Living Mural

In this week's newsletter, we look at how Luis J. Rodriguez’s memoir Always Running uses techniques of other art forms to paint a picture of his life in East Los Angeles.

luis j rodriguez
Dustin Snipes

We didn’t call ourselves gangs,” Luis J. Rodriguez explains in the July CBC pick, Always Running, which is a memoir written for his son Ramiro. “We called ourselves clubs or clicas.” He was 11 years old, in elementary school, when he and his friends started Thee Impersonations, a club that pledged to be there for one another and stand up for one another.

First and foremost, Rodriguez’s language is visual and emotional. You can picture the Thee Impersonations hanging out, eating lunch, maybe pushing one another around, developing crushes, and making this promise, with no idea of what it could entail but eager for loyalty in a world that’s told them they’re not enough.

Even when they’re small and awkward, 11-year-old boys hope to see themselves as mighty and brave. Their brains are not yet fully developed—that won’t happen for another 14 years. The prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that controls impulse inhibition, is the last to develop. These are tween boys on the cusp of adolescence, that moment when their friends have started to take up more space in their thoughts than their parents do. Whatever authorities and the system think of them, they are enough for one another.

Rodriguez paints the other boys’ personalities in a blaze of color, not so much like a novelist or political theorist, but like the poet and muralist he would eventually become. He flashes us images to produce moods, a picture of the whole group. A more literal-minded writer might remark, “Yeah, we hung out every day,” but Rodriguez conceptualizes it differently: “The four of us were so often together that the list of our names became a litany.” As he sees it, who they are together is prayerful, powerful.

You could almost paint the scenes of Rodriguez’s life based on what he conjures on the page: an ice cream truck goes by playing a hurried version of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” while the young teenage boys are drinking wine. And the boys Rodriguez knows have a poet’s inclination toward associative magic when naming what they understand about one another. One boy says of another boy, Noodles, that “when he moves fast and you can’t understand what he’s saying, then he’s pissed.”

We feel for the younger Rodriguez, known as Chin to his friends and family, as if all of it was happening to us. We believe in Tía Chucha, who tells dirty jokes and sings on city buses. We feel we could have known independent Pancho, who teaches the boys how to be cool and how to dance. In just a sentence, Rodriguez shows us Tío Kiko: “This border priest, this master of snake and siren, did what the Anglo doctors could not.”

Lest readers who are not insiders to this life attempt to turn the memoir into a kind of anthropology in which they judge the group from the outside, Rodriguez announces, “In the barrio, the police are just another gang. We even give them names. There’s Cowboy, Big Red, Boffo and Maddog.”

When another group, Thee Mystics, comes to the school, throwing stones at windows and firing .22s, Rodriguez thinks, “I was a broken boy, shy and fearful. I wanted what Thee Mystics had; I wanted the power to hurt somebody.” In these pages, cliques turn into car clubs, which turn into cholo attire, cruising in lowriders on Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles, mescaline, spray, crushes, sex, violence, and hazing. It amounts to a fraternity.

The memoir poses an old but evergreen question: Is a broken boy doomed to live the rest of his life in the shadow of mistakes exacerbated by not belonging? The answer Rodriguez gives his son, for whom he wrote the book, is no.•

Join our next CBC gathering on July 21 at 5 p.m. when Rodriguez will be in conversation with host John Freeman and special guest Rubén Martínez to discuss Always Running. Visit the Alta Clubhouse to share thoughts about the memoir, and register for the upcoming Zoom conversation here.

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always running, luis j rodriguez
Atria Books

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Alta Journal contributor and author Daniel A. Olivas talks to Luis J. Rodriguez about the impact of Always Running. —Alta


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Alta

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