The Luis J. Rodriguez Story--From Troubled Youth to the Poet Laureate of Los Angeles
By the year 2000, Luis J. Rodriguez was given the Dine name of Naayee' Neezghanii on the Navajo Nation around two years after Anthony Lee, a medicine man, and his wife Delores spiritually adopted Luis’s wife, Trini--and consequently the whole family. The name means “Monster Slayer” and can represent one who has overcome many obstacles. Luis has been involved in indigenous healing practices from across the U.S. and the continent since 1995. He’s also a student of Mexika (so-called Aztec) and Mayan cosmologies and was given the Mexika name of Xikome Tochtli (Seven Rabbit) in the mid-1990s by his teacher, Macuiltochtli, based on the Tonalpohualli—the Mexika ritual calendar, "the count of days." In August of 2018, he was given another Mexika name for the next 13 years of his life: Mixcoatl Itztlacuiloh (Cloud Serpent/Obsidian Blade).
His other teachers include: Tlacaelel of Mexico, Julio Revolorio of Guatemala, Tekpaltzin and Xochimeh (Frank and Louise Blazquez) of the Kalpulli Yetlenazi of Chicago, Tascara of Mexico, Ed Young Man Afraid of His Horses of Pine Ridge Reservation, John Chee Smith of the Dine (Navajo) Reservation, Huitzi and Meztli of the Kalpulli Tlaque Nahuaque of Pacoima, CA, and a couple of teachers among the Quechua in Peru, including Panduro Edilson. Tlacaelel, Macuiltochtli, John Chee Smith, Ed Young Man Afraid of His Horses, and Panduro Edilson are now with the ancestors.
Luis has faced many obstacles: In 1993, he became clean and sober after seven years of drug use and 20 years of alcohol abuse—having gone through three wives, two live-in girlfriends, other relationships, and many jobs. In the early 1980s, a right-wing editor of a daily newspaper blocked Luis from working in southern California newspapers, but this never deterred him from continuing to write for publications, books, and other media. In 1997 his oldest son Ramiro had been sentenced to 28 years in the Illinois state prison system for three counts of attempted murder; after 13-and-a-half years, with good time, Ramiro is now free, no longer involved in gangs, crime, or drugs. Ramiro was released in 2010 and has worked in gang prevention/intervention in Chicago. In 2014, he moved to L.A.'s San Fernando Valley where he does Mexika (Aztec) dance, mentors youth, and works in industry.
Luis is happily married for more than 30 years to the former Maria Trinidad Cardenas (Trini). Trini now also has the Mexika name of Tlazhoteotl (one who heals and regenerates what has been discarded). He's the father of three sons (Ramiro, Ruben, and Luis) and a daughter (Andrea), and the grandfather of five (Ricardo, Anastasia, Amanda, Catalina, and Jack Carlos). In early 2014, he first became a great-grandfather with the birth of Xavier; in mid-2015 a great-granddaughter was born, Jayyda Marie; another great-grandson, Andre, arrived in 2016; and then Liliana in 2018. Since October of 2011 Trini and Luis have lived with a Chihuahua/Terrier mix named Chula.
Born on the Border
Luis’s earthly journey began in 1954 when he was born on the border—El Paso, Texas to be exact, although his family resided in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico at the time. He has deep roots in the Chihuahua desert (which covers parts of northern Mexico and southwest United States) with ties to the Raramuri people through his mother—and Spanish, Nahuatl-speaking peoples, and African ties through his father, who was from Guerrero, Mexico. When his mother crossed the International Bridge from Ciudad Juarez to El Paso so Luis could be born, she went from "our land to our land."
At age two Luis moved to Watts, where the family lived in poverty and faced racial and social class discrimination along with his African American and Mexican neighbors. Despite a short stint in Reseda CA as the only Mexican family on the block, and facing more racially based attacks, the family ended up in the San Gabriel Valley. They once lived in the unincorporated community of South San Gabriel, a mostly Mexican migrant area that at the time was one of the poorest neighborhoods in L.A. County.
Although Luis had hard-working and law-abiding parents, he fell through the cracks into an intense street life. This included stealing from stores at age seven; at nine getting jumped by two local boys who fractured his jaw (causing his chin to jut out and where only three of his teeth meet); and losing a friend who fell through a skylight after they had broken into an elementary school when he was 10. Later that year Luis also suffered a ruptured intestine sac that forced him to be hospitalized or risk death. At 11, he joined his first street gang. By 12, he indulged in drugs and drinking, including sniffing toxic sprays, dropping illicit pills, LSD, and heroin. At 13, police started to detain Luis for stealing and fighting. At that age, his family moved to the City of San Gabriel after his father bought a house when he procured a laboratory custodian job 40 miles away at Pierce College, Woodland Hills CA. But Luis remained tied to South San Gabriel’s barrio gang, Las Lomas.
