Because the poet Luis Rodriguez did not speak English, he spent his first year of school sitting in a corner by himself, stacking blocks while the other children learned to read. At age 11, he formed a club of elementary school boys to protect themselves from teen-agers with guns, and it wasn’t long before he was put into a special class for “troublemakers.”
At 15, Rodriguez joined an East Los Angeles street gang whose members, like him, were children of Mexican immigrants isolated by poverty, race and language from the rest of society. The gang offered companionship and respect at a very high price. Rodriguez became involved in shoplifting, assaults, shootings, firebombings, jailings, drug use and suicide attempts. “By the time I turned 18 years old, “he writes, “25 of my friends had been killed by rival gangs, police, drugs, car crashes and suicides.”
It was only his good fortune, Rodriguez says, that through poetry he was able to find his voice and, with that voice, the power to take control of his life. But many children today will not be so fortunate, he believes. The organized gang violence that was just emerging during his own youth has today reached a “genocidal level of destruction” that threatens a generation of inner-city African-American and Latino youth.
Rodriguez’ first book of prose, Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A., is an offering of hope to young people who seek in street gangs a substitute for the families, schools and society that have failed them. Among those youth is his own son, Ramiro, who came to live with Rodriguez in Chicago after a tumultuous and sometimes violent childhood in the homes of stepfathers. Rodriguez spoke with Teaching Tolerance editor Sara Bullard last spring.
Always Running is a beautifully written book, but not an easy one to read. It describes a painful life, and it could only have been painful to write. Why did you write it?
My son joined a gang two years ago, and this was my effort to try to help him understand what I went through. These were things I had never told him and really didn’t ever want to bring out again. But he was going through this situation—running away and getting into jail—and I realized he was reliving my life. I wanted to give him what I understood. I felt compelled to.
It was not only painful to go over all that again; sometimes it is painful for me to read from the book. There are a lot of terrible things that happened, and sometimes I still can’t let it go even though it’s been 20 years.
You write about the boundaries that separate people into racial and economic categories and that prevented you as a child from finding a place in American society. In what ways were these boundaries reinforced by schools?
It started out when they said you can’t speak your own language. We were pushed around, isolated and ignored. My brother was put into a class with retarded children. I would pee in my pants because I couldn’t speak out and ask to go to the bathroom. It’s pretty bad when you get to the point that you don’t feel like you are grounded enough to even speak. By not being strengthened in the Spanish language, we didn’t learn English well, and that constantly reinforced our worthlessness.
The barriers were very much linked to race and culture. Being Mexican and being in the Southwest, we were considered second-class citizens. We were looked at as criminals. It’s like a jacket they try to put on you, and even if you take it off, somebody keeps putting it back on you. Well, eventually you just wear it. It becomes who you are.
What impact do language differences have on Latino youth today?
There are more bilingual programs now, but my son tells me that prejudice against Spanish-speaking people is still there. Many of his friends are Puerto Rican or Mexican, so they have another language they come in with. Often they are not strengthened in their own language, nor are they given enough skills in English.
And really, almost everybody needs to know Spanish now. The United States is already the third largest Spanish-speaking country in the hemisphere. The world is changing, and we need to be a part of those changes. We must be able to communicate with our neighbors.
What was the lure and power of gangs in your life and in the lives of other young Latinos and blacks in the inner cities?
I think there was some kind of collective strength that we couldn’t have by ourselves. Your gang became everything. It became your fellowship, your brotherhood, your family when families crumbled. Gangs filled the vacuum when there was nothing there. Initially, some of the impulses, like the loyalty of members, are very natural and good. Then criminality and drugs come into it and become an important part of gang life. But mostly these young people are looking for some respect, something to believe in, something that involves them.
Why do you call gang culture la vida loca—the crazy life?
For us 20 years ago, the crazy life was a special kind of life; not everybody was going to be a part of it. It was a way of us distinguishing ourselves, to say that we were crazy enough to do anything. Nowadays it has gotten worse and more extended. In some East Coast inner cities, kids wear patches that say “CTD”—Close To Death. They are so close to death they don’t care about what they do. That was what the crazy life symbolized for us. We were so unafraid of death because it was so much a part of our lives.
Did being unafraid of death make violence toward others easier?
