-made art book), C & C Press (Pajaro, CA), 2005.
Two Women/Dos Mujeres(hand-made art book), C & C Press (Pajaro, CA), 2005.
Contributor to anthologies, including The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, Letters of a Nation: A Collection of Extraordinary American Letters, Las Christmas: Favorite Latino Authors Share Their Holiday Memories, Inside the L.A. Riots: What Happened and Why It Will Happen Again, Mirrors beneath the Earth: Short Fiction by Chicano Writers, After Aztlan: Latino Writers in the '90s, Fifty Ways to Fight Censorship, With the Wind at My Back and Ink in My Blood: A Collection of Poems by Chicago's Homeless, Unsettling America: An Anthology of Contemporary Multicultural Poetry, Power Lines: A Decade of Poetry at Chicago's Guild Complex, Voices: Readings from El Grito, Dream of a World: The Tia Chuca Press Poetry Anthology, Latino Boom: An Anthology of U.S. Latino Literature, Be a Better Writer: Power Tools for Young Writers!, Spilling the Beans in Chicanolandia: Conversations with Writers & Artists, and Mugshots: A Story about Breaking Out and Breaking In.
Contributor of articles, reviews, and poems to periodicals, including Los Angeles Times, Nation, U.S. News & World Report, Utne Reader, Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, Chicago Reporter, Poets and Writers, Chicago Tribune, American Poetry Review, TriQuarterly, Bloomsbury Review, Rattle, Progressive, and Latina.
Rodríguez's work has been translated into German, Japanese, French, Arabic, Italian, and Spanish. Rodríguez has also participated on audio recordings, including WordTheatre: Family Affairs Volume 2, Poets on Record: 98 Poets Read Their Work (1888-2006), and My Name's Not Rodríguez: Poetry and Music from Luis Rodríguez and Seven Rabbit.
Rodríguez's short story "Fingerdance" has been adapted for film by Michael Centeno/Elusive Minds Productions; the memoir Always Running has been adapted as a stage play by Cornerstone Theatres; the poetry play "Notes of a Bald Cricket" has been staged at the John Anson Ford Theatres in Hollywood, CA, directed by Ruben Guevara.
In his 1993 memoir, poet-author-journalist Luis J. Rodríguez encapsulates the trapped feeling of the Latino in East Los Angeles: "It never stopped this running. We were constant prey, and the hunters soon became big blurs: The police, the gangs, the junkies, the dudes on Garvey Boulevard who took our money, all smudge into one." But the enemy was not always on the street for young Mexican Americans like Rodríguez: "Sometimes they were teachers who jumped on us Mexicans as if we were born with a hideous stain. We were always afraid, always running." It was this feeling of persecution, of being the target of others, that led young men like Rodríguez into gang membership.
Always Running: La Vida Loca—Gang Days in L.A. is Rodríguez's personal statement, his mea culpa, both a cautionary tale and gut-wrenching personal document. Written two decades after his own gang activity, the book was partly inspired by his own son, Ramiro, who was himself becoming involved in gangs at the time Rodríguez was writing his book. The memoir was not enough of a palliative, however, to keep Ramiro out of trouble: Rodríguez's son was sent to prison in 1998 for attempted murder. Despite school bans on the book and a minicontroversy over its content, Rodríguez still believes it should be essential reading for many. "I actually hope my book will lose its validity some day," he told Patrick Sullivan in an interview for the Sonoma County Independent, "that there isn't a need for a book like Always Running.… But right now that's not the case. The book is very relevant, and as long as that's the case, then we should make sure that people can get access to it."
Rodríguez has written three books of poetry and two children's books in addition to this partly fictionalized memoir. He has also chronicled the Mexican American experience and spoken out articulately for social justice and equity in the country through journalistic articles to national publications such as the Los Angeles Times, Nation, and U.S. News & World Report, but he continues to view himself primarily as a poet. As he told Aaron Cohen in an interview for Poets and Writers, "Poetry is the foundation of everything I do. It's poetry with a sense of social engagement. The written, powerful expressive language of poetry is the springboard for everything I want to write."
Rodríguez is no stranger to the mean streets he depicts in his work. Born in El Paso, Texas, on July 9, 1954, he spent two years in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, before his family immigrated to the United States in 1956. His father, Alfonso Rodríguez, a school principal in Mexico, brought his family north because the pay was so poor in his native country that he could not support his children. Once settled in the Watts community of south central Los Angeles, Alfonso and his family were presented with the cruel reality of low-status work and constant racism. His father held a number of jobs, ultimately working as a laboratory custodian, while Rodríguez's mother, Maria Estela Jimenez, worked as a seamstress. Rodríguez grew up with three siblings and three nieces, the daughters of his half-sister, and in 1962 the family moved to the East Los Angeles community of South San Gabriel. Rodríguez's teenage years were spent in the barrio there.
These were turbulent years for the young Rodríguez, who felt like he was always on the outside, harassed by both Anglo children and the police. To find a sense of solidarity and belonging, he joined a gang in East Los Angeles. Dropping out of school at fifteen, he led a life during the 1960s and 1970s characterized by ever-escalating violence and mayhem. Jailed for attempted murder, he was released only to take part in a fire bombing of a home and in store robberies. Sex and drugs formed a continual base line to his life. "Everything lost its value for me," Rodríguez wrote in Always Running, describing the nihilism of those days. "Death seemed the only door worth opening, the only road toward a future."
But Rodríguez was one of the fortunate ones. From his early youth he had tried to find a safe haven in books, in an interior life. Even as a very young child, as he told Cohen, "I found refuge in books because I was a shy, broken-down little kid. They were fairytale books, Walt Disney books, whatever. I would go inside and hide myself in books and not have to worry about the yelling and screaming and bullets flying." Even as a gang member, he was composing verses based on his experiences on the streets. This propensity for self-reflection came in handy when, at the height of the Chicano Movement, Rodríguez was pulled from the gangs by the lure of education and political activism. A recreational leader at a local youth center introduced Rodríguez to Mexican history and a new way of looking at himself, while a counselor at school, when he returned to graduate in 1970, also helped to make the young man into a student leader instead of a gang dupe, taking pride in his culture, in his race, in his heritage. Slowly Rodríguez turned away from violence to the world of words.
Graduating from high school in 1970, Rodríguez won his first literary award two years later, the Quinto Sol Literary Award, which earned him 250 dollars and a trip to Berkeley. In 1980 he became a full-time writer, working as a journalist and photographer for several Los Angeles newspapers. Rodríguez became heavily involved in the East Los Angeles political and literary scene, serving as director of the Los Angeles Latino Writers Association and publishing the literary magazine Chismearte, in whose pages some of the bright and rising stars of Latino literature were first introduced to a wider public. During the mid-1980s, Rodríguez resettled in Chicago, where he worked as an editor on the People's Tribune, a weekly leftist journal. He also became deeply involved in not only literary matters, giving poetry workshops and crafting his journalism, but also in social issues, working with gang members, the homeless, convicts, and migrants. During this time he established Tia Chucha Press, the publishing house of the Guild Complex, an arts center in Chicago focusing on multicultural issues.
In 1989 his Tia Chucha Press published his first collection of poetry,Poems across the Pavement, verses that focus on "life in America," according to Dina G. Castillo, writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "but his America is one that relatively few people want to acknowledge." Castillo described the America Rodríguez portrays as "an environment fraught with economic oppression, racism, cultural alienation, class battles, industrial displacement, strained human relations, and street turmoil in Los Angeles and Chicago." Rodríguez depicts this situation in poems in the collection such as "‘Race’ Politics," "No Work Today," "Tombstone Poets," and "Alabama," which take the reader on "an emotional roller coaster," according to Castillo. Some of the poems were written when Rodríguez was still a teenager, and all display the influence of his own favorite writers, poets from Walt Whitman to Pablo Neruda, and Latino and African American authors such as Claude Brown and Piri Thomas, whose work portrayed the hard lives of society's outcasts and downtrodden.
A second collection,The Concrete River, appeared in 1991, confirming Rodríguez's early promise and delving more deeply into the themes of urban violence, race relations, gender conflicts, and drug addiction that he explored in his first volume of poetry. An interesting development in The Concrete River is the use of both poetry and prose in longer pieces, ones that tie together to provide a witnessing of his own past, from Mexico to Watts to East Los Angeles to Chicago. In the first of five sections, with the poem "Prelude to a Heartbeat," Rodríguez talks of his youth in Watts, "Where fear is a deep river. / Where hate is an overgrown weed." His dangerous gang years are dealt with in the second section, while his failed first marriage comes to center stage in the third, "Always Running": "When all was gone, / the concrete river / was always there / and me, always running." Other sections deal with his life as a blue-collar worker and with his new life in Chicago, away from the city that molded him and nearly destroyed him.
Castillo noted that Rodríguez uses the "motifs of concrete and pavement to represent all that has limited him in the past but that nevertheless became the source of his literary creativity." For Rodríguez there is some value, some resiliency to be gained from such a hard life. "He views poetry as the water that runs through the concrete river," Castillo observed, "cleansing and restoring life." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly concluded, "This poetry is of the barrio yet stubbornly refuses to be confined in it—Rodríguez's perceptive gaze and storyteller's gift transport his world across neighborhood boundaries." Audrey Rodríguez, writing in the Bilingual Review, noted that The Concrete River "involves a return to and recovery of the past … and a recognition of chaos, death, and the reality of a place that locks in or jeopardizes the thinking-feeling self." The critic concluded that the poet "is one of Chicano literature's most gifted and committed artists today…. His is a refreshing voice—of rebellion and beauty—in an increasingly narrow age of literature's disengagement from the ground of great art and true history." The Concrete River won an honorable mention for the Paterson Poetry Prize and the PEN West/Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence. In 1992 Rodríguez received both an Illinois Arts Council poetry fellowship and a Lannan fellowship in poetry.
For his next work, Rodríguez moved away from poetry, but not from the lyrical inspiration, to tell in prose form the story of his own years in a Los Angeles gang. He dedicated his book to the twenty-five of his childhood friends who died victims of gang violence before the author reached the age of eighteen. In Always Running, Rodríguez also explains the needs out of which the Hispanic gang culture springs. As Dale Eastman reported in New City magazine, "Socially ostracized and economically segregated from their white counterparts, the young children of mostly migrant workers who had come north to earn a living, first formed clicas, or clubs, to create some sense of belonging." These Mexican youths were denied, for the most part, membership in other organizations, be it the Boy Scouts or even athletic teams. These alternate, ad hoc youth clubs slowly evolved into the gangs of today, many of them simply another way to hang out with friends. Eastman further noted, "As increasing numbers of Mexicans moved into the barrio areas, the clubs adopted a more dangerous profile, offering muchneeded protection from rival groups and a sense of power in an increasingly powerless world."
