California Book Club: Luis J. Rodriguez Transcript

Read a lightly-edited transcript of author Luis J. Rodriguez's conversation with California Book Club guest host Daniel Olivas and special guest Rubén Martínez.

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David L. Ulin: Hi everybody. I am David L. Ulin. I'm the books, editor of Alta Journal. And welcome to this edition of the California Book Club. I want to welcome you all to tonight's event and introduce the California Book Club and Alta Journal briefly. Alta is a quarterly journal of California culture and history. Also, with a act of daily web presence. We've been devoting a lot of attention to books in terms of book reviews, the California Book Club, other kind of book events. And we're really proud of the fact that at a moment when book coverage is condensing all over the country, we have been expanding book coverage. We think it's vital both for our us and for you, our readers, and also for the conversation and for democracy. So thank you for being part of this. The monthly book club event takes place over Zoom, in which we interview and present writers of what we call the new California cannon.

Tonight, we will be welcoming. Luis J. Rodriguez, the poet, SAS memoirs, novelist, former Los Angeles City poet laureate. We're delighted to have him, more on that in a moment. I want to introduce our partners without whom we couldn't do this. Those partners include Book Passage, Books Inc Book Soup, Bookshop in West Portal, Diesel a bookstore, Bookshop, the online book seller, The Huntington USC Institute on California and the West, the Los Angeles Public Library, the San Francisco Public Library, Narrative magazine, Vroman's Bookstore and Zyzzyva magazine.

And I also, if you haven't... I want to also say that we present our monthly events. We present continuous content leading up to each book club meeting. These are free and available on the internet. If you haven't had a chance to read all of the materials that we've put up around Luis and his book always running, please check it out right now.

You don't want to miss essays from numerous contributors with reflections on tonight's work from Always Running and more. And all of this is included in our weekly California Book Club newsletter. Please sign up for tips and to know what we're doing. All right, so how can you support this work we do, bringing these in depth articles and interviews with writers like Luis Rodriguez to you? We're offering a sale for California Book Club members for just $50. You'll get a year of Alta Journal, a California Book Club tote bag, and one of our upcoming California Book Club books. You can find that offer at altaonline.com/ tote, and also watch tomorrow's thank you email for a link to this deal. I've also been asked to, let me show you this, the tote.

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But it's got Velcro. It's got a lot of pockets. It's actually really useful bag. It is going away soon. So get it now while it's still here. We will be replacing it with the California Book Club hat, at some point in the near future. You can also simply join Alta as a digital member for just $3 a month. It's a thrill to welcome Luis Rodriguez tonight. I also want to express my own and Alta's gratitude to Daniel Olivas for filling in for our usual host John Freeman. And I'm without further ado going to turn things over to Daniel. So welcome Daniel to California Book Club.

Daniel Olivas: Thank you, David. Thank you so much. And David Ulin is one of our most important literary voices in California and Los Angeles. The work that he does to tell people about important books, but also to be involved in this way with our communities. I am absolutely honored today to help this dialogue happen today with Luis Rodriguez, who is, I think, one of the most important contemporary writers and political voices today. I can't imagine a better choice for the California Book Club, than to choose this book, Always Running.

This is my old copy, which I purchased 24 years ago. It had already been published for a few years when I got my hands on it in 1998. And that was a year when I made a decision as an old guy at 39, to start writing fiction and poetry and nonfiction. This is a book that is clearly essential to any reading list, that includes memoir. Is a book that recounts Luis's redemption from a life of violence, a life of addiction, redemption through art, through literature and through the love of people he encountered on that journey. So without further ado, let me introduce and have come on screen, Luis Rodriguez. Luis, good to see you.

Luis Rodriguez: Hello everybody. What an honor to be here. Thank you.

Olivas: So you are a multi talented writer, not only do you write non-fiction, but when I was asked to do today's interview, I ran to my bookshelves and I grabbed as many of my Luis Rodriguez's books as I could. Unlike David Ulin, who I think is very organized and probably has his bookshelves in alphabetic order, our thousands of books are not in order. So I had to try to figure out where I had put your books and I had them in many different places, but your books include, not only of course Always Running, but the wonderful novel, Music of the Mill, which I love. And your short story collection, The Republic of East Los Angeles.

A bunch of poetry collections, including The Concrete River, which is just a beautiful collection and other memoirs, Hearts and Hands. Can you talk a little bit about before we get into the actual storyline, if you will, of Always Running. Talk about the craft of writing and the creation of that memoir, because sometimes people think, "Oh, these books just kind of come out magically from people," but you're a craftsman. I know you work hard. You couldn't produce 16 books without putting in the blood, sweat and tears. So can you talk a little bit about the creation of Always Running and how that book became a book?

Rodriguez: Well, I want to start with a little story about why I was interested in being a writer. As people know from my book and we talk more about it. I was homeless for about three years when I was a teenager. In the streets, I was on heroin. I was stealing, I was mugging people. I was in a gang and I would be living in the streets or any all kinds of places. I never stayed in the same place twice. A lot of it was along the [inaudible] River. Some of it was abandoned cars, because in those days it was cars abandoned everywhere, buildings, but one saving grace was the Central Public Library. And this is an important story, because I would go in there and I loved those books and I spent hours. So I was homeless, but on the other hand, I was in a home with books. The books were powerful. They never put me down. They never said I never I would never amount to anything. They never knocked me around. They were books that just had stories and imagination. And for some reason I had a vision of walking... In those days, as you know, there was no Rodriguez's, or the Martinez's or anybody there in those bookshelves. But I had a little vision of my name on the spine of one of those books. And I turned around, of course it wasn't. And I didn't think twice about it. Many, many years later when Mayor Eric, our city bestowed on me, the LA poet Laureate, this is 2014. It was there at the Central Library. And they didn't know that story that I had walked those shells when I was 15 years old, in bad shape. But those books called to me.

