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An Interview with Luis J. Rodriguez

Published on Thursday, December 6th, 2012

Photo by Greg Bojorgueza

Ben Dolan: Do you remember the first—or most important—moment you connected with literature of any kind?

Luis J. Rodriguez: I’ll tell you when it was. I was ten years old and I had a teacher that we eventually drove to a nervous breakdown, but, she read, out loud, Charlotte’s Web. I couldn’t speak English, even though I’d been around it since I was two years old, I always spoke Spanish, and in those days they didn’t have a place for Spanish-speaking kids. They literally punished you if you spoke it, so I was very shy. For some reason, I would read books little by little, but when she read that book, I got it. I guess it finally came to me that I could get English, and I was so amazed at the story. That really opened up my imagination for books. I’d been a very troubled kid. You know, [later] I got into heroine and the gangs. Books saved my butt, man. I love books.

One summer I was homeless in L.A., when I was about fifteen, and I used to go to the library to get books. I would have books in abandoned cars, in the seats, cubby holes on the L.A. River, just to have books wherever I could keep them, I just loved to have books. And that really helped me. I didn’t realize it was going to be my destiny; I didn’t know I was going to be a writer.

BD: Was it difficult to be a lover of books in that group of friends and culture you were in?

LJR: Yeah. And not because the Mexican/Chicano kids couldn’t get it, it’s just because they weren’t exposed to books. Nobody had books at home. My dad was a very educated person, so he would have books at home. All Spanish books. That helped. Most of my homies had no books at home. And at the schools, in those days, as you know, there were just discarded books from the suburban schools or other schools. We had very few books. Books weren’t even big in the schools. So I was kind of a weird homie; I was a weird kid. Nobody in my family loved books. I’m the only one.

BD: Thank God.

LJR: Yeah, I think so.

BD: Well, I think that kind of goes to the next question: did you ever find writers that were telling a story that was close to your story? Was there a moment of connection—because Charlotte’s Web isn’t necessarily like your story—so, was there a moment where you realized this is my life…

Natalie Scenters-Zapico: …how I view the world…

LJR: Yeah, fortunately I was growing up in the sixties. So, the black experience books: Malcom X, James Baldwin, George Jackson. All those books were coming out. I was very fortunate that the sixties opened up that whole thing—and I didn’t care that they were African-American, I could relate to them. Malcom X: I know what he’s talking about. He was in the streets, he was on drugs, he was in prison—it changed his life. Chicanos weren’t really writing books—if they were, they weren’t known—so it wasn’t Chicano books that I was reading.

The one guy that was Latino that I loved, and who became my favorite writer, was Piri Thomas—he was Puerto Rican, from East Harlem, he wrote Down These Mean Streets. It actually got banned. He actually went to court and won a major case against censorship for Down These Mean Streets. He became my hero. He was Puerto Rican, from the other side of the world, but he was the closest person I could relate to as a Latino. So it was really the Puerto Rican and the African-American experience that most spoke to me. No other books could.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have Chicano books. I later did research on my own and was surprised by how many there were, then I read every Chicano book I could. But no one really gave me anything.

I’m sure it wasn’t being taught in school…

LJR: It wasn’t. I mean, Bless Me, Ultima was coming out about that time and I read that, so, Rudy Anaya was very important for me as one of the first Chicanos I read. But here’s the thing about Bless Me, Ultima: it’s an amazing, beautiful book, but it wasn’t about the urban world that I was from. I could relate to it from a Chicano viewpoint, but I couldn’t relate to it because it was very rural. It’s beautiful, and even parts of East L.A. has some of that—the curanderas, you know—but my world was tied more into the African-American urban reality. I have to thank all those writers for those books.

And then I started reading Irish immigrant stories, Jewish immigrant stories, because some of them had the same kind of topics and themes. I started reading [Theodore] Dreyser and [James T.] Farrell. Then I was reading—I don’t know if you guys ever heard of him—Michael Gold. He wrote this great book called Jews Without Money. It was one of the most impactful books. It was so powerful. It was about these poor Jews in New York City. So, yeah, I moved to reading about immigrants. But again, the common theme was this urban reality that I was living in that these guys all wrote about.

So it really wasn’t so much about race—

LJR: It really wasn’t.

—or cultural background, but more about the reality of the place they were living in.

BD: When did you get permission to start writing? When did you feel like it was your turn?

LJR: Here’s what happened.