As Rodríguez grew older, he became increasingly involved in drugs and gang violence. Gary Soto, critiquing Always Running in the New York Times Book Review, noted that "the body count rises page by page. The incidents become increasingly bizarre and perversely engaging. Mr. Rodríguez is jailed for attempted murder, then let go. He participates in the fire-bombing of a home. He robs stores. He experiments with heroin. He wounds a biker with a shotgun blast, is arrested, then let go. When police officers beat him to the ground, his ‘foot inadvertently came up and brushed one of them in the chest,’ and he is booked for assault and eventually tried and jailed." But Rodríguez also tells how he escaped the gang life, and he brings Always Running up to date by discussing the role of gangs in the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, and his own son's gang involvement in Chicago. Soto concluded that Always Running "is a chilling portrait of gang life during the 1960s, a gang life that haunts us even now…. The book is fierce and fearless."
Castillo noted that while some critics call the book "a memoir, others have qualified it as a novel of redemption because of its fictional/poetic qualities." As Rodríguez noted to Cohen, the book is a little of both, for he "synthesized events and reorganized the material so that it would work as literature [fiction] but still maintain the truth and reality of the situation." Castillo further observed, "Often poetic, the narration is nevertheless a straight presentation of life as it was for Rodríguez. Readers witness a childhood and adult behavior that is surprising for its violence." Ultimately, Rodríguez was saved from the violence by two mentors who showed him a different path; such a path was not open to Chava, a former gang leader whom Rodríguez meets at the end of the book outside a party. Battered and wounded—Chava carries a colostomy bag as a result of a stabbing—this once feared enemy is "a fragment of the race, drunk, agonized, crushed, and I can't hate him anymore; I can't see him as the manifestation of craziness and power he once possessed; he's a caricature, an apparition, but also more like me, capable of so much ache beneath the exterior of so much strength."
Other reviewers lauded Rodríguez's gritty tale, while a storm of controversy began to brew over its use in the schools. Suzanne Ruta called the book "beautifully written and politically astute" in an Entertainment Weekly review, while Floyd Salas, writing in the Los Angeles Times, felt it was "a pilgrim's progress, a classic tale of the new immigrant in the land of the melting pot." Salas went on to describe Always Running as "a tome of the torturous, faltering, sometimes progressing, sometimes repressing journey of a gifted migrant. With this memorable, often tragic story, Rodríguez has fulfilled that journey by achieving the American dream of success in art and life." Fred Whitehead, reviewing the book in the National Catholic Reporter, concluded, "By expressing the pain of those most destroyed, Rodríguez never lets us forget where we need to go together. He thinks it is possible for us all to deal with these problems, not by way of patching here and there, but through fundamental change." Echoing these sentiments, a reviewer for the Progressive wrote that this "beautifully written insider's account of what it's like to live in the desolation of America's urban ghettoes" tells "how our society leaves minorities and the poor no viable alternatives…. The problem, Rodríguez makes clear, is not with the gangs but with the society that creates gangs."
In artistic content, Rodríguez was perhaps too successful in his reproduction of the climate of violence in which he grew up. Several school boards around the country banned the book from their library shelves, criticizing it for promoting violence. But Rodríguez is steadfast. The book neither glorifies nor demonizes gang involvement, Rodríguez asserts. He told Sullivan, "Both views distort reality." The book contains, according to its many supporters, a message that will reach kids in gangs, that touches their lives directly and that may lead them—as a similar approach did for Rodríguez himself—out of the violence and into the light. Nation contributor Ilan Stavans echoed this very desire: "Although gang life may be impossible to eradicate fully, one hopes that Always Running(a fortunate title) will be read where it most counts, and widely, and have an impact."
Rodríguez has maintained a busy schedule of writing and speaking in schools since the publication of Always Running, becoming a spokesman for Latino causes, as well as for youth and the dispossessed. Deeply involved in social causes, he has also continued to publish distinguished and innovative verse and prose. In 1998 he added to his poetry publications with Trochemoche: New Poems —"helter-skelter" in Spanish. These verses are once again highly autobiographical in nature and explore the phases of Rodríguez's life from gang member to "his more sedate role as a Chicago publisher," as Lawrence Olszewski noted in a Library Journal review of the collection. In the poem "Notes of a Bad Cricket," Rodríguez assays his inner worlds: "There is a mixology of brews within me; I've tasted them all, still fermenting / as grass-high anxieties. I am rebel's pen, rebel's son, father of revolution in verse." Olszewski went on to observe the "head-on, no-holds barred style" that "smacks more of newspaper accounts than lyricism without succumbing to sensationalism." Susan Smith Nash described the collection as "raw, honest, hard-hitting" in World Literature Today, with voices that "are dissident, angry, raised in protest." Nash further commented that these voices "are truly unforgettable."
Additionally, Rodríguez has branched out into new territory with his children's books,América Is Her Name and It Doesn't Have to Be This Way: A Barrio Story. Castillo called the former book "a sensitive story for young children" in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. The story of nine-year-old América Soliz, an illegal Mexican immigrant living in a Chicago barrio, the book takes young readers inside the head and heart of this young girl whose greatest wish is simply to return to her native Oaxaca. But when a Puerto Rican poet visits her English-as-a-second-language (ESL) class one day, she is inspired to become a citizen of the world through poetry.
Writing in School Library Journal, Denise E. Agosto felt that the "story is generally well told, and its message is an important one." Agosto concluded that América Is Her Name is a "solid choice for bilingual and ESL collections." Though a reviewer for Publishers Weekly thought the book "ponderous" and "wordy," Skipping Stones critic Beth Erfurth called the book a "story about hopes, memories, and dreams amid a reality of discrimination and despair," and found it to be an "inspiration to readers of all ages."
In a second picture book,It Doesn't Have to Be This Way, Rodríguez tells another cautionary tale about gangs. Ten-year-old Monchi relates his own near miss with joining a gang—saved by the shooting of his older cousin, a girl who has advised him to avoid the gangs. Dreamer, the older cousin, is left in a wheelchair as a result of the shooting, but Monchi refuses to be drawn into the cycle of retribution that others demand. "The message is spelled out," wrote Hazel Rochman in a Booklist review, "but Rodríguez's personal experience, as a teenage gang member and now as an adult counselor, gives the story immediacy." School Library Journal writer Reina Huerta felt the book could be "a springboard for discussion."
Rodríguez returned to adult prose with Hearts and Hands: Creating Community in Violent Times and The Republic of East L.A.: Stories. In the former book, Rodríguez "takes a long, hard look at the endemic violence and the ‘cultural malaise of isolation and meaningless’ that he sees as defining swaths of U.S. culture," as a Publishers Weekly contributor described it. Rodríguez mixes stories of his own life, including his current work with young people at risk of joining gangs, with sociological and political analyses of the pathologies of urban life. In the latter book, Rodríguez tackles many of the same topics, but this time through fiction: "twelve gritty, hard-hitting snapshots," as a Publishers Weekly contributor described the short stories of The Republic of East L.A. Although acknowledging that the author "is skillful at rendering the aura of East L.A.," a Kirkus Reviews critic thought that in this, his first foray into fiction, Rodríguez "too often shoots for a kind of scope that he has yet to master." On the other hand, the Publishers Weekly reviewer wrote that "the collection as a whole attains a spirited, resilient rhythm."
In June, 2000, Rodríguez left Chicago and returned to the Los Angeles area. Eighteen months later, his new project, Tia Chucha's Café Cultural, opened its doors. Named after his eccentric but independent aunt, the cafe/bookstore/art gallery/computer center/performance center seeks to empower the local Latino community through art. As Rodríguez and his wife told Los Angeles Times reporter Maria Elena Fernandez, Sylmar (where the cafe is located) and the surrounding towns of San Fernando, Arleta, Sun Valley, and Pacoima (where the Rodríguez family lives), with a combined population of 400,000, are eighty percent Latino and, before the opening of Tia Chucha's, had not one bookstore or community art center. While the store "does embrace and acknowledge the Mexican/Chicano/Central American peoples who need such a bookstore-café-art gallery-performance space in their midst," Rodríguez told POV's Borders Web site, the center "is not against any white, black, Asian or other Latino who come and partake in our bounty of culture and song. We live the concept of ‘no borders’ while acknowledging that borders have helped mother us into our present circumstances."
Since the opening of the store, Rodríguez has continued to write, both fiction and poetry, and in 2002 his collection The Republic of East L.A. was released. Set in Los Angeles's east side, the tales are of every day life, some focusing on friendship or philosophy, and others dealing with darker incidents. Noting that Rodríguez "creates vivid characters," Carlos Orellana in Booklist concluded, "It's his poetic prose that makes this collection a winner." Ariel Swartley, writing for Los Angeles Magazine, noted, "What first strikes a reader about the dozen stories in The Republic of East L.A. is their understatement…. The understatement, however, is on the surface, a matter of tone, not thought…. Nor does the tone exclude humor, though that tends to be the close-to-the-bone kind, equally compounded of pain and affection."
Rodríguez followed his collection with his first novel novel,Music of the Mill, also set in Los Angeles. The events begin at Nazareth Steel in 1944, where Procopio Salcido finds work, and continues with Procopio's son Johnny's story working at the steel mill from 1970 until 1982. Much of the story focuses on Johnny's life at the mill and his relationships with his coworkers, the violence that takes place when Johnny tries to lead a group of his peers to gain equal representation in a union run by racists, and the eventual closing of the mill. "The novel hums with intensity as Rodríguez passionately dramatizes the battle the mill's minority workers wage," wrote a contributor to Publishers Weekly. Lawrence Olszweski in Library Journal felt, "Rodríguez writes very realistic dialog about an environment he knows firsthand." Booklist contributor Michele Leber called the novel "a devastating view of discrimination against people of color and women."
My Nature Is Hunger, a poetry collection containing selections from Rodíguez's works from 1989 to 2004, provides a retrospective of many of Rodríguez's earlier works. Featuring poetry from Poems across the Pavement, The Concrete River, Trochemoche, and more than twenty-four new poems, the volume deals with the hard life of the barrio, the nature of borders, and occasionally, transcendence. Donna Seaman, writing in Booklist, called the volume "haunting," found the poems "deeply affecting" or "wrenching yet empowering," and felt Rodríguez wrote "resoundingly."
On his home page, Rodríguez expressed his feelings about how art can make a difference in the world. "Art is the heart's explosion on the world. Music. Dance. Poetry. Art on cars, on walls, on our skins. There is probably no more powerful force for change in this uncertain and crisis-ridden world than young people and their art. It is the consciousness of the world breaking away from the strangle grip of an archaic social order," he wrote. He also spoke about using his own art to bring about change on the Lee Hip Hope Show Web site: "America is too often idealized, whitewashed, scrubbed clean with lies. America has some great values, great ideals, but it's been built on some dark, painful, murderous history. I have to speak from that history. Not to destroy, not to dismiss, not to decry—but to dance." Along with his writing, Rodríguez often works with student poets and writers, collaborating with them as a team and encouraging them to use their creativity to share their voices. In 2006, he helped a group of high school students write and produce a play about immigration. Rodríguez continues to manage Tia Chucha's Café Cultural in Los Angeles, California.