And now if you go to the library, there are books by you by others, there's so many... There's Denise Chavez, Sandra Cisneros. There's so many writers out there now that are there that I found in my books. You'll see a whole array of my books are there. I don't know what to say about that. People will say, "Well, that's kind of..." I think it's magic. It's a kind of magic that people don't... I don't believe in magic, like illusionist. No, I believe that there's destiny and things happen and some things are in your bones. And Always Running was a book I carried with me for 20 years. I couldn't let it go. I worked in industry when I let go of the gangs and jails and everything. I got jobs. I worked 16 hour days in steel mill. I did a lot of things and it wouldn't let go.

I couldn't let go of the story. And then I became a journalist so that I could be a writer and then I couldn't let it go. And finally, I did poetry, because I love poetry. I used to go to poetry readings, and I would do poetry. And then opportunity came after Concrete River came out, where I could write this memoir. And that opportunity was with [inaudible] out of Connecticut. And I have to mention Alexander Taylor, my good friend, Sandy Taylor, who opened that door for me, Judith Doyle, his wife. It was an important thing that all of a sudden it came together and I spent eight months putting this book together, I carried for 20 years. And it came out always winning. And it came out the way it had to come out. I can't even try to make changes on it. I read an audio book of it recently, and I thought I had no book.

And I thought I'm going to make all these changes. I did not write one change. I read the whole thing for two, three days, just reading it. And I couldn't, it's like the book came out the way it needed to come out, to say what it needed to say. It was the most a singular experience, because all my other books, I love them all. And I think many of them are even better than Always Running. It doesn't matter, that book just came out in a certain way at a certain time. And that to me is the magic of writing in art and literature and creativity. There's magic when you do this.

Olivas: There's magic and there's also magic in the purpose behind a book. And the book is dedicated to your son, Romero. And can you talk a little bit about him and why this book is dedicated to him?

Rodriguez: Well, this is important. I had been in the gang. Like I said, I was in all this trouble, but I got out of it. I got out of it early. I had mentors, the Chicano activists, they were radicals from the Chicano [inaudible]. They gave me ideas, visions. They help me in all kinds of ways, even getting out of heroin, everything. And there was a time when there was no recovery programs in the body. So I had to get help and people helped me, got me jobs. I was very much helped, unlike a lot of people. I wished everybody had the kind of help that I had. I always tell people it's not about being scared straight, it's about being cared straight. And I was cared out of that life, by individuals that stood up with me and I gave him a hard time, but they stood by me.

So it was really sad that many years later, my oldest son who saved my life when he was born, the day that I held him, I was 20 years old. I could never imagine going back to la vida loca. It was like, I'm never going back to his life. I still had conflicts within me. I still was addicted to that lifestyle. You know what I'm saying? You don't just get addicted to the drugs. You get addicted to whole ecosystem that pulls you in and it's hard to let that go. I call it that web that holds you.

And I was being held by that web, but slowly but surely the strands were being broken off. But when I held my son, that was the most amazing, powerful thing. I said, I can never go back to that life. And I kept that promise to myself for him and my daughter who came two years later. Unfortunately, when he's 15 years old, he's a troubled young man too. And now I'm living in Chicago. I'm living in this great Puerto Rican neighborhood, Humboldt Park. Beautiful. I just got pictures of it from those days. It was a full of life, great neighbors. We had block parties. We had all the salsa music. We had the beautiful pasteles and all the food that the community would come up with. Had a great relationship with everybody there. But it was a very gang-ridden community, just like Boyle Heights, just like South Central, just like my own community in the San Gabriel Valley.

My son joined a gang of 15, and it was devastating for me. I couldn't really stop him. I abandoned my kids, which is sad, but that's part of the story. Then they come to me as broken, troubled teenagers. That's hard to be a dad if you had to do that. I tried to be a dad, and it wasn't working. Sure enough, he joined a gang, and I didn't know what to do. Part of it's in the book, but writing the book was the catalyst. What can I do to help my son? I have the story. It was for him and all the remedials of the world, as I say in the book. It was for so many. Gangs have gotten worse. Gangs were bad in the 60s and 70s. I know when I was in there, we had it as bad as anybody, but it wasn't for everyone. The wild life, la vita loca, wasn't for everyone. By the 90s, when my son got into it, everybody was a gangster. You know what I'm saying? There was gangs everywhere. There was, oh, everything. Drugs, crack had started an epidemic. There was all kinds of things. The highest level of gang violence occurred between 1980 and the year 2000, and that's when my son joined the gang. Now I had to think about, "He saved me. How am I going to save him?" That was the question.

Olivas: Yeah. Let's do this. Let's have you read a passage so folks can hear your words. My screen will be turned off while you're reading.

Rodriguez: I'm actually going to read a passage of when he joined a gang, and I'm confronting my son about this. He's 15. He's pissed off. "You ain't my dad," that kind of thing, because he got in trouble in [inaudible], where his family's from. So it goes like this. Humboldt Park, just so you know, again, it's a great, beautiful barrio. Now it's highly gentrified, but it used to be just barrio of people, Puerto Ricans. This is the passage that I want to read.

