Luis J. Rodriguez’s memoir Always Running gains strength from more than the shocking truth depicted in its pages. It is a brutal, violent book about life as a young, poor Chicano gang member on the streets of East Los Angeles. But its power is as an authentic presentation of the psychogeography that shaped multiple generations of disenfranchised people growing up immersed in a system that offered them no options and in a culture in which toxic masculinity reigned supreme. It is not an easy read. It chronicles drug addiction, prison, police brutality, and racism in an unflinching style. However, Rodriguez’s gritty, honest voice made this memoir an undying classic that serves simultaneously as a warning, an exploration of toxic masculinity and its effects on young men, and proof that there is always hope.
Early on, joining a gang and excelling at violence became survival musts for Rodriguez. Both of those things were directly tied to a unique type of masculinity that many Latino men grew up—and continue to grow up—in. My reality coming of age in the Caribbean in the 1980s and 1990s wasn’t the same as Rodriguez’s in L.A. in the ’60s and ’70s, but we shared some cultural baggage. Brown boys become brown men who’ve learned that men don’t cry, that it’s great to have many girlfriends, that violence is the answer to everything, and that gay is an insult. Breaking away from those “lessons” is tough and requires much more effort than accepting them and perpetuating the status quo.
I teach a writing workshop focused on helping writers use violence in their narratives to improve character development and create empathy. Without violence, genres like horror and crime fail. In that workshop, we explore a basic formula for violence in a narrative: an aggressor attacks a victim. The attack can be physical, sexual, psychological, or a combination of those. The important thing, though, is that the formula can be altered. In Always Running, violence, tethered to masculinity and survival, is always at the center. However, Rodriguez helps readers see that identifying the aggressor within the formula is not always easy.
On the surface, the aggressors in Rodriguez’s memoir are men like him, tattooed cholos with chips on their shoulders and access to guns. However, these men are victims of a school system that gave up on them, poverty, police who love to use violence against them, broken families, a lack of opportunity, and racism. When it feels as though the world is against you, when you encounter abuse and derision everywhere you go, the most natural thing, this book reveals, is to react violently. This mindset leads to an endless cycle of violence, prison, and death, which drives about two-thirds of Always Running. Rodriguez explains the suicidal behavior he discusses throughout the book: “Death seemed the only door worth opening, the only road toward a future.”
But masculinity doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is the result of culture and the environment. These two elements shape the way young men react to stimuli. Always Running demonstrates that sometimes seemingly meaningless violence has severe societal problems at its core. For example, Rodriguez suffered from depression, which led to substance abuse and random acts of violence. He lashed out against a world where he didn’t feel welcome and had nowhere to go to get help and no one he could talk to about his emotions.
Similarly, many young people in the book quit the school system. They turn to the streets and gang violence because the schools aren’t prepared to deal with bilingual or ESL students. Again, they feel unwelcome and mistreated. Broken systems bring forth a breakage of other things, including a broken formula for masculinity in which violence seems like the best alternative.
Luckily, Rodriguez made it out. He has spent his adult life reaching out to those like him and being an agent of change. Government programs and studies are crucial in breaking the violence cycle. This memoir shows their impact on young people who are otherwise alone when, for example, the California State College at Los Angeles offers Rodriguez an Economic Opportunity Grant despite his record.
Mass shootings are only one of the symptoms of a problem with young men and violence. Always Running is still being discussed three decades after its first publication because this problem of violent masculinity persists. Sadly, there is no easy answer, no clear solution that can immediately be enacted. Disenfranchisement, poverty, police brutality, and racism—a few elements from the book—still have detrimental effects on young people. However, there are several places where we can start looking for answers to the inherent flaws in our system or at least ask the right questions. This memoir, as raw and brutal as it is hopeful and beautiful, gives us a compelling place to begin.•
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 to discuss Always Running. Visit the Alta Clubhouse to share your thoughts on the memoir with fellow California Book Club members. Register here.