Luis Rodríguez contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:
Birth is an ignition. From the chaos. Where a word sparks the creation. A great eloquence to open the door. So I was born. Earth womb to mother womb. July 9, 1954, about 6 a.m., according to the modern calendar system. Under the Mexica Sun Stone system (the so-called Aztec calendar), the year was 7-Tochtli(Rabbit), within the thirteen-day period of 1-Tecpatl(Obsidian Knife), in the day of 13-Itzcuintli(Dog). I was born on a wound, on the border between the United States and Mexico. "The Frontier," they call it. El Paso, Texas. The pass. An entering along a journey. Moments after I emerged from my mother, the nurse dropped me. Shocked into reality. I've lived my life like this. Shocked into motion. Shocked into the rivers
of my life. Shocked into the depths. Wake up! Wake up! I fell into awareness. My mother had babies as if she were on an assembly line—a "Mexican factory." The undocumented women gave birth, then were pushed out the door. "Next!" a doctor might say. The women came to give light. Dar luz. Birth. A spark. A flame. Or a raging blaze.
My brother Jose Rene, three years older than I, and my sister Ana Virginia, a year younger, were also born in el chuco, as El Paso is known. When I was two years old, my parents took their three small children from our home in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, to one of the most imaginal cities on the continent: Los Angeles. A splendid place; splendid with images. An imagined place. For too many people, this town was the end of the line, where the railroads stopped and the ocean stood like the hand of God to contain our exile. My mother worked in the city's garment industry; she also cleaned homes as a domestic worker on the days she wasn't trying to raise her children. My father, although a former high-school principal and biologist in Mexico, never had his credentials recognized in the new country. He worked in dog food factories, paint factories, in construction, and as a door-to-door salesman of pots and pans, Bibles, and insurance. He sacrificed everything to make it in America. This was his dream. This was also the gateway to our nightmare.
South Central L.A. Watts. Ghetto/barrio. 105th Street. My first home of remembrance. My older half sister, Seni, had already found an apartment there with her husband, Diego, and their two small daughters. She invited the family to come on over. In those days, there were only certain places for Mexicans to live. East L.A. for sure. Nothing but Mexicans (across the Los Angeles River—another wound). And South Central L.A.: Mexicans, Africans. Poor people. Small wood-frame homes, stuccoed duplexes. And government housing projects. Africans. Mexicans.
We lived next to each other; too many times we didn't know each other. My first memories were of being alone. Of having no voice. Of living in my head. I fantasized a world not of this world. In silence, I played with my toys: my battered trucks, chewed-on army men, and chipped marbles. A dirt mound in the alley behind our home was my favorite spot. Alone. I was not prepared for the world. I entered school afraid. I refused to speak. I only knew Spanish, and this provoked disdain. One teacher told me to sit in the back of the room—which I did, without doing anything but play with blocks for a year. Don't speak Spanish! Kids punished and swatted for speaking Spanish. Two generations before, my people were punished for speaking their indigenous tongues in Mexico. It keeps going on. Language is the first door to close.
Tortures. Big brother to little brother. Anger in his eyes. In the mouth that spat out my name. Why did he hate me so much? I loved my brother. But he only wanted to hurt me. I remember being thrown off rooftops. I remember having a rope tied around my neck and being dragged across the front yard. I remember beatings and threats and bops in the head. My mother, who didn't know because I couldn't tell her, would force me to play with him. Sometimes she'd whip me for hiding in a closet. She was a good mother. She cared. She cried at every indiscretion. She punished and she wiped the tears. But she didn't understand why I didn't want to play with my brother. My sisters couldn't help (my youngest sister, Gloria Estela, was born at the General Hospital in East L.A.); they too were brutalized. My father didn't pay attention. He had other interests. I remember him coming home, and I would want to be held. This wanting to be held! This didn't last long. My father struggled to show an emotion. He did, however, give the children new names. Animal names. Jose was el rano, the frog; Ana was la pata, the duck; Gloria was la cucaracha, the cockroach. I was el grillo, the cricket. (My brother-in-law Diego later changed this to el grillo pelon: the bald cricket). But to say I love you?
South San Gabriel. The Hills. Dirt roads. Just outside of East L.A. Chickens, roosters, and mangy dogs in the backyards. It was poor county territory, like Watts. We moved to the flat area of South San Gabriel. I was nine when we got there. By then we had already moved around several places in South Central L.A., to Reseda in the San Fernando Valley (one of the first Mexican families to set foot there), to Monterey Park, then to South San Gabriel. Maybe seven homes by then. For a short time before landing there, we were homeless after my father lost a substitute teaching position in the San Fernando Valley. We lost our house, our car, our furniture, and much dignity. We ended up sleeping in the living rooms of comadres. Or at my sister's home. There were no family shelters then. I remember cold baths. Nights of corn-flake dinners. The yelling. One night my sister stabbed her husband with a nail file. I remember blood. Soon after that, we got evicted.
In South San Gabriel, we finally found a small, one-bedroom, wood-shingled home with a large dirt backyard. Rented through a poverty agency that pushed us this way. I saw Watts burn on TV in 1965; the fire singeing the edges of my soul. Then later my father obtained a job as a laboratory custodian for a community college in the San Fernando Valley. He made about 14,000 dollars a year for a family of six. Poor, but not homeless, not starving. Poor but proud. By the time I was thirteen, our family had bought a two-bedroom home in San Gabriel for 12,500 dollars—more than sixty miles from my father's job, but he managed to make it to work and back every day until he retired. It was 1967. The house wasn't much, but it gave my father's dream a shape. Our own home. (The bank's home?) This is what America was all about, right? My father wanted this. To be part of America. To believe we could belong. We never did. But we bought a house. We tried … I tried everything to get out of it.
Gangs. Tattoos. Drugs. Sniffing aerosol sprays and glue. Streets. Vacant lots. Guns. Skipping school. Jails. Courts. From age eleven until eighteen, I immersed myself into La Vida Loca, the crazy life. I became part of Las Lomas barrio of South San Gabriel. I shot and got shot at. I OD'd and helped others who did the same. Weed. Pills—downers, uppers, mescaline. Alcohol. Heroin. PCP…. But I also read books: at age ten I ruptured myself and had to be hospitalized. I read a score of illustrated Bible stories for children. I shouldn't have wanted this; like so many Mexicans, I had fallen through the cracks of two languages. But these books engaged my imagination. I awoke to the power of words. Of story. After that, I read all the time. I also discovered the opposite sex: my first sexual encounter was at age twelve inside the dugout of a makeshift baseball field. I became socially active: I walked out of my school at age thirteen during the East L.A. Blowouts of 1968. Only two of us made it out the gate, but by age seventeen I had led three walkouts with hundreds of students. I took part in other civil disturbances, including the 1970 Chicano Moratorium against the Vietnam War. I participated in revolutionary study groups and dabbled with amateur boxing, martial arts, work (warehouse, janitorial, lawn maintenance, car washes, taco stands), as well as painting murals, writing poems, and Mexican (Aztec) dancing. I drop out of school at fifteen; a year or so later I went back and eventually received my diploma. I would fall, stoned on chemicals, on top of a torn sofa in an empty, graffiti-filled lot in the Hill … and I would spend hours in libraries. I would battle in the streets … and I would practice intricate dance steps. Enigmatic. Chromatic. Perhaps psychosomatic. Walking between two worlds. Inside two skins. Something had to give. Something had to die. Something had to live.
Laguna Park. East L.A. August 29, 1970. Thousands from all over the United States, Mexico, and other places gathered here to protest the Vietnam War. In the biggest barrio of the country. I participated, drawn by a call to struggle. I was sixteen. Tired of the streets. Looking for a way out that connected to the fire within. Few things could get close. The sheriffs arrived, ready to riot. They came with helmets, tear-gas guns; shotguns, and batons. I was one of the first to fall, struck on the head and then wrestled to the ground. I went from jail to jail, ending up in the old Hall of Justice jailhouse, called the "Glasshouse." I had been arrested before, but now it wasn't about stealing, fights, or being stupid. I felt a sense of purpose, that I was part of something bigger. They put me on murderer's row, next to a cell that contained Charles Manson. The tier consisted of mostly Africans and Mexicans. I held my own, considering that the first night I had a razor blade placed to my neck. But I wouldn't back down. For some, we were heroes to be part of the so-called East L.A. riot. Whittier Boulevard burned. Parts of other barrios burned. Ajua! we yelled from behind iron bars. Chicano journalist Ruben Salazar was killed, and we tore up the cells on the tier. Ajua! We had a cause. We fought for justice. I found reason to exist.
Life was breaking out of me. I didn't want to end it anymore. Before this, I did everything I could to die—drugs, standing on the street corners in the path of bullets, even suicide attempts. I had a near-death experience sniffing aerosol sprays combined with pills and whiskey. Once I almost slashed my wrists. But I didn't die. I found my poetry and somehow my life. I'd survived other arrests: for attempted murder, for fighting with police. For disorderly conduct. But by age eighteen, I had joined a revolutionary cadre organization after a couple of years of studying, organizing, and waking up to a new consciousness. Another awakening. I became a student of American revolutionary Nelson Peery. I won my first writing contest and attended my first poetry reading in Berkeley, Califor-
nia. I flew on my first airplane to get there. I started to breathe again. Mentors arose to meet me. I arose to meet them. A hero of going down was now going up. A turn-around. Full of motion and intent. It worked for me. Notwithstanding the fact I often wanted to run away, to give up. Or that there were setbacks, emotional and psychological as well as physical. I kept going. Kept getting stronger. I gave up the drugs and spray after seven hard years of ingesting them. I gave up the violence and jails. By age twenty, I felt ready to start a family, to obtain steady work. In August, 1974, I married Camila Martinez, Mexicali-born and lifelong East L.A. resident, at the Guadalupe Church on Hazard Street. She was just two months out of Garfield High School. I was working the night shift at a paper mill. Although I tried college for a few months, I didn't finish my courses. Work. Politics. Marriage. This was my life now.