One evening that winter, after Ramiro had come in late following weeks of trouble at school, I gave him an ultimatum. Yelling burst back and forth between the walls of our Humboldt Park flat. Two-year-old Ben (who was my other son, I had another son after that, I had two more sons, but Ben was two years old) confused and afraid, hugged my leg as the shouting erupted. In moments, Ramiro ran out of the house, entering the cold Chicago night without a jacket. I went after him, although, by my mid-thirties, I had gained enough weight to slow me down considerably. Still, I sprinted down the gangway, which led to a debris-strewn alley filled with furniture parts and overturned trash cans. I saw Ramiro's fleeing figure, his breath rising above me in quickly dissipating clouds. I followed him toward Augusta Boulevard, the main drag of the neighborhood.

People yelled out windows and doorways, "[Spanish 00:20:31]?" Others offered information on Ramiro's direction. A father or mother chasing some child down the street is not an unfamiliar site around here. A city like Chicago has so many places in which to hide. The gray and brown brick buildings seem to suck people in. Ramiro would make a turn and then vanish, only to pop up again, appearing and disappearing. He flew over brick walls, scurried down another alley, then veered into a building that swallowed him up and spat him out on the other side.

I kept after Ramiro until, unexpectedly, I found him hiding in some bushes. He stepped out, unaware I was to the side of him. "Ramiro, come home," I gently implored, knowing if I pounced on him there, there would be little hope he'd come back. He sped off again. "Leave me alone," he yelled. As I watched his escape, it was like looking back into a distant time, back to my own youth, when I ran and ran. When I jumped over peeling fences, fleeing Vatos Locos, the police on my own shadow in some drug-induced hysteria. I saw Ramiro run off and then saw my body entering the mouth of darkness, my breath cutting the frigid flesh of night. It was my voice cracking open the winter sky.

Olivas: Wow. That was beautiful. That was powerful. It makes me think about a question that we received before today. Someone who has a very similar background as you when he was growing up, and he's currently now getting an advanced degree at Stanford University, where he is studying education. He was curious, what sort of mental judo or cognitive acrobatics did you do to stay on a journey of higher education and literature? What kind of thinking kept you from dropping out from that path out of a life that was just going to lead to a very short life in the end? Can you talk a little bit about that?

Rodriguez: Yeah. As I mentioned, there was an ecosystem that you fall into. You get addicted to the misery. People think it's a whole life. You're trying to get heroin. You're trying to score. You're miserable. Nobody likes an addict. You've got no friends, nobody. You can't trust addicts anyway, and so you're alone. You're out there, you're hurting people. You're stealing from your grandmother, your mother. You're doing things you can't imagine because the addictions is so powerful, but you're also into this ecosystem. So I find that the most important thing is create another ecosystem. One that's healthy. One that where people care and are going to care for the long haul, not just for the moment. One that provides you real resources and patterns that will allow you to live a different life. You have to stop that train going down that hill.

And it's a hard turn because it's hard to turn a train, especially when it's getting ready to become a train wreck. But it's possible, and you have to get in there to turn that train around. That's what I had to do. Just to mention, because I think it's important, my son did not get out of the gang, unfortunately. The whole book is really about my efforts. I saved a lot of his friends. I helped a lot of his homies. I really pulled together. I've been doing this for years while I was working with gang kids, since I got out of gangs. I started peace circles in L.A., in Boyle Heights and other communities. Then I'm in Chicago, and I'm doing the same thing with his homies and then other gangs, and we started a lot of things.

But I couldn't help my son. When he was 17, he did his first prison term. He gets out after about a year and a half, including the bootcamp. Then I thought he was fine, but, at age 21, he got involved with some shootings. He shot one guy who almost died, which I'm glad that he didn't because it would've been a whole different story, and then he shot at two police officers, which is probably the worst thing you can do. Shooting at police officers is probably the worst. In Illinois, it was a automatic 20 years to life for shooting at a police officer. He was facing 40 years to life at 21 years old.

So that was a big, hard struggle. Just to make a long story short, we got a judge to agree to give him 28 years. As magic happens again, my son was supposed to do almost 100% of that, 85 to a 100. It was declared unconstitutional, truth and sentencing at the time. They [inaudible] a new law, and now you still got to do that, but now they changed a few things. So he was allowed to get out in half the time, a good time. He ended up doing a 13 and a half year stretch. He did 14 years almost, and they gave him six months later. It's important to point out how it worked out from 40 years to life to 28 years to 13 and a half years. By the way, it's 12 years two days ago that he's been out from prison, and he's doing really well. I told him, "You've been blessed, and you got to make the most of what things are. You got to bless the world; don't curse it. You've been through trauma." My son went through a lot, just like me, just like other people. But those traumas can turn, can be transformed. If you don't transform, you just curse the world with all your pain. [inaudible] say, hurt people hurt people, but healed people heal people. My son has become that healer now. He's 47 years old, and he's a grandfather himself. Now he's helping others.

It's hard for him. Anybody that comes out of the prison systems, it's very hard, but he's hanged in there, and we've created a new ecosystem. This is what I want to point out, that ecosystem has to be changed. That's where the arts come in, creativity, community, caring communities. All these things have to be in place, and that's my struggle for our country and our cities, that we create those new, healthy ecosystems. Right now, we don't have them, and that's the problem. We're constantly cursing. We are, as a society, cursing our kids. We're not blessing them. They find it hard themselves to bless the world when they've been put down that way. Then they start doing the same old thing: hurting others. We're not creating the kind of society we can create, and it should be created, where the ecosystems actually are healthy, keep you strong, and keep you focused no matter how much trouble you get into.

