From La Vida Loca to La Dolce Vita Author: After swearing off alcohol, ‘Always Running’ author Luis Rodriguez is still on the move–but now his energy goes into his writing and his family.
Profile by MARK CROMER
Three years ago Luis Rodriguez was slouched against a pole inside an Austrian bar. The celebrated author of “Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A.” was touring Europe to promote his poetry and, like so many other American writers before him, he embraced the continent’s bars with a vengeance.
As he knocked back round after round, Rodriguez felt right at home. Though in a foreign land, the bar provided familiar territory.
He remembers making it to his 25th beer that night. He mumbled “see you later” to his companions as he stumbled out of the bar alone. Then, like so many times before, the blackout hit.
He awoke sometime the following day, slumped over in yet another bar, in another part of the city. Any memory of what he’d done or where he’d been had vanished into a black hole that left him shaking.
“It scared the hell out of me, I knew I couldn’t go on like that,” he says now. “It was just draining me, sucking the life right out of me.”
Years before, Rodriguez had pruned other vices from his life, cutting off the “chiva” and “grifas” he’d absorbed as a homeboy from Las Lomas in San Gabriel. But if heroin and pot were the drugs of choice for gangbangers, booze has always been the traditional nectar for writers and Rodriguez was having a hard time putting the bottle down.
Standing again at the crossroads, a place he’d been so many times before as an immigrant child, a homeboy and a student activist, Rodriguez decided it was time to dry out for good.
Today, a stone sober Rodriguez, 42, has little time to wonder what might have happened had he not stopped drinking.
“I’m really a much better writer dry. I’m far more alert now and much more prolific.”
Prolific may be an understatement, considering that Rodriguez is wrapping up two new books, has three more in the works and is finishing the screenplay to “Always Running.” He will also be featured in “Making Peace,” an upcoming PBS special about eight people working to end violence around the country.
While his two new works draw on many of the same themes that ran throughout the autobiographical “Always Running,” in many respects they are literally worlds apart. One, entitled “America Is Her Name,” (Curbstone) is a bilingual book for children about a young Mexican girl who immigrates to the United States. The other, with a working title of “A Tale of Two Cities” and publisher yet to be decided, takes a hard-edged look at what Rodriguez calls the “globalization of L.A. gangs.”
Awarded a grant from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, Rodriguez hooked up with photographer Donna DeCesare, who had been covering El Salvador’s civil war.
“The same year I was doing the book tour for ‘Always Running,’ Donna was down in San Salvador. She found this kid in a hospital who looked like an L.A. gang member, all covered in tattoos. He was dying of AIDS,” Rodriguez says. “She wanted to find out what this kid was doing in El Salvador, looking like he’d just walked off the streets of East L.A.”
Over the last several years, Rodriguez and DeCesare have studied the fate of children who became refugees twice. Displaced by the civil war that ravaged much of El Salvador during the 1980s, these children were sent to America, where many of them fell into the street culture of gangs.
Once the war ended they returned to their native land, taking gang life–and death–with them.
“It’s fascinating to see these teens with ’18th Street’ and ‘Mara Salvatura’ tattoos all over their bodies, cruising around the streets of San Salvador,” he says. “They came to L.A.’s worst neighborhoods and they got into the vida loca. They became cholos. All the trauma in their lives, having been displaced by war, the cholo life was the only culture that could touch some of these kids. So they embraced the clothes and the tattoos and all the symbols because it spoke to their pain.”
Authorities in the small Central American country have responded with brutal force, Rodriguez says. “They were beating them up, ironing their tattoos off and at one point a death squad seemed to be targeting these kids exclusively,” he says. “Their parents thought they were sending them out of harm’s way by getting them out of L.A. and back down to a ‘peaceful’ San Salvador. Instead they sent them into a caldron.”
To help extinguish the fires that keep the caldron boiling, Rodriguez and DeCesare stepped outside their roles as journalists and appeared at a youth conference in San Salvador in late May. It was the first of its kind there, bringing together members of street gangs, government officials, non-government agencies and the once-dreaded National Police.
“It was a huge step forward for them,” Rodriguez says, noting the intense political polarization that still simmers throughout El Salvador. “Now the question is, what will they do with it? Where will the dialogue lead?”