Paper-mill utility man. Truck driver. Bus driver. Foundry worker. Smelter operator. Steel mill worker. Construction apprentice. Carpenter. Millwright. Welder. Pipe fitter. For seven more years, I worked it. I gained skills. I rode hard the concrete streets through L.A. industry. It helped keep me out of prison. I had two children: Ramiro Daniel was born in June of 1975; Andrea Victoria in April of 1977. I saw their births—powerful ignitions. We lived in Florencia/South Central, in Pasadena, and back in Watts. Most of this time, I also worked with youth, many of whom were hurting like I had been hurting. I gained greater political and organizational clarity through intense commitment, work, and dialogue. But there were also unemployment lines. Welfare. Arguments with Camila. Drunken bouts. Affairs. And treachery. In early 1978, Camila and I broke up. Later that year I quit the Bethlehem Steel Mill, where I had worked on a repair crew for four years. I moved back to East L.A. I wanted to become a writer. But I didn't know what to do. So early in the morning or late at night, I wrote. I took night classes. I read all the time. And I kept working, visiting my kids on weekends. But my focus was on writing. One instructor at East Los Angeles College stuck it out with me once a week, even though I ended up being his only student. "If you're serious, I'll come to class," he said. I agreed to show up. He did, too, and I learned. Unfortunately, I didn't always pay attention to when my children needed me. When Camila's new boyfriends and new husband would physically abuse her and sometimes the kids. I trying to work and get my writing together. I kept drinking. I kept forgetting. I just wasn't there.
In early 1980, after getting fired from a chemical refinery in East L.A. as a pipe fitter/welder mechanic, I got a job at a chain of weekly East L.A. newspapers—including the Eastside Sun and Mexican American Sun. I had entered a threshold this time as a writer. That summer I was accepted into the Summer Program for Minority Journalists at the University of California, Berkeley—one of a few to ever do so without any college degrees. An eleven-week intensive on-the-job training program. In the fall of that year they provided me my first daily newspaper job at the San Bernardino Sun. I started out as a crime and disaster beat reporter. I worked from 4:30 p.m. until 12:30 a.m. I had a forty-channel radio to pick up police, fire, and other emergency frequencies. I had seen death and destruction in Las Lomas. But now I witnessed the results on a basis. I saw bodies shot. Cut up. Electrocuted. Mangled in car wrecks. Burned to a crisp. I covered prostitution stings, drug raids, and SWAT battles. I dealt with double murders, love triangles, gang retaliations, suicides, accidents, robberies, and corruption. I interviewed many people. I drank a lot. I wrote a lot. I ignored my babies a lot. In 1981, I returned to L.A. on weekends, some sixty miles away, to get involved in the Latino Writers Association, mentored by such writers as Victor Valle, Helena Viramontes, and Manual "Manazar" Gamboa. We organized barrio workshops, a reading series, and the publication of our own literary arts magazine,Chismearte. We visited prisons and brought some of the best Chicano writers to East L.A.
In mid-1982, I moved back to East L.A., this time in the basement of my brother's house in Boyle Heights. I met Paulette Donalson, beautiful African American journalist and aspiring actress. We married in November of 1982. Around that time, I got hired by the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFL-CIO) during the largest union representation campaign in U.S. history—some 60,000 University of California clerical and blue-collar employees. I did their publicity and worked on their newspapers. I freelanced for the L.A. Weekly and Nation, among others. I covered events in local communities, particularly around the rights of undocumented people, but also in Mexico, Nicaragua, and southern Honduras. I did radio programming at KPFK-FM. Unfortunately, I tried to work in L.A. as a professional journalist but found out later that the editor of the San Bernardino Sun had blocked me from working in the newspapers I applied to. (He told prospective employers I was an "advocate," the death knell for many a good journalist!) But I also worked on poetry, short stories, and novels. Included was a fiction version of my gang days that I called "Mi Vida Loca." I received twenty-two rejections from major U.S. publishers on this book. I would have gotten more, I'm sure, but I stopped after that. None told me why they rejected the book, except one. In a letter, this publishing house stated they had published a "Hispanic" novel ten years before—and they felt they had done enough as far as "Hispanic" literature was concerned! I knew then that my work was being judged, not on its literary merits, but on the name, on my culture. I kept freelancing. I couldn't stop believing that my writing would finally amount to something. I had given up so much for this to happen. But I had also sabotaged many things that had come my way.
Drinking and depression. I felt lonely most of the time. My kids came and I tried to show them a good time. But they weren't the center of my life. They knew it. I acted as if I didn't. Was I becoming my father? Still, I refused to go back to industry. To go back to crime or jail. Or to drugs. I couldn't go back. Drinking, unfortunately, kept me going. When Camila and I broke up, I fell deeper into the bottle. In the early 1980s, I had moved in with Diana, and we drank all the time. I had partnerships with women, but drink was what linked us. Paulette was not about that—and this was good. But we didn't last long. In the winter of 1983, I left Paulette and moved in with Susana Gil, a Mexican-Colombian friend of mine who was also going through a separation. I recall a night in which Susana sang songs on the floor of her home, with a guitar across her lap, and both of us reached unconsciousness with a bottle of tequila. When I awoke, I saw Susana asleep, her head toward the floor and the guitar on her lap.
For a long time I tried to keep the alcohol out of the house, but not out of my life. I worked in Denver, Washington, D.C., Salem, Austin, Portland, San Francisco/Oakland, San Diego, and Miami as a troubleshooter for AFSCME. Every day, I ended up at a local bar. The Bethlehem Steel Mill had closed down in the early 1980s; whole communities were affected. There was a twenty-percent rise in alcoholism and eight suicides the first year after the closing. The United Steelworkers Union, Local 1845, set up one of the largest food banks in the country, feeding 4,000 to 6,000 families a week. I ended up participating in the theater/poetry workshops set up by Local 1845. The union hall sponsored The TheaterWorkers Project, created by Susan Franklin Tanner, which involved former steelworkers telling their stories on stage. It received support from people like Bruce Springsteen, and the project traveled all over the country. By early 1985, Susana and I had broken up, even though we had bought a house together. I still raged. I still felt the emptiness. I felt alone and scared. Again. I drank to ease it all. Again. I didn't know what to do but run. And run. Drink. And run.
I received a phone call: Camila's husband had beaten her up. This wasn't the first time. Once, in Denver, Camila called to request money from me when I was working on the newspaper. I asked her if she and the kids were okay. She said fine. I found out later from a mutual friend that she had called from a battered women's shelter. Now another friend called to say my children were safe at her house. But she didn't know where Camila or her husband were. I got into my car and drove from San Bernardino to L.A to get the kids. When I got there, they were already at Camila's house: that night, I slept curled up next to my young son and daughter. Then her husband came. He was drunk. He threatened to kill Camila. He heard I was there and threatened me. I got up. We had a confrontation. The dude pulled out a large knife. I looked at him and told him to go ahead and stab me. I wasn't scared. But I also told him that none of this was worth killing anyone for, that he had to hang on to his dignity, that it was all going to be okay. At one point, Ramiro, about four years old, walked into the room and asked what was going on, a frightened look on his face. The dude then sat down on the bed and cried. I didn't take my kids away from Camila, although I almost did then. Camila and her husband eventually broke up. I just knew that I couldn't raise my children the way she could. Camila was a good mother, but she had rotten relationships with men (once I was one). I hoped she would finally find her peace and a decent guy, too.
I moved to Chicago in May of 1985. To get away. To begin anew. Stepping onto another threshold. I became editor of the People's Tribune weekly newspaper, a small political publication. I felt I could make an impact. I covered strikes, civil rights battles, homeless organizing. I went to the South, to Appalachia, to cities in struggle. Although I had undermined so many things over the years, including my relationships, I continued in the direction of my aims, determined by any wounds. Wound to a womb. Chicago was different from L.A. as any city could be. I needed this. I also got involved in the struggles there. Among the homeless. The urban youth. And the poets. In 1988, I became active in the growing and vibrant poetry scene in the city's bars, cafés, libraries, and theaters. I worked with such poets Michael Warr, Patricia Smith, David Hernandez, Carlos Cumpian, and Marc Smith. By then I stopped editing the newspaper. I began work as freelance computer typesetter, writer, and editor. I was also employed weekends at WMAQ-AM news radio in Chicago, as a news writer and reporter. I was on the board and staff of Letter eX, Chicago's poetry news magazine.
I married Maria Trinidad Cardenas, "Trini," March of 1988 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. She had been part of a large Mexican migrant family in California, eleven
brothers and sisters; they eventually settled in Pacoima, where she went to school and grew up. Three years before I showed up, she landed in Chicago to edit and write for the bilingual revolutionary newspaper Tribuno del Pueblo. Our son, Ruben Joaquin, was born in September. I read poetry in many venues by then: bars, schools, cafés, prisons. I began poetry workshops in public schools, juvenile facilities, and homeless shelters. (I ended up facilitating weekly workshops at one women's shelter, Irene's Place, for four years.) Poetry swirled in and around me. My oldest son, Ramiro, also came to live with us that year; he was getting into a lot of trouble in L.A. and Camila wanted me to start raising him. He was thirteen, angry and resentful toward me.
In late 1989, I published my first poetry collection,Poems across the Pavement, under the imprint I started, Tia Chucha Press, which I named after my
favorite aunt: Tia Chucha. I volunteered for the Guild Complex, which would become the largest and best literary arts organization in the city. In 1991, my second book of poetry,The Concrete River, was published by Curbstone Press in Connecticut. I did readings in Toronto, Montreal, Puerto Rico, Paris, and London. By then, Ramiro had joined a local Chicago gang. I decided to rewrite Mi Vida Loca and do it the way it was originally intended, as a nonfiction memoir. For Ramiro; for young people. In early 1993, Curbstone Press issued a hardcover version of the book called Always Running: La Vida Loca—Gang Days in L.A
I again traveled across the United States. When Always Running first came out, I went to thirty cities in three months. Ramiro went with me for the first ten days and five cities. We spoke on the Oprah Winfrey Show, Good Morning America, CNN's Sonya Live, and National Public Radio as well as local TV, radio, and print media. We read at bookstores, schools, conferences, and gatherings. This was one of only a few books on gang life ever written by a former participant. Ramiro talked about what it was like to be in a gang in the present. We made a powerful team. We may have reached some seventy million people with our media and community presentations. After my son returned home, I continued to spread the message of justice, of peace, of being there for our youth, and of stopping the growing imprisonment rate. I imagined another world: abundant, just, and equitable. I began to engage the greater imagination among people for the same things. But back home, Ramiro got into more trouble. He seemed to be imbalanced without me. I got accolades. Fellowships. Awards. Once, on the brink of my own bankruptcy, with thirty 30,000 dollars in debt, I received a fellowship that allowed me to pay our bills. An advance from Touchstone Books/Simon & Schuster for the paperback rights of Always Running helped Trini and me make a down payment on our first home. The person working the bidding with the eight New York City publishers vying for the rights asked me what I thought I should get. "I don't know," I said, "but whatever you do, make them pay."
