Luis J. Rodriguez has emerged as one of the leading Chicano writers in the country with fifteen published books in memoir, fiction, nonfiction, children’s literature, and poetry. Luis’ poetry has won a Poetry Center Book Award, a PEN Josephine Miles Literary Award, and a Paterson Poetry Book Prize, among others. His children’s books—America is Her Name and It Doesn’t Have to be This Way: A Barrio Story—have won a Patterson Young Adult Book Award, two Skipping Stones Honor Awards, and a Parent’s Choice Book Award. Luis is best known for the 1993 memoir of gang life, Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A. (paperback by Touchstone Books/Simon & Schuster). His latest book is the long-awaited sequel to Always Running, entitled It Calls You Back: An Odyssey Through Love, Addiction, Revolutions, and Healing (Touchstone Books/Simon & Schuster), released in the fall of 2011. Luis is also known for helping start community organizations such as Chicago’s Guild Complex and Tia Chucha Press, one of this country’s premier small presses. He is co-founder of Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural—a bookstore, performance space and workshop center in the Northeast San Fernando Valley, which also sponsors the “Celebrating Words: Written, Performed & Sung” Literacy and Performance Festival. In addition, Luis is a renowned gang intervention specialist in Los Angeles, Chicago, and other cities as well as Mexico and Central America.
Jamie Moore: What do you consider to be your driving themes? Are they different between genres and/or who your intended audience is?
Luis J. Rodrgiuez: My themes are primarily the reality and morality of the times, my own grasping at essential truths, and the imaginative/creative impulses. I grew up highly marginalized in America—from Mexican parents, of indigenous descent (Raramuri-Mexikah) – and among the laboring migrant communities of South Central and East Los Angeles (mostly black and brown). This country—as rich and resourceful as it is—has a built-in value system. Men are over women. White skinned over dark skinned. Straight over gay. The rich and powerful over the laboring masses. My books touch on these aspects in one form or another and against the value system but also from in-between them.
Most of the world today, due to the global rule of powerful interests, has similar value systems. But in the United States there has been a long and heroic struggle to bring parity and equity to everyone – to end the value system that is mostly illusion, man-made and based on lies. We as a people have done much to remove these from our laws and land. I continue to pull on that braided and rooted thread.
The different genres tend to tap into different facets of language shaping: poems draw more from voice and the musicality of words, novels and stories from narrative, essays from ideas and issues, scripts and plays work with the visuals and dialogues that stories produce, and on and on. My audiences are both everyone and the particular people I write about, conveying their authenticity, flavors, and circumstances as skillfully and truthfully as possible.
JM: You elaborate on your relationship with your father and your son in your memoir It Calls You Back. How do those experiences inform how your approach fatherhood? Does this parallel with how you approach mentorship with youth?
LR: I had a bad example of a father—he was emotionally detached, uninvolved in the vital needs of his wife and children, but also attracted to status, material things, and, as we found out later, little girls. He was a pedophile. This is an extremely hard thing to admit and write about. Yes, I had a father, unlike most of my friends and homies. But one I wished I didn’t have. His example came to me in the relative way I detached. When I broke up with my first wife after three-and-a-half years of marriage, I pretty much abandoned my son, Ramiro, then two-and-a-half years old, and my daughter, Andrea, 10 months. I loved them, but I didn’t know how to fight for them. I learned the hard way—after both Ramiro and Andrea came to me as teenagers—resentful, troubled. I largely failed, but in time, when they were already young adults, (and my son was in prison), I became the father they couldn’t let go.
Sobering up helped—I now had to face all my demons, responsibilities, fears. I also had two sons with my current wife Trini. For Ruben and Luis, I learned rapidly to be the father they needed. I thought about what my father did or didn’t do, and did the opposite. I never yelled at my boys. I never struck them. I didn’t over-embrace them either. They know me as a stable presence in their life, much as their mother has been in the nurturing, holding way that a mother can be. My oldest kids expressed some feelings about this, but in the end they realized it was right. I’m now in a good place with all my children. And I have five grandchildren and will be a great-grandfather as well. Ruben and Luis are now university students, as is my oldest grandson Ricardo. Andrea is director of a pre-school cooperative and a recent mother (she also has a teenage daughter). And Ramiro, with three kids of his own, did a total of 15 years in prison and is now released and out of parole—gang-free, crime-free, and drug free.