When I was homeless, I spent a lot of time in the library. That was my own self-education. It was very significant, but I wouldn’t realize that ’til later. Because a lot of homeless people, you know, they go to the library, to clean up or wash up, but I was into the books. Of course, other people were, too, but I was really into them. I was studying on my own. I wasn’t going to school and I was learning a lot on my own. I was probably learning more than people that were going to school.

Eventually I went back to high school. I went to a coaching center in my neighborhood. I had to leave the homeless situation because it was so bad and I knew that I was falling deeper and deeper. And what happens is you see people do the most crazy things for heroine and I was like, I don’t want to go that way. I mean terrible stuff, you see. But if you spend one summer in the streets—I mean, there’s people that live for years in the street—but one summer is enough for you to realize.

I moved into the garage at my mom’s house, she wouldn’t let me into the house, and the garage didn’t have any running water. It did have electricity though, but it didn’t have any running water, no bathroom. But, you know, it was great for me because I had my books there.

And a year later, I was arrested and put in murder’s row. They were trying to get me for some murders I didn’t do. They had me in a cell next to Charles Manson; he was going to trial at the time. And it was all a row of black and brown guys and one white guy: Charles Manson.

So three people were killed in [some] riot and they were trying to get me and half a dozen other guys. The point was they got us and the damage had been done. I was there for several days, and that was when I started to write, sitting there in jail. And I think it was that impact from the year before of being in the streets and reading all these books. And then for some reason I’m sitting there in jail and I started writing and I wanted to tell these stories. And I think that was my first thing that made me want to write. I didn’t know how to write, I didn’t have any punctuation, but I was writing. And then I came out of that because they couldn’t get me.

But you know, it’s hard after that because even if they don’t get you for the murder you get more involved with gangs. But what happens is that they open up a community center, a youth center, and I broke in the night before and I put graffiti on all the walls. But it was very intricate, it wasn’t tagging. I put my gang name, you know, I didn’t care. The next morning, I came to see what I had done and one of the people got upset because, well there he is! There’s the guy that done all this damage!

So, they just hired this youth counselor and he came to talk to me. He turned out to be a really great guy. They told him, call the cops, get him arrested! But he didn’t do that, he talked to me first. And one of the things he told me was that I was a really good artist. I mean who would say that? I mean it’s my luck that I would meet a guy that could see that because most of them would have been like, throw him out or get him arrested. But he was like, man you’re an artist. You could paint murals maybe. You know, he was a Chicano activist and at the time there wasn’t that many Chicanos like that that I knew but he was coming out of the East L.A. movement. So he really mentored me and got me back in school. I had dropped out, but he says, we’ll teach you how to paint murals but you gotta go back to high school. I didn’t want to go back but I don’t know why I was hesitant, I mean I didn’t have anything going for me. I went back to school but the battle for me was, since I was behind in school, was to get all my credits.

In those days there was no GED, you had to get all your credits to get your high school diploma. But you know, I had read so much that I passed, I did so well, I got my credits, and I graduated from high school. I didn’t do graduation, I didn’t do cap and gown, because I was behind, I didn’t quite make the cap and gown. But it didn’t matter, I finally got my diploma, and they were amazed that I got it when I was eighteen, finally. But they were amazed that I was able to catch up because I actually read more shit than most high school students. But it was this guy that helped me, that really helped me, and got me to see, and he even tried to get me to college.

I mean, I still got in trouble because I had one foot in a gang, one foot in drugs, you know how that is, and there was this guy trying to help me. I was trying to get away but I couldn’t and I got arrested for attempted murder at seventeen but he actually helped me. I got through all that, because my homeboy scared all the witnesses, you know how that works.

And then, a year later, I’m arrested for fighting with a police officer. So now, I’m looking at a minimum of six years in state prison. So nobody shows up because my family had already abandoned me, all my homies are dead. I mean, I had homeboys but the closest homies were all dead. I mean I didn’t have anyone close to me. Or they were in jail; my best friend got put up for murder. So I didn’t have anybody, so nobody would show up for me except for this one guy [the community center youth counselor], and he was the last of the Mohicans, he was the last guy hanging in there for me. And he helped me and got people to write letters to the judge, which was the most significant thing that could have happened. He convinced the judge—he had people show up to the court—that Luis Rodriguez, yeah, he’s a troubled kid, but he paints murals, went and got his high school diploma; he’s trying to leave heroine. So the judge gave me a break. He was like: wow, we’ve never heard of this. So he gave me time served in the county jail, I didn’t even get a felony. I have yet to get a felony, which is so crazy. I think Lindsey Lohan has more felonies than me.

