Why I Write: Books Were My Saving Grace

Luis J. Rodriguez is the July 2022 California Book Club author.

luis j rodriguez
Dustin Snipes

In 1956, when I was two, my family arrived in Los Angeles from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. My mother had Tarahumara Native roots from the Chihuahuan Desert. I was an Indigenous child who entered school in the Black and brown working-class community of Watts in the early 1960s. As a Spanish speaker, I felt unheard and unseen. Teachers placed me in a corner playing blocks for a whole year. When I spoke Spanish, I was punished. Once, when I was six, a teacher slapped me across the face in front of the class. Unfortunately, schools, including in the San Gabriel Valley, where we moved, didn’t teach English very well.

At the age of 11, after being put down for years, I turned to gangs, crime, and drugs. I dropped out of school. Got arrested. My parents threw me out of the house when I was 15. I slept in abandoned cars and buildings, in vacant lots or garage rooms, in cubbyholes alongside the Los Angeles River. My refuge, however, became the downtown Central Library. I would spend hours there scavenging through works by Ray Bradbury, E.B. White, James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Claude Brown, Piri Thomas, and Mark Twain.

Books were my saving grace.

This article appears in the Summer 2022 issue of Alta Journal.

On August 29, 1970, sheriff’s deputies beat and arrested me during the Chicano Moratorium Against the Vietnam War. The deputies threatened to charge me and some others with instigating the so-called East Los Angeles riot that ended with three people dead. I was taken to the Hall of Justice’s Murderer’s Row. In the next cell was Charles Manson.

I was 16.

In jail, I stood up to two big dudes after one put a razor to my neck. I witnessed a deputy break the arm of another inmate. Most of the cellmates played cards. One had paper and pencil. I asked to borrow them. Eventually the deputies had to let me go without charges. By then I carried a small pad and wrote whenever I could. I began to mine internal depths—stories, images, and words.

Writing became a lifeline.

The rebellions of the 1960s and 1970s turned me around. Although I had other arrests, and finally convictions, I began to understand the layers of this country’s race, class, and gender politics. With help from a mentor, I returned to school, worked for gang peace, struggled as a community activist. I disciplined myself with patience, all manner of skills. It was time to break the chains of my silences.

Despite one foot in la Vida Loca (the crazy life) and one foot out, revolution won. I quit heroin, gangs, and crime. At 20, I held my first son in my arms and dedicated myself to healing, peace, and radical transformative arts and governance. I’ve also helped others with writing and empowerment, especially in the most troubled communities.

I’ve been doing this for close to 50 years.

Luis J. Rodriguez joins the California Book Club on July 21 at 5 p.m. Pacific time.

I first worked in industry and construction, including four years in a steel mill, before emerging as a journalist in newspapers and in radio. I’m now a full-time writer, speaker, and teacher. I have published 16 books. Writing has opened doors to the world: I’ve done readings, talks, and panels throughout the United States as well as in Canada, Mexico, Central America, South America, the Caribbean, Europe, and Japan. I’ve run for public office (twice for California governor), taught in prisons and juvenile lockups for 40 years, helped create a cultural arts space and bookstore (Tía Chucha’s Centro Cultural & Bookstore in the San Fernando Valley), founded a small poetry press (Tia Chucha Press), and connected to Indigenous spiritual practices, and I have four children, five grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren. I’ve been with my wonderful wife and life partner, Trini, for 37 years. This is a life rich with bounty and beauty.

And I don’t plan to stop.

Today, the center of our culture is increasingly hollow, dominated by straight white males of wealth and power. The periphery, then, is where society’s heart still beats, filled with the blood of new ideas, visions, passions. From the margins, we’re rising up in song, in art, in dance, in theater, in writing. I’m past retirement age, but don’t count me out. I’m not retiring, I’m refiring!•

Luis J, Rodriguez is author of 16 books in poetry, children’s literature, fiction, and nonfiction.
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