My mentoring work with youth demonstrates much about what I’ve learned about fathering—so that these youngsters have strong, consistent and caring men in their lives. Most of the youth I work with, in gangs or not, have no fathers or bad examples for fathers. A mentor is not a father-substitute, but it does help to show that a man, even with a violent and addictive past, can be trusted, multi-dimensional, emotionally complex and steady.
JM: One of your books, It Doesn’t Have to Be this Way, is the only children’s book I have seen that includes a character that gets shot. What is the feedback you’ve received from this book? Did you have trouble publishing it?
LR: After Always Running, my memoir of gang life, (which has sold around 500,000 copies), It Doesn’t Have to Be this Way is my best-selling book. I believe it has sold more than 40,000 copies. The book was actually requested by the publisher, Children’s Book Press (it’s now with Lee & Low Books)—they wanted a children’s book to deal with gangs. It’s popular in inner city schools where children have witnessed gunfire, domestic abuse, and even death. Yes, it’s hard to fathom that any illustrated children’s book would have a character that is shot, but my books are situational. They thrive in the situations in which these realities need literature to push through healing, mentoring, transformations. This book may not be for all children. I’ve long conceded that students, parents, teachers and administrators should use both books wisely. For one thing, the violence is more prevalent than adults may appreciate. I also give children and youth more credit than most parents, teachers or administrators tend to do. These youngsters are quite capable and resilient. However, everything depends on the conditions, time and place. The books should be appropriate and meaningful to its readers.
JM: You founded a cultural center and bookstore, Tia Chucha’s. How has this organization grown over time? Has anything surprised you about the experience?
LR: Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural & Bookstore is a blossoming cultural space that I’m convinced should exist in one form or another in every neighborhood. We teach culturally relevant traditions—from Mexikah traditional dance (what is often called Aztec) to Son Jarocho music from the African/native/Spanish state of Veracruz, Mexico to indigenous language (Nahuatl) and cosmology. We provide classes in music, writing, theater, photography, puppetry, and more. Author readings, art exhibits and community dialogues. We also hold several yearly festivals, including the only outdoor annual literacy & arts festival in the San Fernando Valley: “Celebrating Words: Written, Performed & Sung.” And we have a youth empowerment project (Young Warriors), a mural collective, and our own publishing house (Tia Chucha Press). In twelve years, we raised more than a million dollars and have received support from government, foundations, and donors, including well known persons like Bruce Springsteen, John Densmore of the Doors, Cheech Marin, Lou Adler, and others.
My thanks to my wife Trini, who has shepherded this space through a dozen years, with many setbacks, but much more triumphs. And her amazing staff, all young people, all people with big hearts, from community, active in the deep soul changes needed in people and in our society. I also thank our board and a ton of volunteers. Tia Chucha’s is more an art project than a nonprofit; an imagination made into a practical reality.
It’s a surprise that we have thrived during these difficult financial times. But I’m also convinced that the arts are indispensable. They can help engender new economies, new politics, and new social relationships. As others have said better than I, a complete human being is a complete artist.
Eeverything depends on the conditions, time, and place. The books should be appropriate and meaningful to its readers.
JM: You also founded Tia Chucha Press and have published with small presses. Can you talk about the importance of independent presses to you—especially considering the consolidation of big publishers and the depersonalization of mainstream publishing?
