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Rodriguez is recognized as a major figure in contemporary Chicano literature, and has received numerous awards for his work. His best-known work, Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A., received the Carl Sandburg Literary Award, among others. It has been the subject of controversy when it was included in school reading lists in California, Illinois, Michigan, and Texas, due to its frank depictions of gang life.
Rodriguez has also founded or co-founded numerous organizations, including the Tía Chucha Press, which publishes the work of unknown writers, Tía Chucha's Centro Cultural, a San Fernando Valley cultural center, and the Chicago-based Youth Struggling for Survival, an organization for at-risk youth.
Rodriguez was born in the United States-Mexico border city of El Paso, Texas. His parents, natives of Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, had their children on the U.S. side of the border to ease the transition into the United States, where they had intentions of relocating. In Ciudad Juarez, his father was a high school principal, but in Los Angeles he worked in a dog food factory, a paint factory, in construction, and selling pots & pans and Bibles. He retired as a laboratory custodian at Pierce Community College in Woodland Hills, CA. Luis's mother, who is descended from the Raramuri, a people indigenous to Chihuahua, was a school secretary, but in L.A. worked cleaning homes and in the garment industry when she wasn't taking care of the children. The elder Rodriguez, who refused to be dominated by local politicians from the Institutional Revolutionary Party, relocated the family to South Los Angeles when Rodriguez was two. There he spent the first part of his childhood but moved out just before the 1965 Watts Riots. The family later moved to the San Gabriel Valley, and he joined his first street gang at the age of eleven. He had joined the Lomas gang (which translates to "Hills") during their early wars with the Sangra 13 gang (Chicano slang for "San Gabriel").
During the 1960s and 1970s, Luis was an active gang member and drug user in East Los Angeles, developing a long rap sheet. However, his criminal activity did not preclude his participation in the Chicano Movement, and he joined the 1968 East L.A. walkouts and took part in the August 31, 1970 Chicano Moratorium against the Vietnam War. At the moratorium, he was brutalized and arrested along with numerous other peaceful protesters. However, unlike other arrestees, Luis with four other "cholos" (Chicano gang youth) was held briefly in the Murderer's Row of the Hall of Justice Jail, threatened with charges in the three persons killed during subsequent rioting after law enforcement attacked a mostly peaceful crowd. He had a cell next to Charles Manson. He was later released with no charges filed. Luis found a mentor through the John Fabela Youth Center, part of the Bienvenidos Community Center in South San Gabriel, who recognized Luis' capacity as a graffiti writer and community leader. With this mentor's help, in 1972 Luis painted several murals in the San Gabriel Valley communities of Rosemead and South San Gabriel. Although Luis dropped out of high school at 15, he later returned and graduated from Mark Keppel High School in Alhambra, where he led school walkouts and became president of To Help Mexican American Students (TOHMAS). He did get arrested for "assault with intent to commit murder" at age 17 in an incident in which four people were shot, but witnesses failed to identify him and he was released. He later attended California State University, Los Angeles briefly from 1972–1973, becoming a member of the Chicano activist group MEChA, but eventually dropped out.
The two currents in his life came to an inevitable head when at the age of 18, a sentence imposed for a criminal conviction in a case where Luis tried to stop the police beating of a young Mexican woman, who was handcuffed and on the ground, was mitigated by letters of support from community members who saw his potential. Feeling a sense of indebtedness to those who had helped him, Luis decided to quit heroin and other drugs and the gang life, dedicating himself to Marxist study and revolutionary community organizing. Luis also ran for Los Angeles School Board in 1977 in a "Vote Communist" campaign after the California Supreme Court validated the right to run such campaigns based on the First Amendment. In addition, he worked as a bus driver, truck driver, in construction, a paper mill, a lead foundry, a chemical refinery, and a steel mill, learning the millwright trade, carpentry, maintenance mechanics, and welding. At the same time, Luis helped with various gang peace truces and urban peace efforts throughout the L.A. area.
In 1980, he began attending night school at East Los Angeles College, and working as a writer/photographer for several East Los Angeles area publications. That summer he attended a workshop for minority journalists at UC Berkeley, after which he covered crime and other urban issues for the San Bernardino Sun. At the same time, he continued to be active in East Los Angeles, leading a group of barrio writers and publishing ChismeArte, a Chicano art journal, out of an office at Self Help Graphics & Art. He began facilitating writing workshops and talks in prisons and juvenile lockups in 1980 starting in Chino Prison. In the early 1980s, he also worked for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, in public radio, and as a freelance journalist—including covering indigenous uprisings in Mexico and the Contra War in Nicaragua and Honduras—until he moved to Chicago in 1985. There he was editor of the People's Tribune, linked to the League of Revolutionaries for a New America, for three years, then a typesetter for the Liturgy Training Publications of the Archdiocese of Chicago, and a writer/reporter for WMAQ-AM, All News Radio. Luis became active in the Chicago poetry scene, birthplace of the Poetry Slam, and founded Tia Chucha Press to publish his first book "Poems Across the Pavement" and then the books of leading Chicago poets, later doing the same on a national level. His readings and talks extended to prisons around the country as well as homeless shelters, migrant camps, Native American reservations, public & private schools, colleges, universities, libraries, and conferences.
