Luis Rodriguez

Photo: www.latinopia.com

San Diego, CA

Sometime ago, I saw author Luis J. Rodriguez speak at the San Diego City College International Book Fair and came away inspired to continue my own writing and to fight for social justice. 

Rodriguez closed this year's SDCC Book Fair when he took the Saville Theater stage at 4:30 pm. The theater, which seats several hundred people, was standing room only. Most attendees were young Latinos, with a significant black, white, and Asian presence. Rodriguez appeals to people across race because his work affirms pain that affects all these communities, like incarceration, violence, and addiction. 

During the question and answer session, the first person to speak was a woman who could barely hold her tears back as she spoke about the pain of watching one's children follow in the same wrongful steps as the parents. This is an experience that Rodriguez has first-hand experience in. After he himself had been a heroin addict and had served a prison term which he finished at 19, his son Ramiro went on to join the gang life. 

Ramiro's sentence was longer than Rodriguez's. Ramiro did over ten years of prison in Illinois. Afterward, Rodriguez, tried everything possible to keep Ramiro from staying in the gang life, and he failed. But his son finally got the message that his father tried to instill in him about seven years into his prison term. According to Rodriguez, Ramiro wrote him a letter telling him so. 

Still during the Q and A, the stories of people with similar experiences poured out, each emphasizing how Rodriguez's work heals and encourages. Rodriguez reminded us that it is very important to not give up on the lost youths in our families and communities because this is the type of support that helps them pull through in the end. Rodriguez and his family supported Ramiro from start to finish during his prison term. 

The searingly painful experience of failing to keep one's children from joining gangs or becoming addicts is only one of very difficult, visceral subjects that Rodriguez tackles in his new book, It Calls You Back. Another taboo he discussed, associated to his family history, was incest. In later life, Rodriguez discovered that his father had sexually molested his two younger sisters. 

Rodriguez spoke well into an hour. He had a lot of important things to say and we were an eager and captive audience. At least half a dozen times, Rodriguez was interrupted by spontaneous applause. 

After he had learned that his father had incested his sisters, Rodriguez felt a lot of rage and hatred as well as a sense of misplaced guilt. After all, during the time that his sisters had been molested, Rodriguez was locked up in prison. He later reproached himself for not having been home to "protect his sisters." Tonight Rodriguez showed us that his depth as a human being traverses a wide spectrum of human emotion, from rage to hatred and finally to forgiveness. 

When his father was on his death bed, his mother called Rodriguez on the phone to say his last words to his father. Rodriguez explained to us that he didn't know what to say. Personally, I wanted for Rodriguez to tell us that he had grabbed the phone speaker and told his father that he hated him. 

But before Rodriguez put the phone in his hands he said that thought about the forces that give us our parents. He talked about how these forces are mysterious and more powerful than anything we could imagine, therefore suggesting that it was not his place to judge his father.
"So I said to him something that he had never said to us: 'I love you father',"  narrated Rodriguez.

Afterward, his mother told him  that those words had done something to his father, impacted him some way as he said them. 

Watching Rodriguez inspired me on many levels. Not only is Rodriguez a great writer, he's also a man that takes an active role in healing communities. Rodriguez, along with his wife Trini Rodriguez, run a "centro cultural and bookstore" in the northeast San Fernando Valley, called Tia Chucha's. Rodriguez is convinced that art is not a luxury, but instead a life-saving force. 

In a brief video he showed before his talk, wherein he promotes an upcoming project, he asserts: "Artists are not special people. All people are special types of artists." Meantime, in the video there is footage of performing theater troupes, poets, musicians, painters, dancers, all working in classrooms, local cultural centers like Tia Chucha's, and the streets and community venues in the hearts of their communities. After the video, Rodriguez told us about a girl who embodies his convictions about art. 

"We started Tia Chucha's in the San Fernando Valley ten years ago. My wife is from there and when she left, twenty years ago there was nothing. No cultural centers, no movie houses, no museums, nothing. Then when we settled there ten years ago there was still nothing! One day, soon after we opened [Tía Chucha´s] up, we learned that a fourteen year old girl was walking around looking for a place to kill herself. Then she heard the Aztec drums coming from Tía Chucha's which aroused her curiosity and led her to the center. She ended up joining the danza Azteca, learning rituals, the language, traditions. A few months later, as we all sat in a circle telling our stories and those of how we had come to the group, she told us that story. We all cried and she cried." 

