Travel Updates from March

I travel about a third of the year speaking, reading and conducting workshops in cities all over the US as well as other countries. I love to travel—it would be a shame if I didn’t. Those who sponsor my events pay me honoraria so the rest of the year I can write; do volunteer community work, including Tia Chucha’s (neither my wife or I get paid for this); healing practices (linked to my sobriety and community work); and spend time with family, which, of course, is primary.

It’s a great life, although I’ve surmised my family’s glad I’m not always around.

In the past few weeks I’ve been to the San Francisco Bay Area, Northern California, Central Florida, Chicago and other Illinois cities, Ohio, and Michigan. Over the past two or three years, I’ve also been to Japan, Mexico, Guatemala, Venezuela (three times), and Peru (twice). I spoke in prisons, juvenile lockups, public schools, universities, conferences, poetry events, and more.

One important visit was to Orlando. In March I spoke at the University of Central Florida as well as Valencia Community College. A gang prevention/intervention conference at UCF included community activists, law enforcement, youth probation officers, school officials, and young people, a few in gangs. This conference addressed imaginative and redemptive strategies to deal with gangs rather than suppression and jails. Around the country people are considering new strategies and models since our jails, juvenile lockups and prisons are dangerously overcrowded (although gang & drug violence has not abated, and they’re now spread around the country).

In Valencia I dealt with a similar topic to a well-attended reading of my poetry, which often turn into town hall meetings. A large contingent of Central Americans came to my talk—they were in the US temporarily to study the gang phenomena here, which has now taken hold in countries like Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic (a couple of these people had heard me speak in Guatemala).

The most amazing aspect of my trip to Orlando, however, was visiting my 15-year-old grandson, Ricardo Rodriguez. The last time I saw him was when he was a year-and-a-half. I was excited and nervous; I understand he was too. We’ve stayed in communication over these years, mostly by email. We’ve also sent him birthday and Christmas presents. When I saw my grandson I could see the Raramuri (my mother’s indigenous ties from Mexico) and the Puerto Rican (from his mother’s side). He looked like his father, my son 32-year-old Ramiro (as most of you know, he’s currently incarcerated in the state of Illinois). Ramiro has never seen his son. Ricky, as we call him, also looked more like his uncles, my two youngest sons Ruben and Luis. Ricky is tall and handsome. He’s also smart, an A-student at a private Christian school.

With the help of his English teacher, I also got the opportunity to speak at Ricky’s school as well as a smaller writers’ group there. What an experience! Having my grandson in the audience during my talk was simply amazing. The students had tons of questions, especially about my former gang and drug life. But also how I overcame these—and about my work today helping youth and others re-imagine and recreate cohesive and imaginative communities.

At the writers’ group about a dozen students read their work, a few of which were written during the session. Others in the group offered encouragement and advice. I mostly listened, but a couple of times I offered my opinions. Ricky’s poem was short, but powerful and creative (he wrote it as we sat there).

Here’s an interesting fact: All four of my kids and four grandkids are great writers.

I had a wonderful time with Ricky and his family. Words can’t even describe.

After Florida, I flew into Chicago to take part in a Poetry Center reading at the School of the Art Institute downtown. Some 400 people showed up, mostly high school students, including a busload from Michigan. The reading went well and the questions were right on, especially from the youth.

From there I drove the next morning (I got up at 4:30 AM) to the Pontiac Prison facility to visit with Ramiro. We had five hours together and as always it was very respectful. My son and I have grown as father and son. It’s a shame this had to happen while he is behind bars. But there are fathers and sons who never breach their pains and distances. I’m honored I’ve been able to do this with Ramiro.

After this I drove further down to the middle of Illinois for a teacher’s reading conference in Springfield. I love talking to teachers—along with librarians they are some of my biggest supporters. They gave me a standing ovation and I met some great people in the schools who recognize the power of language and books for our communities.

After this I drove to Dekalb to stay with my Mexika Native friends, Frank and Lou Blazquez. They have a huge backyard where they built a sweat lodge, guided by their Lakota teacher, Ed Young-Man-Afraid-Of-His-Horses. It was good to see old friends, including the Blazquez kids, Tanee and Frankie (now young adults). They are also leaders in Youth Struggling for Survival. That night we did a Wachuma medicine all-night ceremony with Frank and three young YSS leaders. It was intense and deeply moving.

The next day after I had my time to rest and reflect, I drove another hour or so to Sterling, IL. I visited my 12-year-old granddaughter Amanda Mae Rodriguez. The next day I spoke at Sterling High School’s auditorium to Amanda and her fellow middle school students (their school is across the street). Again, it was so good to know that among the hundreds of students there, so was Amanda.

Amanda is also a fantastic student—the teachers had nothing but praise for her.

I also spoke to the Sterling HS student body—another amazing group of kids. And for two days I did two writing workshops with students and a few teachers in the library. One evening, I also spoke at the Latin American Social Club to about 200 people. Amanda stood next to me holding my books (I said she could sit down, but she wanted to stand there with me). I was so proud to have her there at my side.

Again, like with Ricky, it was sad to say goodby.

From Sterling, I drove back to Chicago—meeting with old friends. This included former Chicago gang member James Lilly, who’s now wheelchair bound from a gang-related shooting at 15. He’s also a world-class wheelchair racer and has an important film about his life and work called “Pushin’ Forward” – you can find out more at

From Chicago I came home for a short spell—back to family (which is always great), Tia Chucha’s, Young Warriors, the Community Engagement Advisory Committee of the LA City Ad Hoc Committee on Gang Violence & Youth Development, writing poems, essays, stories; and tons of regular mail and emails.

As they say, it’s all good.


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