LR: Publishing in this country is big business. This tends to push many voices and stories outside of the mainstream. Now more books are sold in Wal-Marts and Sam’s Clubs than in bookstores—and they are oriented toward white audiences. People of color, of varying sexual orientations, or espousing revolutionary ideas are de facto blocked and censored. Small presses always took chances. I was first published in small presses, such as Curbstone Press, but also in Tia Chucha Press that I created for voices like mine. Since my first book, Poems across the Pavement, came out 25 years ago, Tia Chucha Press has published around 60 other poets—including African Americans, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Filipinos, Irish Americans, Italian Americans, Japanese, Native Americans, Jamaican Americans, and others. We are now doing nonfiction books featuring art, photography, interviews, and essays. With the Internet, books can be published by anyone and are also accessible to greater numbers of people. Small presses can still lead the way, even online. We need to move forward incorporating the new technology, but also expanding on the voices, stories, and expressions.
Publishing today is in deep crisis. I’m not sure how it will survive the digital revolution. Perhaps there will come a time when everyone can have their own book. Everyone may end up having their stories, their thoughts, their hopes for others to access. For my part, I continue using Tia Chucha Press to present new and vibrant writers to the world.
JM: How do you believe an organization or institution can fully live up to a social justice mission?
LR: As mentioned above, there’s a thread I follow—the thread of social justice. I grew up in the tumultuous ‘60s when society thundered with cries for equality and fairness. Much of these efforts were attacked, undermined, and/or absorbed. But many changes did occur: civil rights laws for African Americans, Chicanos, Natives and Puerto Ricans; improved labor laws for the working class; a terribly destructive war stopped; greater women’s suffrage and gay consciousness. Nothing was given to any of us. There are people who died from that time. I think of leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Ruben Salazar, Medgar Evers, Harvey Milk. Also those unjustly imprisoned since then, such as Leonard Peltier, Oscar Lopez Rivera and Mumia Abdul-Jamal. This very government used its powers and our tax dollars to destroy legitimate movements. Then by the 1980s, as production shifted from industry to digital technology, guns, drugs and prisons overwhelmed the poorest communities. Tens of thousands of people have been killed or set up during this time. It has taken billions of dollars to keep people poor and disempowered. The struggle for real justice is not over. We must now align our governance, resources, and relationships toward cooperation, sustainability and equity for all. In 2011, I helped create the Network for Revolutionary Change to bring together thinkers, writers, leaders, organizers, and dreamers so that the illusions established by the capitalist social and economic order (of wages, of mortgages, of borders, of trumped up wars, of drug wars, etc.) can be replaced with essential common agreements. The main thrust of our efforts should be the healthy wellbeing of anyone is dependent on the healthy wellbeing of all.
We are living in a time of completion—not just plans and actions that are piecemeal, band-aid or inadequate. We have to finally go where all our aspirations and visions have been trying to take us. The power source of any social justice organization today is the very community that gave it birth. And in connecting to the revolutionary and inventive energy emerging from the crises and uncertainties. The answers are in the problems.
JM: Do you feel responsible to write about your community/ experiences–as most of your work reflects? Do you think a writer is at their best when they “write what they know?”
LR: My writing, like my life, is keenly conscious that I’m woven into the fabric of other lives, of families, communities, and nations. This connectiveness is why I deal with aspects beyond my own day-to-day dramas. Why my work is intertwined with the issues and concerns of others. There is an ancient Mayan concept called In Lak Ech. This means, “You are the other me.” While the powerful sense of being separate is real, it can also be a dangerous pull away from the greater good. Our culture is aimed in this direction—individuality at the expense of these connections. Organized responses are belittled and even infiltrated. The point is to be independent and interdependent. To find one’s own passions and purposes, and then link these to community, schools, institutions, spiritual practices, and other social entities so that our innate gifts are given meaning, responsibility and legacy.
As for writing from what I know, yes, my community is the main palette from where I get my words, stories, flavors, and images. But what I know is both experiential and imaginative. So re-configuring my world, the people, and lessons in stories are also primary to “writing from what I know.”
JM: Do you feel there is enough space given to minority voices in the publishing industry? Has this changed since you began writing?