While he plans to stay involved in that effort, he hopes to establish similar meetings in this country. In August, he intends to open a Chicago Peace Congress, at which he expects 1,000 teens to draft a peace plan to present to the Democratic National Convention in that city.
Just as he shares a common thread with teenagers making war in the streets of San Salvador and Los Angeles, Rodriguez also hears echoes of his childhood in “America Is Her Name.” The book’s child character suffers the pain and isolation of being torn away from home.
“She’s a young Mexican girl who comes to Chicago and is beaten down by society. She loses her voice, but then discovers poetry and finds it again,” he says. “Of course, her family doesn’t think it’s a good idea for her to be a poet. How can she make a living?”
For a guy who was always on the run it should be no surprise that Rodriguez has indeed come a long way since 1956, the year his family first packed their belongings and left Ciudad Juarez for the dusky sprawl of Southern California. An American by birth (because his mother had crossed into El Paso to deliver him) Rodriguez quickly discovered it was hardly going to be a warm welcome home.
They settled in the La Colonia section of Watts, a traditional Mexican American neighborhood, but Rodriguez says he felt the bitter sting of anti-immigrant racism almost immediately.
“In Watts back then they literally beat the Spanish out of you,” he says. “By the time I got to Fern Elementary School I was an extremely shy, silent kid. I played by myself in the corner until it was time to go home.”
It wasn’t long before Rodriguez began to drift into the gravitational pull of the streets.
At age 10, he watched his best friend die, falling through a skylight as he fled police who had chased them from a schoolyard where they were playing. A year later he had joined his first gang.
By 14, Rodriguez had been arrested, was sporting several tattoos and was addicted to inhalants. His father landed a job as a substitute teacher in the Valley and moved the family into a nicer home, but it was too late.
“They were moving up and I was moving out,” he says “They were a very traditional Mexican family and I didn’t want anything to do with them. I was spending my time in the streets looking for another way.”
The other way came when he took a savage beating by five guys and survived it to become a member of one of the meanest cliques within the Lomas gang. “I moved into the garage and turned it into headquarters,” he says. “We’d drink, get loaded and plan robberies.”
But while he was mastering street crimes, Rodriguez was also absorbing the politics that permeated the air of Los Angeles in the late 1960s and early ’70s, studying the tactics and politics of the Brown Berets and the Chicano Liberation Front. The homeboy with a penchant for getting high was now struggling with the Latino revolutionary.
He was also starting to write.
“I figured I would be dead by the time I was 18 and I wanted to leave something behind,” he says. A school counselor encouraged him to enter a writing contest and, to his own astonishment, he won, snaring $250 in the process. “It was probably the most legitimate money I’d ever made in my life,” he laughs.
By the time he turned 18, he says, he had lost 24 of his friends to the “crazy life.” Perhaps sensing that Rodriguez had made up his mind to quit the gang, members of his own gang tried to kill him in 1974, opening fire as he stood at a bus stop.
“I took it really badly,” he says, his voice still giving away a hint of pain. “I had never turned my back on the neighborhood and this is what happened.”
After the shooting he fled the neighborhood. It would be 20 years before he would return.
He married for the first time and drifted around the skilled manufacturing jobs that could still be found in Los Angeles during the 1970s. His son was born in 1975, a daughter came two years later.
Rodriguez left his factory job in 1980 for a reporter position at a small weekly newspaper on the city’s Eastside.
By the end of the decade he was living in Chicago, had his third child, was on his third marriage and was working the poetry circuit like a man possessed.
“Slam poetry [impromptu reading contests] was happening all over Chicago. It was live mike night in the bars and I was there,” he says fondly. “That was definitely the place to be.”
While the heady, boozy days of those street poetry gigs are behind him, Rodriguez wants to make it clear his horizons as a writer are just starting to open up. For a man who has been to the brink as often as he has, lingering in the darkness and despair that life can offer, he seems oddly refreshed. Even optimistic.
He lets out a light laugh when asked if he feels he’s just getting old.
“You know, it is like I have turned 180 degrees and become sort of the anti-me, the opposite of what I was. All my energy goes into work and family now and there are spiritual issues I didn’t deal with before,” he says.
“I have lost some of the rage I had as a youth, or maybe I’m just channeling it differently now. Maybe now I’m an angry middle-aged guy.”
This article was first published in the Los Angeles Times.