Why Luis J. Rodriguez is perpetually on the run
Most mornings, poet, memoirist and essayist Luis J. Rodriguez gets up around 5 a.m. at his San Fernando Valley home, reads for a few minutes for inspiration and then quickly goes to his computer to start writing. “I read, and then it’s, hey, man, I’ve got to do something!” he says. “If I can get a couple of hours in the morning, then I’m happy.”
He’s lucky to get that. Nearly three decades after publication of his classic memoir, “Always Running,” the former gang member who became a Los Angeles literary icon is still a man perpetually on the run.
He spends about a third of his time roaming the world, giving readings from Cuba to Japan. He believes so strongly in the redemptive power of well-chosen words that he regularly ventures into prisons to encourage inmates to try their hand at poems and stories. He only recently stepped back from day-to-day involvement in Tia Chucha’s, the Sylmar bookstore and cultural center he co-founded in 2001 to bring literature and the arts in the San Fernando Valley.
Rodriguez continues churning out elegant poetic verse, gritty nonfiction and children’s books. He sees his craft as a way to bring people together in an increasingly chaotic and divisive time, a theme that resonates throughout “From Our Land to Our Land: Essays, Journeys and Imaginings From a Native Xicanx Writer.”
His new book is a collection of stories on such diverse topics as his tenure as L.A.’s poet laureate, education reform, the Japanese fascination with Xicanx custom cars and fashion, the immigration debate and his disillusionment with the political status quo.
“I’m trying to use those pieces to speak to America and the world as a native person, a Xicanx, but also as a writer and a thinker and activist,” says Rodriguez, who joins the Los Angeles Times Book Club on Feb. 15.
One recurring theme in “From Our Land to Our Land” is Rodriguez’s gradual awakening to his indigenous identity. Though Rodriguez was born in El Paso to Mexican immigrant parents and raised in the Los Angeles area, he grew up seeing himself as a descendant of an indigenous culture that existed in the Americas long before Europeans arrived.
“My mother made sure I knew,” he says. He eschews the term “Hispanic” — which he sees as referential to the Spanish conquerors — and instead uses “Xicanx,” a gender-neutral term that, as he explains in the book, “describes people who are neither totally Mexican nor totally what is conceived as American.”
Rodriguez says he drew closer to his roots in the mid-1990s, when he started doing Native American spiritual practices as part of his effort to distance himself from the alcohol and drugs that had been staples of his gang lifestyle as a young man. He journeyed to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to participate in sweat lodges and learn from tribal leaders and spiritual healers. “I ended up going to Peru and El Salvador and Guatemala, and everywhere I went, I sought out the indigenous people,” he says. He and his wife, Trini, have obtained permission to perform native religious ceremonies.
That awakening has framed Rodriguez’s perspective on the current debate surrounding immigration and the Trump administration’s efforts to build a wall along the Mexican border. “Now, the brown-skinned people who’ve been here for tens of thousands of years are strangers in their own land,” he says. “That has to be examined.”
In the book, he recounts a 2016 incident in which a belligerent white protester harassed people arriving at a San Bernardino Valley College event where Rodriguez appeared. But after Rodriguez began his talk, the antagonist stayed quiet and eventually left. “I think he probably expected me to start screaming and yelling against white people,” Rodriguez says. “I think he wanted me to be just defensive. But instead, I just laid out the facts. My lineage, my ancestry here is as deep as anyone’s. That throws a wrench into the works of the idea that immigrants shouldn’t come here.”
Rodriguez also believes that such thinking can cut both ways. “There are people who say, ‘I have four generations, six generations in the U.S.,’ that makes me better than you,” he says. “That’s a stupid argument. I get there are some even Xicanos who take that position. We can fall into that trap too. ‘I was born here, I’ve been here longer than you,’ so they can dump on people.” His book is “really to challenge of that — all the ways that we try to divide ourselves superficially.”
Rodriguez says he hasn’t yet read Jeanine Cummins’ “American Dirt,” a controversial novel about migrants that some have criticized for inaccuracy and cultural appropriation. “I won’t comment on it until I do,” he says.
“As for whether writers of one group can write about another, this depends: Do they have intimate and authentic relations with that group, and can they respectively express all the complexities and nuances of that group (as they would their own group)? Great writers have done this with varying success.