His new book, It Calls You Back is filled with stories like these. The book is the sequel to his much acclaimed Always Running. Always Running ends as he realizes that his next challenge is to save Rodrigo from joining a gang. It Calls You Back catapults us through Ramiro's descent into gang and prison life, through the strife that Rodriguez and Rodrigo face with each other, and finally to the day when his son finally regains his freedom. And all of it is real...

...as real as Rodriguez himself, who was dressed tonight in an all black suit, gray-haired, large jaw, and big body. He took me, and others, out of our complacency, our alienation, and our despair, to a terrain of hope and community that is possible through art, family, and community.

Rodriguez joined a gang at 11. By the time he was 19, 25 of his fellow gang members (many of them his good friends) had died. At that age, he also finished a prison term, was freed, and had important choices to make in his life. He was already married and his first child had been born. It was 1977.

"Once you quit a gang. What is there left? I'll tell you what was left at that time. Industry. Do you know what I mean? When people think of the Rust Belt they don't think about Los Angeles, but at that time, Los Angeles was the largest industrial city in the country."

Rodriguez gave up gangs and heroin and began working in a steel mill. Already, though, literature was in Rodriguez's blood. All throughout his life in gangs, he had been an avid reader. This image of Rodriguez: hard gang banger who took time out to visit the library and check out books was ironic to the point of humor. 

"Does anyone remember Charlotte's Web here?" Rodriguez asked the audience, and many people rose their hands.

"I learned to read reading. I read Charlotte's Web 17 times," Rodriguez told us. 

After some time working in the steel mill, where each day her performed very dangerous work, he quit because what he really wanted to do was to write. 

"That's when my family really quit on me. I mean, it had been one thing to join a gang, then another to use heroin, but to want to become a writer?," said Rodriguez with a hint of irony and humor. 

Rodriguez showed up at a local newspaper, simply saying, "I want to be a writer," and he was given a job. 

"It didn't pay much, but that didn't matter. I was into it," Rodriguez said, provoking yet more laughs. 

Rodriguez, though, had not started writing when he started at the newspaper. In fact, he had been writing during his entire time at the steel mill. 

"Pretty soon I had many, many poems and a book written." 

In addition to writing, Rodriguez has always been interested in social justice. One time, still in his early twenties, he went to Mexico to report on political uprisings. 

"There were a lot of uprising in Mexico in the 80's," he reported. 

He ended up in Juchitán, Oaxaca.

"I went there to write about the movements, but ended up getting involved. You know how that is. Like everybody else who goes, once I was in Mexico, I wanted to stay. You know how that is. You just think to yourself. Forget America!"

Rodriguez worked with Zapotecs and Mixtecs in Oaxaca.

"I had a wife and, by then, two children back in the United States, but I really wanted to stay. I talked about it with my companieros in Juchitán.

Viva Luis!


Laid Off

A few days ago, I was laid off by Godzilla. I was t-boned by the news.

It was Friday, and clocked in to work a little before 8:30am. I put on my uniform and twenty minutes later, I had just lifted a large square of wood towards an open second floor, where Cipriano pulled it and stored it; when Donny called me.

"Pull your gloves off and come with me," he ordered.

The first thing that ran through my mind was that, since I am hurt and not following directions not to lift things, I was going to be put to work in the office. Instead of going upstairs, though, Donny led me to a conference room on the first floor.

He opened the door, invited me to take a seat, and said, "Josh wants to talk to you. He called the meeting."

"Okay," I replied, and began wondering what in the heck he could want.

I sat there across Donny for nearly ten minutes, each one making me more apprehensive than the last. I tried to force myself to remain cool, in case he was going to come in hostilely.

I felt better when the door opened and Mary, his wife, came in. She was joining the meeting and I remembered our pleasant Holiday party conversation, as well as her poise when it came time to figure out how to distribute the presents.

Josh followed her and after they had settled in, the boss went straight to business.

"Tomás, we are letting you go because of a slowdown in the industry. Being things as they are, we have to start cutting down, beginning at the bottom of the rung," he announced.

I did not know how to respond to that, other than an accepting "okay." That is what I said.

"I hate to lose you. I think you are a great.  worker. We are sending you away with a letter of recommendation to help you find your next job."

"Okay," I repeated.

How do you answer to these things if it is your interest not to lose your job? Is there anything you can say to buy time or to force the boss to reconsider letting you go in particular. There are, but for me they only came in hindsight.

