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A Father's Gift : Poet Luis Rodriguez Hopes His Memoirs Can Save His Son and Others From Mayhem of Gang Life


Luis Rodriguez walks up a short, steep hill on Geraghty Avenue in East Los Angeles, his 17-year-old son Ramiro a few steps behind.

Rodriguez is spending the day revisiting the industrial areas around Vernon, South San Gabriel and East L.A., and the Mexican colonia in Watts, the neighborhoods where he grew up in the 1960s and which he describes in his recently published memoir, "Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A."

In "Always Running," the 39-year-old recipient of a $40,000 Lannan poetry fellowship, and the author of two prize-winning books of poems, recounts how he joined a gang at 11, began using drugs at 12 and was arrested on charges of attempted murder (later dismissed) during his gang years in East L.A.'s Las Lomas barrio.

It is an account that Rodriguez began when he was 16, writing to cope with his feelings, and was moved to complete when his son Ramiro joined a gang in Chicago, where Rodriguez had brought the boy to remove him from the dangers of L.A.'s streets.

When Ramiro joined the gang, the Insane Campbell Boys, "I was very angry," the father says. "I remember yelling at him. It jolted me out of the literary life I'm now living, doing the poetry, making the bar-and-cafe scene. It made me realize I wasn't really addressing the issues my poems cover.

"I knew I had this story of what I went through as a kid and it was relevant to him and young people like him. I went back to all that writing that I had kept in different forms and places, cabinets and files.

"The best gift that I have is my writing. What else could I give my son?"

In his memoir, Rodriguez recalls how easily this gift might have been lost.

"When I entered 109th Street (Elementary) School, I spoke perfect Spanish," he writes. "But teachers punished me for speaking it on the playground. I peed in my pants a few times because I was unable to say in English that I had to go. One teacher banished me to a corner to build blocks for a year. I learned to be silent within the walls of my body . . . .

"By the time we entered high school, not only had we lost our mother tongue, we couldn't speak English very well. We fell through the cracks of language. It required a long, intense re-education process well into my adulthood before I came back to the word and its power. My brother never recovered. Millions more lost their tongues."

Rodriguez and Ramiro have appeared together across the nation to promote "Always Running." His small nonprofit publisher, Curbstone Press, obtained grants that allowed Rodriguez to finish the book and finance the tour.

"Rodriguez is an insider who speaks so eloquently and knowledgeably about the L.A. experience," says Alexander Taylor of Curbstone. "There's also that eternal father and son bonding running through the book. Saving our kids, giving them a future is very important to us. Our hope is to get young people to read this book. That's why it's important to have someone their own age, like Ramiro, involved."

It was a high school teacher who influenced the elder Rodriguez to leave la vida loca behind. Ernestine Bocio, then a teacher at Mark Keppel High School in Alhambra, sponsored a Chicano student group that Rodriguez joined.

"Louie was an active student. I still remember when he and a girl student reclaimed Joe and Josephine Aztec, the school mascots, from Anglo domination and returned it to its Latino origin of pride and dignity," she says. (Rodriguez chose to wear traditional Aztec dress for his appearance as school mascot and picture in the opening section of the 1972 yearbook.)

Rodriguez became active in protests to correct injustices against Latinos. In 1970, when he was 16, he participated in the Chicano Moratorium Against the War and was arrested in the riots that followed the killing of reporter Ruben Salazar. He spent several days in jail.

"I saw how futile this brother killing brother was. Just what were we fighting over? A piece of turf that wasn't even ours? There was a real enemy out there and it wasn't us."

After high school, Rodriguez worked at various jobs--as a steelworker, truck driver, in a paper mill and in a chemical refinery. In 1980, he was accepted in the Summer Program for Minority Journalists at UC Berkeley. Since then he has worked as a reporter for newspapers and radio.

His books include "Poems Across the Pavement," which won the Poetry Center Book Award from San Francisco State University in 1989, and "The Concrete River," winner of the PEN West / Josephine Miles Award in 1991. He says his next book will be a collection of short stories, "Tales from the Republic of East Los Angeles."

At the top of a hill in East Los Angeles, father and son pause as Rodriguez searches out signposts from his past in the buildings and streets below.

"That's Our Lady of Guadalupe church where I got married with (Ramiro's mother) Camila. We had a great East L.A. lowrider wedding--to the max.

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