At 15 Luis was thrown out of two high schools for fighting, and ended up at a high school near his father’s job, from which he dropped out. That same year his parents kicked him out of the house, forcing him to live in the streets of downtown L.A. for a few weeks. He slept along the Los Angeles River, in abandoned cars, shuttered warehouses, church pews, sidewalks, armed with a .22 handgun for protection and to mug people. His only refuge was downtown's Central Library, where Luis savored book after book. Before the end of that summer, and going against his parent's wishes, Luis nonetheless moved into a small cell-like garage room with no running water or heat until age 18.
At 15 Luis also got beaten into the hard-core clique of Las Lomas. At 16, Luis was placed on murderer’s row of the old Hall of Justice Jail in downtown Los Angeles for taking part in the Chicano Moratorium against the Vietnam War. While hundreds of people were released within hours from the ensuing "East L.A. riot," Luis was held for several days in a cell next to Charles Manson. Sheriff’s deputies threatened him and four other “cholo” gangsters with charges linked to the murders of three people in the disturbances, although the charges were never pursued and Luis was eventually released. A year later, he was arrested for “assault with intent to commit murder” in the shooting of four people, but was released when his homies scared all the witnesses. By 18 Luis faced a minimum of six years for “fighting” with sheriff’s deputies who in fact were beating on a handcuffed young woman on the parking lot of an after-hours club. Doing a "non-gangster" thing, Luis tried to intervene; deputies in turn jumped on him. He inadvertently struck one of the deputies with his feet when they pulled him down and then faced serious charges of assaulting police officers. He was beaten while taken to the Norwalk Sheriff's Substation, then held in the Los Angeles County Jail, now the largest jail system in the United States. By then he had no family visits, no close friends (twenty five of his friends had been killed by gang warfare, drug overdoses, robbery attempts, police shootings, and suicide), and he was hooked on heroin.
Healing as a Revolutionary Act
That should have been the end of Luis J. Rodriguez.
But despite his active years in "La Vida Loca"--including getting shot at a half dozen times, although never hit, and drug overdoses--it all ended with unforeseen blessings. Luis had a few saving graces: For one thing he loved to read books. At age 10 a teacher read “Charlotte’s Web” by E.B. White aloud in class and he was hooked. Books are how he learned English, and even living on the streets, in the gang, or on drugs he wandered into libraries. In books, his imagination was lit and his world broadened—books did not dismiss or belittle him, beat or abandon him. Walking into the Monterey Book Store in Monterey Park one day, Luis met Sy Feinberg, a Jewish-American communist who opened up a bigger world of books and ideas. He also hooked up with radicals in the old Midnight Special Bookstore in Venice, CA (and later in Chicago with the Guild Books).
Luis was also a graffiti artist, spray painting elaborate pieces on walls. He then met a youth worker at the local community center who turned him on to mural painting. This youth worker was an organizer in the Chicano Movement, part of the Brown Berets and a leader in Chicano school walkouts. Learning to paint murals at the Goez Art Studio in East Los Angeles, Luis also promised to return to high school, where he become a student leader, leading at least three school walkouts for Chicano Studies, a Chicano Student Center, and just treatment for Chicano/Mexicano students. One of his mentors was Paula Crisostomo, a leader of the East Los Angeles "Blowouts"--the largest walkout of high school students at the time (the HBO movie "Walkout" featured her story).
At age 17, Luis painted eight murals, several with thirteen gang youth, in the City of Rosemead and in South San Gabriel, including on the walls of businesses, a public library, a park, and a youth center/alternative school. He also learned Mexika (Aztec) dance and participated in Chicano movement strategy meetings. He finally graduated from high school, although too late for the gap-and-gown ceremony. He became a youth leader at the Bienvenidos Community Center and the John Fabela Youth Center in South San Gabriel. And he began writing verses, anecdotes, editorials, including a column called “Pensamientos/Thoughts” for the student newspaper “The Aztec.” In 1973, he received honorary mention in the Quinto Sol Chicano Literary Prize, and ended up in Berkeley CA to be acknowledged, also attending his first poetry reading that included Chicano poet Jose Montoya, African American poet Dave Henderson, and Puerto Rican poet Pedro Pietri. Their words, rhythms, and social stances impacted him for a lifetime.
Luis let go heavy drugs for more than a year while finishing his schooling, but unfortunately became depressed around the time he left high school and turned back to drugs and gang warfare. He even tried going to California State College, Los Angeles, and was active in the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (MEChA) and editor of the MEChA newspaper, but dropped out.
