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Leaving the Gang Behind : ALWAYS RUNNING: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L. A.--A Memoir By Luis J. Rodriguez ; (Curbstone Press: $19.95, 256 pp.)

Salas is the author of "Tattoo the Wicked Cross" (1967), a novel about a boy in a reform school, and "Buffalo Nickel" (1992), a memoir about a young boy's coming of age under the influence of two older brothers, one an intellectual prodigy and the other a drug addict and convict.

“Always Running” is a pilgrim’s progress, a classic tale of the new immigrant in the land of the melting pot. It’s the story of how Luis Rodriguez, as a Mexican-American boy, journeyed from poverty in a family that had emigrated to a land where his father couldn’t earn a decent living; through hard child labor, gangs and drugs; to, finally, educational enlightenment through high school and community projects.

This gifted and outcast child struggles in a labyrinth of the lower class, victimized by his race, his recent entrance into this country and his situation at the bottom of its economic scale. Impoverished immigrants, his family swims in the muddy channels of menial, dirty work which offers no opportunity for advancement even for an educator like his father.

“Always Running” begins in the rain with Luis Rodriguez’s father Alfonso driving Luis’ mother Maria Estela and all of their kids to Union Station so they can return to Mexico, where they, presumably, can at least function on a respectable level and suffer in familiar circumstances in a home and land of their own. But Alfonso, a principal of a Mexican school, refuses to go back; he was jailed for political reasons, we learn, and accused of fraud. He finally won his freedom, then left the country and now doesn’t want to go back. He was persecuted in Mexico; she is persecuted racially in Los Angeles. Hence the standoff.

He has the features of a white man and she looks like an Indian. But he is unable to speak English well, is not certified to teach in the United States, and can’t get more than menial, poorly paid jobs, forcing the family to live, like typical immigrants, in great poverty.

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Luis is an outcast on the first day of school for the same “language” (read: racial) reasons that make his father an outcast, a typical immigrant situation exacerbated by his brown skin. A half brother “looks Caribbean,” meaning he shows African blood. The rest of his siblings “are different shades from Spanish white to Indian brown.” Luis gets chased by Anglo kids in school and has to suffer these humiliations of racial prejudice in the shadow of his father’s sadness.

At the end of this first chapter of misery, Rodriguez takes us back to the train station in the rain, where Luis’ mother, Maria Estela, gives in and agrees to stay just as Alfonso, his father, starts to walk away and leave them on the waiting bench in the train station forever. The family stays together.

Rodriguez’s style in this chapter, as in the rest of the book, is not really linear nor really circular, but impressionistic. The narrative jumps back and forth in time and finally, gradually--somewhat like life--tells the whole story. It is a moving story that will teach us tolerance and compassion for the downtrodden, no matter what our politics.

One flaw: Rodriguez doesn’t vividly describe the high points and watershed moments when his life was changed forever. So there’s a certain drama that’s missing even in the most violence- and action-filled sections, e.g. when Chin, Luis’ gang name, stabs another teen-ager with a screwdriver on an order from another gang member, or fights his first political action in the 1970 riot of Laguna Park. (I remember this so-called riot as one in which a cop went into a bar where Ruben Salazar, the most important Mexican-American journalist of the time, was sitting and shot him in the face with a tear-gas gun--blowing his head off and silencing him forever. Scenes like these are important moments in the life of an activist, and I would have liked to have experienced them more fully.)

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Similarly, I missed vivid reportage in Rodriguez’s account of how Luis stood like a hero-saint against his whole gang to try and talk them out of going on a murderous warpath against a rival gang; while he is hit in the mouth for his troubles, he neither fights back nor runs. He then has to hide to save his life after he is warned with cocked guns that he is going to die for his civilized values.

In his preface, Rodriguez says he wrote “Always Running” to save his son from dying or being destroyed in gang warfare. The material is not really shaped to that didactic purpose, but only implied. Still, this is a small flaw next to the high achievement of this moving chronicle, and there are indeed some important lessons that both Luis and the reader learn.

“Louie"--the nickname Luis acquires when he begins to assimilate--thinks at first that it’s just race bias that keeps him always on the run. But a role model named Chente whom he meets in a community project--La Casa Community Center--tells him that his struggle is really more about class than race. This is an important step on an immigrant’s road out of alienation. (The journey is more classic than we might think, for with the possible exception of the English, all immigrants to America--from the Jews and the Germans of the past to the Vietnamese and the “new” Asians of the present--started at the bottom of the economic scale.)

Louie’s sad but exciting tales paint the portrait of a small boy who works like a man to all hours of the night and gets seriously sick from it, as so many working-class people do. But he’s only a pre-teen! Then, feeling outcast in a school where lessons are conducted in a language he doesn’t speak, he drifts with other outcast boys into partying, crime and gang warfare, where the boys decimate each other with their unchanneled fury.

All young males of any class or country, race or politics, want to prove themselves when their bodies become manly in adolescence. School and public sports programs like the Police Athletic League channel and tame what is essentially the killer instinct, the will to survive, so that the young men can then reach adulthood and meet its responsibilities.

Those boys denied this opportunity through race, poverty, neglect and the failure of the government and the public schools to reach and train them turn this undisciplined and amoral force on themselves. It is a historical fact that when American wealth is widely distributed, gangs tend to channel their youthful energy into social activism and community concern. When public funding for social welfare is discouraged and denied, on the other hand, gangs often express this same energy in murderous rage against each other and their community. It thus may be no coincidence that crime and violence soared so dramatically in the 1980s.

In “Always Running,” Rodriguez is directly affected by these political shifts. A public project sponsored by President Johnson’s Democratic Administration provides the civilized social setting and the male role model to finally give Chin--i.e. Luis; i.e. Louie--an alternative direction.

Chente, the male role model who takes the place of the educated father Louie couldn’t respect (because the father had been demoralized by working as a janitor in a junior-college lab), teaches Chin how to effect change within the existing structure of the society. Chin thus flowers as an activist, artist, writer and whole person within the public-school and public-works system when some minority educators are able to use that system to benefit their minority and impoverished students.

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“Always Running” is a tome on the torturous, faltering, sometimes progressing, sometimes repressing journey of a gifted immigrant. With this memorable, often tragic story, Rodriguez has fulfilled that journey by achieving the American dream of success in life and art.

Book Mark: For an excerpt from “Always Running: La Vida Loca--Gang Days in L.A.,” see Opinion Page 3.


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