But it helped change my life. Because now, I’m eighteen and prepared to grow up. I gave up heroine. You know, I had relapses but I had been shooting it up since I was fifteen but using since I was twelve. I had a real problem with that. By the time I was nineteen, I finally was out of it and I left the neighborhood. I was trying to do work in the neighborhood but I got shot at by two of my homeboys for trying to bring some peace. You know I’ve been shot at a lot of times but I’ve never been hit, which is another one of those crazy things about me. I’ve been shot at about a half a dozen times when I was teenager and few times as an adult but I’ve never been hit. I can’t explain it. It’s the luck of the bullet, because people say God must be on your side, but my head says why wasn’t God on their side? It just doesn’t make sense to me. But it’s a mystery; I’m not going to answer it. I’ve been very fortunate and so my obligation became: how am I going to do something with my life? Now I had to find meaning in it. So I go through this, I see all these homies die; I see all this terrible devastation, people sitting in prison. I’ve been saved from prison, from death, and from heroine addiction. What am I going to do with that?

So I wanted to become a writer, but it took awhile. That was the best thing I could do, become a writer.

BD: And when you realized that, when did you start writing?

LJR: Well, in order to stay out of trouble I worked in industry. You can’t even do that nowadays; there were all those factories. L.A. is the largest manufacturing center of the country, people don’t know that. Chicago is more industrial, but L.A. has every manufacturer you can imagine. It still is, but it all went down in the eighties. So I worked in a steel mill, I worked in a foundry, I worked in a paper mill, I worked in a chemical refinery, construction, I did all that. It was great work, it was good. I learned welding, mechanic, carpentry, but it saved me from going back to prison because that’s helpful. It’s really sad because those jobs are gone now, but I wasn’t satisfied. I knew in the back of my mind: the writing, the books.

So I made a decision, after my wife left me—I had gotten married when I was twenty years old, my son was born like a year later, and she left me about two and half years after that—I decided that I wanted to be a writer.

Nobody supported me; my family thought I had gone crazy. They thought, you crazy gangster, you crazy drug addict, now you want to be a writer? That’s it! They totally gave up on me after that.

I started working at the East L.A. newspapers, the weekly newspapers. I went to them and asked, “Can I work for you guys?” They didn’t pay me nothing. [Before that] I was making like five hundred dollars a week, but in newspaper I would only make like eighty dollars a week, but I did it because I wanted to work with them. I learned photography, I learned how to write, I learned how to use a camera, how to document accidents and crime. Then I got accepted to a U.C. Berkeley program for minorities in journalism, eleven weeks. I was one of the few that ever got in without any degrees. I had gone to night classes and east L.A. college, took writing, journalism, speech. All that helped me, but I never got a degree. So they accepted me in this program (this program no longer exists), but it was one of the best things that I could have come into contact with. They got me my first real newspaper job in San Bernadino and I’ve been doing it ever since.

Now it’s been about 30 years, I’ve been writing ever since. I worked for radio, too, when I went to Chicago I did weekly newspapers, I did radio I worked for the archdiocese of Chicago; I was working with writing and books. My last job was WMHU All news Radio Chicago, it was kinda famous in Chicago, I was a writer-reporter there. That was the longest job, 5 years; I never held a job longer than 5 years. I wasn’t an anchor, I wrote all the stuff for the air. I quit that to be a full time, crazy writer.

NSZ: There’s a lot of stuff about the book banning in Arizona right now, but something that’s not being talked about as much—and I think is the real problem, in a lot of ways—with the book banning in AZ, and book banning in general, is that the kids that need these books are not going to have access to them.

And it was interesting because a couple weeks ago Jimmy Santiago Baca came to Luci Tapahanso’s class and said if he hadn’t read Luci’s and Simon Ortiz’s work, he probably wouldn’t have felt like he could write. There was a place for him.

LJR: I think that’s so true. When you’re working with kids and trying to get them involved in any way that you can, especially in saying there’s a place for your story that’s valid, and there are people that care and people that have experienced similar things, or are talking even about the same things that you are, I think that’s really important. I feel that’s maybe what’s being glossed over a lot is a lot of these Arizona youth won’t have access and really need it…

One thing that they don’t realize is the Raza studies in Tucson was the most successful program. It was actually working. They are attacking an ideology not on its effectiveness. An education should mostly about effectiveness, are you learning, are you reading books, learning history? They misrepresented it because it wasn’t against white people, it wasn’t trying to overthrow the government—which is how they tried to represent it so people would vote for this stuff—it wasn’t based on any lies in history.

