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American Literary History 17.1 (2005) 183-195
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"This Is Not Your Country!":
Nation and Belonging in Latina/o Literature
Paula M. L. Moya
In the first chapter of his prizewinning autobiography, Always Running (1993), Luis Rodriguez—peace activist, poet, writer, and former gang member—tells a story about one of the first lessons he received about the politics of identity in this country. Having taken a walk to Will Rogers Park in Los Angeles with his mother and siblings, Rodriguez (who was born a US citizen) witnesses his Mexican mother's humiliation at the hands of an "American" woman who contests his mother's right to sit herself and her children on an available park bench. "'Look spic, you can't sit there!' the American woman yelled. 'You don't belong here! Understand? This is not your country!'" (19). The anecdote serves to introduce Rodriguez's reader to a key theme that runs throughout the book—a theme that motivates much of the action in the plot of his life. From a very young age, Rodriguez heard the message from teachers, policemen, and random "American" strangers that, as a young, poor, Mexican-origin boy, he was unwanted, out of place, and ultimately disposable. Rodriguez's reaction to his predicament was one that he suggests is completely understandable—he joined a gang. "Gangs," he explains, "are not alien powers. They begin as unstructured groupings, our children, who desire the same as any young person. Respect. A sense of belonging. Protection. The same thing that the YMCA, Little League or the Boy Scouts want. It wasn't any more than what Iwanted as a child" (250).
What Rodriguez wanted as a child and what he got, however, were two very different things. Although the gangs he joined did initially give him "something to belong to," they did not finally empower him to claim his rightful place as a fully entitled citizen of the US (41). It was not until he began to educate himself through the Chicano Movement about the economic and social institutions that put him and others like him at a structural disadvantage relative to other "Americans" that Rodriguez was able to break free of gang life and begin the long, arduous process toward achieving full, substantive [End Page 183] US citizenship. His work with gang prevention in the schools has been a crucial part of that process. But Rodriguez has had his greatest success with his autobiography—a powerful work of literature that he wrote as a gift for his son Ramiro, and for all the young people who face the same kinds of hurdles today that he faced a generation ago. Rodriguez's compelling autobiography works on a variety of levels. It works as an experiential narrative that conveys the anger, fear, and hopelessness that can lead people to hurt themselves and others, while also portraying the love and hope that can be found in any human situation. It works as a sociological account of the dynamics of gang membership and identity, and as an exquisitely beautiful literary rendering of the images and feelings that are part of the gang experience. Finally, it works as a vehicle through which Rodriguez makes a devastating critique of the economic and social structures that lead to the criminalization of poor urban Latina/o youth. His autobiography, by exposing the dynamics of exclusion operative in the dominant conception of US nationalism, works to interrogate those dynamics and that conception, even as it contests the idea that Latina/os must forever be outsiders to the US national imaginary.
Three recent scholarly books by Monika Kaup, Mary Pat Brady, and Monica Brown indicate that Rodriguez's preoccupations are resonant with Latina/o literature as a...