Olivas: You talk about ecosystem. I know I've met your son and the rest of your family at Tia Chucha's, which you co-founded with your wife, Trini, and with your brother-in-law. That is an ecosystem in Sylmar where you have brought healing through literature and the arts to a community that is so often ignored. Let me let you talk a little bit about Tia Chucha's, and then we'll introduce a special guest who will have a chat with you. Could you talk a couple minutes about Tia Chucha's?

Rodriguez: Yeah. This is really important, Daniel. I'm glad you brought it up. It's part of the ecosystems that I've been trying to create ever since I left the gang life. Tia Chucha's is a cultural center where all the arts are celebrated, where you can learn music, dance, theater, writing, where you can present it. There's books. It's got a bookstore, it's got a performance space, it's got digital media, and it's in a community which is the second largest Mexican and Central American community. Because now Central Americans are integral to all the Mexican communities that have been there for a long time. It's the Northeast San Fernando Valley. Most of it, the vast majority is part of Los Angeles City, and Sylmar's part of L.A. City. Next to it is Pacoima, which is the heart of the migrant Mexican community. Pacoima's got housing projects, gangs. Sylmar, these are working class communities. They got a lot of problems.

Pacoima, one elementary school just recently has 25% homeless students. We're still addressing big issues. But Tia Chucha's is in that community. There's no bookstores. There's half a million people in the Northeast Valley. No bookstores, no art galleries, no cultural spaces, comprehensive cultural spaces, no movie houses until we opened our doors 20 years ago. We brought this thing. It was so much. That's why I'm saying, the ecosystems aren't conducive to people having books and art and movies. They're not. You have to leave your community to go to a museum, go to a movie house. I think this is by design. This is why I tell people, somebody figured out these communities didn't deserve these things.

So we have to change those ecosystems. That includes a whole community approach. It's not just, "I'm going to save this one kid," which I'm glad this happens. You do that, do everything you can, but you got to create it so that whole families are involved, where work, a new way of thinking about work, where people can be expressive, can be alive, where there's celebration, where there's festivals, there's music. There's the kind of things that most communities need to have. Neighborhood arts everywhere.

That's what Tia Chucha's has established as a model for everybody. We've grown tremendously. We're now in our fourth incarnation, but it's gotten better and more beautiful. Just to add a twist to it, my wife, me and Trini, we are the co-founders with my brother, Enrique Sanchez, but we turned everything over to these young people about three years ago, three or four years ago. After Trini ran everything and I did all the outreach and [inaudible] fundraising and everything, we turned everything over. We don't do the day-by-day work anymore. It's in their hands, and they're doing amazing work. Their leadership, they're just amazing, these young people. Daniel knows because he's on our board, he's been a great supporter. You can see how powerful it is to engender the new young people to carry on the work that some of us helped create.

Olivas: Absolutely, absolutely. Takes so much energy and a lot of love. Let me introduce Rubén Martinez, who is another cultural warrior. He is the Fletcher Jones Chair in Literature and Writing at Loyola Marymount University. He is a journalist, the author of many books, including some of my favorite books, Desert America and The New Americans. He is a performer, and I'm delighted to turn the floor over to Rubén, who will now have a bit of a chat with Luis, and I'll see you on the other end.

Rubén Martínez: Thanks, Daniel. Luis, good to see you, brother.

Rodriguez: Yeah, man. Yeah. I'm glad to see you, brother. It's great to have you here.

Martínez: Thanks you, and thanks to Alta California Book Club and everybody who helped put this conversation together. Luis, I think of you as an elder, although you are not that much older.

I am in a sixth decade myself, and you're just a few years ahead of me, but I do think you as an elder because that seven or eight year difference puts you ahead of me at a time when the Mexican-American Chicano and Chicana arts community is really starting to blossom in 1980s Los Angeles.

So, when I come along, the generation just ahead of me that you're a part of had really consolidated a really amazingly important body of work that included magazines.

Rodriguez: It included [inaudible], the performance group. It included ChismeArte and [inaudible]. Yeah. It included the [inaudible]. Included the so-called cholo punk movement, all this poetry. Yeah. There was late 70s, 80s that I got involved with that, which was something very important, and galleries and [inaudible] graphics. So, yeah, you're right. I'm fortunate that I can say that I was part of that movement, especially around the East Side, but also Echo Park and other communities that were just exploding with amazing stuff.

Yes. Echo Park, that area is where I myself grew up, so people like yourself and Manazar Gamboa and Maurice Norte.

Martínez: These people that I hope some people in the audience know of them. We're talking about, wasn't the foundational Chicano generation, but it was a very important one building upon the founding. I want to note this because one of the themes that seems pretty obvious to me today is, when you, as an addicted youth, as a youth involved in violence and everything that you went through, at that time, we really didn't know a lot clinically speaking yet about trauma, not in the way we speak of it today.

Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly.

Martínez: Today, we talk about transgenerational trauma. Right? And Always Running ultimately is about a transgenerational... A transmission of wounds across time. And at the same time, it's also a transmission of a healing energy. And so I want to explore with you just a little bit this idea, the metaphor Always Running, which by the way, you crystallized beautifully in a poem that I don't think is part of the book. I think it's part of your collection of poetry, The Concrete River. You have a poem in there called Always Running and it uses the river as central metaphor.

