Homeboy and word-slinger Luis J. Rodriguez has never been busier. The poet, memoirist and educator is promoting a new short story collection, “The Republic of East L.A.” (HarperCollins). We shadowed the soft-spoken, tattooed, East L.A.-bred author during a few days that included interviews, readings, a stop at Tia Chucha’s, the cafe, bookshop and art gallery he co-founded in Sylmar, and a dash home to the San Fernando Valley for an after-school pickup.
How did you arrive at the title for the new book?
Actually, it was the title for one of the stories. But we decided it would be better for the whole book. People see the lowrider car on the cover, but then they see the title, and there’s a sense of something being re-imagined about East L.A.
Are you a Chicano Raymond Carver or was he a gringo Luis Rodriguez?
I’ve read a lot of Raymond Carver. I like Dagoberto Gilb, John Fante, Sherman Alexie and Lorrie Moore, because of her humor and the way she puts her stories together. Of course, writers from Latin America. One of my favorites is T. C. Boyle, but I think it’s important [not to] emulate other writers. They’re all kind of talking in my ear, but I’m trying to figure out my own way.
You now live in San Fernando, but you grew up in East L.A. How has the neighborhood changed?
I was gone for 15 years, and a lot happens in 15 years. L.A.'s Mexican population now has a tremendous influx of Central Americans, which I see as a good thing. It’s like having a brother group among us. The politics have changed a whole lot. There seems to be a lot of tension among Chicanos for some reason toward migrants from Mexico and Central America. Some things have probably gotten worse--the economy, everything that’s affected by it affects people. Those are the kinds of changes I’ve tried to reflect in the stories.
Would you consider moving back to the Eastside?
I came back from Chicago two years ago, and one of the issues was where we would live. East L.A. was my first choice, but my wife grew up in Pacoima, which is a very old, large Mexican barrio. And her family’s still here. My family is just scattered all over. [The Northeast Valley] doesn’t have the compactness of East L.A., but you still have the flavor--the families, the parks filled up on Sundays, the peddlers. The stories could be any barrio, wherever mejicanos and the rest of our people are.
Has the protagonist of your memoir “Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A.” slowed down?
Well, maybe it’s a different kind of running. I was talking about when you’re always running and don’t seem to be going anywhere. I had to stop that kind of running, but I never wanted to stop being active. [They] say if you just sit in your house, watch TV and go to work every day, you’re doing fine, but it wouldn’t be fine for me. I have to keep writing. I have to be out there all the time.