- Still Running:An Interview with Luis J. Rodriguez
Watts bleeds as I bled, getting laid-off from work,standing by my baby’s crib, touching his soft cheekand fingering his small hand, as dreams shatter again,dreams of fathers for little men.
Watts bleeds and the city hemorrhages,unable to stop the flow from this swollen and festering sore.
Oh bloom, you trampled flower, come alive as onceyou tried to do from the ashes.
Watts, bleeding and angry, you will be free.—Luis J. Rodriguez (“Watts” 29-37)
Luis J. Rodriguez is an intriguing and rare individual; he is a Chicano memoirist, novelist, poet, and journalist while simultaneously a publisher and social revolutionary who campaigns on behalf of the working classes. As Andrés Rodríguez (no relation) explains, “Rodriguez is one of Chicano literature’s most gifted and committed artists today. He is also an activist, whose action, above all, is to strike at our complacency or pretense of democracy” (216). Rodriguez has fulfilled these literary and advocacy roles with raw talent and sheer hard work. On many levels, he can be read as a “classic” Chicano author whose writing confronts historical and linguistic bonds to both Mexico and North America, raising questions of cultural ambivalence and negotiating assimilation and acculturation.1 His verse, often replete with political consciousness, prompts comparison with the militant protest poetry that has a long history in the Mexican barrio and was brought to the fore during the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 1970s.2 Concurrently, as this interview demonstrates, Rodriguez exceeds the strictures of his Chicano categorization, offering unconventional twists on what it means to be a contemporary author underpinned by a sense of specific ethnic identity. [End Page 158]
I first interviewed Rodriguez in 2006. We spoke at length about his acclaimed account of a violent gangbanging lifestyle in East Los Angeles during the 1960s and 1970s titled Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A. (1993). When I first started reading Always Running, I was captivated—as were numerous book reviewers—by its graphic and brutal representation of the gang underworld. I conducted some discussion groups at inner-city schools to observe the reading practices of young, often marginalized students and was enthralled by their desire to hear more about Rodriguez as the former gangbanger, Rodriguez the writer and poet, and Rodriguez the creative influence. Several teachers, for whom Always Running has proven invaluable in getting reluctant readers to read, similarly remarked that their pupils wanted to find out more about this man’s life outside of the gang.
One teacher with whom I worked made no reference to gangs when she introduced Always Running to her classes, presenting the author as a “novelist, a poet, and an author who has been accepted into the multicultural canon” (Metcalf 170). Often others (myself included) are guilty of underestimating young people’s tastes, assuming they will be predominantly engrossed by the scenes in the memoir depicting intense and vicious acts of violence. Instead, they are equally enticed by Rodriguez’s participation in the Chicano Movement of that period, interspersing his time in the gang with tales of himself as a disillusioned school pupil, bewildered and upset at the lack of respect for Mexican heritage and culture. Of course, this also speaks volumes about Rodriguez’s own literary skill at deftly articulating the tensions between these two sides of his life. It could be contended that he strategically uses the “glamour” of violence to engage audiences about other things.
Always Running is in practical and literal terms a success; it has sold in excess of 500,000 copies with more than twenty reprints and translation into twenty-seven languages. In many of the high school libraries I visited in 2006 and again in 2008, the memoir was one of the most widely held books (one school even boasted twenty copies, twelve in English and eight in Spanish). Despite such accomplishments and the tendency of literary critics to deem Rodriguez a gang memoirist who then turned to fiction, his first two publications were collections of poetry: Poems Across the Pavement (1989) and The...