Like the late Chicano literary pioneer Raúl Salinas, the street-bred vernacular poet and political firebrand who adopted me as a teenager and helped steer me away from the streets and toward books, Luís J. Rodríguez has made a life-time of mentoring inner-city youth. Using his own escape from a violent past as an addict and a gang member on the streets of East L.A. as a way to reach his readers, he has become emblematic of redemption and recovery, of the kind of healing that touches lives and changes hearts.
Author of the best-selling memoir Always Running: La Vida Loca; Gang Days in L.A., a book that traces his emergence as an activist, poet, journalist and an important role model for young people in a world filled with little hope. It was, as he often says, a reflection on the demons that tried to make him either an urban casualty or a life-long ward of the prison industrial complex.
Now the author of over a dozen books, among them collections of poetry, short fiction, a novel and children's stories, Rodríguez has penned a sequel to Always Running. In the new book, titled It Calls You Back, Rodríguez moves evocatively and tenderly into the aftermath of his literary awakening to exercise the remaining demons, those personal flaws that prevented him from being a good father to his children Ramiro and Andrea, and a good partner to the various women in his life for so many years.
When Rodríguez sat down to write his earlier memoir, a harrowing and beautiful story of his passage through gang warfare, drug abuse, homelessness and neglect, he was trying to save his son. Faced with Ramiro's own descent into violence and hopelessness, he wanted his journey through the maelstrom of post-adolescent rage and self-destruction to serve as a both warning and example.
I first met Luís at an international book fair more than 20 years ago, where I bought his debut collection of poetry, Poems Across the Pavement. I attended the fair alongside Salinas, a former prison activist and self-taught scholar who had come a generation before Rodríguez and the Chicano Movement, doing serious time in Leavenworth and maximum security cages like Marion and San Quentin before coming home to open a bookstore called Resistencia in the early '80s.
Always Running had not yet been released. I was struck most by Rodríguez's plain, earthy manner as he took time to autograph the book for a curious tag-along. Even then, he commented on how lucky we all were to have “OG” writers like Salinas in our corner. In barrio-speak, “OG” is a reference to a “veterano” or a veteran elder from the neighborhood, an “original gangster.”
In It Calls You Back, even as he describes the experiences that took him off the streets and into the literary milieu, Rodríguez is honest with regard to his failings in love and in life. He addresses issues of sexual and physical abuse, unspoken for years. Chronicling his education and interactions with writers and artists across three continents, he reveals the truth of his own alcoholism.
Three marriages and many failed relationships later, with a son who was recently released after serving almost 14 years in prison, Rodriguez has delivered a simple and direct love letter that celebrates humanity and compassion.
Rodriguez will appear tonight at 7:00 p.m. at Vroman's, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, and this Saturday, October 15 at 5:00 p.m. at Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural & Bookstore, 13197-A Gladstone Ave., Sylmar.
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