Rodriguez chronicles Latino plight in graphic detail

by Jordan Green

Luis Rodriguez, the poet and former gang member, takes a phone call from a North Carolina reporter in the office of his home in the San Fernando Valley suburbs of Los Angeles at 9 a.m. on the last day of March.

In the background noise of his life are the high school student walkouts across the country, and especially in southern California: young Latinos ditching classes and taking to the freeway overpasses to protest pending legislation in Congress that might make it a criminal offense to be in the country without legal status.

‘“I heard that some gangs got involved in the walkouts,’” says Rodriguez, who is 51. ‘“They walked into rival gang territories. There was a concern that there would be fights, but they were like, ‘We’re not here to fight.’ If that effort can be sustained it will be a good thing.’”

The war in Iraq, which Rodriguez has opposed from the start, drags into its third year, accompanied by widespread discontent among the troops and family members back home but with no end in sight according to the pronouncements of the Washington war planners.

It all must seem somewhat familiar, flashing back ‘— to Rodriguez’s birth in 1954 in El Paso, Texas ‘— a sleight of hand by his Ciudad Juarez family ‘“to help ease the transition from alien status to legal residency’”; to the moment chronicled in his writings when a teacher left him to his own devices on his first day of school because he couldn’t speak English, and later injunctions against speaking Spanish in school; to the 1968 student walkouts in East LA; to his participation in the Chicano Moratorium against the Vietnam War in 1970; then later to his stint as a student organizer with Movimiento Estudantil Chicano de Aztlan.

Across the phone line, the comfortable routine and centeredness of an empathic life once immersed in trauma, then later compassionately attuned to it, comes through.

‘“I’m gone about a third of the year,’” he says. ‘“The rest of the time I’m working on books. I’m a contributing writer for the LA Times section, West magazine, their weekly supplement. I have a bookstore-cultural center that I run with my wife. She runs it actually. It’s called Tia Chucha’s Café Cultural. I have three book projects. One of them’s a novel. The other two are non-fiction books. I actually can’t talk much about them at this stage.’”

Flash back again to a moment childhood chronicled in a poem published when Rodriguez was a man in his mid-thirties. The poem, ‘“The Concrete River,’” captures the sweet oblivion of a chemically induced feint to thwart despair:

‘“This river, this concrete river,/ Becomes a steaming, bubbling/ Snake of water, pouring over/ Nightmares of wakefulness;/ Pouring out a rush of birds;/ A flow of clear liquid/ On a cloudless day,/ Not like the black oil stains we lie in,/ Not like the factory air engulfing us;/ Not this plastic death in a can.’”

Rodriguez started stealing at age 7, joined a gang at age 11, started using drugs the next year and was addicted to heroin by the age 18. The biography of his official website enumerates his many transgressions from the age 13 to 18: ‘“stealing, fighting, rioting, attempted murder and assaulting police officers.’”

He chronicled it in the book that established his reputation as a writer, Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days In LA, published in 1993. The book was written, he has said, as a cautionary tale for his son, Ramiro, who as a teenager in Chicago was slipping rapidly into the gang life his father had escaped 20 years earlier. That Ramiro, now in his early thirties, is currently incarcerated by the Illinois Department of Corrections for three counts of attempted murder is a fact noted by Luis Rodriguez’s detractors, who have criticized the book’s frank discussion of teenage sexuality and unvarnished accounts of violence.

Departing from the wretched nadir of Rodriguez’s early years ‘— the internalized self-loathing turned psychopathically outward and suicidally inward, the undirected rage and consuming violence ‘— the man’s life seems mythic in all its various guises: student organizer at age 19; steelworker, truck driver, school bus driver, paper mill worker, foundry smelter, carpenter and maintenance mechanic in his early twenties; daily newspaper reporter of the if-it-bleeds-it-leads school at age 26; union organizer; leftist revolutionary reporter; employee of the Catholic Church’s Liturgy Training Publications; conspirator in the founding of the poetry slam in Chicago; and finally, when Always Running published, simply a writer.

As a writer he got the opportunity to visit North Carolina in 2000. Here ‘— like Chicago, like LA ‘— he says, there’s a border borne of the tension between economic necessity and cultural attachment.

‘“I went from one end of the state to the other giving readings and workshops,’” he says. ‘“I went to migrant camps, churches and prisons. You see layers of economic participation. A lot of Mexican immigrants are the lowest paid and the hardest working. There’s a reason for that because most Americans have moved away from those jobs. ‘“Who knows when they actually started coming to North Carolina?’” he continues. ‘“They put the word out that there’s a lot of work here. They’d rather be in Mexico, but they’re probably going to stay.’”

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