And it talks about a terrible night that you experienced and how ultimately you break away running away from the violence. And you run to the river, you run to the LA river. Now those of you in the audience know that the LA river is not a joke. It's a real river. And we've rehabilitated its meaning and symbolism over the last many years. Thanks to poets like yourself and the late Lewis MacAdams, but this river gets transformed in your poem. And so something that you were running away from becomes something that you're running towards. Maybe you just wanted to run with that, flow a little bit.

Rodriguez: It's a very important story. I had left that craziness and my second memoir to Always Running is called It Calls You Back because the madness will call you back. Even though you leave the crazy life, you're not there no more. The madness calls you back and it called me back in many ways. I wasn't going to be a cholo anymore. I wasn't going to be a gangster street kid, but it was going to call me back to drinking because I let go of the drugs. But I drank for 20 years, it called me back with rage. Rage was a big problem. I had a rage disorder again. Then we didn't name it. We didn't know what it was. I had a lot of issues that I had addressed with a lot of healing work. But what happened is my first wife, which again, it saved my life to have my two kids born in my early twenties with her.

She had her own issues and I'm not going to knock her down. If you read It Calls You Back, you know some of the issues. She read the book by the way and so worked together to make sure it was real, but she wasn't going to be put down either. You know what I'm saying? I didn't want to make her a monster because she wasn't. She was troubled like I was. East LA, she went to Garfield High School. She was my high school sweetheart. Two months out of high school when she graduated, we got married. I used to have a truck and I was driving the truck and I pulled her right in front of Garfield High School and all these people looking at me like here's a big truck driver and I would go pick her up. She was so proud to be picked up by this truck driver.

It was another life. Well, she also had her own issues and she ran off with a friend of mine. She ran off that night. I had worked in a steel mill and I got out early for some reason. And she was with this guy. I mean, she was pretending like, "Oh, nothing. He just came to visit." I worked with him. We were living in Watts at the time. I went back to Watts, my first community. And she went off with this guy. And then that night became this hellish, I call it like the devil's breath was on me. I began to understand what was happening. My two kids were sleeping. Cockroach is all over them. They were alone there. I was alone there and she never showed up that night. And so what happened is I started going crazy there. I started thinking, I'm going to kill somebody. I'm going to kill. I had a shotgun. I even stood outside with the shotgun waiting. I was going to run down the street, looking for them. You know what I mean? My madness started coming back and she had showed up on... I'm pretty sure I would've shot her. This is the way it was terrible. It's a terrible thing to know that I could have killed my wife. And I even had a moment where I thought I'm going to kill her, I'm going to kill my kids, I'm going to kill myself. You know what I'm saying? That kind of madness that even when I think about now, I think, man, how could I even think this way? Well, this is the trauma and I'm glad that she didn't come.

I went through this terrible turmoil. I cried, I yelled, I screamed. I was caught. I had a '54 Chevy, low rider car that it wasn't starting because the cylinder had busted. [inaudible] fix it. Everything was trapping me in that place, in that house. And then the next morning, she finally shows up. I was up all night. I went to try to sleep on the floor and I don't know if I slept, but I woke up completely numb and I knew that I have to do... I have all this energy. I'm going to hurt somebody. I'm going to hurt her. I can't do that. You know what I'm saying? I can't. So then I went to the LA River and I put all that energy in running. I'm just going to run down this river. I had done it before as a teenager, I had done it whenever I wanted to hurt somebody, somebody was hurting me.

I ran and ran and ran. And sure enough, that's what I did. And that's what became that poem that eventually became tied to the book. And I'll tell you something another story to it real quickly. What's important to me, Always Running unwillingly or where consciousnesses also connected to my Tarahumara roots. My mother has Tarahumara-

Martínez: I was just thinking about that.

Rodriguez: And they turn out to be some of the best runners in the world. They're known. That's what the Tarahumara means. Actually their name is Rarámuri, it means the feet for the people. They're the best runners. And they're known now in the world as some of the best runners. They won marathons that you can see in on YouTube. There's a great book Christopher McDougall, Born to Run, which I love this book. Written by a white guy runner, but he really honors the Tarahumara and the people.

So Always Running resonated with that because as a Chicano, began to resonate with my own Indigenous roots. As Chicanos, as you know, we don't even know what connections we have most of us. Nowadays, there are Mixtecos and Zapotecos and there's people from El Salvador and [inaudible] that are Mayan. Now there's tribal people coming up, but for a lot of us, we didn't know what tribes, but my mother did tell me, Tarahumara. And I thank her for that.

I thank her for constantly reminding me. And then I even went down to the Copper Canyon. I went to the Sierra Tarahumara. I've met the people. I went down to that Christopher McDougall journey that he went down there. I got to meet him and sure enough, they are these famous runners and Always Running has resonance with that. There's something about running that now I connect deeper the layers that goes back to my deepest layers, the Indigenous. Oh yes, I got Spanish and I'm Chicano. I'm cholo, I'm a writer. I got all these layers. I'm a working class guy, all these layers, but the deepest root is my Indigenous, my [foreign language], my Rarámuri roots, and that's a very important part of that story.

Martínez: That's beautiful that you can find the connections across generations, not just in the violence, but also in the healing, the ancestral knowledge, right? And that's the transformation of the metaphor, the running is the flow of the river of history, ancestral knowledge, which was stripped away from us from the violence, from the conquest all the way to the present. Models of policing and violence again and again and again, but the river is there deep inside you and you were able to flow with it, brother, and that's a grace and blessing. So thank you.

Rodriguez: Beautiful. Thank you for making that connection there.

Martínez: All right. I think if I'm not mistaken.

Olivas: Yes. I'm coming back.

