Throat of a Country

In this week’s newsletter, we introduce our July CBC selection, Luis J. Rodriguez’s raw and candid memoir Always Running.

luis j rodriguez
Dustin Snipes

When the CBC July pick, Luis J. Rodriguez’s classic memoir Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A. opens, the poet is nine years old. It is the early 1960s. His family is moving around Watts, having emigrated from Ciudad Juárez to Southern California seven years earlier. For Rodriguez’s family, the initial experience of immigration is one of a painful hypervisibility that is hard to stomach and tolerate. He observes, “Our first exposure in America stays with me like a foul odor. It seemed a strange world, most of it spiteful to us, spitting and stepping on us, coughing us up, us immigrants, as if we were phlegm stuck in the collective throat of this country.”

It’s strong metaphoric imagery—the country as a body attempting to expel a substance made within it. There is the alliterative sibilance of these words: stays, strange, spiteful, spitting, and stepping. There’s the poet’s sensitivity to sound, the way ssssss can be a beautiful sound or an insulting near-slur when spitting is deployed toward strangers. And then there’s the shift to a kuh sound in coughing, collective and country. The sonics here do the important work of viscerally capturing the hostility of spitting, the gesture it describes. Rodriguez’s mother responds to the biting condescension of being perpetually treated as foreign, as an outsider, and wants to return to Mexico, but his stoic, intellectual father refuses.

The popular contemporary assumption in parts of cosmopolitan areas like Los Angeles and the Bay Area is that California is permanently progressive. But the state that Rodriguez grew up in was poached in anti-Mexican and anti-immigrant rhetoric. The violent go-home speech and signs built for a long time through Rodriguez’s childhood to the 1986 midterms, when Proposition 63 made English the official language of a state that had been Mexico and where, if you were brown, people would often immediately speak to you in Spanish.

The proposition had more than 70 percent of the votes. It wasn’t much of a struggle to get something discriminatory on the books. The law has stayed in the California constitution ever since: language as one of the primary dividing lines between insiders and outsiders. Think about the decades of resentment and irrational hatred that would have had to build up against a people seeking the California dream, a people who had a presence here earlier than white suburbanites, to get the proposition past voters with overwhelming support. If you lived that history as an immigrant, treated as someone always at risk of being expelled, as if in a violent throat clearing, you can’t, as Rodriguez asserts with his powerful metaphor, unsee it or forget it.

During the ’80s, it seemed futile to think California would ever not be defined in the popular imagination according to the social and linguistic norms of its white, sprawling, affluent suburbs. Years of protest and other struggles against xenophobic action were required to get to the present-day image of a progressive Golden State, an image that had not yet been attained by 1993, when Rodriguez first published his memoir. As Always Running suggests, the political framing of immigrants as somehow dirty or undeserving and their languages as inferior was balanced, on the other side, with erasure on a shocking scale. You’d see white movie stars, larger than life on enormous screens, inspiring dreams among audience members in the dark. Audiences were primed to see them as a norm, as beautiful, as, in their beauty, good. Hollywood was vaunted as the physical and spiritual home of stars and surfaces and stories that were more tremendous, more deserving of our attention than the ones lived by ordinary people of color out on the streets.

Rodriguez explains, “We were invisible people in a city which thrived on glitter, big screens, and big names, but this glamour contained none of our names, none of our faces. The refrain ‘This is not your country’ echoed for a lifetime.” How do you thrive when you are persistently treated like an outsider in your own home?

The tribal instinct runs fast and deep and crosses cultures and subcultures. Using what’s known as the minimal group paradigm, social psychologists have found that even when completely arbitrary criteria are used to distinguish between groups—such as the artwork a group member prefers—humans favor their own group at the expense of other groups. Simply being a member of the group is enough to result in favoritism toward other members of the group. So, what if the differences between groups—differences like language or appearance—are more salient ethnic markers that are also coded into the law? You might look for belonging elsewhere, as Rodriguez does.

But as you’ll see from this brutal but ultimately hopeful memoir of gang life, Rodriguez, at one point the Los Angeles poet laureate, makes no excuses for himself or his past. Rather, with the very act of writing, he sets the dividing line between insiders and outsiders on fire. He welcomes all of us in. Language is his deliverance.

Join us July 21 at 5 p.m. Pacific time, when Rodriguez will appear in conversation with CBC host John Freeman and special guest Rubén Martínez. Until then, visit the Alta Clubhouse to let us and your fellow California Book Club members know what you think of the book. Register here.

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always running, luis j rodriguez
Atria Books

EXCERPT

Read the opening pages of Always Running. —Alta


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steph cha
Dustin Snipes

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lacy johnson, cheryl beckett
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portland freedom festival
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Alta

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