A Language Like Home

Author Michelle Cruz Gonzales, who was born in East Los Angeles, writes about reading Always Running, our July CBC pick, which describes the life in which her parents grew up.

a demonstrator holds a sign as bystanders chat during a rally against california governor arnold schwarzenegger in east los angeles 12 december, 2003 the demonstration was called by a group immigrant rights associations and immigrant advocates asking latinos for an economic strike in the state of california to protest the proposed repeal of a law signed by former governor gray davis

As far back as I can remember, Los Angeles was a place I was always trying to return to. A third-generation Xicana and Angeleno born in the city, Los Angeles, not Mexico, is my homeland.

I first read Luis J. Rodriguez’s Always Running after escaping the small gold rush town where I grew up. Like Rodriguez, I’m from East Los Angeles, not the L.A. of movie lots, red carpets, or Tinseltown, but the L.A. of backyards filled with rosebushes, nopales, chickens, dogs, or cinder block terraces, and hills where everyone else expects only flatlands.

Always Running is a gritty, deftly told memoir about la vida loca. My mother had shielded me from this life when she fled my father and moved to the California foothills to fulfill her pastoral fantasy. My father, Miguel/Michael Cruz, was an abusive, part-time delinquente from the Maravilla projects, with its associated gang, HMV, or El Hoyo MaraVilla. He skipped school, cruised Whittier Boulevard, and hung around Chronis, a hot dog and burger joint, avoiding neighborhoods that boasted “Heights.” Mom was from Boyle Heights and then City Terrace—the territory of another gang, called White Fence. White Fence was the first gang in L.A. to carry guns, and Mom remembers fights breaking out when members of HMV crossed out the WF tags in the surrounding neighborhoods. While she didn’t consider herself a gangbanger, simply being a “bad girl” from one barrio versus another could bring trouble, boy trouble and otherwise. She even once stuck razor blades in her beehive updo—a hidden weapon or a way to cut a ruca who might start a fight and grab her hair. It was a real possibility, not just something from movies. One of Mom’s friends was in White Fence. Rumor had it she and the girls she hung around with were “gonna get jumped” by girls from El Hoyo MaraVilla.

In addition to gang rivalries via her schoolgirl friends, her vato loco, and cruising culture, my mom, who is only three years older than Rodriguez, experienced the injustices critiqued sharply in Always Running, particularly the racism in the schools. These things hardened her even more. Teaching professionals’ primary educational practices in the L.A. schools during the 1950s and ’60s centered on assimilating non–English speaking youth and tracking their education. This was a direct result of the Americanization movement that pervaded the American Southwest starting in the 1910s and went strong until the 1940s. Targeting Mexican American students, teachers who took this approach robbed many young Chincanx of their confidence to read or write in any language, and they perpetuated the belief that Mexicans were only good with their hands, for picking fruits and vegetables, for sewing or cleaning houses.

Contemporary readers may see Always Running as a story that exemplifies how schools and police have historically oppressed innocent children of color. These are systems that push young people onto the streets. We see this when Rodriguez and a friend, at just 10 years old, are chased by police who call the boys greasers for playing basketball on school grounds after-hours. We see it when Rodriguez was even younger and he and his classmates were physically punished for speaking Spanish at school:

In those days there was no way to integrate the non-English speaking children. So they just made it a crime to speak anything but English. If a Spanish word sneaked out in the playground, kids were often sent to the office to get swatted or to get detention.

Later, he observes of his “predicament,” “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.”

But Always Running is a celebration, too, a celebration of the socially maligned Chicanx Spanish and Spanglish spoken by my chola cousins. Like East L.A., it was a language that, for me, always felt like home. Rodriguez celebrates the realization that writing and blending language codes enabled him to find his own unique voice and humanity at a point in time when society regarded Chicanx as culturally deficient:

We could almost be called incommunicable except we remained lucid; we got over what we felt, sensed and understood. Sometimes we rearranged words, created new meanings and structures—even a new vocabulary. Often our everyday talk blazed with poetry.

Of course, we know now that “the predicament” that Rodriguez writes of is constructed. There is nothing inherently wrong with being bilingual, code-meshing, speaking with an accent, or being Chicanx—these claims are white supremacist distortions that engender internalized racism and self-fulfilling prophecies of failure. Always Running made the American Library Association’s list of top 100 banned books from its publication in 1993 through 2009. It has been banned for being too violent, too disturbing, too graphic—read by censors as too real, too honest, too chingón, but in these pages, we are not too much, but rather whole. It is a book that speaks la verdad and encourages all our stories by rejecting the shame we were expected to feel about ourselves. It is a book that gave so many of us permission to call ourselves writers and the permission to write.•

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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