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From despair, words of hope

October 16, 2005|Kristina Lindgren

WHEN "Always Running" came out in 1993, its author -- the poet, novelist and Chicano activist Luis J. Rodriguez -- hoped that this gripping memoir of his career as a gang-banger in poverty-riddled East Los Angeles would dissuade his troubled teenage son, Ramiro, from la vida loca.

Since then, the author reports, "more of my homies from 30 years ago have died," and Ramiro is serving a 28-year prison sentence for three counts of attempted murder. Meanwhile, Rodriguez's graphic and unvarnished account of "stealing, shootings, stabbings, arrests, homelessness, drug use and overdoses" has become one of the nation's 100 most widely banned books, according to the American Library Assn.

"Always Running," reissued this month by Simon & Schuster, traces his path "from victim to perpetrator to witness to revolutionary." In a new introduction, Rodriguez writes: "The fact is I failed at everything I tried to do, but I kept working at it, failing some more, not giving up, so that eventually, at age 51, I've begun to center my life, get control over my destructive impulses, and become someone my wife, my kids, my grandchildren, and my community can learn from and respect."

Curbstone Press also has published a collection of Rodriguez's new and selected poetry, "My Nature Is Hunger." The poems here follow him from the barrios of Los Angeles to inner-city Chicago to the Navajo Reservation -- and back to the streets of Southern California in support of striking janitors. "Die and live," he writes in "Suicide Sweet," "[W]e need more poems."

Kristina Lindgren


From `My Nature Is Hunger: New and Selected Poems: 1989-2004'

From "The Rabbi and the Cholo"

One night, at a "brotherhood" camp,

the Rabbi

witnessed me break down, for the first


since I was eleven: I mourned for all

the dead homies, for the women who


for family and the wounds of silence.

The Rabbi sat down next to me and


"I don't know how to cry like that."

"The Monster"

It erupted into our lives:

Two guys in jeans shoved it through the


heaving & grunting & biting lower lips.

A large industrial sewing machine.

We called it "the monster."

It came on a winter's day,

rented out of mother's pay.

Once in the living room

the walls seemed to cave in around it.

Black footsteps to our door

brought heaps of cloth for Mama to


Noises of war burst out of the living


Rafters rattled. Floors farted

the radio going into static

each time the needle ripped into fabric.

Many nights I'd get up from bed,

wander squinty-eyed down a hallway

and peer through a dust-covered


to where Mama and the monster

did nightly battle.

I could see Mama through the yellow


of a single light bulb.

She slouched over the machine.

Her eyes almost closed.

Her hair in disheveled braids;

each stitch binding her life

to scraps of cloth.


An abandoned adobe hut, crumbled

Walls, gaps in roof, glassless window


Dirt floor with wine bottles, aerosol

Spray cans and soiled newspapers

Pushed up against the corners.

My Navajo friend called it "The

Battered Husband Shelter."

"¡Si, Se Puede! Yes, We Can!"

Beneath steel and concrete,

Beneath night's wandering shadow,

Come the eyes, voices and arms --

elbows and knees --

That make buildings shine, magnifying

the sun into all our faces.

The nameless, the scorned, the ignored

-- yet

They are the humanity that makes

human things work.

Mothers and children, fathers and

uncles, family and family --

They come to make this city dance, the

rhythm of what's just,

What is secure -- the dance of strike

and protest,

demand and dignity.

They toil inside these glass temples --

they clean them --

The truly human who now step into the


into our tomorrows,

And declare: ¡Basta! Enough! What

we clean, we also make sacred.

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