After some pleasant talk, Josh handed me my file, and he and Mary shook my hand and wished me luck as they walked out.

Now Donny, in charge of these things, went to work. It was his task to see me out.

We walked back to the shop and he ordered me to go to my locker and get my things. By the way, just after Josh had left, Donny told me he had no idea that is what Josh wanted me for.

Upstairs in the lounge, I found a sturdy black plastic  Staples bag and threw all of my things in there: sneakers and toiletries. When I returned downstairs, I was not even given a chance to stay goodbye to my co-workers.

"I am sorry. It's company policy. I do not mean to be rude, and I have another meeting now with Josh," he explained.

I walked towards my car in a daze, each step taking me farther from the dark slits between the shop curtains and doors; the same ones that helped me feel at home each time I arrived to work the past year.


Yeah, I said it!


I am a member of the Pilgrim United Church of Christ, in Carlsbad, CA, since February 2010. PUCC is an Open and  Affirming member (meaning that our doors are open and affirming of people from the Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, Queer, etcetera--LGBTQ-- community) member of the UCC, with a progressive theology and a commitment to social justice. Since the summer of 2012, I edit the church newsletter,  Pilgrim's Progress. This month, I am debuting a monthly column I will call Yeah, I Said It!. This month's column, "50 Great Days," is a critique and proposal of the UCC's national Earth Day initiative. The column is published here verbatim to the version in the actual newsletter.

50 Great Days

Earth Day is in April, and with the holiday comes lip service and token activism on behalf of Nature. Everyone pretends to be an environmentalist for a day. The California Lotto made the occasion into a marketing campaign: “Win the, Lotto Host Earth Day.” My jingle would have been, “Win the Lotto, Create a Civil Disobedience Legal Fund.”
Being the predictable, politically correct, liberal church that we are, the United Church of Christ just had to have its own Earth Day initiative. The three embarrassingly safe goals of our “Mission 4/1 Earth: 50 Great Days” are to 1) perform one million hours of “engaged Earth care” 2) plant more than 100,000 trees, and 3) write and send more than 100,000 advocacy letters.
All these goals are well and good but they fall far below the litmus test of what we our apocalyptic moment in history requires of us. These goals are cosmetic and only assuage our guilt and stroke our egos. They do not address the fact that we are far above the tipping point of 350 parts per million of atmospheric carbon dioxide when climate change became catastrophic and irreversible. They do not address the fact that energy corporations are hell-bent on extracting every last bit of natural resources before the Earth finally collapses; that, for them, the environment’s disintegration is a business opportunity and they will not be squeamish about capitalizing to the fullest. 

You and I, shrouded in our self-righteous liberal, progressive, liberation theologies just. Don’t. Get. It. But we will. We’ll get it where it hurts us the most. When the time comes, it will swipe our comfort from us, our security and we will cry and kick like infants.
I am ashamed of my United Church of Christ as well as of my local Pilgrim UCC; the latter for instituting safety and harmlessness, the former for going along and letting it pass. Religion, faith, is for adults, and we are acting like children!

Goal 4 is missing: Identify a local issue and prepare a civil disobedience action around it. Select 2% of the congregation, its leadership automatically included, to volunteer in it. Prepare to be arrested. Us Pilgrims don´t need to wait for national leadership to endorse this. It is not too late to do something like this and set the moral example, not just for the remaining UCC, but for the local community at large. The body politic needs air, oxygen, CPR, and we have an opportunity to provide it. Let’s not let it perish. This is why we are Pilgrims!
Sierra Club fights Keystone XL with Civil Disobedience. Photo: http://www.hcn.org/issues/45.3/sierra-club-fights-keystone-xl-with-civil-disobedience
Our civil disobedience action need not be self-destructive in any way. It is an act of moral courage and survival. We are standing up for the earth that gives us life and which God left in our care, fully expecting us to honor his gift. Congregational leadership goes first, followed by the best-heeled of our congregants who will be able to withstand the financial consequences of the action. Less well-heeled congregants go next but they are supported by a congregation-sponsored legal fund to protect them from further economic hardship. 

The full-scale of legal and economic consequences are weighed for the purpose of preparation, and not as a preliminary exercise to decide whether to do it or not. No. We research, prepare, and do! Once we are prepared, we invite allies and show them the map we have created. 

Now that sounds like a “50 great days!”