In his last County Jail stint, Luis faced a crossroads. The one person who visited him was the youth worker, whom Luis called Chente in his memoir “Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A.” This mentor also obtained letters on Luis’s behalf, which impressed the judge. The judge denied any possible felony charges of assaulting sheriff’s deputies—despite deputies clamoring for such charges—and instead gave Luis time served for “drunk and disorderly” and “resisting arrest.” Luis decided to leave the gang life and also underwent his first heroin withdrawals in the County Jail. Despite a couple of relapses, he finally gave up “La Vida Loca"--for over forty-five years since then Luis never returned to gangs, crime, or heavy drugs.
At 19, Luis embarked into a conscious revolutionary life, studying Marxism and other political texts, and taking on issues of police abuse, school integration, labor justice, immigrant rights, and more. He began mentoring gang youth, turning their lives around and helping them get politically educated and active, including in the housing projects of Pico Gardens and Aliso Village, other neighborhoods in Boyle Heights, in the Harbor Area, in the Florence barrio, in Pasadena CA, in Watts, in Echo Park, in City Terrace, and other poor and neglected communities. His youth work included football games and forest trips in Pasadena, weekly talent shows and film nights (with films shown on the side of his house) in Watts, and study circles in peoples’ homes. He sold radical books out of his poor working-class homes.
In 1977, then 23 years old, Luis ran for the Los Angeles School Board, managed by Anthony Prince, which oversaw the second-largest school district in the country, as part of national “Vote Communist” campaigns. He traveled throughout the large district, garnering close to 23,000 votes, winning precincts in Watts, East L.A. and the West San Fernando Valley, although he was next to last place in the final tally.
In addition, after leaving the gang life, Luis worked for years as a truck driver, bus driver, warehouse worker, a foundry smelter, in a paper mill, in construction, in a chemical refinery, and four years at the Bethlehem Steel Mill in Maywood, CA. He learned carpentry, pipe-fitting, welding, mechanics, and the millwright’s trade. He was a member of the Carpenter’s Union and the Steelworker’s Union, among others.
A Writer’s Life
One thing that held Luis back was his addictions and rage. Luis had post-traumatic stress disorder, although he didn’t know it at the time. He let go of drugs in his late teens more as a political act, but didn’t give up drinking. Luis married at age 20, and nine months later held Ramiro as a newborn in 1975 and promised he’d be the best father possible. He had a daughter, Andrea, in 1977. But in 1978, after Luis and his first wife broke up, he became estranged from his children. Other marriages and lived-in relationships failed as well.
By 25, Luis stopped working in industry—which by then was mostly leaving Los Angeles, the country’s largest manufacturing center, and other U.S. cities in a de-industrialization process with the rapid introduction of new technology and the opening up of global cheap labor markets. In early 1980, he tried his hand as a writer/photographer for weekly East Los Angeles newspapers, including the Eastside Sun, for far less pay then his previous jobs. He also managed creative writing, journalism and speech classes at East Los Angeles Community College. That summer, he took part in the Summer Program for Minority Journalists, held at the University of California, Berkeley. He covered news in the San Francisco Bay Area and by the fall was working as a daily newspaper reporter in San Bernardino CA covering crime, murders, fires, and car accidents--seeing more dead bodies than anyone should ever have to see, and embedded in DEA, Sheriff's, and SWAT drug raids and battles. He also freelanced pieces for the L.A. Weekly, Catholic Agitator, California Public Radio, KPFK-FM, and other media outlets. In addition, Luis wrote poetry and fiction, having later worked as director of the L.A. Latino Writers Association (and briefly as editor of ChismeArte literary and art magazine) and was the poetry curator for Galeria Ocaso in Echo Park, founded by his mentor and friend, Manual “Manazar” Gamboa.
In the early 1980s Luis wrote freelanced articles involving indigenous uprisings and farm worker land takeovers in Mexico--including the Zapoteco Native uprising in Juchitan, Oaxaca and Mixteco Natives organizing while practically enslaved in tomato fields of San Quentin, Baja California. He also visited Nicaragua and southern Honduras during the Contra Wars in 1982. In one risky reportage adventure, Luis was shot at by high-powered weapons and bombed twice (although not hit) with CIA-financed arms. At home, he won a journalism award for an LA Weekly piece on immigration raids in elementary schools, which often left children alone and bewildered as their parents were rounded up. This reportage assisted in the national debate to end such raids, and to end using police in cities like Los Angeles as agents of the federal immigration authorities.
