Luis J. Rodriguez

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HISTORY
History of Luis J. Rodriguez
Luis J. Rodriguez at 36 years old
Cover Photo from Concrete River, showing
Luis J. Rodriguez at 36 years old

Luis J. Rodriguez was born on the U.S./Mexico border in 1954 and is of Mexika/Raramuri indigenous descent. At the age of two, his family migrated to Los Angeles, where they settled in South Central LA. Later, at around age 8, the family moved to the San Gabriel Valley. In the 1960s and 1970s, Luis was an active street gang member in the East Los Angeles area, documented in his memoir "Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A."

He began stealing at age 7 and joined a gang at age 11. He began using drugs at age 12. He dropped out of high school at age 15 and was also kicked out of his home, eventually becoming homeless until he returned to live in the family's garage. From ages 13 to 18, he was arrested for numerous crimes, including stealing, fighting, rioting, attempted murder, and assaulting police officers.

Despite his gang activities, Luis also participated in the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, including the 1968 East LA School Blowouts and the Chicano Moratorium against the Vietnam War of August 29, 1970. In addition, in 1972 Luis painted several murals in the Rosemead/South San Gabriel communities. He eventually returned to and finished high school, becoming leader of the Chicano student organization there and leading several school walkouts. From 1972-73, Luis briefly attended Cal State College, Los Angeles and became active in MeCha (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan), becoming MeCha organizer for East LA high schools.

At age 18, Luis faced a six-year prison sentence, was hooked on heroin, and by then 25 of his friends had been killed in the barrio gang life. Because of his new-found participation in community work, and after members of the community wrote letters on his behalf, Luis was given a lesser conviction and a county jail term. Feeling responsible to the people who rallied to his defense, Luis turned away from the "Crazy Life" and dedicated himself to conscious revolutionary thinking and activity, expanding his organizing efforts to other parts of East LA as well as Watts/South Central LA, LA's Harbor area and Pasadena. He also got off drugs at age 19, "cold turkey." However, he was unable to continue his college courses and he began work in industry, including four years at the Bethlehem Steel Mill in Maywood. During that period, he also worked as a truck driver, a school bus driver, paper mill worker, a foundry smelter, carpenter, and maintenance mechanic.

After taking night classes in East Los Angeles Community College, in early 1980 Luis began work as a reporter/photographer for seven East Los Angeles weekly newspapers including the Eastside Sun. That summer, he was accepted at the Summer Program for Minority Journalists at UC Berkeley. In the fall, he was hired as a daily newspaper reporter for the San Bernardino Sun, where he covered mostly crime, disasters, auto accidents, and murder stories. He was 26 years old. Luis also returned to East LA from time to time to run the LA Latino Writers Association, including its Barrio Writers Workshops and as editor/publisher of ChismeArte Magazine, where he had offices at Self Help Graphics in East LA. During this period, he also freelanced for the LA Weekly and other publications.

The author and his bestselling book
Luis J. Rodriguez and his
Bestseller, Always Running

In the early 1980s, Luis attended workshops in prisons and juvenile facilities under the tutelage of Manual "Manazar" Gamboa. He also worked as a radio programmer at KPFK-FM and briefly for California Public Radio. In late 1982, Luis got out of the San Bernardino Sun after a dispute with his editor on journalistic integrity. He then worked on the largest union representation campaign in U.S. history for the American Federation of State, County, & Municipal Employees. They eventually won the right to represent 60,000 clerical and blue-collar employees of the University of California system. In addition, Luis covered stories of indigenous uprisings and guerrilla movements in Mexico, Nicaragua, and Honduras.

In 1985, a couple of months before his 31st birthday, Luis moved to Chicago to become editor of the People's Tribune, a national revolutionary newspaper. There he did analysis of labor, the homeless and the arts that took him throughout the United States to cover various fronts of struggle against poverty and injustice as well as for immigrant and prisoners' rights. He also freelanced for the Nation Magazine and other publications. From 1988 to 1993, Luis worked for the Archdiocese of Chicago in their publications department, Liturgy Training Publications. He also worked weekends as a news writer and reporter for WMAQ-AM, then an all-news radio station.

