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From La Vida Loca to La Dolce Vita

Author: After swearing off alcohol, 'Always Running' author Luis Rodriguez is still on the move--but now his energy goes into his writing and his family.


Three years ago Luis Rodriguez was slouched against a pole inside an Austrian bar. The celebrated author of "Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A." was touring Europe to promote his poetry and, like so many other American writers before him, he embraced the continent's bars with a vengeance.

As he knocked back round after round, Rodriguez felt right at home. Though in a foreign land, the bar provided familiar territory.

He remembers making it to his 25th beer that night. He mumbled "see you later" to his companions as he stumbled out of the bar alone. Then, like so many times before, the blackout hit.

He awoke sometime the following day, slumped over in yet another bar, in another part of the city. Any memory of what he'd done or where he'd been had vanished into a black hole that left him shaking.

"It scared the hell out of me, I knew I couldn't go on like that," he says now. "It was just draining me, sucking the life right out of me."

Years before, Rodriguez had pruned other vices from his life, cutting off the "chiva" and "grifas" he'd absorbed as a homeboy from Las Lomas in San Gabriel. But if heroin and pot were the drugs of choice for gangbangers, booze has always been the traditional nectar for writers and Rodriguez was having a hard time putting the bottle down.

Standing again at the crossroads, a place he'd been so many times before as an immigrant child, a homeboy and a student activist, Rodriguez decided it was time to dry out for good.

Today, a stone sober Rodriguez, 42, has little time to wonder what might have happened had he not stopped drinking.

"I'm really a much better writer dry. I'm far more alert now and much more prolific."

Prolific may be an understatement, considering that Rodriguez is wrapping up two new books, has three more in the works and is finishing the screenplay to "Always Running." He will also be featured in "Making Peace," an upcoming PBS special about eight people working to end violence around the country.

While his two new works draw on many of the same themes that ran throughout the autobiographical "Always Running," in many respects they are literally worlds apart. One, entitled "America Is Her Name," (Curbstone) is a bilingual book for children about a young Mexican girl who immigrates to the United States. The other, with a working title of "A Tale of Two Cities" and publisher yet to be decided, takes a hard-edged look at what Rodriguez calls the "globalization of L.A. gangs."

Awarded a grant from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, Rodriguez hooked up with photographer Donna DeCesare, who had been covering El Salvador's civil war.

"The same year I was doing the book tour for 'Always Running,' Donna was down in San Salvador. She found this kid in a hospital who looked like an L.A. gang member, all covered in tattoos. He was dying of AIDS," Rodriguez says. "She wanted to find out what this kid was doing in El Salvador, looking like he'd just walked off the streets of East L.A."

Over the last several years, Rodriguez and DeCesare have studied the fate of children who became refugees twice. Displaced by the civil war that ravaged much of El Salvador during the 1980s, these children were sent to America, where many of them fell into the street culture of gangs.

Once the war ended they returned to their native land, taking gang life--and death--with them.

"It's fascinating to see these teens with '18th Street' and 'Mara Salvatura' tattoos all over their bodies, cruising around the streets of San Salvador," he says. "They came to L.A.'s worst neighborhoods and they got into the vida loca. They became cholos. All the trauma in their lives, having been displaced by war, the cholo life was the only culture that could touch some of these kids. So they embraced the clothes and the tattoos and all the symbols because it spoke to their pain."

Authorities in the small Central American country have responded with brutal force, Rodriguez says. "They were beating them up, ironing their tattoos off and at one point a death squad seemed to be targeting these kids exclusively," he says. "Their parents thought they were sending them out of harm's way by getting them out of L.A. and back down to a 'peaceful' San Salvador. Instead they sent them into a caldron."

To help extinguish the fires that keep the caldron boiling, Rodriguez and DeCesare stepped outside their roles as journalists and appeared at a youth conference in San Salvador in late May. It was the first of its kind there, bringing together members of street gangs, government officials, non-government agencies and the once-dreaded National Police.

"It was a huge step forward for them," Rodriguez says, noting the intense political polarization that still simmers throughout El Salvador. "Now the question is, what will they do with it? Where will the dialogue lead?"

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