If you look at the Rudy Acuña book History of Chicanos, it’s researched; that guy’s a scholar. That guy worked hard to get his PhD and they treat him like he’s some kid off the street trying to write. So, that’s what they don’t realize, the effectiveness [of the Raza studies] with those kids. They had the lowest dropout rate compared to other kids and they were into school.

That’s the problem with Chicano kids: no matter what you do, unless you do something like that, they’re not going to be into these schools, because no matter what you say, it’s not them. I mean people say, oh why don’t they love school? Because school has nothing to do with them.

I was a smart kid, but I hated school. It turned out I couldn’t ace all the credits only because I got motivated but beyond that…I wouldn’t do it. I was like most of my kids; school had nothing to do with me.

BD: Why do you think kids think it has nothing to do with them?

LJR: Well because you don’t see yourself in the history. That history is not really your history. And kids aren’t really out of it, I mean they know that. I mean, I’m not against knowing the history of white people in the U.S.—that’s not the point. The point is that there’s so much greater history. We don’t know about Native Americans. Very basically, we don’t know that much about African American history, except that they were enslaved. You know, you only get bits and pieces. The Chinese story—nobody knows how powerful that is. And then the story of the relationship with Mexico and the value of Mexico and its people, nobody knows this.

So you have these writers trying to fix that part. One of the most influential books was a guy named Raul Morín. He wrote this book, Among The Valiant, which is based on the fact that Mexicans are the one ethnic group that won the most congressional medals of honor in World War II than any other ethnic group. Well that’s good to know that, I’m not saying we’re better than anybody but that’s just good to know. Because Mexicans were trying to prove themselves, they fought hard. Because every time I saw a movie about WWII or Vietnam it never had a Latino in it or he was always the scared guy. And I’ve talked to Chicano Vietnam vets; we were the first ones they sent out just like the African Americans, just like the poor White guys.

Once there was a march in Chicago, a veteran’s march. The first part was these guys in suits, they were all air force and navy, you know, and even some of the higher ups, and they were almost all white. Then you get the point me coming in, these guys were all ethnic and so many were in wheel chairs, and there were some poor white guys there too, you know what I’m sayin’. But still, it was like wow these people told a story. They were willing to die and go beyond anybody else to keep this country, Mexicans were right at the heart of it but nobody told us. Nobody told us, you know what I mean?

I think what’s important: Raul Morín, Rudy Acuña—all of them—had to fill in that vacuum and those are the books that they’re banning. The books that fill in the story and that’s why those kids don’t want to go to school.

Even though, to my understanding, they’re trying to make it more multicultural, they’re going to kill the heart of it. Those schools are 70-80 percent Mexican/Latino/Central American. Of course, we need a more multicultural education but it should be geared to their history and it should be in the context of other people’s contributions. You can’t take away what their contributions are. So they’re gutting everything and they’re making it so kids don’t want to go to school. And then they’re going to blame the kids, because we always got blamed for not wanting to go to school.

You don’t know how many times I’ve heard: oh, Mexicans don’t want to go to school—that’s not true. Or, oh Mexicans can’t learn—that’s not true. But you’re making it so we have to jump a lot of hurdles just to know who we are. Of course we’re not going to want to go to school.

So that’s what Arizona represents. Going back to a time when kids didn’t want to go to school.

BD: That’s really interesting. It’s not only causing kids to be disinterested, but its causing kids to totally disconnect from school, from a place, where they could learn anything, you know math, something not cultural…

LJR: Even math! Here’s the thing, you know the movie Stand and Deliver, about Garfield HS in East LA? Worst school. The school was going to lose its accreditation. Kids have the worst records. This one guy comes in, Jaime Escalante, he was a math teacher. He could have been a boring teacher, but he recognized a couple of things. First of all, he understood that in Latin America they study math differently. It’s more interesting; it’s more visual. He also recognized these were Mexican kids, even Mayans and Aztecs were mathematicians, they were really amazing. Of course, that doesn’t get talked about. He was telling them about the Mayan math system—that interested kids. And then he was getting them through that to get them to calculus. He eventually had that school become one of the best math schools in all LA, just because he related culturally.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.