Luis Rodriguez: The Chicago Urban Dimension in an L.A. Chicano’s Poetry
On October 12, 2014, word came that Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti had named Luis J. Rodriguez as the poet laureate of the vast urban expanse that is home to thousands of Mexicans, Chicanos and other Latinos. Rodriguez is one of the best known of Los Angeles Chicano writers and cultural activists, and a recent candidate for Governor of California. Raised in Watts and East L.A., Rodriguez won his initial laurels as a rebellious Chicano writer and editor exploring the urban problems that had led him and a whole generation of disaffected youth into a life of rebellion, criminality and incarceration. Of course, his story was one of renewal and salvation, as he heard “the call” to write and thereby rise above his early life experiences. But even with some success as a young L.A. Chicano writer, life became all too difficult for him and his family. Rodriguez became editor of The People’s Tribune, a Chicago-based publication linked to the League of Revolutionaries for a New America. He moved to Chicago’s Humboldt Park area and began his development and deepening as a writer in the Windy City.
Rodriguez spent fifteen years in Chicago. In that time he founded Tía Chucha Press, publishing collections by David Hernandez, Carlos Cumpián and other writers; he participated in countless one-man and collective readings; he worked closely with Michael Warr, Julia Nesbitt Parsons and others to develop the Guild Complex writing and cultural program; he taught writing classes in the city’s schools, homeless shelters, the juvenile detention center; and he provided seminars to young people about his life in gangs and jails. Even with all this flurry of activity, including a writing job he took with Chicago’s all-news radio station, Rodriguez was able to write three collections of poetry, and wrote, published and promoted a book that brought him national attention, Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A., about his troubled youth and gang past in Los Angeles. This text was commissioned and nursed into life through the energetic work of Sandy Taylor, the editor of Curbstone Press, a Connecticut-based publishing enterprise which rose to prominence by producing quality works primarily by Central American authors (Ernesto Cardenal, Claribel Alegría, Arturo Arias etc.) whose writing was linked to the struggles taking place in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. But with the wars waning under the weight of Reaganite intervention, Taylor also sought to enter the world of U.S. Latino literature, both because of his own political commitments and his own editorial responsibilities. He jump-started this direction by publishing poetry collections by Jimmy Santiago Baca, Martin Espada, Clemente Vélez Soto, and Julia de Burgos. He also produced a collection of stories by Jack Agüeros and an anthology of radical poetry edited by Espada. During this same period, Curbstone Press published the second and third volumes of Rodriguez’s poetry books while urging him to work as quickly as he could on his coming-of-age narrative.
Here is not the place to analyze Always Running and its remarkable reception in the first years after its publication. We may simply note that it became the L.A. equivalent of Piri Thomas’ Down these Mean Streets. But we in Chicago know that for all its accounting of L.A. Chicano life, Always Running was written and nurtured in Chicago. Indeed, the book opens and is framed by a powerful narrative, as Rodriguez describes his running through Humboldt Park attempting to catch up with his son Ramiro whose gang activity will lead him to incarceration in the city that was supposed to spare Rodriguez’s family from the pressures and perils of L.A. So, Rodriguez tells his readers, he is writing this cautionary narrative so that other sons and daughters will not take the same path that he and Ramiro had taken.
Ironically the success of Always Running in the midst of his son’s legal problems in our city, set the stage for Rodriguez’s farewell to Chicago and his return to Los Angeles, though not before writing a children’s story aimed at turning disaffected Latino youth from the path of delinquency to one of creative achievement. On this return to L.A., he produced new poetry books, a collection of L.A-based stories, another children’s book, his first novel, and the sequel to Always Running. He continued his publications with Tía Chucha Press and started and maintained a cultural center in the Latino-dominant neighborhood of Sylmar in the San Fernando Valley: Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural & Bookstore. He also published a book summarizing 30 years of work with troubled youth called Hearts & Hands: Creating Community in Violent Times. In 2012 Rodriguez ran for U.S. vice-president with the Justice Party, and in 2014 entered the race for governor of California as a Green Party candidate. Now he’s been named the city’s poet laureate. Is there something very particular, we might ask, that Rodriguez learned or deepened in his poetry that he could draw upon in writing Always Running and in the other books he developed on his return to Los Angeles?
A city, a man and his poetry
During his many years in Chicago, Rodriguez presented his new city as the space inspiring him to produce works such as Poems Across The Pavement (1989), The Concrete River (1991) and Trochemoche (1998). Through his Chicago years Rodriguez attempted to capture his experiences with clear images that he felt were fundamental to Latino life in the city. Raised in Los Angeles, he had sought to use poetry as a means of conquering the world of gangs and crime that had left him feeling trapped and repressed. Reaching an impasse, he moved to Chicago in 1985, where he was finally able to refine what he had already had since age 16: a talent for powerful and gritty urban poetry.
