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Leaving the Gang Behind : ALWAYS RUNNING: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L. A.--A Memoir By Luis J. Rodriguez ; (Curbstone Press: $19.95, 256 pp.)

March 07, 1993|Floyd Salas | Salas is the author of "Tattoo the Wicked Cross" (1967), a novel about a boy in a reform school, and "Buffalo Nickel" (1992), a memoir about a young boy's coming of age under the influence of two older brothers, one an intellectual prodigy and the other a drug addict and convict.

"Always Running" is a pilgrim's progress, a classic tale of the new immigrant in the land of the melting pot. It's the story of how Luis Rodriguez, as a Mexican-American boy, journeyed from poverty in a family that had emigrated to a land where his father couldn't earn a decent living; through hard child labor, gangs and drugs; to, finally, educational enlightenment through high school and community projects.

This gifted and outcast child struggles in a labyrinth of the lower class, victimized by his race, his recent entrance into this country and his situation at the bottom of its economic scale. Impoverished immigrants, his family swims in the muddy channels of menial, dirty work which offers no opportunity for advancement even for an educator like his father.

"Always Running" begins in the rain with Luis Rodriguez's father Alfonso driving Luis' mother Maria Estela and all of their kids to Union Station so they can return to Mexico, where they, presumably, can at least function on a respectable level and suffer in familiar circumstances in a home and land of their own. But Alfonso, a principal of a Mexican school, refuses to go back; he was jailed for political reasons, we learn, and accused of fraud. He finally won his freedom, then left the country and now doesn't want to go back. He was persecuted in Mexico; she is persecuted racially in Los Angeles. Hence the standoff.

He has the features of a white man and she looks like an Indian. But he is unable to speak English well, is not certified to teach in the United States, and can't get more than menial, poorly paid jobs, forcing the family to live, like typical immigrants, in great poverty.

Luis is an outcast on the first day of school for the same "language" (read: racial) reasons that make his father an outcast, a typical immigrant situation exacerbated by his brown skin. A half brother "looks Caribbean," meaning he shows African blood. The rest of his siblings "are different shades from Spanish white to Indian brown." Luis gets chased by Anglo kids in school and has to suffer these humiliations of racial prejudice in the shadow of his father's sadness.

At the end of this first chapter of misery, Rodriguez takes us back to the train station in the rain, where Luis' mother, Maria Estela, gives in and agrees to stay just as Alfonso, his father, starts to walk away and leave them on the waiting bench in the train station forever. The family stays together.

Rodriguez's style in this chapter, as in the rest of the book, is not really linear nor really circular, but impressionistic. The narrative jumps back and forth in time and finally, gradually--somewhat like life--tells the whole story. It is a moving story that will teach us tolerance and compassion for the downtrodden, no matter what our politics.

One flaw: Rodriguez doesn't vividly describe the high points and watershed moments when his life was changed forever. So there's a certain drama that's missing even in the most violence- and action-filled sections, e.g. when Chin, Luis' gang name, stabs another teen-ager with a screwdriver on an order from another gang member, or fights his first political action in the 1970 riot of Laguna Park. (I remember this so-called riot as one in which a cop went into a bar where Ruben Salazar, the most important Mexican-American journalist of the time, was sitting and shot him in the face with a tear-gas gun--blowing his head off and silencing him forever. Scenes like these are important moments in the life of an activist, and I would have liked to have experienced them more fully.)

Similarly, I missed vivid reportage in Rodriguez's account of how Luis stood like a hero-saint against his whole gang to try and talk them out of going on a murderous warpath against a rival gang; while he is hit in the mouth for his troubles, he neither fights back nor runs. He then has to hide to save his life after he is warned with cocked guns that he is going to die for his civilized values.

In his preface, Rodriguez says he wrote "Always Running" to save his son from dying or being destroyed in gang warfare. The material is not really shaped to that didactic purpose, but only implied. Still, this is a small flaw next to the high achievement of this moving chronicle, and there are indeed some important lessons that both Luis and the reader learn.

"Louie"--the nickname Luis acquires when he begins to assimilate--thinks at first that it's just race bias that keeps him always on the run. But a role model named Chente whom he meets in a community project--La Casa Community Center--tells him that his struggle is really more about class than race. This is an important step on an immigrant's road out of alienation. (The journey is more classic than we might think, for with the possible exception of the English, all immigrants to America--from the Jews and the Germans of the past to the Vietnamese and the "new" Asians of the present--started at the bottom of the economic scale.)

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