I stopped drinking in early 1993. I had to be there for Ramiro. For my daughter, Andrea, who by then had moved in with us. I had to be there for Ruben and Trini. My father and brother-in-law had died of cancer within three weeks of each other the previous year. My health was not going to hold either if I didn't take care of myself. By that time, I worked with gang youth in predominantly Puerto Rican Humboldt Park. Most of them were friends of Ramiro. We connected with youth in the Mexican community of Pilsen, collaborating with youth organizer Patricia Zamora. I didn't need any more excuses. Ramiro was getting kicked out of schools. Landing in jail. Getting beaten up by police. Getting shot at by rival gangs—and shooting back. I had to be there. I had to be sober. To write. To be father. To be companion. To mentor, organize, and teach. I also did workshops in homeless shelters, in schools, in juvenile facilities. To keep money coming in, I kept traveling. By then I had quit all my other jobs, including WMAQ, a CNN radio station, after I refused to reconcile myself as a journalist with the one-sided and distorted coverage of the Persian Gulf War. I ended up going to Europe again, on a tour of seven German cities, one Austrian city, and Amsterdam with six American poets. I had a relapse in June with drinking, chugging down about twenty-five large, dark German beers. I felt like dying. My body reacted badly; alcohol was toxic to my system. It was the last time I ever drank.
In mid-1993, photographer Donna DeCesare and I received a grant from the Center for Documentary Studies out of Duke University to photograph and interview Salvadoran gang youth in L.A. and San Salvador. Donna and I went to L.A. for several weeks in the summer and to San Salvador in December. The Zapatistas started their armed struggle in Chiapas, Mexico, on January 1, 1994, when we were still in El Salvador. Soon after, the paperback version of Always Running appeared through Touchstone Books. I went to fifteen cities in one-and-a-half months. I did residencies in Pennsylvania, Berkeley, Chicago, Connecticut, and other places. I visited prisons, juvenile facilities, and schools, including the most violent, most crowded, poorest, and even some of the richest. From East L.A to Brooklyn. From Miami to Seattle. I received hundreds of letters from youth, teachers, parents, and organizers. The youth in Chicago I was working with, along with Ramiro and Andrea, started Youth Struggling for Survival in August of 1994 at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Although mostly Mexican and Puerto Rican, the group also consisted of African and European-descended youth; they all came together to change themselves and their environment. Camila had by then traveled to Chicago from East L.A. to help with Ramiro; she also got active in YSS.
In January of 1994, I participated for the first time with the Mosaic Multicultural Foundation's Men's Conferences, run by renowned storyteller Michael Meade, along with teacher-elders such as Malidoma Some, originally from the Dagara tribe of West Africa, and Jack Cornfield, a leading American Buddhist. I also moved toward understanding my indigenous roots, working with tribal elders in the Lakota, Navajo, Quinault, and Creek nations. A circle was being completed—a circle I began in my late teens trying to break out of the crazy life. In late June of 1994, my fourth child, Luis Jacinto, was born.
In 1995, Moira Productions, working for the Independent Television Service, followed me and Ramiro, as well as YSS, for about a year. They were filming a series called Making Peace for PBS-TV. Unfortunately, three of our YSS leaders—Marcos Cordova, Eric Arellano, and Eddie Ramos—were killed during that time. I also did videos for "The United States of Poetry" (never used), the Lannan Foundation, Noetic Sciences, and the Poetry Center of San Francisco State University; CDs and tapes for Tia Chucha Press (A Snake in the Heart: Poetry and Music by Chicago's Spoken Word Performers) and Rhino Records (In Their Own Voices: A Century of Recorded Poetry), among others. I did recordings for Folkways Records and Oral Tradition Archives that have yet to be released. I helped found Rock-A-Mole! Music and Festival Productions in L.A. with Lee Balinger, Ernie Perez, and David Sandoval. My poetry, essays, reviews, and stories have been published in magazines and anthologies, including Los Angeles Times, Nation, U.S. News and World Report, Utne Reader, Prison Life, Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, Grand Street, TriQuarterly, Chicago Reporter, and Hungry Mind Review.
I returned to El Salvador with Donna to do major presentations at government and nongovernmental agency gatherings, as well as at an exhibit of Donna's work in the capital. Donna and I also did similar presentations in Raleigh, North Carolina, and in Paris, France. I went to Mexico to do talks and a reading at a gathering in Taxco, Guerrero, Mexico, on the same issues of L.A. gang youth being exported to Mexico and Central America. In late 1996 (and again in 1997), I traveled to the Navajo Reservation to speak at schools, at conferences, and among elders. In early 1997, YSS, with the help of Frank and Louise Blazquez, caravaned to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota; we also established regular sweat lodge ceremonies, while learning more about our indigenous roots, with YSS youth and adults. By then, I had attended multicultural men's conferences in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, and Seattle. YSS connected with Barrios Unidos, a mostly Chicano urban peace organization based in northern California, as well as other similar organizations. Andrea was in college, working and trying to survive as a single mother. (Her courage and leadership has continued to amaze me.) I had four grandchildren by then—Ricardo, Anastasia, and Amanda (from Ramiro) and Catalina (from Andrea).
Another poetry collection,Trochemoche, and a children's illustrated and bilingual book,América Is Her Name, are scheduled for publication in 1998 by Curbstone Press; I also have a book of essays, a short story collection, a handbook on youth and violence, and another nonfiction work on contemporary gang life in process. I had won fellowships and awards from the Lila-Wallace/Reader's Digest Fund, the Lannan Foundation, the National Association for Poetry Therapy, PEN Oakland, San Francisco State University's Poetry Center, and the Chicago Sun-Times among others. I had finally united with family. I had finally begun to recover from my worst addictions. I had found respect and a vital place within community and in the political struggle. There was much to be grateful for, much to feel accomplished about. But not all was well.
In January of 1997, Ramiro was arrested, beaten, and charged with allegedly shooting at two police officers, and for shooting a truck driver at a Chicago intersection. He was taken to the new maximum security section of the Cook County Jail. Bail eventually ended up at $1,250,000. If convicted, Ramiro could get twenty years to life. We got the news while YSS held a ritual retreat at the Jane Addams Community Center. My eight-year-old son Ruben, Andrea, and Camila were there, and it affected everyone at the retreat. This had happened before, in 1996. Ramiro had other attempted murder charges dropped to two counts of a felony discharge of a weapon. He was sentenced to four months at a Department of Corrections boot camp and several months of house arrest. He went through all that just fine. He had started attending college, working, and trying to be present for his daughter, Anastasia. He had, in effect, stopped being active in gang life. But he was still troubled. A moment of rage led to the incident for which he is now incarcerated. I see part of my rage in him. I see him on a similar suicide path. But much has changed in twenty years. There are fewer resources, less compassion, less tolerance, and fewer incentives to help young people like Ramiro. He is a leader, a poet, and a caring person who also has many problems and could use proper help and guidance. However, the county jail is not a facility for such help to occur. As a family, and as friends in YSS and everywhere, we are not giving up on him. We will stand by him and assist him where we can. But we know we can't save him. This is another personal ordeal he will have to get through and, hopefully, overcome.
I intensified my own spiritual quest, particularly in the traditions of my people, the indigenous peoples of this continent: I have participated in ceremonies, sweat lodges, and prayer meetings with my Native American relatives on both sides of the border. But I have an open and expansive view of such things. I have also participated in a Buddhist meditation retreat, worked with Christians in rites of passage training and sanctuary work, and read and learned about spiritual paths from all over the world, including Africa, India, Asia, and Europe. I also maintained my revolutionary vision and commitment. My writing, my work with youth and the abandoned, my resolve to be father, mentor, teacher, and poet has all been healing for me. My aims are now to stay sober, sane, and structured. I went through too many relationships, too many jobs, too many interests, too many potholes—but it was all good if I make something of all this. With Trini (we've become loving and supportive companions), with my children and grandchildren, with my writing and the various institutions I have helped create, I have contributed to my world, my community, and my history.
I've reconciled with my mother, who I realize was trying her best against great odds. I've reconciled with my sisters and my brother, who despite his rage against me as a child turned out to be a decent person. I am presently on a path—at forty-three years of age—that will have to traverse even more bumpy terrain. But I'm going into it with an engaged imagination, with deep and clear intention, and with all my creative faculties in gear. Revolution is now more real than ever. My struggle is part of a larger one—the way an individual's personal aspirations connect to and intersect with those of his community. For me, any personal healing is linked to helping heal our society, presently fractured and imbalanced. Conscious life activity. Deliberate and open. This is how I must live in this great period of momentous global transformations.
I write this having completed a number of circles in my life, but also with a heavy heart for Ramiro and others like him, many who have already been abandoned by an economy and the previous social compact. But my resolve has only strengthened. My vision has only sharpened. There are difficult roads ahead; if anything, I'm more prepared for them than I have ever been. According to the ancient Mexican people, we are living under the Fifth Sun. Nahui Ollin. A time of change. Of movement. From the heart of a person to the heart of the universe.
Luis Rodríguez contributed the following update to CA in 2008:
In the summer of 2000, Trini, my youngest sons (Ruben, then almost twelve, and Luis, almost six), and I moved from Chicago to Trini's old family home in the Pacoima barrio (birthplace of rock legend Ritchie Valens) in the Northeast San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles—the "Mexican" side of the Valley. I left Chicago with sadness and joy; I had accomplished much as a writer, a father, a husband, a revolutionary, a poet, and organizer in Chicago. For example, I helped found the Guild Complex in 1989, along with its creative visionary Michael Warr and artist/revolutionary Sue Ying, among others. The Guild Complex grew out of the much-loved Guild Books, an independent bookstore that eventually closed, a casualty of corporate bookstores displacing many similar book outlets around the country. That same year, I started Tia Chucha Press; after publishing my first poetry book I began publishing other poets from the Chicago poetry scene (birthplace of the Poetry Slams), then multicultural voices from around the country.
By the time I left Chicago, Tia Chucha Press's roster included Patricia Smith (several times National Poetry Slam Champion), Lisa Buscani, Rohan B. Preston, Jean Howard, Carlos Cumpian, Melvin Dixon, Ricardo Sanchez, Dwight Okita, Andres Rodríguez, David Hernandez, Michael Warr, Cin Salach, Kyoko Mori, Nick Carbo, Denise Duhamel, Maureen Seaton, Diane Glancy, Elizabeth Alexander, and more. They are African American, Jamaican American, Japanese American, Native American, Italian American, Chicano, Puerto Rican, Anglo American, and others. Straight and gay. Men and women. We put out around fifty books, several anthologies (including one in 1999 featuring poets who read at the Guild Complex called Power Lines: A Decade of Poetry from Chicago'sGuild Complex, co-edited by me, Julie Parson-Nesbitt and Michael Warr), and a CD in 1994 called Snake in the Heart: Poems and Music by Chicago Spoken Word Performers.