Of course, Rodriguez was not the first poet to attempt to evoke city-life through writing. Dionisio Canas in his book, El poeta y la cuidad, explores some key works of literature written in the past hundred years about New York. Even though the literature he cites is quite different from Rodriguez’s work, the key themes the critic ascribes to different urban writers and their “city literature” are ones that are also found in much of Rodriguez’s Chicago poems. First Canas asserts that writings of “the city” usually juxtapose a more rural set of semantics with those that tend to be urban; that is to say that writers tend to use an overall vocabulary of metaphors and images usually associated with nature to describe the mechanical and technical aspects of life in a big city. There are countless descriptions of this sort in Rodriguez’s writing that seem aimed at pushing the reader to explore the poet’s vision of city life. More specifically, in such poems as “Concrete River” and “A Fence of Lights” from his book of 1991, Rodriguez uses the language of nature that we usually associate with tranquility and beauty to capture the chaos and harsh reality of what he often sees as an urban jungle.
Secondly, Canas claims that there is a conflict between the soul of the city and the identity of the poet. While poets try to capture “the city” in their writing they seem to lose themselves in the process, as they begin to feel anxiety, guilt, loneliness, and desire. These emotions bring the poets to reflect on larger issues such as the social/political order of humanity. Rodriguez utilizes this approach to provide his reader with insights into what it is like to live in the city in the midst of constant adversity. In “Woman on the First Street Bridge” and “Walk Late Chicago,” he explores the means by which one can maintain a sense of identity and dignity in the face of the political and social injustices of the city.
The third theme involves contrasts between artificial urban realities with the idealized richness of something either lost or imagined. In this context, poems like “Cinco de Mayo”, “Always Running” and “Civilization” make a clear distinction between the city’s brute “practico-inert” and those more fluid, post-modern dimensions that only a trained poetic sensibility can fully evoke.
During one of the first readings he gave of Trochemoche, the final volume of poetry he drafted in Chicago, Rodriguez asserted that poetry did not have to follow one given pattern or approach; and that for him poetry was a medium where one could explore and present alternative ways of considering things that are constantly viewed with rigid, unchanging eyes. So, in his preface to Trochemoche, he writes:
Poetry, like any art, touches all creation, all life. Not just the intense experience but also the mundane. You can find poetry in the cracks along a wall, in the faces of friends, in the palms of children — in the trochemoche of our manifold existence. As well as a means of expression, poetry is a way of knowledge, of participation in the world, of discovering, as Henry James charged, ‘the significance in all things.’“
In the same preface, Rodriguez argues that there are many ways of looking and describing things that one could have never before conceived of prior to the act of writing. So one of the major themes in The Concrete River is precisely what Canas points to: the use of a language whose urban imagery embodies references to a previous or lost rural or natural world — all in an attempt to capture the degraded quality of what is has happened in the city. So too, in the title text for the book, the poet implicitly compares a character’s getting high on fumes to the experience a romantic poet once might have justly found in nature:
We aim spray into paper bags.
Suckle them. Take deep breaths.
An echo of steel-sounds grates the sky.
Home for now. Along an urban-spawned
Stream of muck, we gargle in
The technicolor synthesized madness.
This river, the concrete river,
Becomes a streaming, bubbling
Snake of water, pouring over
Nightmares of wakefulness;
Pouring out a rush of birds;
A flow of clear liquid
On a cloudless day.
Not like the black oil stains we lie in,
Not like the factory air engulfing us;
Not like plastic death in a can (39).
In effect, the poet is an urban Wordsworth (perhaps for this reason the capital letters of each line of verse) trying to convey the feelings stirred by deadly spray-paint fumes in relation to the romantic effusion of an earlier form of poetry that has all but lost its material basis for existence — with the aim of dramatizing as vividly as possible to press home the ecological and human disaster that is part of modernity. Invoking his ubiquitous comparison between the urban and the natural, Rodriguez portrays the river as something technicolorized and urbanized to give it a rougher, colder and harsher texture. He deliberately evokes a conventional view of the river, and then manipulates that view to provide a nearly tactile sense of factory waste, steel sounds or oil stains. Of course, the romantic glorification of nature was from its beginning a defensive struggle against the assault on nature that came with the Industrial Revolution. The concern with the loss of nature would deepen in the next century, as, for example T.S. Elliot would move from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to “The Wasteland” and beyond. To understand what Rodriguez is attempting to do, we just might wish to compare the lines above to the first lines of high modernity’s depressing love-song:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table…
Ironically, what we have in several urban texts by Rodriguez, a poet with radical political pretensions, is a kind of Chicano (and Modern Chicago) remake (involving a sense of a lost Aztlán) of the world Elliot began to portray in what would become an increasingly reactionary mode.
In his final and more advanced Chicago-based collection, Trochemoche, Rodriguez uses a similar confrontational process that sheds a new light on things common and simple in the urban environment. In “A Fence of Lights” the poet describes how he is stymied by the way he thinks about the weather and its changes in relation to the city and his own perception of himself:
As snowflakes descend
like obscure whiteness dancing
lightly before my gaze
everything is clouded in a density
as in a memory or painting
while impressions saunter through
as this unfocusing allows me to see
something else about light
how weather is tied to what I see
how what I see is pushing out what I feel
how what I feel becomes what matters (Trochemoche 26).
