In 1993, Luis J. Rodriguez published a book about fighting his way through the mean streets of East L.A. He wrote about friends he'd lost to gang warfare, drugs he'd snorted, girls he'd screwed. And he wrote about how art, and activism, had saved him — how they had helped him leave behind la vida loca. Called Always Running, it became a sensation, earning Rodriguez a six-figure paperback deal and selling a half-million copies.
Last year, Simon & Schuster published the sequel: It Calls You Back. Rodriguez's second memoir, which came after well-received volumes of poetry and fiction, focuses on the difficulty of fully abandoning la vida loca. Years after leaving it, he found himself still wrestling with its siren call.
Rodriguez writes about marrying, having two kids, holding down a series of factory jobs. But he and his wife divorced; he drank too much. Violence beckoned.
He writes about a night when his son Ramiro was 4 — “loud, ornery — the way a kid should be.” But Rodriguez, drunk, picked up the boy and threw him against the wall. “As a toddler, my son always looked up to me, always wanted to know what I was doing, was always interested in my talks with him,” he writes. “After that day, things weren't the same.”
Ramiro, too, ended up running with a gang, and was eventually sentenced to prison on charges of attempted murder.
An in-demand speaker at schools and prisons, Rodriguez also runs a nonprofit community center and bookstore in the San Fernando Valley with his third wife, Trini. Tia Chucha's, named for Rodriguez's “crazy” aunt, aims to connect an underserved neighborhood to the transformative alchemy of art.
At 57, Rodriguez is small and soft-spoken; a goatee mostly covers the feature that led to his gang nickname, “Chin,” and the tattoos of his crazy years are barely visible beneath his short-sleeved shirt.
Sitting in Tia Chucha's, he explains that he and Trini moved back to L.A. in 2000 after 15 years in Chicago to be closer to family. Married 24 years, they have two boys together, both of them heading to college next year.
“You can see how a stable family life can help kids,” he says, and his son from his first marriage, Ramiro, is clearly on his mind. “My oldest kids are great, but they went through hell and back.”
Writing this memoir, he says, “it really was my failure that I had to look at more than anything.” After Ramiro was born, “I transformed holding him. I made a vow that I would be the best dad. Two and a half years later, my wife and I broke up, and I abandoned him. I was sincere when I vowed that — and yet this happened.
“The rages, the addictions, even the violence — that's what I meant by 'it calls you back.' Every day you make that choice of will I do that — or not?”