In Chicago, I also cofounded Youth Struggling for Survival, working with gang and nongang youth in twelve urban core communities in Chicago and Aurora; the Increase the Peace Network, consisting of several Latino gang-prevention programs and projects; the Prism Writers Workshops, mentoring young writers from alternative schools; and the Humboldt Park Teen Reach, an after-school computer and arts program in a heavily gang-ridden community, in collaboration with BUILD, the YMCA Street Intervention Program, and San Lucas Church (we raised $180,000 the first year of the program).
Trini and I sold our home on Central Park near Fullerton in Logan Square. We packed our things and had a tractor-trailer haul our stuff across country to Los Angeles. By June, the family took an Amtrak train from Chicago's Union Station to L.A.'s Union Station.
For the most part, Trini's family—which included eleven siblings and tons of nephews and nieces—still resided in the San Fernando Valley. Her brother, Tony Cardenas, was state assemblyman—the first Latino ever elected from the Valley to state office—and later an L.A. city councilman. Although her father had died many years before, her mother had only passed away a few months before we arrived. My mother was still alive, but she contracted lymphoma, and, a few years later, Alzheimer's (my sister Ana ended up taking care of her after my father died in 1992). My youngest sister, Gloria, suffered greatly from lupus, while my brother Joe and half-sister Seni seemed to be doing well (I have two half-brothers in Mexico). Still, we were coming home to family—a couple years after my return, I had a Thanksgiving dinner with my family, something I had not done in thirty years.
My one regret was leaving my son Ramiro in the Illinois Department of Corrections. We did convey to him that we loved him and would not abandon him—we have kept that promise. I have since written him a letter every month, taken his long-distance phone calls, and visited him at least once a year (often two or three times a year). We also tried to maintain connections to his children—Ricky, who turned fifteen in 2007, in Florida; Anastasia, who became thirteen the same year in Chicago; and Amanda Mae, who turned twelve, in the Chicago area. Camila, Ramiro's mother, stayed in Chicago where she eventually remarried to Alvin Thompson, a thirty-year veteran of the Cook County Sheriff's Department. She wanted to be close to Ramiro, which was very important to her.
In early 2000, to help with funds for the move, I took an offer to do a ten-week residency in North Carolina, sponsored by the North Carolina Arts Council and Word Wide. I did about twenty-one events a week, driving from one end of the state to the other in two rental cars—from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Outer Banks. I visited universities, colleges, public schools, private schools, prisons, juvenile facilities, libraries, migrant camps, churches, conferences, and more. I spoke to Spanish-speaking audiences (the Latino population in the state had grown 600 percent in ten years) as well as African Americans, whites, and at the Cherokee reservation.
Trini by then was managing and organizing my events and travel. To do this, she quit her job as a Spanish-language interpreter for the courts and as an editor of the Tribuno del Pueblo. We established a thriving home business based on my writing, lectures, readings, and editing work. It was enough to keep our bills paid. With the money raised in North Carolina, we both took time off to plan and execute our move.
After staying eight months in Pacoima, we eventually bought a house in March of 2001 on Orange Grove Avenue in the city of San Fernando, a two-and-half-square-mile city with about 25,000 residents, surrounded by Los Angeles. It was a three-bedroom ranch-style house with a landscaped yard and a guest house with an office in the backyard—the office became my base of operations for Luis J. Rodríguez Enterprises and Tia Chucha Press. About a year later, my daughter Andrea and her daughter, Catalina, then five years old, came to live with us. I flew to Chicago with my brother-in-law and Ruben and we drove her things in a U-Haul truck to Los Angeles.
About a year after our move, Trini and I embarked on a major venture—a bookstore, art gallery, performance space, and cyber café we called Tia Chucha's CaféCultural. The original partners of the limited liability company we created to do this consisted of Trini and I; Enrique Sanchez, a local businessman and developer who was also married to Trini's sister, Nani; and Otto "Tito" Sturke, an extremely talented artist. We tried to locate a place in San Fernando but got attacked by local politicians (who tried to keep us out of the city, although we were residents and community-minded). We decided to find a space in the L.A. area of the Northeast Valley and settled into a minimall called Glenoaks Village, in Sylmar. I raised $100,000, which included a benefit at the Border Book Festival in Las Cruces, New Mexico, organized by Chicana writer Denise Chavez and bookseller John Randall. We also got funds from the Liberty Hill Foundation, Suzan Erem, the Solidago Foundation, and others. And Trini and I obtained a mortgage on our new house. With Enrique's connection in construction, we created an amazingly beautiful space. Otto Sturke left the partnership just before we opened our doors in December, 2001. In January of 2002, we had our grand opening; some 400 people came, including a crew from PBS-TV (seen in the short documentary El Poeta, which aired as part of the "Realidades" TV series).
Why did I name my press and this place for Tia Chucha? Again she was my favorite relative—a poet, singer, guitar player, and all-around creative spirit. I wanted to honor that spirit in everyone.
I published a number of new books after my move to L.A., including a 2001 nonfiction book summarizing thirty years of work I've done in the community with youth, for peace, and deep social change. Its title:Hearts & Hands: Creating Community in Violent Times. Another children's book,It Doesn't Have to be This Way: A Barrio Story, came out in 1999. And my first short-story collection,The Republic of East L.A. was published in 2002. Meanwhile, my memoir,Always Running: La Vida Loca—Gang Days in L.A., which had been published by Touchstone Books/Simon & Schuster as a paperback in 1994, became a bestseller—some 250,000 sold by 2005. A play was created from the book by Cornerstone Theater Company and performed to some 6,000 high school students at the Mark Taper Auditorium in downtown L.A.'s Central Library in the first year alone (later it was staged at the Ivar Theater in Hollywood for a short run in the fall of 2005). I heard one librarian say Always Running was the most checked-out book in the L.A. public library system—and the most stolen. Still, the book was censored in school districts around the country—I knew of censorship battles around Always Running in Illinois, Texas, Michigan, and quite a few in California. The American Library Association eventually declared it one of the one hundred most censored books in the United States.
After six months of running Tia Chucha's Café Cultural with a manager and a young staff person, we had to fire the manager. Desperate for keeping things going, we got Trini to manage the place, although she had never run a retail operation before. However, she is one of those people that can do anything if she puts her mind behind it. I also promised to raise money to keep the business going—which we did, investing tens of thousands of dollars every year (one year we took another mortgage and put in $75,000).
I also did tons of outreach and media interviews, contacting authors, artists, schools (eventually, we had regular field trips to our space), musical groups, and more. Trini soon had a staff of six people (more or less) and many volunteers; she created a welcoming presence, with deep indigenous connections. The books included Spanish-language books, bilingual children's books, indigenous culture and history, political books, and literary books. Authors who visited included Sandra Cisneros, Victor Villasenor, Jose Montoya, Ruben Martinez, Yxta Maya Murray, Adrienne Rich, John Trudell, Lalo Alcaraz, and many more. Bands and musicians that played there included Lalo Guerrero, Quetzal, Domingo Siete, Ollin, Quinto Sol, Aztlan Underground, El Vuh, Upground, Somos, the Blues Project, Very Be Careful, Mezklah, and others (including John Densmore of The Doors).
Art exhibits included works by Sergio Hernandez, Gilbert & "Magu" Lujan, Richard Ortega, Joe Bravo, Mark Vallen, Maria Reyna, and Lalo Garcia (among the veterans), and new young artists (including an popular art show from Pelican Bay Prison). We had theater groups (including Earth Company, Teatro Chusma, and Tres Chingazos Theater Collective), monologues, comedy (including Chusma Theater, Culture Clash, and Bill Santiago), dance (including Afro-Peruvian dancers), and community dialogues. Poets of the Round Table performed here, among many other poets and poet's collectives. We had a weekly open mic (which became quite popular), a weekly "noche bohemias" (an open mic for mostly Spanish-speaking singers, poets, and guitarists), a weekly film night, and a weekly Aztec dance practice session. Our anniversary events would bring 300 to 500 hundred people. One summer we had local rock bands play, with around 500 youths trying to get in (most had to hang in the parking lot).
We received amazing press in the L.A. Times, L.A. Daily News, L.A. Weekly, La Opinion, Whole Earth Times, People(en Espanol),Criticas, Spanish-language radio and TV, KCET/PBS-TV, and more. People from all over greater L.A.—but also from the Bay Area, San Diego, the Inland Empire, the Central Valley, and as far away as New York City and Chicago—have come here to visit or perform (even some from countries like Mexico, Japan, and from Europe).
Since Trini couldn't do my events planning any more, I obtained the services of the Steven Barclay Agency to organize my lectures, workshops, and readings—which became my main income source. I also had a literary agent (Susan Bergholz Literary Services) and a Hollywood agent (at the Paradigm Agency). I wrote for other publications (New York Times, L.A. Times, Chicago Tribune, San Jose Mercury, Bello Magazine, and more) and had many reviews of my work and interviews in publications like The Sun, Bloomsbury Review, Lowrider Magazine, The Nation, Washington Post, fRoot(London),Lowrider in Japan, Barfout(Japan),K-Code(Italy),BigO(Singapore),El Mundo(Spain),Aelle(Italy),Jorno do Brasil(Sao Paolo), among others.
Bruce Springsteen, who has given financial support to Tia Chucha's for a few years, even mentioned me in an issue of Rolling Stone magazine in November, 2007.
The major writing awards I've received over the years include a Poetry Center Book Award, San Francisco State University; PEN Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence; Lannan Fellowship for Poetry; Carl Sandburg Literary Award; Chicago Sun Times Book Award; a Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Writers' Award; National Association for Poetry Therapy Public Service Award;Skipping Stones magazine Honor Award; Parents' Choice Books for Children Award; Illinois Author of the Year Award; Sundance Institute Arts Writing Fellowship; a Paterson Poetry Prize, and a City of L.A. Fellowship in the Arts.
Trini, Enrique, and I also received Local Hero of the Year Award from KCET-TV and the Union Bank of California in 2006 for our efforts with Tia Chucha's Café Cultural.
One of the most fantastic recognitions was being selected as one of fifty people from around the world by the Wisdom in Action Foundation for the 2001 Unsung Heroes of Compassion Award, presented by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Trini and I traveled to San Jose in June of 2001 for this amazing reception that included actress Sharon Stone as host and well-known activists, celebrities, and spiritual practitioners.
Because of all my lectures/readings/workshops, I've traveled to almost every state in the union, including cities like New Orleans, Boston, New York City, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Phoenix, Denver, Houston, and San Diego (also many small out-of-the-way places like Storm Lake, Iowa, or Erie, Pennsylvania, to speak at local campuses and communities hungry for new ideas, poetry, voices, and different stories).