The key is that you feel within yourself that you don’t have anything to live for. And pretty soon your own dehumanized worth is what allows you to not connect with the humanity of others. The reason why I could hurt somebody is that I hated myself so much. Today, many kids are still straddling the line between life and death because they don’t believe in life, and they’re living their whole life eventually to die. Even young girls with babies—you get the sense they don’t believe they’re going to live to be 18, 20 years old, so they have their children now.
How does this feeling of worthlessness, of self-hatred, begin?
To me it was systematic. Maybe in some cases it might be the way kids are brought up, but in the case of immigrant children of Mexican descent, there was a systematic second-class citizenship that was hovering over our lives—a way of demeaning us that started in schools and was reinforced by police and by society. This is true for African-American kids, for Latino kids, and they come to feel like they are not a part of the country that they live in.
One of the most disturbing things you suggest is that your son and others like him “face a more severe and uncertain path to maturity” than your own. Why do you believe their prospects are worse?
I think this country has abandoned our young people, and we’re going to pay a big price for that. I’m afraid that if we don’t offer some encouragement to young people, if we don’t accept their creativity and allow it to develop, we’re going to lose a generation. I was fortunate, but even for me, look how hard it was. I had some things going for me; can you imagine what these other kids don’t have?
What can schools do to help pull kids out of this culture of violence and hopelessness?
We need to have schools that not only teach you skills but provide you with some sense of your worth; and if that worth comes from another culture, not to demean that culture, but to build on it.
Schools should be places where kids are allowed to be expressive. I found I could not study or learn within school structure, but I was very curious. I learned a lot on my own. I did drawings, paintings, even writing. I think there are a lot of kids like myself who drop out because they can’t function within the system. There have to be other ways in which they can be given some validity, be allowed to develop and grow and use their natural sense of curiosity to learn. The schools need to find ways to really connect with young people again.
After years of failing to connect with any of your school teachers, you met a Chicano community activist who made you eager to earn. What was different about Chente?
Chente offered the big picture. He didn’t moralize or tell us what to do. He came in opening our eyes, opening us up to the world. He got me to want to read more, to understand things more. In many ways he did what the schools should have done and didn’t do. He really cared.
Through him, I understood what was happening, why we were killing ourselves, and I began to see why I had to try to stop the violence and turn that energy to a fight worth fighting for.
I was fortunate to have a mentor. Unfortunately, not enough young people have this opportunity.
You grew up, as you say, in “a chasm between two languages,” with few skills in Spanish or English, and now you are a nationally known poet. Can you describe the importance of language in your life?
After having been silent for so long and then finding a voice, once I found it, I realized how powerful language was. It practically saved my life. I needed to have my story told and my life validated. I found poetry, and it turned out to be a very important means to express a lot.
And even though Always Running is a work of prose, being a poet helped me find the words to tell this story. I want to move people intellectually and emotionally, and poetry does that.
Now I go into gang-ridden schools and try to get students to express themselves through poetry. It’s not easy because they have not developed language enough to voice what they’re going through. They just literally don’t have a way to express it except through violence and anger.
In your work with young people, what do you most want them to understand?
One of the things I keep coming back to is a sense of control. I think what happens when you join gangs is you end up in prison, and prison is the place where everything is controlled; nothing belongs to you. Right now they have more control than they’ll ever have in their lives, and they need to know how powerful and beautiful it is to have that control within yourself and be able to make choices.
They need to know they have options and that they can do something about their community. When I ask them what they want to change, they usually say they don’t like the violence, they don’t like bullets flying through the windows. They want to be able to fix the streets which are crumbling, they want to fix the schools. I tell them that’s good; we can do something about it. We can make our own history.
To me the most important change is internal—when you change within yourself to get through some of the terrible things happening outside of you. But you have to be working on the things outside of you, too. Even with my son Ramiro—we have built up a very strong relationship, but I know that as soon as he walks out the door, he confronts society. So we have to do things about society, too. It can’t just be an individual thing. We have to work together.
Do you think that by telling your story you have helped your son?
It’s hard to say. He’s still in the gang, but he’s much more thoughtful, more respectful. He’s more aware. He’s trying to be a strong person for his gang members, trying to get them out of criminal activity, but he knows he can’t do it by moralizing to them. He’s doing it by being there and by giving them another way of looking at the world. I think it has made a difference to him. I don’t know it it’s enough to save his life, but I know he has changed.