It’s fascinating to read Luis J. Rodriguez’s memoir Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A. nearly three decades after it was published. In the first place, there are all the ways Los Angeles has changed since 1993, and all the ways it hasn’t, particularly around questions of identity and race. In the second, there’s the figure of Rodriguez himself, who at the time Always Running appeared was 38 and living in Chicago, where he had moved in 1985. To return to the book in 2022, then, is like gazing backward through a looking glass, at a personal history that has now become a social history, in a future that now exists for us in present tense.
This article appears in the Summer 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
Rodriguez, of course, is a touchstone writer in Los Angeles, the city’s second poet laureate and the recipient of the Los Angeles Times’ 2022 Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement. He is a cofounder of Tía Chucha’s Centro Cultural & Bookstore in the northeast San Fernando Valley, an essential space for readings and for classes as well as a publisher of books. His life is emblematic of his commitment to using literature and language as forces for good. “The more we know, the more we owe,” he writes in Always Running. “This is a responsibility I take seriously.”
Always Running is where all this starts, although the journey was anything but smooth. Born in El Paso, Rodriguez grew up in Southern California and, as an adolescent, fell under the sway of drugs and gangs. Literature saved him: while a student at Taft High School, he “discovered Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land, Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul On Ice, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X…and later a few books by Puerto Ricans and Chicanos: Victor Hernández Cruz’s Snaps and Ricardo Sánchez’s Canto Y Grito: Mi Liberación.” Piri Thomas’s magnificent Down These Mean Streets, he remembers, “became a living Bible for me.”
The shift Rodriguez traces is one toward creativity. But even more, it involves self-acceptance, self-awareness, the movement from despair to an encompassing sort of love. All of this emerges in these recollections of his teenage years, which take us from the streets to someplace equally elemental: the territory of the author’s soul. “The fact was,” he writes, “I didn’t know anything about literature. I had fallen through the chasm between two languages. The Spanish had been beaten out of me in the early years of school—and I didn’t learn English very well either.”
And yet, if this could at times feel crushing, Rodriguez refused to capitulate. “Sometimes we rearranged words,” he continues, “created new meanings and structures—even a new vocabulary.”
It is no stretch to suggest that in Always Running, Rodriguez encodes this new vocabulary.•