Nonetheless, Luis was blacklisted from working in daily newspapers for his radical politics by the editor of the San Bernardino Sun after he exposed the police murder of an unarmed homeless man. Luis then became a Public Affairs Associate for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFL-CIO)—also participating in the largest union representation election in U.S. history at the time, representing mostly clerical workers in the University of California system. He was quoted in the front page of the New York Times in defense of comparable pay for women. He also traveled around the country helping other union campaigns, including in a union battle in Miami, in a Right-to-Work state, that resulted in death threats and union organizers getting beaten and killed. By 1985, after tiring of the internal union politics, Luis quit AFSCME. That May he moved to Chicago to edit the People’s Tribune, a national publication linked to the League of Revolutionaries for a New America where he covered the rise of homelessness, massive strikes, police killings, and visited areas like Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, Native American reservations, besieged US-Mexico border towns, and the Black Belt of Alabama.
In Chicago, Luis facilitated writing workshops in homeless shelters for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, and visited schools, juvenile facilities, and prisons for the Chicago Teacher’s Center. He became active in the burgeoning Chicago poetry scene, birthplace of poetry slams. Along with poet Michael Warr and others he co-founded the Guild Complex Literary Arts Center. He continued to work with gang and non-gang youth, having co-founded Youth Struggling for Survival (some 200 youth and parents attended the founding conference, including organizer Patricia Zamora, his former wife, Camila, and his children Ramiro and Andrea, then teenagers), the Increase the Peace Network, and the Humboldt Park Teen Reach, working with groups like BUILD, YMCA’s Street Intervention Project, Latino Youth, the Community Renewal Society, Mothers Against Gang Violence, several churches, and Native American sweat lodge circles.
Luis married Trini in 1988 and a year later self-published his first book, a poetry collection called “Poems Across the Pavement,” founding Tia Chucha Press in the process. He had two more children in Chicago—Ruben and Luis—and a total of four grandchildren during the late 1980s and 1990s. He worked as a typesetter in various publishing outfits, including for Liturgy Training Publications, which at the time was part of the Archdiocese of Chicago. There he met book designer Jane Brunette, of Menominee/German/French descent who has designed Tia Chucha Press books ever since.
He also worked as a writer/reporter for WMAQ-AM, All-News Radio. The station, during his time there, was owned at various times by CNN, Westinghouse, and NBC. He quit working for others after publication of “Always Running” by Curbstone Press of Connecticut in early 1993, embarking on a three-month, 30-city book tour. Curbstone's founders, Alexander Taylor and Judith Doyle, helped launched Luis's literary career. The book was written after his son Ramiro joined a Chicago street gang. Luis appeared on national TV and radio shows, including "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "Good Morning America," and NPR's "Fresh Air," among others. "Always Running" became popular due to the 1992 Los Angeles Uprising sparked by the acquittal of police officers in the beating of Rodney King. A year later, Touchstone Books/Simon & Schuster published the paperback. From then on, Luis made a living by speaking, doing readings, conducting workshops, writing, and editing.
In 1993 Luis also began sobering up through a Chicago-based recovery program and later Native American/Native Mexican healing practices. He had a major relapse on a trip to Europe--in the first Slam Poetry Tour there with five other leading Slam Poets, including Patricia Smith, Alan Kaufman, Neeli Cherkovsky, Dominique Lowell, and Paul Beatty. By June 30, 1993 he’s remained completely sober. Those involved in opening doors to his native spiritual practices include Nane Alejandrez and Barrio Unidos, Frank Blazquez, Louie Ruan, Francisco Chavez, and his Native American friend Katrina Coker. In the early 2000s, he also helped create the Pacoima and San Fernando sweat lodges. In 1994, Luis took part in the Mosaic Foundation’s Multicultural Men’s Conferences, founded by storyteller and mythologist Michael Meade, and working with such teachers as American Buddhist Jack Kornfield, African tribal leader Malidoma Some, Guyana-born healer Orland Bishop; and Zimbabwean-born drummer and musician, Duncan Allard. Here mythology, poetry, song, dance, intense dialogues, and emerging rituals are used to help heal and address issues of personal rage, racial and class discord, and more.
Return to Los Angeles
Three years after Ramiro’s last prison conviction, Luis and Trini decided to move back to Los Angeles, where they both grew up, to link with family. In 2000, Luis and Trini with sons Ruben and Luis moved to Pacoima CA, where Trini had lived with her parents and 10 siblings in her childhood and youth. His daughter Andrea and a granddaughter Catalina joined them after Luis and Trini bought a house a year later in the nearby City of San Fernando CA.