Ruben, thank you so much. And we'll call you back near the end. You will be called back, which will be a good thing. Luis, before we do some questions from the audience and we're getting some beautiful questions. Could you read one more little excerpt from Always Running?

Rodriguez: Yeah. I want to read a section about the high school I was in. I was a very bad student, but I was a very smart. Many of us gang members, we're not dummies, but we weren't good in school, but we were smart. I happened to be one of those people. I got kicked out of three high schools. I dropped out for about a year and a half and it was the Chicano activist that pulled me back, which is good. I eventually got my high school diploma. I never went to cap and gown because it took me a long time to get all the credits, but I got it. It was a victory for me. And it was important that I had it, even though I didn't really care for that. Who cares? But it was important that I achieved it.

And that's one thing that the Chicano Movement gave me that there could be goals as people to better ourselves, to better our communities. It wasn't goes about being assimilated, being a whatever that simulation might be, the be the American dream. It was more about how can we grow within ourselves and our communities at the same time. So I'm going to read a passage about high school. And it's really interesting, just so you know, I graduated from Mark Keppel High School in Alhambra and it used to be at the time of almost all white, well off whites, more or less, middle class professional whites. And then the Mexicans were from the poorest migrant communities. You can imagine dirt roads, little shacks. It looked like Appalachia my neighborhood at the time, only more denser because I've been to Appalachia.

It's more dense. Hollers, the whole thing, just ravines and everything else. And that's why my neighborhood, but we were surrounded by these white suburbs and we went to this high school. So we were constantly fighting. It was race white versus the brown skin Mexicans, but also it was class. And just so you know, the school, that area is now mostly Asian and Mexican. Both of them, that's who they are now. Whites are there, but not that many. They pretty much left. And I was finally able to come and visit about two months ago, two, three months ago, after 40 years, I had not set foot in that high school. They invited me to read poetry. And so I was able to do this and I'm going to read you a passage because it's important to talk about schools and how they play a role in the unhealthy ecosystems, or they could play a role in healthy ones.

I began high school, a loco, with a heavy Pendleton shirt, sagging khaki pants, ironed to perfection, and shoes shined and heated like at boot camp. Mark Keppel High School was a Depression-era structure with a brick and art-deco facade and small, army-type bungalows in back. Friction filled its hallways. The Anglo and Asian upper-class students from Monterey Park and Alhambra attended the school. They were tracked into the A classes, they were in the school clubs, they were the varsity team members and letter men. They were the pep squads and cheerleaders.

But the school also took in the people from the Hills, Las Lomas, and surrounding community who somehow made it past junior high. They were mostly Mexican, in the C track, what were called the stupid classes, who made up the rosters of the wood, print and auto shops. Only a few of these students participated in school government, in sports, or in the various clubs. That school had two principal languages, two skin tones, and two cultures.

It revolved around class differences. The white and Asian kids, except for barrio whites and the handful of Hawaiians, Filipinos and Samoans who ended up with the Mexican, were from professional, two-car households with watered lawns and trimmed trees. The laboring class, the sons and daughters of service workers, janitors and factory hands, lived in and around the Hills.

The school separated these two groups by levels of education, the professional-class kids were provided with college-preparatory classes, the blue-collar students were pushed into industrial arts. The Mexicans assembled beneath the big, gnarled tree on the front lawn next to the gym and shop area. The well-off students usually had cars and hung out in the parking lot or the cafeteria. Those who were in between or indifferent couldn't help but get caught in the crossfire.

By the time I went to Keppel, I had become introspective and quiet. I wanted to be untouchable, nobody could get to me. I walked the halls facing straight ahead, a saunter in my step, only slightly and consciously glancing to the sides. Keppel had a rowdy reputation among San Gabriel Valley schools. Fights all the time. I believe it related to the ingrained system of tracking and subdivisions. The teachers and administrators were overwhelmingly white and whether they were aware of it or not, favored the white students.

If you came from the Hills, you were labeled from the start. I'd walk into the counselor's office for whatever reason and looks of disdain greeted me, one meant for a criminal, alien to be feared. Already a thug. It was harder to defy this expectation than just accept it and fall into the trappings. It was a jacket I could try to take off, but they kept putting it back on. The first hint of trouble and the preconceptions proved true. So why not be proud? Why not be an outlaw? Why not make it my own?

Olivas: Well, that was beautiful. There are many people who think, oh, I'm going to go to Harvard. It's just on track. Everything's going to happen because that's how the system is set up to allow them to just proceed to think that way. And that passage really shows the kind of uphill struggle so many of us have in the society, which makes me think about a question raised by an audience member, what about those mentors were there? Who are some of the people and what did they do to help you rise up and find your potential?

Rodriguez: I would have to say again, couple of them came from the Chicano Movement. One of them was a guy that became a youth counselor in this community center that popped up in my neighborhood. I don't know who got the money, why it started. They set up this community center. And I went in there one night and broke in and graffitied all the walls. I was in pretty bad shape. The next morning, I show up to see my handiwork. I had put all my names and I wasn't tagging. It was very intricate cholo writing. It was very intricate. So they had hired this youth counselor, and I call him Chanti my book. I can't use his real name because he didn't want me to use his real name, but he shows up and they tell him, "Arrest this guy. He's here. Arrest him." This is him. We know it's him."

Because I had my gang name, everything was there, but he comes and talks to me. And of course, I'm telling him to drop dead. You can do what you want, arrest me. I don't care. But he's looking at me and he's talking to me and what he mentioned something that I never thought of, he said, "You know what? This is actually art." I know it's bad because he had fixed the little youth place. He had put some billiards and foosball games and he painted all the walls and I messed it up from him. But he said, "You know what, why don't you learn to do murals? Why don't you learn to do art?" And I said, "I don't know what you're talking about. I'm not an artist. Drop dead."

