Brief Biography of Luis J. Rodriguez
Luis Rodriguez grew up in South Los Angeles in the 1960s. As a teenager, he was active in the Lomas gang, one of the largest Latino gangs in Los Angeles. In 1970, he and other gang members marched through East Los Angeles to protest the Vietnam War, and in the following years, he became active in the Chicano movement. While continuing many of his gang activities—including violence and heavy drug use—he organized student walk-outs and protests. At the age of eighteen, he decided to quit drugs and study political philosophy for the rest of his life. In the 1980s, he began working as a freelance journalist, covering topics as diverse as Chicago’s nascent Poetry Slam scene and the Contra War in Nicaragua. In 1993, he published his memoir Always Running. Since then, he’s written poetry, children’s books, novels, and a second memoir called It Calls You Back. In 1997, his son Ramiro (to whom Always Running is dedicated) was arrested and sentenced to eight years on three counts of attempted murder; however, he was released in 2010. In 2014, Rodriguez was named the Poet Laureate of Los Angeles.
Historical Context of Always Running
In the years following World War II, there was a sudden influx of immigrants into the United States from Latin American countries, especially Mexico. Particularly in the 1960s, Mexican-Americans entered the United States in record numbers, settling primarily in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and California. Causes of the immigration spike include increased poverty and violence in Mexico, and the relative prosperity of the United States. The consequences of this immigration spike were numerous. A vibrant Chicano (Mexican-American) culture arose in the Southwestern United States, and Chicano political activists such as César Chávez and Reies Lopez Tijerina fought for Mexican-American civil rights. Some important political causes for the Chicano civil rights movement included the unionization of farm workers in the central valley of California and the reform of the public school system, which activists argued disadvantaged Latino students. Another consequence of Latino immigration, however, was a surge in gang violence in Los Angeles, among other cities. Especially in the ‘70s and ‘80s, with the rise of the crack epidemic, gang violence increased alarmingly. Two other specific historical events are hugely important to Luis’s memoir: the Watts Rebellion of 1965 and the Los Angeles Riots (or “uprising,” as Rodriguez says) of 1992. On August 11, 1965, a black man named Marquette Frye was arrested by LAPD officers for drunk driving. In the ensuing struggle, Frye was seriously injured, and the officers used excessive force to subdue him. As rumors of the LAPD’s brutality circulated, angry crowds formed to protest the police’s racist policies and actions. The California National Guard was called to intervene, supposedly to keep the peace, but over the next six days the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles became a virtual war zone. Protesters did tens of millions of dollars of property damage, and more than thirty people were killed in the struggle between the protesters and the troops. The Los Angeles Uprising of 1992 began in a similar fashion: a black man named Rodney King was pulled over for speeding, and four police officers brutally beat him. After the four officers were acquitted of any wrongdoing, a riot broke out throughout the city, begun primarily by black and Latino residents of the city. Over the next few days, more than sixty people were killed.
Other Books Related to Always Running
Rodriguez’s memoir bears an interesting resemblance to Father Gregory Boyle’s Tattoos on the Heart
(2010), another memoir about gang violence in Los Angeles, though written from the perspective of a priest, not a gang affiliate. Like Luis, Boyle takes a harsh view of gang culture, though his take on gangs lacks Luis’s Marxist interpretation. Speaking of which, Luis makes reference to several political texts that were especially popular in the 1960s. These include The Autobiography of Malcolm X
(1965) and Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice
(also 1965), a memoir on black oppression that incorporates many Marxist ideas. And of course, it’s worth reading Marx himself before diving into Rodriguez’s memoir: The Communist Manifesto
is both Marx’s most famous text on working-class oppression and the book that arguably has the greatest relevance to Luis’s education. Finally, although it’s not a literary work, readers are encouraged to watch Agnés Varda’s documentary-essay Murmurs
(1981), a beautiful and insightful film about Chicano culture in Los Angeles in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Key Facts about Always Running
Full Title: Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A.
When Written: Early ‘90s
Where Written: Los Angeles
When Published: 1993
Literary Period: Contemporary
Setting: Los Angeles, mostly in the 1960s and 1970s
Climax: Luis runs into his old nemesis, Chava
Antagonist: Gang violence, the LAPD, racism
Point of View: First person (Luis Rodriguez)
Extra Credit for Always Running