In 2001, Trini, Luis, and their brother-in-law Enrique Sanchez created Tia Chucha’s Café Cultural, LLC—a full coffee bar with bookstore, performance space, art gallery, and arts workshop center. In 2003, Luis, Angelica Loa and Victor Mendoza started Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural, a nonprofit to incorporate the growing workshops and arts aspects of the café. Facing a dramatic rise in rent, Tia Chucha's was forced to move from its original space--in the process it lost $100,000 worth of cafe equipment, shelving, books, and more during two break-ins by Crystal Meth heads at a private warehouse. Stored there was most of their cafe and bookstore equipment. Undeterred, in 2007 Trini, Luis, and Enrique disbanded the café/bookstore as an LLC, turning over the remaining equipment and books to the nonprofit, which is now a full-fledged tax exempt organization in Sylmar CA, located in another strip mall. Since the start Trini ran Tia Chucha's full-time on a voluntary basis with paid staff and consultants—and other volunteers. In 2006 they also founded the annual outdoor literacy and arts festival: “Celebrating Words: Written, Performed & Sung.” This part of the Valley, called the Northeast Valley, with half a million people, mostly Mexican and Central American, with an important African American population, had no trade bookstores, movie houses, decent art galleries or full cultural spaces until Tia Chucha's opened its doors.
Both Trini and Luis never got paid for running Tia Chucha's Centro & Bookstore and Tia Chucha Press. This was their gift to community. In early 2018, after 17 years, they turned over all day-by-day operations to several young people, including those who had been with the center since they were in high school (many are now in their mid-30s). Luis and Trini continue to guide, raise funds, write grants, and do outreach as members of the Board.
While both Trini and Luis’ parents passed, their sons Ruben and Luis had many positive family relations and they thrived in school, the arts, writing, and in music. Both attended universities, with Ruben graduating Cum Laude from UCLA. Luis's daughter Andrea obtained her B.A. and became a teacher, then director of a preschool cooperative in Eagle Rock CA (of my dad’s eight children and around 30 grandchildren when he died, Andrea is the first to finish college). Andrea is now back in Chicago with her children. In the summer of 2010, Ramiro was finally paroled from prison. He obtained Associated of Arts degrees in prison and has become crime free as well as clean and sober.
In 2018, Trini and Luis--along with their oldest grandchild, Ricardo, now living in North Carolina (and a graduate of the University of Central Florida) were given new Mexika names by their teachers Huitzi and Metzli. Ricardo's new name is Yei Itzcuintli (Three Dog).
Luis’s readings and talks over the years include a ten-week writer’s residency in North Carolina (doing 21 events a week), Los Angeles's Aloud Series, Get Lit's Poetry Convergence, Seattle’s Bumpershoot Literary Festival, the Aspen Literary Festival, Sundance Film Workshops, Rock-A-Mole Festivals in Los Angeles, Illinois’s Ravinia Festival, Chicago’s Orchestra Hall and The School of the Arts Institute, Hollywood’s Ford Amphitheater, Associated Writing Programs conferences, national Book Expos, Las Vegas Book Festival, the Buenos Aires Book Fair, the Mexico City Book Fair, the Guadalajara Book Fair, Caracas Book Fair, London Book Fair, New York City Book Fair, Miami’s Book Fair, Watts Jazz Festival, Grand Park Book Fest (LA), L.A. Times Book Festival, Chicago’s Printer’s Row, New Orleans’s Pirate’s Alley Literary Festival, Rome’s “Ikasi, the Barrio, the ‘Hood” Hip Hop Gathering, Puerto Rico’s Hispanic Journalists Conference, PEN International Conferences in Toronto and Montreal, the Heidelberg Poetry Festival, the Sarajevo Poetry Festival, the first “Slam Poetry” tour of Germany, Austria and the Netherlands as well as venues in Latin America, Paris, Tokyo, Milan, Groningen, southern Germany, Manchester, London, and Madrid.
Luis has had his works produced as plays, poetry-theater, or one-man shows at Casa 101 in Boyle Heights, the Mark Taper Auditorium, Ivar Theater, and John Anson Ford Theater in Los Angeles—and the Blue Ryder Theater, the Firehouse Theater and Club Lower Links in Chicago.
In the fall of 2014, Mayor Eric Garcetti chose Luis J. Rodriguez as the official Poet Laureate of Los Angeles.
Luis was told he could do around six events a year--he ended up doing 110 events the first year. In 2016, he was invited by 40 libraries to read and was told he could do at least two of them. He spoke or read at all 40 as well as schools, conferences, juvenile hall, festivals, graduations, and more. Through Tia Chucha Press that year he also helped create the largest anthology of L.A.-area poets, "Coiled Serpent: Poets Arising from the Cultural Quakes & Shifts of Los Angeles," edited by Neelanjana Banerjee, Daniel A. Olivas, and Ruben J. Rodriguez (one of Luis' sons). By the end of his poet laureate tenure, he spoke to some 35,000 people in person and millions more in English and Spanish-language media.