And later on, he gave me a book of Mexican murals this thick, Diego Rivera and Orozco and Siqueiros, all the great masters, but also at the very back was all these Mayan temples that actually had murals in and out of them. After a while, you can't see them anymore, but they were there. And he was giving me a connection to something nobody else taught me that art was in my bones. Art was who I was. Everything I did was art. I didn't know. And eventually, because I started to realize he could actually help me, a year later, I'm painting 10 murals with 13 gang kids paid that he got money from the city of Rosemead next door to us to pay for these murals. And they got me back in high school. I didn't want to go back, but that was my agreement.

He says, "I get you to paint murals. We teach you." I went to [inaudible] art gallery. In East LA, I went to the Estrada Courts housing project, because they were painting murals in all those walls there. And I learned how to do murals. And then my agreement because I'm a person in my palabras where you are in the gang. The palabra is the most important thing. Palabra means your word. You're going to be your word. And even though they think these gangsters don't got no values or nothing, we had values. You have to be your word. I went back to school because that was my agreement with him. And these were the ones that helped me. I have to mention another one, Paula Cruzostimark, I can use her name. She became a counselor and Mark Heppal. She was from Lincoln High School. She led the walkouts there with others, the whole movie walkout. That it was an HBO done by Mark [inaudible] who's a friend of mine now, was telling her story.

She was a half Chicana, half Filipino, but she grew with the Chicano culture. She became one of my mentors too. She became a concert through high school. I have to say these were the ones that gave me the opening, the door, a couple other teachers that were there trying to help me out. I have to give them thanks because they were there when nobody else was there. Their father, Greg Boyle says they stepped up when everybody else stepped out. They're the ones that should be honored for what they did.

Olivas: Well, you're paying it forward with your mentoring for so many young people. And you made me think just now of one of your other talents, you're also a playwright. You had adapted, always running for the stage. And my wife and I saw the production at Casa 0101 a couple years ago.

And some of the scenes in it are so harrowing. Actors bring to life your words and your life. Before I take one more question from the audience, can you talk a little bit about the whole process of adapting your memoir for the stage?

Rodriguez: Well, well, one good thing that I started off thinking, "I shouldn't just be just a poet." I mean, I'm a poet. I love being a poet. Poet laureate of the city for a couple years. I wanted to do all the genres, which is something that most writers around the world do. Our country, I think is only one that tells you, "Want to be a fiction writer, stay that way. Or be a poet, stay that way." Or whatever.

I did all of them. And playwright is another genre that I wanted to do. And Casa 0101 over at Boyle Heights run by Josefina López, who's also a great writer and fiction writer and a great play writer herself, opened that opportunity. And I got this play. And just so you know, as you probably remember, it sold out every weekend, we had three runs of it. It was so powerful. And then the COVID came. I couldn't do anymore with it. The next year, 2020 COVID come. And I couldn't promote it. It kind of died, but I did the play.

I will say that I just recently finished a movie script. I'm interested in that genre too. Now, I don't know if it's going to get made. I'm working with a well known director producer, who, if he really loves the script and really wants it, he really is interested in doing the story. It's based on one of the stories that's in Always Running. I don't want to talk about it too much, other than I finished the script. And I'm really glad I could do that. I'm interested in writing in all its forms, but you got to be good at it.

It's not like you're playing at it. And like you said, one time earlier is that you do have to have craft. You do have to think about the skill involved. I had to learn. I had to talk to people I had to study. I have a lot of self study that I do. I never really made it through college or I don't got no degrees. I got high school diploma. I'm very proud of that. I didn't make it any other way, but I always love to study and read and learn. I self-taught a lot of things. I don't mean like I'm sitting in a corner reading. I'm talking to people. I go to workshops. I learned what I can. I finally get the script. It's another victory for me, whether it gets made or not really isn't important. It's more important that I actually did it.

Olivas: Absolutely. Absolutely. Before we bring Rubén back on, let me ask you one more question from the audience. And it's as one of our poet laureates. How do you see the current state of the American literary cannon?

Rodriguez: Well, I will say that it's taken a long time, but I'm seeing it opening up. And yet at the same time, I don't know if people are aware, more books are being banned now than ever before. Books against the LGBTQ community, books against people of color, books against women, books that try to tell reality, the way that my book does.

My book was one of the most 100 banned books in the country, but now even more books. We're seeing the openness, publishing houses are opening somewhat. I know Daniel, you know some of that because you helped pioneer some of those books that you've done and some of the books you edited. But at the same time, all these books are being banned.

We're living with this conflict of now people are looking at diversity as the powerful way our country is and looking for these voices, like the queer voices that weren't heard before and others. But then at the same time, we're seeing this terrible effort to just close off and erase whole communities, whole culture.

It's a struggle that I think I'm very much aware of and we need to keep opening those doors, keep opening these stories, keep getting these voices out. Even as we contend with a growing number of closing of the doors that has happening now, especially [inaudible].

Olivas: Amen. Amen. Let's bring Rubén back on. What's interesting about what you just said was it seems like we make these strides and then certain people panic. And they, think, " Oh my goodness. I'm going to be wiped out because all of a sudden there's more diversity in our bookshelves and in the movies."

