Luis J. Rodríguez is an accomplished poet and novelist whose first work, Always Running, has been recognized as a literary tour de force, a searing account of his experiences growing up as a gang member in Los Angeles. LATINOPIA interviewed Luis Rodríguez and here, in his own words, are his thoughts on his formation as a writer and how he came to write Always Running.
LUIS J. RODRÍGUEZ
IN HIS OWN WORDS:
Some of the early literary works where Chicanos appeared that I picked up as a kid. Steinbeck, for example, Cannery Row, The Pearl. He had Mexican characters, he had Chicano characters. Tortilla Flats. I thought that the depictions weren’t necessarily so terrible–to me. I was just so happy to even see that there were Mexicans and Chicanos in the world, in literature.
I am not as critical of Steinbeck as I probably should be, it was just so great to see any characters. That was the hunger that I had as a young person not seeing any Chicanos or even any Latinos in books. I ate all that stuff up.
My mother would tell us stories. Some of the stories she made up some were Walt Disney stories. Some of the stories were stories from Mexico. She was also good at declamación, she would repeat from memory poems and declamaciónes. That was what my mother gave to us as we were kids.
I’m the only one in my family that picked up on books and even when I was a very troubled teenager I would still go to the library. Even as a gang member or as a heroin addict, I still would go to the library. I would be the cholo in the library, reading books. Books interested me and got me to learn English at a deeper level…books were my guide in the world.
When I first started writing Always Running I was a teenager and I was sitting in jail. I was in juvenile hall but I also wound up in county jail at 16 years old which you are not supposed to be but I happened to be there. And I started to write these little vignettes. They weren’t poems and they weren’t stories, I had no idea really of how to write a poem or a story. But they were vignettes about the barrio, for some reason I felt compelled to tell these stories of the neighborhood.
It was my sense of being invisible. That I wanted the stories of my homies, of my friends, of people that I knew, the lives that got lost and nobody would remember them. I wanted them to be told. That was my first writings. Was I trying to write a book? No, I don’t think so. I don’t think I knew that I was going to write a book. I just had to put them out, to express them.
For twenty years I kept adding to these vignettes until finally I got to the point where my son got into a gang. He was fifteen years old and I realized I have a book that I can give him, my own story. From these vignettes I pulled together twenty years of vignettes that in eight months I put together and eventually Curbstone Press published it: Always Running.
That was my gift to my son but it really turned out to be a story for all of us who were living that life. It turned out that up to that point no Chicano actual gang participant had written a book of their own life like that. Several generations of gang families, and mothers who had lost two or three sons, but no one was writing these stories. And I am the first one, without even knowing it, that was going to be the one to tell these stories, this account that I wanted my son to get, but also other kids, Chicano kids, but all kids. It’s a coming of age story but from the hard cruel urban reality that urban kids sometimes go through.
BOOKS BY LUIS RODRIGUEZ:
ALWAYS RUNNING 1993 Curbstone Press , Willimantic, CT
HEARTS AND HANDS, CREATING
COMMUNITY IN VIOLENT TIMES 2001 Seven Stories Press, N.Y.
THE REPUBLIC OF EAST L.A. 2002 Rayo, Harper Collins Publishers, N.Y., N.Y.
MY NATURE IS HUNGER 2005 Curbstone Press, Willimantic, CT
MUSIC OF THE MILL 2005 Rayo, Harper Collins Publishers, N.Y., N.Y.
VISIT LUIS J. RODRIGUEZ BOOKSTORE WEBSITE: www.tiachucha.com