“Obviously, a writer can write about anybody or any demographic they want. But there’s responsibility here. Most books of the Xicanx, Mexican or Latinx experience by whites I’ve seen do so only in a cursory manner, open to stereotypes, or as backdrops to a white person’s story. Publishing, like film and TV, generally treat us as if we are shadows or shouts in the distance.”
He’s also aggravated by the seven-figure advance that Cummins reportedly received. “I’ve never — even for my bestselling memoir ‘Always Running’ — ever been offered more than the small end of six figures and mostly less than $10,000,” he says. “I don’t know about other Xicanx or Latinx writers, but I would venture to say the vast majority of us would never see this kind of money.”
He blames it on more than the vagaries of the marketplace.
“Big publishers, like all major media, including in journalism and broadcasting, should reach out and embrace those of us still writing, still trying to eke out a living against the odds. I know writing and publishing is a hard business for anyone. But people of color have no equitable foundation to start from. We must stop the cultural/literary gatekeepers wherever they may be. This won’t stop us from writing or creating our own publishing outlets, but this hurts the enrichment of ideas expressions and voices vital for all readers.”
In spite of such obstacles, Rodriguez managed to break through with “Always Running.” His 1993 memoir tells the story of an impoverished, violence- and drug-plagued adolescence, which nearly claimed his life until a youth counselor helped him to find another path. Because of those beginnings, he still feels a strong connection to the inmates he’s been teaching since he worked as a newspaper reporter 40 years ago.
“I couldn’t forget the people who were still in it, the homies who stayed on heroin and were going to prison,” he says. After having spent some of his youth in jails, his return initially was unsettling. “When I first got there, and heard the doors and bars close, it brought me back to my youth, to the sounds of those old county jails,” he remembers. “I was worried, like, maybe I’m not going to be able to get out, even though of course I knew I could.”
There are a couple of key elements to his prison work. “You have to start with a level of respect,” Rodriguez says. “I don’t judge anybody or ask what they are here for. I know some of them are in for murders. I never ask. They’re in my class. That’s a powerful statement on their part.
“The second thing, I try to be real with them. I don’t over- or under-emphasize my involvement in gangs and drugs. It’s just what I went through. What I’m trying to give them with creative writing is a way to examine their lives with some depth — how they got there, what is underneath the rage and grief, and find way to express it. Poetry, plays and novels are tools they can use to do that.”
As his reputation grew, Rodriguez began receiving requests to work with prisoners in other countries as well. He’s visited adult prisons in England and Guatemala and worked with youth offenders in Italy. He spent a month teaching writing at a home for abandoned girls in Honduras. In “From Our Land to Our Land,” he recalls being caught in a tense confrontation between inmates and the warden in a Chihuahua prison. Fearful for his safety, Rodriguez calmed the situation by reciting a poem in Spanish. (Poetry “was the only weapon I had,” he explains in his book.)
Rodriguez describes his two-year stint as the city’s poet laureate as “one of the most meaningful experiences” he’s had. “I decided to give my all,” he says. “They said I could do a minimum of six events a year. In the first year, I did 110 events.” He’s enthusiastic about the current level of interest in poetry in Los Angeles. “All these young people, wordsmithing, man! It’s amazing, the kind of language and imagery that they come up with.”
Rodriguez has been heartened by the success of a stage version of “Always Running” at Casa 0101 Theater in Boyle Heights last year. He’s continuing to work on the script, with the aim of staging productions in other cities in the near future.
And in an era when some worry that phone screens are stealing our attention spans, Rodriguez plans to continue his advocacy of old-school printed books.
“I’m going to do that as long as I can,” he says. “I have a bookstore, I have my own small press. I don’t mind e-books and audio books. But I feel the foundation of it is the printed word, the work on a page. I’m going to keep pushing that.”
Kiger has written for GQ, Sierra magazine, Fast Company and History.com. He’s also co-written two nonfiction books, “Poplorica” and “Oops.”
Book Club: If You Go
When: 4 p.m. Feb. 15. Doors open at 3 p.m.
Where: The Colony Theatre, 555 N. 3rd St., Burbank
Info: Get tickets here.
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