Presently Luis has a total of sixteen books in poetry, children’s literature, fiction, and nonfiction including with Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Seven Stories Press, Curbstone Press, Children’s Book Press, Lee & Low, among others. Beyond the best-selling "Always Running" (around half a million copies sold), there is “Hearts & Hands: Creating Community in Violent Times” (summarizing his forty years in urban peace work and gang intervention) as well as “Music of the Mill: A Novel,” “The Republic of East Los Angeles: Stories,” “It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way: A Barrio Story” (an illustrated bilingual children’s books), and “America is Her Name” (an illustrated children’s book). Audio books have been released through Dreamscape and he has e-books from Open Road Integrated Media.
He wrote a "Love Poem to Los Angeles" that aired on KPCC-FM and the Los Angeles Times podcast with Patt Morrison; an excerpt became a L.A. Times video by Steve Saldivar and published in the L.A. literary magazine Rattle. Director John F. Cantu, with original music by the East Los Angeles legend, Quetzal Flores, created another powerful video of that poem in 2016. The California Community Foundation also commissioned another Los Angeles poem from Luis for their "We Are Los Angeles" event at Grand Park. And Luis wrote an almost monthly weblog for the L.A. Public Library's website.
Luis' poetry books are "Poems Across the Pavement," "The Concrete River," "Trochemoche," and "My Nature is Hunger: New & Selected Poems." Hand-made, limited edition, art books of Luis' poetry were created by C&C press in the 1990s: "Seven," "Two Women/Dos Mujeres," and "Making Medicine."
For his writing, Luis has received the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writer’s Award, a Dorothea Lang/Paul Taylor Prize, a Lannan Poetry Fellowship, the Carl Sandburg Book Award, PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Literary Award, a Chicago Sun-Times Book Award, a New York Times Notable Book, a Sundance Institute Fellowship, a Paterson Poetry Prize, a Parent’s Choice Award, an Hispanic Heritage Literature Award, National Association for Poetry Therapy Award, Algonquin West Award, a Paterson Award for Sustained Literary Achievement, Joe Hill Poetry Award from Labor Day/San Pedro. and fellowships from Los Angeles, Chicago, Illinois, California, and North Carolina, to name a few.
Since 1980 Luis has done talks, writing workshops and readings in prisons and juvenile lockups, having gone regularly to San Quentin Prison in northern California with visits to Soledad, Folsom, Chino, and Lancaster prisons as well as juvenile halls and lockups in northern, central and southern California. He’s done the same in Oregon, Washington, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, North Carolina, Louisiana, and more. His prison visits and work with juvenile offenders have also included Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Argentina, Italy, and England.
Luis's decades of activism have been recognized by Beyond Baroque Literary Center in Venice, CA; Corazon Del Pueblo in Boyle Heights, CA; Get Lit Players, Los Angeles; Inner City Struggle in East L.A.; KCET-TV and Union Bank of California; the Agape Spiritual Center in Culver City, CA; the All-Nations Native Peoples Pow Wow in Los Angeles; the National Hispanic Media Coalition; Poor Magazine in Oakland, CA; and in 2001 the Wisdom in Action Foundation designated him as one of fifty “Unsung Heroes” from around the world, presented by his Holiness, the Dalai Lama.
Luis’s writings have appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, U.S. News & World Report, Chicago Reporter, The Nation, American Poetry Review, the Bloomsbury Review, Poets & Writers, Grand Street, Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, San Jose Mercury, The Progressive, Fox News Latino, The Guardian, Christian Science Monitor, and Huffington Post, among others. Textbooks, photo books and anthologies carrying his work or interviews include the “Outlaw Bible of American Poetry,” “Letters to a Nation,” “Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Café,” “The Spoken Word Revolution: Slam, Hip Hop, and the Poetry of a New Generation,” “Eastside Stories” by photographer Joseph Rodriguez, and more.
TV and radio shows featuring Luis include the aforementioned “Oprah Winfrey Show” and ABC’s “Good Morning America,” but also KCET-TV, Los Angeles, "CNN’s “Talk Live,” National Public Radio, Discovery’s Health Channel’s “Life Force,” PBS-TV’s “Making Peace” series, NBC “Nightly News with Brian Williams,” CNN’s “What Matters,” Head Line News’ “Leaders with Heart,” PBS’s “Jim Lehrer’s News Hour,” Univision, Telemundo, Sirius Radio, BBC London Radio, Power 106/Los Angeles, KPFK-FM, ESPN’s “30 for 30,” and more. Interviews and reviews of Luis’s work have appeared in the Chicago Reader, Chicago magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Denver Post, The Face, Entertainment Weekly, Los Angeles Times, People (En Espanol), The Sun, Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Magazine, and others. For some ten years, Luis has been a recurring honorary co-host with Dominique DiPrima on the “Front Page” talk show, KJLH-FM.