And that fear I just wish those folks would realize that there's great beauty and diversity, in our food, in our music, in the movies. And it just makes for a richer life for everybody. And it's not like we're going to replace anyone. The great replacement theory, that's what they're scared of.

Rodriguez: Oh my God. I know. I know. But apparently that's one of the big things. Yeah.

Olivas: Absolutely. Rubén, any thoughts? Anything you'd like to?

Martínez: Sure. Well, so many doors have been opened, right. And yet, you're saying right now, you're trying to take a turn in film, Luis. We all know here among Latinx people, that representation in film and TV is still dismally low.

Rodriguez: Awful.

Martínez: Lalo Guerrero, who I hope many of people in the audience know was a pioneering Chicano singer songwriter way back in the 1930s, '40s.

Rodriguez: And he played at the Achuchas, before he passed, he was able to pull. Yeah.

Martínez: That is beautiful. My grandparents played with him in downtown LA back in the '40s. He sang a song in the '50s called "No Chicanos on TV."

Rodriguez: Yeah. Yeah. And it's still true.

Martínez: It's still true. May your project get the green light as they say in the industry.

I would be remiss if I didn't pick up a thread here. We've all been on a roller coaster since March 2020. We didn't know the pandemic was coming. We didn't know that George Floyd was coming. We didn't know that BLM, which has been around since 2014, was going to explode the way it did. That the new abolitionist movement would swell up. That the reckoning with race and from everywhere from corporate boardrooms, to college campuses, to high school campuses would... I mean, all this stuff has happened. And then the reaction. Right.

But I want to focus in on, I don't want to feed the idea that crime is out of control because compared to the '90s, it's actually not. It's not. Not anywhere near what you were talking about. And I remember Father Greg, who you mentioned, Father Greg Boyle, referring to from the '80s to the '90s as the decade of death.

Rodriguez: Yes. It was true.

Martínez: It's not anywhere near that, but there's been an uptick. And I was noticing LA Times analysis of homicides in the city. It's almost all black and brown. And a chunk of that is obviously gang related. There's no doubt about that. And anybody who lives in the city, there's just signs of tension. Whether it's new blockers going up that I hadn't seen.

Rodriguez: Whether it's gang. Yeah. Yeah.

Martínez: Yep. And even on the more quasi innocent side, aggression on the streets, hot rodding, donuts, all that stuff. It's just, it's coming up. And I wanted to see from your perspective, transgenerational perspective, where you think we're at right now and are we on the edge of a cliff? Or do we have the tools to pull it back before it gets out of control? Where do you think we are with youth and violence right now coming out of this experience?

Rodriguez: I think we've learned a lot in the last 40, 50 years. And I think that's what we have to go back to. I'm saying, we learned a lot. Many of us have been working for value or peace, working for gang intervention. Working, like Father Greg Boyle, I mean, homeboy industries. There should be homeboy industries in every neighborhood.

That's an ecosystem issue that we're not creating. When I was in Central America and Mexico, I took a plan that we created here in LA, the effective gang intervention model. I took it all over the place. And we tried to institute it like in El Salvador where the maras, as you know, the gangs, they're exploding. There's a lot of violence. I went to 10 prisons. We work with a lot of people.

We had no political will. And it wasn't just the governments there in the Guatemala and Honduras and where I was at, and also in El Salvador. It was the US. The US was trying to undermine any effort to bring peace and to bring the gangs together, because it wasn't about destroying them. It was changing them.

And we actually created what I called [foreign language]. We had about a dozen of them in El Salvador. I went to one where the rival gangs, the maras were actually doing gardening. They were doing murals. They were learning new trades together. It was great. And then as soon as I left, the army would come in and arrest everybody.

It's like every time we tried and effort. And I learned this in Chicago, it happened in Chicago. Chicago is right now, still got the violence, is still going really bad. Nowhere like in the '90s, but still, we tried to institute these peace zones there. That's where I got the idea from.

And we got undermined by the police, by the businesses, by the schools. We couldn't get no support from the adults. All the youth were willing to go for it, the adults couldn't. I think that's where we're at now. Crime is rising because we failed to bring in, again, that ecosystem of caring, that ecosystem of really giving young people tools, resources. Not about saving them. Giving them the tools and the connections they may need to save themselves. That's where we failed and that's where I'm at even now.

Olivas: That's a perfect way to end this amazing hour. Rubén Martinez, thank you for helping us have this conversation.

Martínez: Thank you, guys.

Olivas: And Luis Rodriguez, as always, your heart is big and as big as your talent. Thank you for all that you do and you continue to do for all people. The world's a better place because you've been working and doing the work that you do. I want to thank you and thank Alta Journal and the California Book Club for sharing you with hundreds of people who tuned in today. Sorry I couldn't get to all the questions. There are so many great questions coming in.

Rodriguez: I am reading the chats. I thank you, all the beautiful words people are putting off there. I wish we had more time, but I appreciate every one of these words. And hopefully, we'll do this again some kind of way. The dialogue has to continue, whatever we can do.

Olivas: Okay. Thank you all. And David, back to you.

Ulin: Thank you, Daniel. Thank you to all three of you, Daniel and Rubén and Luis. California Book Club next welcomes The Wrong End of the Telescope author Rabih Alameddine. That meeting is on Thursday, August 18th. I want to remind you all about the sale on Alta membership for California Book Club members. Look at altaonline.com/tote, or again, the $3 digital membership. And please participate in a two minute survey that will pop up as soon as we end the event. Stay safe. See y'all next month.•

Atria Books
Always Running by Luis J. Rodriguez
Touchstone Books bookshop.org
$16.73

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