'Always Running' author settles into literary celebrity

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Christina Marie
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'Always Running' author settles into literary celebrity

Unread post by Christina Marie » November 2nd, 2005, 1:57 am

order book: http://www.streetgangs.com/books/always_running

Posted on Wed, Nov. 02, 2005
'Always Running' author settles into literary celebrity


Associated Press

LOS ANGELES - With his neatly trimmed goatee and owlish glasses, it's hard to imagine that Luis J. Rodriguez was once one of the most dangerous men in the city.

These days he is one of the most acclaimed Chicano writers in the country, the author of such books as "Always Running," "Republic of East L.A." and the recent "Music of the Mill."

But back in the day, the paunchy 51-year-old author, dressed casually in blue jeans and a gray pullover shirt, was a "cholo" - a "vato loco" or hardened street-gang thug. If you looked at him the wrong way back then, he might just as easily have shot you as said hello.

"I was arrested for attempted murder at 17," Rodriguez recalls quietly as he sits in a back room of Tia Chuca's Cafe Cultural, the coffeehouse and bookstore he runs with his third wife, Trini, in a working-class section of the San Fernando Valley.

"And I was doing some very massive things - like firebombings. And I was robbing stores and hijacking trucks and we were doing drive-bys."

A shy, sensitive youth who grew up in the impoverished, gang-infested pockets of L.A.'s largely Latino East Side, Rodriguez came from a Spanish-speaking home whose children were ridiculed in school for their poor English. By his teens, he had vowed to become a man people would respect - "someone people would step out of the way for."

He landed in juvenile hall, and graduated to jail, where, in 1970, he ended up housed briefly next to serial killer Charles Manson.

Oddly enough, though, when he wasn't gang-banging, Rodriguez was a student leader at his high school, lobbying for Latino rights, writing poetry and helping paint murals in an effort to beautify the community, and local activists were taking notice.

So when he was about to be sent off to prison for six years at age 18 for assaulting a police officer, the community lobbied for leniency. A judge and prosecutor, offering him one last chance, cut the sentence to two months. It changed his life.

"I've been shot at a half a dozen times when I was in a gang and never got hit," he says. "I can't say why ... but I figured, 'You know what? It wasn't meant to be. I'm alive for a reason, and I better start doing something purposeful with my life.'"

So he turned to writing.

Always a voracious reader, Rodriguez devoured the works of cult literary heroes such as John Fante and Charles Bukowski, whom he cites as major influences. As they had decades before, he set out to illuminate Los Angeles' gritty, working-class neighborhoods in short stories such as the ones he later published in 2002's "Republic of East L.A."

"I think the thing about Luis is he writes about things that matter in a way that makes us sit up and take notice. They are direct, truthful, lyrical, passionate and original," said Sandy Taylor, whose Curbstone Press published many of Rodriguez's early works, including "Always Running." That book has gone through nearly two dozen printings, selling more than 250,000 copies and was recently translated into Spanish, Taylor said.

The 10 books of Rodriguez, a largely self-taught writer, run a literary gamut from poetry to short story collections to two children's books, a memoir and a novel.

"I would take classes at night at East L.A. City College, and I would go to writers workshops and I would read all about writing," says Rodriguez, explaining how he learned his craft. His only support came from his father, who would give him books to read.

Rodriguez supported himself with a string of jobs, including a stint at the old Bethlehem Steel plant on the edge of East Los Angeles. Decades later, the now-shuttered mill served as inspiration for "Music of the Mill," published last May by Rayo, a Latino-themed division of Harper Collins.

A far-reaching, expansive novel in the style of John Steinbeck's "East of Eden" or Victor Villasenor's "Rain of Gold," "Music of the Mill" recounts the life of three generations of the fictional Salcido family, starting with the journey north from Mexico by patriarch Procopio, who lands a job at the mill.

His son, Johnny, is a character not unlike Rodriguez himself - a bright troublemaker who settles into a life of hard work and tries to make a difference in his community. The final third of the story is told through Johnny's daughter, Azucena, who escapes into a precarious but hopeful middle-class existence in the Valley.

That might have been the life Rodriguez was hoping to attain for his oldest son when he had his literary breakthrough in 1993 with "Always Running," his memoir of growing up in East Los Angeles. The author was living in Chicago then and running his own fledgling publishing house. He was also drinking heavily and in danger of a divorce and losing his son to gang violence.

He wrote "Always Running" to show his son that there was no upside to gangs. The book transformed a struggling poet and short story writer into a major literary voice for the Latino community.

"The book that really established him and put him on the map was 'Always Running,'" says Ramon Garcia, who teaches Rodriguez's work in his classes at California State University, Northridge.

"It has great sociological and historical importance, but it's also a great work of literature." Rodriguez is "an important American writer. I think if we had a very enlightened sort of government, he would be declared a national treasure."

"Always Running" not only stabilized the author's home life, but it led to his being asked to speak regularly to young people about the dangers of gangs. That in turn led to community involvement, and after moving back home to Los Angeles five years ago, he and his wife opened Tia Chuca's as an outlet for cultural awareness.

On a recent warm evening, Aztec dancers practiced to thundering drums outside the cafe while people read poetry in the main room, a scene that evoked reminiscent of Bob Dylan's "Shelter From the Storm":

"There was music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air."

Just the way Rodriguez wants things to be.

"You have to educate people around stuff like books and literature and art," he says. "We want to be a place where people can learn these things, to expand their horizons


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awesome book

Unread post by ontherealus » April 7th, 2006, 7:05 pm

i read this book while i was in the police academy. several of the white cadets were offended by the book and I still don't understand why. Some of the cadets though that Rodriguez was blaming white America for his problems, but if you really "read" the book he isn't. I don't have time to summarize the entire thing, but it was a very interesting and detailed explanation of his life. I got nothing but respect for this man. Very good book.

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Unread post by Benito Miranda » April 19th, 2006, 9:17 am

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Unread post by yanomas » August 1st, 2006, 5:48 am

I just finished this book and it is well written and real.

Even though he was still gang banging while he was a student leader, he showed how the adults in his life had a huge influence. Community centers, arts, etc kept him busy and helped to broaden his perspective.
I liked how the adults in the non profit organizations addressed the root causes of the problem: poverty, racism, no jobs and a lack of viable alternatives.

This book gave me hope.

I have one question, though. Toward the end when his boys shot at him, he said that they had on a blue rag. Then he talked about how the eme took over. Were crips and eme ever aligned?

Next on the list: Understand this

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Unread post by Benito Miranda » August 30th, 2006, 6:40 am


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Re: 'Always Running' author settles into literary celebrity

Unread post by crm » September 7th, 2009, 1:38 am

I read "Always Running", and I found it to be an excellent book. It's always good to read about somebody who came up in a rough environment, yet they still managed to end up rising above all the negativity around them. The guy did some pretty bad things, yet he seemed truly repentant and risked his life for change.

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Re: 'Always Running' author settles into literary celebrity

Unread post by RomanoBundy » December 9th, 2013, 5:24 am

I've read it but didn't finish.
I don't know, something bugged me in the book. Maybe the author was sometimes too much trying to make him look like the victim while he was really the bully.
And I probably didn't read it at the best time for me either. If I read it again an other time, I would maybe change my opinion.

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