In 2002 Luis created a CD of his poetry with original music by Ernie Perez and the band Seven Rabbit called “My Name’s Not Rodriguez” (Dos Manos Records). In 2010, Luis along with Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural and Professor Denise Sandoval brought the first lowrider bike & car show to the Guadalajara Book Fair in 2010.
In addition, Luis’ poetry has been featured in the C-SPAN's Book World, Lannan Literary Video Series; the Poetry Center of San Francisco State University’s Poetry Archives; 2001 “El Poeta” in the PBS-TV’s “Realidades” series; Rhino Records’ 1996 recording of “In Their Own Voice: A Century of Recorded Poetry” (later from Shout Factory); “This American Life” radio program in 1996 with Ira Glass; and poems in the CDs “From Earth to Sky: A Collection of Word and Song” (2004 Dos Manos Records); Italian Hip Hop artist Flycat’s 1998 recording “Una domanda alla risposta” (A Question to an Answer), recorded 1998 in Milan, Italy; “A Snake in the Heart: Poems and Music by Chicago’s Spoken Word Performers” (1994 Tia Chucha Press); and was producer and had a spoken word piece in Olmeca’s “Contra Cultura” CD in 2010.
Luis’s latest memoir is the 2011 sequel to "Always Running," entitled "It Calls You Back: An Odyssey Through Love, Addiction, Revolutions, and Healing," which became a finalist for the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award. In 2015, Curbstone Books/Northwestern University Press published his chapbook "Borrowed Bones." in 2020, Seven Stories Press released "From Our Land to Our Land: Essays, Journeys & Imaginings of a Native Xicanx Writer."
Urban Peace Leader
On top of this, Luis has forty-five years as a gang intervention/prevention leader in Los Angeles and Chicago. He has been invited to speak and help in this field throughout the United States and other countries. He helped broker peace and/or assisted in already existing efforts with Chicano gangs in the 1970s, including as a participant in the End Barrio Warfare Coalition; Bloods and Crips in South Central L.A. as well as Chicano/Central American gangs in the early 1990s; and spent the 1990s working with gangs, black and brown, in Chicago. In El Salvador in 1993 and 1996 he helped establish the first gang peace between members of the Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street along with mayors of various cities, non-governmental agencies, police agencies, and faith-based organizations. In 2012, he took part in the Transnational Advisory Group in Support of the Peace Process in El Salvador to access, advise and assist a gang-led peace truce between MS-13 and 18th Street leaders that had international ramifications. In 2013, he also spoke at an Organization of American States gathering in San Salvador on gang intervention and healing. In 2013, with the help of John Densmore of the Doors and Alex Sanchez of Homies Unidos, Luis helped get books to libraries in Salvadoran prisons. And he has testified as a gang expert witness in close to 70 asylum cases since the late 1990s in federal immigration courts, and also to stop gang enhancements and the railroading of youth in state criminal courts.
In late 2016, Luis and Trini taught poetry for a month at Our Little Roses home for abandoned girls and the Holy Family Bilingual School in San Pedro Sula, Honduras.
In addition, Luis has also participated with or helped mentor and guide:
- Spreading Seeds/Healing Network
- Barrios Unidos
- National Gathering for Peace in Chicago
- “In the Heart of Violence” documentary project
- “Breaking the Cycle with Dignity” with Fidel Rodriguez and Mike De La Rocha
- Homeboy Industries with Father Greg Boyle,
- Homies Unidos with Alex Sanchez
- La Vita Gang Intervention training,
- ArtworxLA (and the Hollywood Academy for Arts and Media)
- Tia Chucha’s Young Warriors program, founded by Mayra Zaragoza,
- Arts for Incarcerated Youth
- Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted Men and Women and Families Network
- Arts for Justice Fund
Luis also helped create the Community-Based Gang Intervention Model from 2006-2008, under the auspices of then L.A. city councilman, now U.S. congressman (and Luis’s brother-in-law) Tony Cardenas, with around 40 gang intervention experts, researchers, and peace advocates. This model was adopted by the City of Los Angeles in 2008, helping bring about much lowered gang violence rates, and has been used as a guide in other cities and countries. Luis also helped with a House of Representatives bill based on this model, introduced by Congressman Cardenas in 2013 and presented this model to officials in Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and in London.
And in 2010, Luis’s story was included in Amicus Curiae brief in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court case Florida vs. Graham to end life sentences for juveniles in non-capital crimes, which the high court eventually declared unconstitutional.
