Luis Rodriguez walks up a short, steep hill on Geraghty Avenue in East Los Angeles, his 17-year-old son Ramiro a few steps behind.
Rodriguez is spending the day revisiting the industrial areas around Vernon, South San Gabriel and East L.A., and the Mexican colonia in Watts, the neighborhoods where he grew up in the 1960s and which he describes in his recently published memoir, “Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A.”
In “Always Running,” the 39-year-old recipient of a $40,000 Lannan poetry fellowship, and the author of two prize-winning books of poems, recounts how he joined a gang at 11, began using drugs at 12 and was arrested on charges of attempted murder (later dismissed) during his gang years in East L.A.'s Las Lomas barrio.
It is an account that Rodriguez began when he was 16, writing to cope with his feelings, and was moved to complete when his son Ramiro joined a gang in Chicago, where Rodriguez had brought the boy to remove him from the dangers of L.A.'s streets.
When Ramiro joined the gang, the Insane Campbell Boys, “I was very angry,” the father says. “I remember yelling at him. It jolted me out of the literary life I’m now living, doing the poetry, making the bar-and-cafe scene. It made me realize I wasn’t really addressing the issues my poems cover.
“I knew I had this story of what I went through as a kid and it was relevant to him and young people like him. I went back to all that writing that I had kept in different forms and places, cabinets and files.
“The best gift that I have is my writing. What else could I give my son?”
In his memoir, Rodriguez recalls how easily this gift might have been lost.
“When I entered 109th Street (Elementary) School, I spoke perfect Spanish,” he writes. “But teachers punished me for speaking it on the playground. I peed in my pants a few times because I was unable to say in English that I had to go. One teacher banished me to a corner to build blocks for a year. I learned to be silent within the walls of my body . . . .
“By the time we entered high school, not only had we lost our mother tongue, we couldn’t speak English very well. We fell through the cracks of language. It required a long, intense re-education process well into my adulthood before I came back to the word and its power. My brother never recovered. Millions more lost their tongues.”
Rodriguez and Ramiro have appeared together across the nation to promote “Always Running.” His small nonprofit publisher, Curbstone Press, obtained grants that allowed Rodriguez to finish the book and finance the tour.
“Rodriguez is an insider who speaks so eloquently and knowledgeably about the L.A. experience,” says Alexander Taylor of Curbstone. “There’s also that eternal father and son bonding running through the book. Saving our kids, giving them a future is very important to us. Our hope is to get young people to read this book. That’s why it’s important to have someone their own age, like Ramiro, involved.”
It was a high school teacher who influenced the elder Rodriguez to leave la vida loca behind. Ernestine Bocio, then a teacher at Mark Keppel High School in Alhambra, sponsored a Chicano student group that Rodriguez joined.
“Louie was an active student. I still remember when he and a girl student reclaimed Joe and Josephine Aztec, the school mascots, from Anglo domination and returned it to its Latino origin of pride and dignity,” she says. (Rodriguez chose to wear traditional Aztec dress for his appearance as school mascot and picture in the opening section of the 1972 yearbook.)
Rodriguez became active in protests to correct injustices against Latinos. In 1970, when he was 16, he participated in the Chicano Moratorium Against the War and was arrested in the riots that followed the killing of reporter Ruben Salazar. He spent several days in jail.
“I saw how futile this brother killing brother was. Just what were we fighting over? A piece of turf that wasn’t even ours? There was a real enemy out there and it wasn’t us.”
After high school, Rodriguez worked at various jobs--as a steelworker, truck driver, in a paper mill and in a chemical refinery. In 1980, he was accepted in the Summer Program for Minority Journalists at UC Berkeley. Since then he has worked as a reporter for newspapers and radio.
His books include “Poems Across the Pavement,” which won the Poetry Center Book Award from San Francisco State University in 1989, and “The Concrete River,” winner of the PEN West / Josephine Miles Award in 1991. He says his next book will be a collection of short stories, “Tales from the Republic of East Los Angeles.”