In 1993, Curbstone Press of Willimantic, CT published Luis's first memoir, Always Running as a cautionary tale for his son Ramiro, who joined a Chicago street gang at the age of fifteen. The following year, Touchstone Books/Simon & Schuster released the paperback. In 1994, Luis became a poet/teacher for men's conferences sponsored by the Mosaic Multicultural Foundation, founded by mythologist/storyteller Michael Meade, and co-founded Youth Struggling for Survival (YSS) to work with gang and non-gang youth and their families. His son Ramiro and his daughter Andrea were also founding members. In addition, Luis began Native American and Native Mexican spiritual practices in 1995 with elder/teachers among the Lakota, Navajo (Dine), Mexica, and Mayan tribes. However, Ramiro began state prison terms at age 17 for various violent acts, eventually serving a total of fifteen years, including thirteen-and-a-half years for three counts of attempted murder. Ramiro was released in July 2010.
In 1998, Rodriguez received the Hispanic Heritage Award for Literature. among other awards for his writing and community work such as the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Writer's Award, a PEN Josephine Miles Literary Award, a Lannan Poetry Fellowship, a Poetry Center Book Award of San Francisco State University, a Paterson Poetry Prize, and more. In 1993, Luis also received a Dorothea Lang-Paul Taylor Prize in Journalism with photojournalist Donna De Cesare to cover Salvadoran gang youth in Los Angeles and El Salvador. In 2000, Luis moved his family, then consisting of his third wife Trini and their two young sons, Ruben and Luis, to the San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles. His daughter Andrea and his granddaughter Catalina later joined them. In 2001, Luis helped create Tia Chucha's Cafe Cultural in Sylmar CA with his wife Trini and their brother-in-law Enrique Sanchez, and in 2003 the nonprofit Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural and Bookstore with Angelica Loa Perez and Victor Mendoza. In 2005, he brought Tia Chucha Press, now a renowned small press with more than 50 books of cross-cultural poets, to Los Angeles. Over the years, Luis received other recognition, including the Spirit of Struggle/Ruben Salazar award from InnerCity Struggle, "Hero of the Community" from KCET-TV and Union Bank, "Hero of Nonviolence" by the Agape Christian Center, and as an "Unsung Hero of Compassion," presented by the Dalai Lama.
Luis's other books included more poetry, children's literature, a short story collection, a novel, and a nonfiction book on creating community in violent times. In 2011 the sequel to "Always Running" appeared entitled "It Calls You Back: An Odyssey Through Love, Addiction, Revolutions, and Healing," which in 2012 became a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Autobiography. By then Luis's writing had appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, L.A. Weekly, U.S. News & World Report, The Nation, Grand Street, the Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, the American Poetry Review, Fox News Latino, the Progressive, The Guardian, and the Huffington Post, among others.
In 2012, Luis was co-editor with Denise Sandoval of "Rushing Waters, Rising Dreams: How the Arts are Transforming a Community" (Tia Chucha Press), which in 2013 won an award from the Independent Publishers Association at the annual Book Expo gathering in New York City. He was also co-producer of the documentary of the same name, written and directed by John F. Cantu. The film and book were shown across the country, including in San Francisco, Oakland, Chicago, Pasadena, the Napa Valley, East L.A., and other cities.
He also became a frequent speaker throughout the United States, represented by the Steven Barclay Agency of Petaluma CA. His international travels have included Canada, Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, Venezuela, Peru, Argentina, Puerto Rico, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Austria, Germany, England, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Japan. In October 2011, he became a cofounder of the Network for Revolutionary Change in Chicago, dedicated to bringing together revolutionary leaders, thinkers, and activists from throughout the United States to plan, strategize, and organize social justice, equity, and peace through cooperation, imagination, and meaningful actions.
In 2014, Rodriguez was endorsed by the Green Party of California to be its Gubernatorial candidate in the "Top Two" primary election. It was the first California governor's race using the new top two system in which the top two vote-getters advance to November's general election, regardless of party. Rodriguez received 66,872 votes for 1.5 percent of the vote. He came in sixth—first among independents and third party candidates, but did not advance to the November election.
Rodriguez's positions included a focus on clean and green energy and jobs, developing a Single-payer health care system, imposing a severance tax on oil companies, ending the California prison system, and ending poverty in California. A key concern for Rodriguez, economic inequality, is described in his campaign document "A New Vision for California":
There have always been two states – one ripe for developers, corporations, financial institutions, and robber barons. The other state consists of the working class and poor, including immigrant whites and Asians, African Americans, natives, Mexicans, and refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Armenia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere. ... Here is the California story we can't cover up or push aside: increased job eliminations, evictions, [and] home foreclosures as well as cuts in welfare and needed services in the face of a deepening poverty-creating economic crisis. Which way for California? Which way for the country?
Rodriguez cited failures by incumbent Jerry Brown, stating, "with Governor Brown's budget cuts, his stand on prisons, the ensuing growth of poverty under his watch, he's just another bead on a long string of unresponsive pro-corporate politicians." In an April 2014 interview with Rodriguez, Matthew Heller, of Mint Press News, wrote,
"It's about my love for the state and seeing [the state] being completely undermined," [Rodriguez] told MintPress News during an interview at his Tia Chucha store. The richest state in the Union, he noted, has the highest poverty rate, and the state that is home to the entertainment industry has the lowest funding for the arts. "I'm looking at all these contradictions," Rodriguez said.
Governor Brown has proposed a $10 billion prison budget. I would stop warehousing people (and generating better criminals at taxpayers' expense) and provide rehabilitation, restorative justice practices, alternative sentencing, mental and drug treatment, healing circles, the arts, training and jobs. As proven around the country and world, this is far cheaper and more effective.
On October 9, 2014, Rodriguez was named the second Los Angeles Poet Laureate by Mayor Eric Garcetti, succeeding Eloise Klein Healy. "During his two-year term, he is expected to compose poems to the city, host at least six readings, hold at least six classes or workshops at public library branches and serve as a cultural ambassador," according to the Los Angeles Times.