Writer Luis Rodriguez has a way of breaking down the saddest elements of everyday life and making them into a beautiful moment: "I dwell in the wounds of the land, within its fractured history, along the scales of our bloody song of race, class and gender violence," he says. "My songs are the beauty emanating from the ruins and slaughters."
He's one of the few writers alive who might warrant a description as a giant: the author of almost 20 books, founder of his own press and art gallery, a longtime social activist who connects the world he grew up in—the gang life of unincorporated LA County—to the world of literature and poetry he grew into. Now 51, he's put his byline to fiction, journalism, sociological analysis and even bilingual books for children, as well as several books of poetry and a spoken-word CD called My Name's Not Rodriguez.
Like many, he was born on the U.S.-Mexico border before migrating to East LA, where he drifted into gang life during elementary school, as chronicled in his vivid breakout best-seller Always Running, a bracing coming-of-age story set in gritty '70s California. But he left the gang life for a long succession of character-building adventures: married, divorced, worked in steel mills, a gang member, a community activist, a union activist, currently sober after years of partying. After living the first half of his life in LA, he spent more than a decade in Chicago and later toured the world performing his poetry, finally settling five years ago with his wife to found the Tia Chucha's Café Cultural, a bookstore/coffee shop/workshop/gallery/art space in the flattened Valley suburb of Sylmar.
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"Originally we wanted to locate it in East LA," he explains, "but then when we realized how culture-starved Sylmar and the whole north valley area was, we had to build an oasis for the people out here. Art and poetry are for everyone."
His medicine for the forgotten ones is poetry, he explains: in addition to regularly speaking at colleges and performing around the world, he's worked with troubled youths in schools, churches, jails and prisons. There's a weight to his statements that can only come from a certain sort of experience—a gravity and urgency that hold the listeners in their seats.
"Poetry redeems us, even as it demands we own up to the rape of our geographical and social terrain. How can you make up for this?" he asks. "You can't. No one can. There are no political solutions deep enough for this. We need poetry."
LUIS RODRIGUEZ READS AT THE BLUE NILE CAFÉ, 438 E. Broadway, Long Beach, (562) 435-6453. FRI., 9 P.M. FREE.