My international travel expanded—I've now been to Paris, Rome, Milan, London, Amsterdam, Salzburg, and major cities in Germany (Berlin, Munich, Cologne, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Hamburg, and Heidelberg). I've also visited Toronto and Montreal in Canada, and several Latin American countries like Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, and Peru (all from 1983 until 2007). Since 1993 I've covered the growth of the LA-based gangs Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street in Central America, at first with award-winning photojournalist Donna DeCesare; these included visits to gang-infested tin-roofed slums and prisons in El Salvador and Guatemala.
I even made it to Tokyo and surrounding areas in November of 2006 for a magazine piece I was writing on the Lowrider/Chicano music scene in Japan that later appeared in Bello Magazine of Los Angeles.
These trips and recognitions are important for a Chicano writer who has been highly marginalized in the United States (also because I'm a poet and politically active). When I started this work I never dreamed I would eventually read poetry in the Sorbonne in Paris, or walk the streets of Tokyo and London, or visit the Tarahumara (Raramuri) native lands of the Copper Canyon in Chihuahua (home of my mother's indigenous roots), or climb the heights of Machu Picchu.
As a Sundance Institute Fellow for Arts Writing from 2002 to 2004, I was able to go to two Sundance Film Festivals in Park City, Utah, and attend a film workshop at Sundance's compound. There I met movie people like Robert Redford, Ed Harris, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and others. Later, one of my short stories, "Finger Dance," was made into a short film by Elusive Minds Productions (and sent to various film festivals). I'm now working on a documentary about LA Latino gangs and solutions called "The Long Run" with Cookie Carosella and Tuff Cookie Productions.
My words, ideas, and conscious social activism have closed doors (I've been censored, blacklisted, and pigeon-holed), but they have also opened others. I was one of six U.S. poets in the International Poetry Festival in Caracas, Venezuela, in 2006 and the only non-black poet to read at the Black Poetry Festival in London (with Amiri Baraka and Linton Kwesi Smith, among others). While many of my essays, reportage, and stories don't get accepted in many mainstream publications, in 2006 I also became a regular columnist in The Progressive Magazine(out of Madison, Wisconsin). I continue to edit and publish poetry books through Tia Chucha Press. And I'm the editor/founder of Xispas magazine—a Chicano online magazine with interviews, history, reviews, opinions, cartoons, art, fiction, and poetry.
I learned to try ten different projects, proposals, and endeavors, and perhaps have only one or two of them reach fruition. I have become highly successful by failing. But I also learned to be meticulous, to do as much quality work as I can, and to maintain my integrity and dignity (never compromising my indigenous values and revolutionary ideals). It's harder this way, but I've also learned to never give up. Giving up is not an option for most of what I do—while also maintaining balance and a realistic outlook that allows me to change streams and restrategize if I must to achieve my goals.
By early 2008, I have maintained my sobriety for almost fifteen years. To get me started, I took part in a recovery program in Chicago. But I found that I needed my own independent means to remain clean and sober. The way for me became indigenous spirituality—aided by people like Frank Blazquez (Tekpaltzin), Luis Martinez (Macatl Tochtli), Tlacaelel (of Mexico), Nane Alejandrez of Barrios Unidos, Luis Ruan of L.A./Orange County, and Lakota and Navajo teachers on the Pine Ridge and Navajo reservations.
With Frank Blazquez and his family (wife Louise, daughter Natane, and son, Frankie—they were also active in YSS), I learned about the Mexikayotl (the Red Road in Mexico), including some Nahuatl language and Aztec cosmology. We had a naming ceremony in the back of our house led by Macatl Tochtli and Aztecayotl (two Mexika elders). After consulting the Mexika Sun Stone Calendar, Luis gave me the name of Xikome Tochtli, which is the year that best corresponded to the Gregorian calendar when I was born (the Mexika New Year is in mid-March). It means Seven Rabbit, seven being a sacred number and rabbit being one of the sacred beings in the calendar that stands for nurturance, organization, and fertility.
Also, by maintaining my connection to Michael Meade and the Mosaic Multicultural Foundation, I expanded and solidified my spiritual practices and choices. By early 2008, I have been attending Mosaic conferences for fifteen years. I learned mentoring as well as taught poetry and other skills to hundreds of men, mentors, and youth—some of whom now work for Homeboy Industries, Homies Unidos, Youth Mentoring Connection, Young Warriors, the Reverance Project, and others. We utilized story, poetry, song, dance, drumming, and emerging rituals to help men and women find their innate callings and reconnections to ancestors, nature, myths, and some universal truths. YSS and Tia Chucha's grew and matured because of our connections to Mosaic and Meade's teachings.
In addition, when Trini and I moved to the Northeast San Fernando Valley, we helped establish two sweat lodges—the first one behind Trini's family home in Pacoima and the other behind a sober-living home called Casa Rivas in San Fernando. Luis Ruan, an old friend, musician, and indigenous spiritual elder (Mexika/Purepecha) moved into the Pacoima house in 2001 after my family left and maintained the sweat lodge while helping with the creation of a Sweat Lodge Circle (until he left in 2006). Key to this was connecting with people like Robert "Picos" Beltran, who brought in several persons and families into the circle, and my brother-in-law Hector Herrera, a Yaqui-Raramuri indigenous Mexican who's now one of the water pourers and fire keepers.
We also involved people who worked and volunteered at Tia Chucha's, which over the years had established a consistent and growing Azteca Danza group called Temachtia Quetzacoatl, and a number of Mexika and Mayan cosmology circles.
In addition, Trini and I linked up with Dine (Navajo) elder and medicine man, Anthony Lee, and his wife, Delores. I met them in 1997 when I was still in Chicago through Luis Ruan, who had been learning from Anthony for years. I began peyote prayer meetings under the auspices of the Native American Church through Anthony and Delores Lee. When Trini agreed to come to Lukachukai in the Navajo Reservation of Arizona (near the Chuskas Mountains), she also found teachings and solace there. Anthony and Delores eventually adopted Trini in the Navajo way (adult adoptions are common there among the elders) and thereby our family. We have since come back to the Rez every year, including to the Dine Community College where Anthony teaches. When Ruben became twelve, we did a young man's rite of passage with the peyote medicine, a Navajo-style sweat bath (in an earthen lodge), and other ceremonies. We also brought our brothers-in-law Enrique Sanchez (copartner of Tia Chucha's) and Hector Herrera, and many friends from the Sweat Lodge Circle to partake in ceremonies with the Lees (and their wonderful family of kids and grandkids).
While I am open to learn from all spiritual practices—and love to read about as many as possible—my core teachings and centering comes from the indigenous teachings of Native Americans and Native Mexican/Central Americans. In December of 2006, Trini and I (as well as three other members of our Sweat Lodge Circle) went to Peru for almost fifteen days; we visited Lima, Qosqo (Cuzco), Machu Picchu, and many other sacred sites with indigenous teachers among the Quechua and the Amazons. We took part in Ayawaska ceremonies (I had already taken Wachuma, a medicine from Peru linked to peyote, with Frank Blazquez) and spent several days doing ceremonies in Machu Picchu and around Qosqo. In November of 2007, Frank and I went to the Peruvian Amazon town of Puerto Maldonado to partake in more intense Ayawaska ceremonies with an elder known as Panduro. My indigenous ties have now reached throughout the continent (and from here to the world).
In 2003, I cofounded the nonprofit Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural to do our workshops in the arts—music, writing, dance, theater, film—and healing practices like indigenous diet, cosmology, and even practices like Reiki. The other founders were my niece Angelica Loa (daughter of one of Trini's sisters), a singer in the band Candela and a UCLA and USC graduate in arts administration and musicology; and Victor Mendoza, who helped create Xicano Records and Film and performed with the conscious Mexika hip-hop group El Vuh. We rented a space next door to Tia Chucha's Café Cultural. In 2004, we obtained our federal tax exempt status as a 501(c)(3) charitable organization.
By 2005, I brought Tia Chucha Press back from Chicago (it had been under the auspices of the Guild Complex since 1991, although I remained its editor and publisher). It became part of Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural. I also had recorded my first CD of poetry, called My Name's Not Rodríguez, in 2002, with music by Ernie Perez and a band we called "Seven Rabbit." It was under the Dos Manos Record label, which is now also part of Tia Chucha's Centro. And we created Xispas magazine (www.xispas.com ) with a good crew of writers and artists, although eventually the main people became Mark Vallen (an artist and our Webmaster), Gina Ruiz, a book reviewer, and myself (it began to get many hits and has been used in classrooms). We also had a great Website for Tia Chucha's at www.tiachucha.com. And Mark set up and maintained my own Website at www.luisjrodriguez.com. In time, both Tia Chucha's and myself obtained My Space.com sites as well.
With Tia Chucha Press now in L.A., by the spring of 2008 I published the works of ariel robello, Patricia Spears Jones, Alfred Arteaga, Linda Susan Jackson, Richard Vargas and Susan Anderson (to complement books by A.Van Jordan, Anne Marie Cusac, Terrance Hayes, Angela Shannon, and others I did while the press was still with the Guild Complex). In 2005 I had also published an anthology featuring all our poets called Dream of a Word: The Tia Chucha Press Poetry Anthology, edited by Quraysh Ali Lansana and Toni Asante Lightfoot. The anthology had two poems from all our books/chapbooks as well as study guide questions for each poem.
Our fundraising efforts and grants brought support from L.A.'s Department of Cultural Affairs, including Music L.A., the Community Redevelopment Agency, the Middleton Foundation, the Panta Rhea Foundation; Toyota Sales, Attias Family Foundation, Youth Can Service, Not Just Us Foundation, and the Center for Cultural Innovation. We also obtained donations from people like Bruce Springsteen, John Densmore of the Doors, Dave Marsh, and the family of Luis and Trini Rodríguez.
Springsteen even invited Trini and me to attend one of his concerts and meet him backstage (thanks to my longtime friend, and editor of Rock →Rap Confidential, Dave Marsh, and his wife, Barbara Carr). Something similar happened in 1984 when Bruce gave money to the food bank and theater/poetry workshops (led by Susan Franklin Tanner) at the Steelworker's Hall after Bethlehem Steel—where I worked for four years—closed down along with most major plants and factories throughout L.A., the manufacturing center of the U.S. (same as what happened in Chicago and other "rust belt" cities in the 1980s). I also ended up at a concert Bruce did at the Sports Arena for the "Born in the USA" tour and got to see him briefly backstage (he allowed us former steelworkers to walk among the audience and get donations, which I did).
In 2006, Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural received funding for the first literacy and arts community festival in the 7th Councilmanic District of L.A. called "Celebrating Words: Written, Performed, and Sung." It was held in June in Sylmar Park with bands, poets, hip-hop groups, vendors, and community support. Some 500 people showed up.
