Luis J. Rodriguez, finally, has stopped running.
His fast-paced criminal life long over and his demons now at rest, Rodriguez's world is converging here in the northeast San Fernando Valley, where he and his wife have bought their first home and are now hoping to stir young, neglected minds and awaken future artists. Eight years after his award-winning memoir, "Always Running," hit a national nerve with its raw and honest depictions of L.A. gang life, Rodriguez is ready to stand still, to "get smart with heart" and try to change the broken society he has poignantly chronicled in his poems, memoir and his latest book, "Heart and Hands."
It's been 18 months since Rodriguez returned to Los Angeles, where he spent his childhood and adolescence in Watts and San Gabriel running from the cops, his teachers and parents who tried to pull him from the crazy street life--"la vida loca"--he wrote about in his memoir. On Saturday, with the opening of his bookstore, coffeehouse and cultural center--Tia Chucha's Cafe Cultural--in Sylmar, Rodriguez realized his long-held dream of community empowerment using art as the unifying force.
"There is an old saying that a culture is made around what we do with young people," he writes in "Heart and Hands," a nonfiction guide for community-building. "... Young people carry the dreams of the whole society. If we don't establish and maintain a space for those dreams, the community as a whole loses its dreams and their attainment."
If Tia Chucha seems like an odd name for the center of art and culture that Rodriguez hopes his bookstore will become, consider the eccentric aunt it is named for, his first muse, the adult of his childhood who sparked his imagination the way he hopes to provoke young readers, writers and artists. Tia Chucha never married or stayed in one place for long, but entertained her family with her guitar, her songs and poems, and the wild concoctions she called perfume.
"That spirit of being creative and not letting anything bind her I really appreciate," says Rodriguez, standing in the storefront he's been developing for a year. "I just want to keep the name alive, the spirit of the woman, because her creativity fired up the creativity within me. What's weird about L.A. is that it's the entertainment capital of the world, but still there are so many culturally barren communities. When I was in trouble, books saved my life. But an adult who cares is also important."
By selecting Sylmar as Tia Chucha's locale, Rodriguez and his partners (his wife, Trini Rodriguez, and her brother-in-law, Enrique Sanchez) hope to lift the neglected Latino pockets of neighboring San Fernando, Arleta, Sun Valley and Pacoima, which have no bookstores, movie houses or community centers for the arts. Eighty percent of the area's 400,000 residents are Latinos who, Rodriguez believes, are hungry for intellectual and artistic stimulation.
"The population of gifted and talented people we have is huge, but when we came on visits from Chicago, I would get depressed," says Trini Rodriguez, who was raised in Pacoima. "I would see a cultural desert when I visited here. There was a well-founded respect for the creativity and contributions of the Mexican community in Chicago that I don't see here. People here are alive with their culture, but there's something about bringing it together in a place that is empowering. We hope to help people reach their particular gifts the way Luis was able to."
At 47, Rodriguez is on his third marriage, a father of four and grandfather of four. He is a compact man with close-cropped hair and a goatee. He knows firsthand the value system of gang members and uses that to help turn them from violence and enfranchise Chicanos. Sober for eight years, he now realizes that during all those decades of fast living, he was mostly running from himself. But even in those violent, drug-induced days, reading and writing helped to mend his broken spirit and "aligned me to a level of sanity."
"In spite of all the obstacles, I was able to find my own path," he said. "That coming together, when you find your art and your path--that's when the world aligns. If you're off doing something else that you're not supposed to be doing, then it doesn't work. My writing has been my healing."
Rodriguez was a boy when the running began. By 12, he was a veteran of East L.A. gang warfare, running from rival Sangra gang members and grieving the death of his best friend, who fell through a skylight as the two were being chased by police. Over the next four years, he was homeless, addicted to heroin and PCP, and served time in jail half a dozen times for robberies, fire bombings and drive-by shootings.