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The Redemptive Power of Art Isn't a Frill

March 18, 2004|Luis J. Rodriguez | Luis J. Rodriguez is the author of "Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in LA" (Touchstone Books/Simon & Schuster, 1993).

Los Angeles city officials, who need to cut $250 million from next year's $5-billion budget, have proposed eliminating the Cultural Affairs Department.

Mayor James K. Hahn and the City Council have yet to take action on the proposal, but it appears that the underlying concept behind such cuts is that the arts are frivolous, or at least that they're a luxury that government can no longer afford, especially with services like police and fire protection on the line. I disagree.

My life was transformed by the arts. I was an East L.A.-area gang member at age 11, on drugs at 12, in and out of jails and juvenile hall at 13. Schools, counselors and my parents couldn't turn me around. I dropped out of school, used heroin, robbed people and participated in gang shootings. I remember more than one teacher telling me that I'd never amount to anything.

For a while, I believed them. I felt trapped in the web of "la vida loca." I loved my mother, my brother and sisters, my girlfriends, but none of them could tear me away. "This is my life now. I can't stop, I won't stop."

In the 1970s, when I was around 17, I was hired to work on a mural project organized and funded by the local civic community center.

I had already done gang-related graffiti for years -- not just aerosol scribbling but often elaborate, well-thought-out pieces. A youth coordinator believed that I should expand my notions of art, get training and learn that art "mattered" -- especially art that was honest, revealing and redemptive.

I had no idea what he was talking about. But one day he showed me a book on the mural art of 20th century Mexican painters. It included a section on Mayan temples with art on all the walls. I realized art was in my bones.

That summer I painted 10 murals. I also traveled on weekends to East L.A.'s Goez Art Gallery to learn from master muralists who helped create the now-renowned works at the federal housing projects of Estrada Courts and Ramona Gardens.

Unfortunately, because of my drug use and gang involvement, I sabotaged later opportunities. Once I was offered a paid mural job at a Los Angeles university; I never returned the calls.

But a seed had been planted -- a seed that grew so that, at 18, strung out on heroin and facing a six-year-prison sentence, I became convinced I needed another life.

Until then, I didn't think I had any choices. But tapping into the creative powers we all possess as human beings, I found a lifeline -- from within. I learned that I already had the talent and gifts to overcome any trap, addiction or social limitation. I learned to imagine.

It takes a long time to change, especially after falling into the abyss of street life. I survived county jail and managed to find enough stability to get out of drugs, to find work, to get married and have children. Although I never returned to painting, by age 25 the pull of my passions took me to words.

I became a newspaper reporter. In 1985, I moved to Chicago, where I freelanced, worked in radio and participated in poetry events. I now have eight published books in poetry, children's literature, fiction and nonfiction.

Not long after I returned to L.A. in the summer of 2000, my wife, Trini, and my brother-in-law, Enrique Sanchez, helped me create Tia Chucha's Cafe Cultural -- a bookstore, cafe, art gallery, performance space and workshop center in the San Fernando Valley. We've had tremendous success bringing painting, sculpture, dance, theater, film, writing, music and more to the community. We've had hundreds of people grace our stage, such as Chicana writer Sandra Cisneros and the band Quetzal.

Yes, we need jobs, economic development and vital services. But we also need the arts -- they are the most powerful way to address violence, suicide and addictions. In art there are purpose and meaning; there's imagination. Most depression and violence can be characterized as the closing of our imagination.

What is art but the spirit in each of us to reshape our lives in the face of debilitating and often destructive circumstances? I'm convinced this is as compelling a concern for government and society to address as any other.

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