LR: Books are geared to, as one publication once said, “white-haired ladies in Iowa.” This may be an exaggeration, but you get the point. Although most books are sold in multi-culturally rich cities like Los Angeles, New York City, or Chicago, they tend to still speak to a “middle America” that few can actually point to. In addition, education geared to literary production is much more pronounced in mostly white, upper class communities. Schools in relatively poor working class areas—be they white, black or brown—tend to push reading as a functional exercise: To read a bus schedule or the headlines and words of a newspaper or advertising on billboards. The “standards” that these schools must meet are 7th grade reading level, the exact level which reporters and advertisers are told to write to.
Literary reading is more complex and referential. When writers of color get better educated, they tend to do quite well—winners of major prizes and even high book sales. But they are few and far between. The big publishing world is still about the blockbuster book. And that’s usually not a powerful literary read. They are largely created for a “white” market, which nobody talks about because they use terms like “mainstream,” “middle America,” or “the average reader.” People of color are now more than 25 percent of the population. In books we are probably less than 1 percent. Again, when books are sold in general markets like Wal-Marts they are not including writers of color. My book, Always Running, is doing well in spite of this—in spite of having no more advertising dollars or reviews. It’s word of mouth in America’s inner cities that have contributed to the book’s sales. You’d think publishers would want to know more about this, but they continue to tout their own tired refrain—nobody reads in urban core communities. I helped establish a bookstore in a working class mostly Mexican/Central American community that a major bookstore chain said they wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. We took a risk and the bookstore has been around for 12 years and is growing. Again, regardless of stories like ours, the big publishers stay with the narrow and limited parameters. And everyone, including so-called “middle Americans,” is shortchanged.
Let’s have a spectrum of voices, stories, and truths. Literature and books would come alive instead of declining in this day and age. Same for other media—America is where the world meets. Let’s build on that.
JM: I have read that you are planning to run for Governor of California with the Green Party. What do you foresee for the future of California?
LR: California is a crucial state when it comes to the economy, politics and culture. It is the richest state in the union and the world’s eighth largest economy, surpassing Italy and the Russian Federation. It is not, as many people perceive, a totally progressive place. Several retroactive laws have been enacted here over the years, including three strikes and you’re out, anti-gay marriage, anti-bilingual education and against public services for the undocumented, the first national tax rebellion that cut millions out of poor and working class communities. The state is 49th in education funding and dead last in arts funding. Yet it’s number one in prison construction, holding the distinction of housing the world’s second largest prison system (after the U.S. federal prison system). Presently, Democrats dominate the California’s governorship as well as the legislature. But they are continuing devastating austerity cuts and budget crunching, detrimental to key services, programs and resources, especially for those least able to take part in the economy: The Democrats often out-Republican the Republicans.
I’m running for state governor in the June 2014 primary to bring a stronger voice for a clean and green environment; to reform the prison system and address the rehabilitative, restorative and transformative needs of the state’s prison and parolee population; to establish neighborhood arts policies where anyone can have access to books, arts, music, dance, theater, murals, festivals, and more; also to open up the democratic process so candidates are not beholden to corporations and big money as well as to open up the mass media and communities to new ideas and strategies. And I’m committed to ending poverty in California.
I’m seeking the nomination of the Green Party in their state convention later this year. Right now I’m running an independent campaign that should be broader and more encompassing than the Green Party, but should help the Green Party as well. I’d like to work with other progressive candidates like Cindy Sheehan of the Peace & Freedom Party. My aim is to get the issues out to all Californians and give them a wiser and clear choice for equitable and environmental changes.
Young people should be empowered to be creative and expressive. Give them the tools, and let them rebuild their own communities.
JM: In light of your political involvement, how would you describe the connection between literary arts and politics? How do they intersect in your life and your work?
LR: For the most part, the United States is one of the few countries of the world that tries to push out politics from the academy and from literature, from the mass media and book publishing. Writers are often admonished for delving into political themes and subjects. I see everything I do as political. In fact, politics are chemically bound in everyone’s household, work, and spiritual life. I do agree that skill in knowing how to write and be socially and politically active should always be a consideration. But we cannot really be removed from political matters any more than we can shed our skin.