Luis J. Rodriguez at 39 years old
LJR at 39 years old

In 1988, Luis became active in the burgeoning Chicago poetry scene, birthplace of the Poetry Slams. He helped organize the Chicago Poetry Festivals and read his work in bars, cafe, libraries, schools, and other venues. In 1989, Luis started Tia Chucha Press, a poetry press, with the publication of his first book "Poems across the Pavement," which over the years has published Elizabeth Alexander, Kyoko Mori, Diane Glancy, Denise Duhamel, Nick Carbo, Tony Fitzpatrick, Ricardo Sanchez, and many more. He also helped found the Guild Complex, a multi-arts presentation organization. In 1991, Curbstone Press published his second poetry collection, "The Concrete River." He also freelanced for publications like US News & World Report, the Nation, Chicago Tribune, LA Times, Utne Reader, New York Times, and other publications. During this time, Luis continued to do workshops in prisons, juvenile facilities, homeless shelters, community centers, and schools - now expanded to migrant camps, Native American reservations, and public and private schools around the country.

When Curbstone Press first published "Always Running" in hardback in 1993, Luis, then 39, quit his jobs to dedicate himself to promoting the book and to his writing career. He went to 30 cities in three months and appeared on many national and local TV, radio, and newspapers before embarking on a European tour. The next year, Simon & Schuster's Touchstone Books bought out the paperback version of "Always Running," which has become an international bestseller.

After this, Luis dedicated himself to his own writing projects that over the years would yield more books - including "Trochemoche," a poetry book for Curbstone Press; "America Is Her Name," a children's book for Curbstone Press, "It Doesn't Have to be This Way: A Barrio Story," a children's book for Children's Book Press, "Hearts and Hands: Creating Community in Violent Times, a nonfiction book for Seven Stories Press; "The Republic of East LA: Stories," a short story collection for Rayo Books/HarperCollins; "Music of the Mill," a novel for Rayo; and "My Nature is Hunger," a poetry collection for Curbstone.He was also interviewed for a photo book by Joseph Rodriguez, with an essay by Ruben Martinez, called "Eastside Stories: Gang Life in East Los Angeles," from PowerHouse Books; and did a poem and essay for "Si Se Puede!/Yes We Can," a children's book by Diane Cohn, illustrated by Francisco Delgado, for Cinco Puntos Press.

In addition, C&C Press out of Pajaro, CA in 2005 began to do limited edition, numbered & signed, hand-made artist books of Luis's poetry, including beautifully designed and created broadsides. By 2008, they published "Seven," "Two Women/Dos Mujeres," and "Making Medicine." These books were sold to individual collectors and university archives as well as the public.

Luis travels have included readings, talks and workshops in Paris, London, Rome, Milan, Amsterdam, Mexico City, and various cities in Germany, Holland, and Austria (in 1993 as part of the first US "Slam Poetry" tour with Patricia Smith, Paul Beatty, Neeli Cherkovsky, Dominique Lowell, and Alan Kaufman). He's also visited throughout Canada (Toronto, Montreal), Mexico (various states and cities), Puerto Rico and Central American countries such as El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala as well as the South American countries of Peru and Venezuela, both as a reporter and has a poet/lecturer for some 30 years. In November of 2006, he also did readings as part of a promotional tour of the East LA band Quetzal and David Gomez (DJ dGomez) in and around Tokyo for Shin Miyata and Barrio Gold Records, which for years licensed Chicano music for the Japanese market, including those in the growing Lowrider scene there. In addition, in early 2000, Luis finished a ten-week reading/talking residency in North Carolina that took him to universities, colleges, public and private schools, prisons, juvenile facilities, migrant camps, and churches (around 21 events a week).

(L to R) Robert Redford, founder of the Sundance Institute; Luis J. Rodriguez, recipient of a 2002 Sundance Institute Arts Writing Fellowship; Susan Gerhard, senior editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian and a 2002 fellowship recipient; Margo Jefferson, New York Times columnist and Creative Advisor for the Sundance Institute Arts Writing program; Jason Shinder, director of the Arts Writing Program; and Chloe Veltman, freelance writer, critic and 2002 fellowship recipient (Photo -Chloe Veltman).

In 1994, Luis helped found Youth Struggling for Survival, working with gang and nongang youth (and the Increase the Peace Network and, in 2000, the Humboldt Park Teen Reach in collaboration with other gang peace and intervention organizations). In 1994, he began working with Michael Meade and the Mosaic Multicultural Foundation doing retreats, conferences and workshops utilizing poetry, story, drumming, dance, and emerging rituals to address issues of initiation and youth-elder mentoring. He continues to work with Michael Meade and spiritual practitioners like Jack Kornfield, Orland Bishop and Malidoma Some. In the early 1990s, he was also a cofounder of LA's Rock A Mole Productions that produces CDs, films, and music & art festival. And in 1995, Luis and his wife Trini were also founding members of the League of Revolutionaries for a New America - an organization dedicated to the comprehensive revolutionary education and activity vital for truly just and equitable social change in this country.

