From gangs to art

Luis Rodriguez

Luis Rodriguez’ Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A. is a memoir of the years he spent as a gang member in East Los Angeles. He’ll give a free talk and reading, “Hearts & Hands: Creating Community in Troubled Times,” 7 p.m., March 22, at the McKinley Arts and Culture Center, 925 Riverside Drive.

Are you in contact with the Los Angeles gang world?

I’m definitely in touch with kids involved with gangs and with agencies working with gang members.

What is it that people find appealing about being in a gang?

It’s hard to explain. When you look at kids who are willing to risk their own lives and freedom, then they must be looking for something very meaningful there because, otherwise, why would you do that? Generally it’s because nothing’s meaningful to them outside that world. The world that’s valuable to most people is not that valuable to people who are very poor … and [who] don’t have a lot of confidence in the future. A gang seems to have all the excitement and intensity, the possibility that you might actually die for something, instead of living your life and not knowing why. And I think the problem is that so many people around us work very hard, and it just doesn’t seem to be resulting in much. … [They] work very hard for very little, and some kids are thinking “Why should I do this? Isn’t there something better?” And of course, there is something better, but the options don’t seem to be there for them, so the gang fills those empty spaces that they have.

As a former gang member, you’ve refocused your energies on art and writing. Do you see other people coming out of gangs doing that too?

Yeah, I think that’s the way out. I think there are five ways to help people out of gangs and drugs and violence and suicide and all that. One of them is to find your art. And I’m saying that everybody has a potential destiny or a calling or a purpose or a passion. People should find what it is because it’s really the thing that’s going to save them. I’ve talked to people who [say] music has saved them. Or poetry and writing and dance. … They also need to find help. Most of them don’t know where to look, and when it does come they usually turn away from it. … They also need to find a cause, something bigger than themselves—their families, their churches, anything to better their community. … And they also need to find a spiritual path, which is something that’s missing in a lot of their lives, but when you think about it, these kids seem to be on a spiritual quest. In a gang, they really take on a lot of spiritual symbology. And then the last thing I tell them is, you have to learn to own your own life. That’s the hard part because what happens when you join a gang when you’re a young kid is you’ve gotta keep throwing your life behind somebody else. … Owning your own life means you start shaping your life. You determine the choices that are going to allow you to live that life you were meant to live.

You’re doing this all through Tia Chucha Café Cultural? (Rodriguez’ café/bookstore/performance space/workshop center in California’s San Fernando Valley.)

Yeah, through Tia Chucha. It was created with the idea of giving people options in creativity and art and media, training people in all the arts, at the same time giving them performance space, open mics, giving them film nights, so they can see films they normally wouldn’t see anywhere else, giving them books. We have a lot of books that they normally wouldn’t get, books about their history, culture, politics.

What else do you have going on?

I also run Tia Chucha Press, and I also have a magazine online called It’s a Chicano … cultural/political/artistic Web site. I also have a novel coming out in April. It’s my first novel, called Music of the Mill, and in the fall I have a new poetry collection called My Nature’s Hunger.