Rap, for example, started out as an underground political expression, decrying injustices and a class society that used race to divide and conquer. But when commerce and big recording companies got involved, it became about sex, violence, wealth, and personal drama. This is also true for reality TV shows, sit-coms, and movies. Of course, there are exceptions. The point is trying to remove “politics” from popular art and expression is a political act in itself.
I’m upfront about my revolutionary politics, my native spiritual practices, but I am also rigorous about craft and the literary form. Always Running is a memoir of gang life, but it has literary and educational value while also bringing a political perspective to this issue of urban peace, healing, and a fully engaged autonomous life.
That’s a strong political stance. I’m convinced these issues are incompatible with the current political and economic system. That in trying to achieve these, many structural changes will be required. That’s revolutionary.
I’m not advocating for violence or destructive acts. But I know a truly just and equitable world cannot exist within the clutches of the global capitalist reality, which is tied to one primary law: the maximizing of profits. In the fight for change, for clean and green jobs, for ending poverty, for providing resources to everyone so they can thrive, not just survive, we end up strategizing on how to build a new economic/political reality that can hold and sustain the full and adequate development of all.
Poems, art, songs, dance, stories, and more are not enough to get us there, but they can help point the way.
JM: How can we continue to encourage youth, as you do with your work, to support creative expression and community building?
LR: We need cultural storefronts, public arts projects, festivals and block parties, cruising sites, musical events, workshops in all the arts, and independent bookstores everywhere. I call this a neighborhood arts policy. Presently in Los Angeles, the arts are relegated to museum row, in tourist areas, in and around downtown—places like Hollywood, Live L.A., Disneyland, and the beaches. We need to break the concentration of the arts in well-off communities. The city is known as the creative and entertainment capital of the world, yet for miles on end there are vast sections of South Los Angeles, the Harbor, the San Fernando Valley, East L.A. and parts of the Westside where no cultural spaces, art galleries, bookstores, or even movie houses exist.
In L.A., the hotel tourist occupancy tax only gives one percent to the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, which I understand they have to match on their own accord. There are only $26 million for gang intervention and youth development programs. Yet more than a billion dollars goes to the Los Angeles Police Department. The social energy is being directed toward more incarceration of the poor and working class members of the city. Even schools, which once looked like factories when L.A. had more manufacturing than any other city in the country, now look like prisons (some have metal detectors, police sub-stations, and use terms like “lock down”). Zero tolerance policies have pervaded schools and neighborhoods. Some 40 anti-gang injunctions, where communities are “arrested,” not just persons, now impact around 70 communities. All of these are geared against our youth, and to be clear, our black and brown youth (there are no anti-gang injunctions in white or Asian neighborhoods).
City development today is really about one thing: gentrification. People with money, mostly white, are now re-conquering the urban core. Poor people are forcibly being squeezed out. Laws, police, and developers are in collusion with this process. I say keep our communities intact. Provide educational and job opportunities and allow our youth, our mothers, our fathers, our community members to re-imagine and remake their own neighborhoods. The arts are key to all of this.
Young people should be empowered to be creative and expressive. Give them the tools, and let them rebuild their own communities. Give them training, mentoring, paintbrushes, sports, intellectual development, and see how a city can get re-seeded and blossom. I’ve taken this message to stark and violent places all over the United States but also to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico (most recently called the murder capital of the world), El Salvador, Guatemala, Argentina, Peru, Venezuela, England, Italy, France, Germany, Japan, and Sarajevo.
The arts work. They save lives. It’s proven over and over again (how more evidence-based can this be). Yet the arts are constantly on the chopping block.
Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural & Bookstore, Tia Chucha Press, Young Warriors, Celebrating Words Festivals, my own books… I’m constantly creating (with others, of course) institutions and examples that prove this point over and over again. I won’t stop. It’s time for the rest of the world to align to this truth, to a new imagination. Why not make government an art project, with everyone contributing from their own gifts, passions, dreams, and capacities. That’s a world I want to live in. A world most people need. A world worth fighting for.