CD - "My Name's Not Rodriguez
LJR CD -My Name's Not Rodriguez
Also by 1995, Luis returned to his indigenous roots, participating in Native American ceremonies in Chicago and various reservations, including the Lakota and Navajo reservations. In addition, he connected with his Mexika/Tolteka traditions in Mexico through the In Koltonal Spiritual House in Mexico-Tenochtitlan, part of the Mexikayotl spiritual movement of indigenous people in Mexico. And he began visiting areas of his own indigenous roots, such as the Sierra Tarahumara, home of the Raramuri people, in Southern Chihuahua. In 1998, Luis received his Nahuatl name, Xikome Tochtli, based on the Mexika Sun Stone Calendar in a ceremony, held in Chicago, with members of the Kalpulli Yetlenazi-Tolteka Trece. In 2000, he received a Navajo ceremonial name with the guidance and teachings of Medicine Man, Anthony Lee on the Navajo (Dine) Reservation. The year before, Anthony Lee had adopted Trini as his spiritual daughter.

In addition, Trini and Luis have participated in indigenous ceremonies among the Quechua people of Peru. And they are both founders and water-pourers for the Northeast San Fernando Valley Sweat Lodge Circle.

In the summer of the year 2000, Luis, 46, and his family moved to the Northeast San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles, where Trini grew up. The following year, Luis, Trini, and their brother-in-law, Enrique Sanchez, a long-time community activist and business man, helped create Tia Chucha's Café Cultural - a bookstore, café, art gallery, and performance space in Sylmar, CA. In the summer of 2003, Luis also helped found a not-for-profit cultural center next door called Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural, which also houses Dos Manos Records, Xispas Magazine (an online magazine where Luis serves as editor), and Tia Chucha Press, which now has published more than 40 poetry books and a CD (distributed by Northwestern University Press). In 2002, Luis also created, with Ernie Perez, his first CD of poetry and music called "My Name's Not Rodriguez," with plans to produce other musicians and poets through Dos Manos Records.

Dos Manos Records

On a more personal note, Trini is Luis's third wife, whom he married in 1988. She has become his spiritual companion as well as business and political partner in the work he does in the community and throughout the country. Helping stabilize his relationships involved becoming sober in June of 1993 after seven years of drug use and 20 years of drinking. By early 2008, Luis - going on 54 years - has four children: Ramiro, 32, presently incarcerated in an Illinois State Prison; Andrea, 30, a teacher and the first in the family to finish college; Ruben, 19, and Luis, 13. He also has four grandchildren: Ricardo, 15; Anastasia, 14; Amanda Mae, 12; Catalina, 11.

In early 2007, Tia Chucha's Cafe Cultural had to move from its Sylmar, CA location due to a tripling of rent when the landlords wanted to bring in a multi-million dollar laundromat. However, they found a temporary location in Lake View Terrace, and turned everything over to the non-profit Centro Cultural by March of that year. They are presently working on finding a bigger, better and permanent Tia Chucha's in the Northeast San Fernando Valley, obtaining the support of such luminaries as Bruce Springsteen, John Densmore of the Doors, Cheech Marin, Dave Marsh of Rock & Rap Confidential, the poet Adrienne Rich, as well as the LA City Department of Cultural Affairs, LA's Community Redevelopment Agency, Liberty Hill, LA County Arts Commission, the Panta Rhea Foundation, the Middleton Foundation, and many more.

Luis is still running Tia Chucha Press - with new poets published such as ariel robello, Patricia Spears Jones, Alfred Arteaga, Linda Susan Jackson, and Richard Vargas - and working on new writing projects, including another memoir, a documentary film on gangs and their solutions (with Cookie Carosella of Tuff Cookie Productions), and a couple of feature film projects, including for "Always Running."

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Other Websites Featuring Luis J. Rodriguez

To Listen to Some of Luis J. Rodriguez' Poems

Transcript of conversation with Luis J. Rodriguez on Jim Lehrer's Newshour with Ray Suarez

Access site with information on Eastside Stories

Statement What's American about American Poetry? by Luis J. Rodriguez

Interview with Luis J. Rodriguez on MenWeb

POV: Luis J. Rodriguez discusses the concept of "borders" on PBS.org

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HISTORY