At the top of a hill in East Los Angeles, father and son pause as Rodriguez searches out signposts from his past in the buildings and streets below.
“That’s Our Lady of Guadalupe church where I got married with (Ramiro’s mother) Camila. We had a great East L.A. lowrider wedding--to the max.
“Twenty years ago, the lowriders weren’t gangs, they were just kids, but many of them became like gangs to defend themselves. They had to start packing, just like today’s taggers and party crews who do techno music. They’re having to be like gangs. Even if they don’t really want to join a gang, they often get pulled into the violence and it becomes a matter of defending themselves.”
After the breakup of his marriage, his wife moved with Ramiro and their daughter Andrea into a little house in the Geraghty barrio, “home turf of a vicious East L.A. gang,” he says. “I lived up the hill and often came down to visit my kids. Once, when I took little Ramiro to the park to play, there was a big shootout between gang kids. Bullets flew all around us. I had to put my son down on the ground to protect him.”
As Rodriguez continues his guided tour of the area, Ramiro sits down by an adobe-style house, adorned with a faded mural of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata with the quote, “It is better to die on my feet than to continue to live on my knees.”
“I know my dad wrote the book for me,” Ramiro says. “I appreciate what he’s done. It’s really something seeing what he went through. Some of it is similar to my experiences, others aren’t.”
Rodriguez moved to Chicago when Ramiro was 9. In Los Angeles, Ramiro began to fail in school and run away from home. When he was 13, he moved to Chicago to live with his father.
That proved difficult for the teen-ager. “I guess we had been separated for so long, it was hard getting used to one another,” Ramiro says. “Things got worse and I got into the gang. It didn’t happen suddenly. It was two years later. I was 15 when I got to Roberto Clemente High School. There were gangs there.”
“When I first turned (joined), I got arrested twice for fighting. Then I ran away from my house because my father got mad after I got kicked out of school. I told him I was staying in the gang.”
Rodriguez persuaded his son to come home and get psychiatric counseling, then he worked out an educational and employment plan for him.
“I learned a parent cannot just turn over a child to any institution, be it school, the justice system or a therapy hospital,” Rodriguez writes in “La Vida Loca.”
“The aim has been to help Ramiro get through his teen-age years with a sense of empowerment and esteem, with what I call complete literacy: the ability to participate competently and confidently in any level of society one chooses.”
Ramiro still has a way to go. His mother and sister have moved to Chicago. He lives with his father and his third wife and their child. He is a senior in high school and has found an after-school job as a grocery store bag boy.
He recently learned that his former girlfriend, who moved to Florida, gave birth to their child. “I’m sending my son Ricardo money,” he says. “I want him to know I’m his father. I’m certainly not ready to marry now.”
Nor, despite his new sense of responsibility, is he ready to let go of the gang life. “I’ve put my heart into the gang I’m in now,” he says. “That’s why I haven’t got out. They’re like my brothers.”
The older Rodriguez sympathizes in part with his son. “Ninety percent of what the gang Ramiro’s in does is hanging out--that doesn’t worry me. It’s the other 10%--drugs, petty wars, arsenals, tagging and gangbanging--that worries me. There is still a lot to be resolved. He has to develop his own ability to figure things out.
“Nevertheless, we’re more open to each other. We respect each other. I want to be there with him so he can mature, so he realizes that he doesn’t have to be in a gang.”
Standing in front of a Hazard Avenue mural, Rodriguez reflects on how the barrios of his childhood have changed.
“You see some defeat when you know that people with money have displaced these people,” he says, referring to condo projects near the Watts Towers and hillside townhouse developments in Las Lomas. “And it tells you something about gang kids killing for a piece of land that they didn’t even control. That is an important lesson. All those deaths for nothing. What is Las Lomas now? It was for nothing.
“But I also see triumph. The rich culture, the music and the language is still there. People’s daily struggles are like that flower you see in the crack of the sidewalk finding some way to bloom.”