Starting in 2011 Luis took part in several public conversations with Louie Perez of the East L.A. band Los Lobos and famed Chicano journalist Luis R. Torres in a presentation called “The Three Louies,” at Grand Performances/ California Plaza, Los Angeles; the Aspen Literary Festival in Colorado; East Los Angeles College; and other venues. In 2012 he was co-producer of the documentary film “Rushing Waters, Rising Dreams: How the Arts are Transforming a Community,” written and directed by John F. Cantu, as well as editing with Denise Sandoval the companion book of the same name.
In 2008, Luis also founded Barking Rooster Entertainment to do films, CDs, TV productions, podcasts, and Internet content. Its first book, 2011’s “Detoured: My Journey from Darkness to Light” by Jesse De La Cruz, documented the life of a 30-year California prisoner and state prison gang leader, now college professor. Its second book, "From Hope to Darkness: Prison Writings about Redemption," edited by Tuan "Mike" Doan, appeared in 2018.
IN 2015, Luis and Trini began podcasting "The Hummingbird Cricket Hour" available at http://hchpodcast.libsyn.com. Here they address every imaginable issue drawing from ancestral knowledge with the tagline of "Moving Hearts, Moving Thoughts."
In 2019, Tia Chucha Press became 30 years old. They've had readings/panels at various Associated Writing Programs conferences (the largest writers conferences in the U.S. with around 12,000 participants). TCP is renowned as a leading cross-cultural small press in the U.S., publishing such notables as Patricia Smith, David Hernandez, Elizabeth Alexander, Kyoko Mori, Terrance Hayes, Virgil Suarez, Alison Luterman, Peter J. Harris, Deborah Miranda, Chiwan Cho, Leticia Hernandez Linares, Mayda Del Valle, Louie Perez, and more.
Since 2014, Luis has also served as a script consultant on TV shows "Gang Related" (Fox), "East Los High" (Hulu), and "Snowfall" (FX).
And along with leaders in labor, immigrant rights, veteran’s rights, education and housing struggles, among others, Luis helped establish the Network for Revolutionary Change in Chicago during the fall of 2011 to unite as many practical leaders as possible with a vision of cooperation, justice, peace and a healthy environment for all as the United States faces deep challenges to the capitalist economic and political social order. In 2015, Luis and Trini taught revolutionaries and activists from Ferguson MO; Chicago; Baltimore; New York; Los Angeles; Oakland; Salinas; Mexico; Brazil; South Africa, and more for the Popular Education Project in the Hudson Valley, New York, and Salinas Valley, California.
In addition, Luis became running mate of Rocky Anderson for the Justice Party during the 2012 presidential elections where they appeared on the ballot in fifteen states and were write-in candidates in twenty more—he was also on third party candidate debates with Democracy Now! and Huffington Post Live. They eventually garnered some 40,000 votes.
In 2014, Luis ran for California governor in the June primary, endorsed by the Green Party of California, Mexican American Political Association, Chicanos Unidos of Orange County, PODER of Santa Barbara, Corazon Del Pueblo of Boyle Heights, Brooklyn & Boyle magazine, Chicano scholar Rudy Acuna, Salinas City Council Member Jose Castaneda, and El Hormiguero (The Anthill) of Pacoima, among others. His long-time friend Anthony Prince, now a lawyer, became manager, harking back 35 years when Luis first ran for office. His team traveled 12 times up-and-down the state, signed up some 200 volunteers, obtained around 5,000 signatures and/or money to qualify as a candidate, and ran a highly energized grassroots campaign. With only around $30,000—against the $20 million war chest of incumbent Democrat Governor Jerry Brown and members of both parties with over a million dollars each—Luis garnered around 67,000 votes, sixth among 15 candidates, and first among third-party and independent candidates. Articles on his candidacy or mentions appeared in the Orange County Weekly, Monterey County Weekly, New Yorker, Los Angeles Times, Mint Press, Truthout, TruthDig, KCET Departures, San Francisco Bay Guardian, Huffington Post, KPFK-FM, KPFA-FM, Univision, EFE Spanish-language network, and Fox News Latino, among others. A major outcome was the continuation of his “Imagine a New California” campaign and the beginning stages of a California Network for Revolutionary Change.
Luis is presently on the steering committee of the National Poor Peoples Campaign, headed by the Reverend William Barber, the Guardian Council of Youth Passageways, the Advisory Board of the Arts for Justice Fund, and Board member of Jail, Guitar, Doors, among others. Since the fall of 2016, Luis has been teaching creative writing classes in two high security prison yards in Lancaster State Prison (CSP-LAC) for the Alliance for California Traditional Arts.
Trini and Luis j. Rodriguez at Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural's "Celebrating Words Festival" in 2008 in support of banned books.