While we had to separate Tia Chucha's Café & Bookstore from the Centro into two entities as far as organization, tax records, and bank accounts went, we were sister organizations creating the most vibrant and significant multi-arts comprehensive cultural space in the Northeast Valley—in fact, throughout Southern California.
Trini, who ended up managing the café/bookstore for five years, did so without pay and little experience. She also emerged as a leader and spiritual mentor (running women's sweats and circles). Regardless of the obstacles, she made Tia Chucha's work—with a staff of young people and volunteers that helped establish a uniquely powerful and alive venue. Yes, many people contributed to our growth and value, but without Trini, we would not have survived.
In mid-March, 2006, the Mexika New Year of Xikome Tochtli began. It was also my fifty-second year of life, the end of my first fifty-two-year cycle, which corresponds to the Mexika calendar's first major cycle-time in which excess is cut out and people are expected to make significant changes from past (unhealthy) patterns—it is also a time of eldership and balance that most people my age should consciously and actively take part in.
By the end of that year, I had achieved some remarkable things. But after my trip to Peru on December 31, major crises occurred. In a couple of months, my mother needed to be moved into an Alzheimer's patients' residential home. I lost some major writing assignments and possible publishing ventures. And Tia Chucha's Café & Centro Cultural received a notice to vacate its premises a few days after the holidays—to be replaced by a multimillion dollar high-tech laundry operation.
This last bit of news saddened and angered many of our supporters. However, I wanted to put that energy into something positive and visionary—a bigger and better, permanent or semipermanent, Tia Chucha's. We had several options, but most of them were two to three years down the line.
Meantime, we set up a strategic transitional plan that included getting a smaller temporary location in Lake View Terrace, about ten minutes from the old site, beginning in March of 2007. We also planned major fundraising events (including a Tia Chucha Benefit Night at the Ford Amphitheater in Hollywood), and connections for a bigger and better Tia Chucha's (with four times the square footage, a full coffee bar, bookstore, full-seated theater, and studios in film, TV and radio as well as workshop space for arts, writing, theater, dance, painting, and music instruction).
Our fifth anniversary celebration event on February 17, 2007, became a major benefit for the new Tia Chucha's—we had children's stories, poetry, music,
food, vendors, a silent auction, and raffles. People who donated their time included bands (Very Be Careful, Hijos de la Tierra, Trio Paz Y Amor, El Vuh, Aztlan Unearthed, Mezklah, and more), and poets (including Poets of the Roundtable). We raised around $10,000 that day (it went from noon until 1:30 a.m. the next morning).
So Xikome Tochtli has been a year of deep transitions and changes—the way a conscious fifty-second-year cycle is supposed to be. I also lost twenty pounds from January 1 until mid-February in 2007. I had been skinny as a kid and teenager, then buffed for most my twenties and early thirties. But by the time Ruben was born in 1988 (I was thirty-four years old), I had gained much unhealthy weight. Soon I had high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high sugar levels, pre-diabetic conditions, kidney stones, and possibilities of worse. In 2007, I got an attack of gallstones that had me in emergency. And a longtime problem with slipped discs from my early years working in industry and construction hit me hard this same year—at times, I couldn't out of bed. My commitment in Peru was to lose most of the unhealthy weight, and stay that way, for as long as I possibly could. I also embarked on natural healing methods, with nonmeat diet and exercise. I stopped taking the pills that doctors in the clinic I'd gone to for years were prescribing for me. I've learned that I carry my own medicine if I have a proper relationship with food, nature, and my own spirit.
Despite these setbacks in 2007, my spirit felt stronger and more determined to go forward—and to stay positive and focused on creating and building. I still had my life, my wife, my kids, my grandkids, Tia Chucha's (although in another form), and my writing practice. I have much to be grateful for, something most addicts and pathologically-scarred people like me often don't seem to have.
I see myself as extremely fortunate. It's early 2008 and I'm turned in a new direction, only this time with more wisdom and light in front of me than ever before. I now have seven new book projects—another memoir, a novel, a book-length essay, a children's book, another poetry book, and two nonfiction biographies I've been working on (all in different stages of developments; most are years away from being finished). In early 2008, I received a contract to do a new memoir covering the period after Always Running.
I'm also working on generating interest for a possible feature film of Always Running, something I've been dealing with for more than ten years in Hollywood, although I'm now more open to having something happen if I can find the right people and the kind of money this film deserves.
Yet it pained me to see my mother placed in a residential home (in the end, with the available twenty-four-hour care, it was the right thing to do). My sister Gloria's lupus also seemed to decrease in intensity. In addition, Ramiro has already served eleven years of his sentence—if all goes well he should be paroled in three more years. And though we lost an important space for Tia Chucha's—and the tens of thousands of dollars Trini and I invested so that it could thrive—we still remain determined, committed, and hopeful that a long-lasting, larger, and better endowed space (with perhaps satellites in other neighborhoods and cities) will come out of all this. The dream is still alive—dreaming revolution, unity, and peace.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 209:Chicano Writers, Third Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Schwartz, Michael,Luis J. Rodríguez, Raintree/Steck-Vaughn, 1997.
American Libraries, December, 2002, "A Meeting of Minds," p. 25.
Bilingual Review, September-December, 1996, Audrey Rodríguez, "Contemporary Chicano Poetry," pp. 203-207.
Booklist, August, 1999, Hazel Rochman, review of It Doesn't Have to Be This Way: A Barrio Story, p. 2059; April 15, 2002, Carlos Orellana, review of The Republic of East L. A.: Stories, p. 1383; May 15, 2005, Michele Leber, review of Music of the Mill: A Novel, p. 1649; August, 2005, Donna Seaman, review of My Nature Is Hunger: New & Selected Poems, 1989-2004, p. 1963.
Business Wire, June 20, 2006, "L.A. High School Students Write and Produce a Provocative Play on the Heated Debate of Immigration for Their English Class."
Chicago Tribune, February 25, 1993.
Entertainment Weekly, February 12, 1993, Suzanne Ruta, review of Always Running: La Vida Loca—Gang Days in L.A., p. 51.
Hartford Courant, March 5, 1993, pp. C1, C8.
Hispanic, June, 1993, p. 72.
Houston Chronicle, May 15, 2002, Becky Bowman, "Writing Changes Ex-con's Life," p. 12.
Hungry Mind Review, summer, 1993.
Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 2002, review of The Republic of East L.A., p. 285; March 15, 2005, review of Music of the Mill, p. 312.
Library Journal, June 15, 1998, Lawrence Olszewski, review of Trochemoche: New Poems, p. 82; April 1, 2004, Nancy Pearl, "California, Here I Come," p. 144; April 1, 2005, Lawrence Olszweski, review of Music of the Mill, p. 88.
Los Angeles Times, July 25, 1996, Mark Cromer, "After Swearing Off Alcohol, ‘Always Running’ Author Luis Rodríguez Is Still on the Move," p. 5; December 18, 2001, Maria Elena Fernandez, "Poet of the Streets," p. E1; December 23, 2001, Jonathan Kirsch, "West Words: When Rage Becomes Poetry," p. R2.
Los Angeles Magazine, May, 2002, Ariel Swartley, "It's East L.A., Jake: Luis J. Rodríguez, in and out of Time," p. 99.
Los Angeles Weekly, March 7, 1993, Floyd Salas, "Leaving the Gang Behind," p. 2.
Nation, April 12, 1993, Ilan Stavans, review of Always Running, pp. 494-498.
National Catholic Reporter, January 8, 1993, Fred Whitehead, review of Always Running, p. 61.
NEA Today, February, 1996, Anita Merina, "Peacemaker," p. 7.
New City, February 8, 1993, Dale Eastman, review of Always Running, pp. 10, 12.
New York Times Book Review, February 14, 1993, Gary Soto, "The Body Count in the Barrio," p. 26; July 10, 2005, Nathaniel Rich, "Cal-Mex," p. 25.
Poets and Writers, January-February, 1995, Aaron Cohen, "An Interview with Luis J. Rodríguez," pp. 50-55.
Progressive, September, 1993, review of Always Running, p. 43.
Publishers Weekly, May 17, 1991, review of The Concrete River, p. 58; February 1, 1993, p. 86; September 23, 1996, p. 12; April 13, 1998, review of América Is Her Name, p. 75; August 16, 1999, review of It Doesn't Have to Be This Way, p. 85; November 5, 2001, review of Hearts and Hands: Creating Community in Violent Times, p. 58; March 18, 2002, review of The Republic of East L.A., p. 76; March 28, 2005, review of Music of the Mill, p. 55.
Rattle Magazine, winter, 1999, interview with Luis Rodríguez.
School Library Journal, September, 1998, Denise E. Agosto, review of América Is Her Name, p. 180; October, 1999, Reina Huerta, review of It Doesn't Have to Be This Way, p. 124; April, 2002, Brianna Yamashita, "Latino Author Plants Cultural Roots," p. S7.
Skipping Stones, May-August, 1999, Beth Erfurth, review of América Is Her Name, p. 6.
Sojourners, March, 1999, p. 57.
Sonoma County Independent, February 4, 1999, Patrick Sullivan, "Class War: Luis J. Rodríguez Casts a Skeptical Eye on Attempts to Ban His Autobiography," pp. 21-22.
Sun Magazine, April, 2000, Derrick Jensen, interview with Luis Rodríguez.
World Literature Today, winter, 1999, Susan Smith Nash, review of Trochemoche, p. 156.
Voice of Youth Advocates, April, 2006, Tina Frolund, review of Music of the Mill, p. 51.
Curbstone Press Web site,http://www.curbstone.org/ (January 9, 2008), profile of Rodríguez.
Lee Hip Hop Show Web site,http://www.leehiphopshow.com/LuisRodriguez_interview.html (January 9, 2008), interview with Rodríguez.
Luis J. Rodríguez's Home Page,http://www.luisjrodriguez.com (January 9, 2008).
Poets.org Web site,http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/84 (January 9, 2008), profile of Rodríguez.
POV's Borders Web site,http://www.pbs.org/pov/pov2002/borders/talk/dialogue003_lr.html (January 9, 2008), interview with Rodríguez.
Steven Barclay Agency,http://www.barclayagency.com/ (January 9, 2008).
Tia Chuca Café Cultural Web site,http://www.tiachucha.com/ (January 9, 2008).
Choice of a Lifetime: Returning from the Brink of Suicide(video), New Day Films, 1996.
In Their Own Voices: A Century of Recorded Poetry(audio cassette), Ehino/Word Beat Records, 1996.
La Vida Loca: El testimonio de un pandillero en Los Angeles(audio cassette), AudioLibros del Mundo, 1998.
Luis Rodríguez(video), Lannan Foundation, 1992.
Making Peace: Youth Struggling for Survival(video), Moira Productions, 1997.
A Snake in the Heart: Poems and Music by Chicago's Spoken Word Performers(audio cassette), Tia Chucha Press, 1994.