Here, as in the previous poem, the narrator attempts to capture a moment of vision, and comes to realize that no matter how distorted that vision might be, he can achieve the effect he needs precisely by referring to common things most of experience, like the fluidity of a river or the dancelike falling of snowflakes. It is as if, in Chicago, our Chicano poet from sunny but oh so smoggy L.A. has somehow felt compelled to take up Villon’s medieval trope, “où sont les neiges d’antan?,”/ “Where [indeed] are the snows of yesteryear?” — in a way that, given Rodriguez’s politics, may recall Bertolt Brecht’s "Wo sind die Tränen von gestern abend? / Where are the tears of yesterday evening? " — or perhaps even more pointedly, the poem, “Snow Jobs”, where James Merrill intones, “Where is the slush of yesteryear?”
It is true that Rodriguez came to Chicago after the great snowstorm that cost an all-but-forgotten Chicago mayor his job. He came precisely at the time when greater and greater numbers of arriving Mexicans and Central Americans found themselves in what was quickly becoming a post-industrial urb. In addition to building his own career, he attempted to provide a more solid base for minority Chicano and Latino writing in our city, through his work with Michael Warr at the Guild Complex and his own creation of Tía Chucha Press.
It is in his very first book of poetry published in Chicago, Poems Across the Pavement, that Rodriguez presents the conflict between the poet and the societal ills of an urban setting that challenge the poet’s integrity for the first time. The poem “Walk late Chicago” is an account of a homeless person who wonders aimlessly around the city until he finds a warehouse filled with other homeless people.
Walk late in zero weather,
zero less than a number,
less than the loneliest day.
This is zero less than a heartbeat.
The zero of death. The stillness
Of no tomorrows. A deep, sickening,
Empty zero of a late might walk
In this cold town (34).
Here we touch on the problem that Eliot had evoked to characterize a key problem of poetic discourse in modernity: the problem of finding objective correlatives in a world where as Yeats had put it before him, “the center will not hold.” Metaphorically, the narrator’s inability to find a creative point of enunciation within the city is the death of the poet. If Rodriguez cannot find a place, an approach, a means that will allow him to develop his images, he will not be able to elaborate on the inner feelings that must emerge in the poetic process. If he can’t write, if his images are blurred or pulverized, then the result is death, because poems only live through the creation of images. And yet poets like Rodriguez may be able to find salvation by turning this very conundrum into the thematic center of their work—and this by focusing on the daily struggle against death in the city and finding ways to make the struggle as concrete as possible.
Rodriguez uses “Walk Late Chicago” to present all the social injustices that the homeless have to face day after day. It is his frustration and outrage that lead him to question the power of the city in its misguided treatment of the homeless; it is his contemplation of helplessness and anger that drives him to present such a sharp description of men and women decaying and dying within the cruel confines of the city.
Another poem tells of a man who has traveled across town looking for a job, only to be greeted by a sign saying “no work today.” The man describes the city’s unruly elements which make him want to melt “beneath the peppered sun” as he “inhaled the fetid fumes” overwhelmed by a sense of total defeat, as he equates the city’s elements with a procession that are going to lead him to death:
“Finally too tired to continue, I sank into my car seat
and entered the crest of blaring vehicles,
feeling like a coffin sliding toward a crematory furnace.
The sun’s rays beat maliciously against the car’s metal top.
Sweat simmered on my skin. My breath rose in short gasps” (17).
Once again the city has become a living organism that discourages any reason for living. But, as in other texts, it is this threat of death and the death of poetry itself that, again, becomes the basis for the poem and new life that emerges. In this way, Rodriguez depicts that deadly moment so common to thousands in the world’s post-industrial cities where there are too few jobs for those who need them. In these circumstances poetry and the city never come to any some sort of full alignment, but rather live in a constant tension that may ultimately turn destructive or creative. Here then is the third major theme of his poetry: the inability and indeed refusal to escape the city no matter what and the need to fight against the worst dimensions of city life in the construction of a more welcoming urban context. It is this point of view which separates Rodriguez from some of his earliest writing, and from many writers from the sixties who sought to turn their back on urban modernity — indeed it separates him from many Chicano writers who spoke against the city in the name of a rural-based vision of Aztlán.
It is true that even in his last book of poetry written in Chicago, Trochemoche, there are poems where Rodriguez continues to rail against the city’s contamination, contrasting urban chaos to the order and tranquility one used to at least have the illusion of finding in nature. In this collection, what provokes the poet to revert to an idealized view of nature is his continually frustrated effort to use urban imagery in a way that points to the positive, progressive political views he stands for in his life outside the realm of his poetic discourse. Here we come face to face, then, with the second major theme suggested by Canas: the conflict that arises from the poet’s inability to align himself with a city that seems ever a challenge to the poet’s identity.
The theme of poetry and “the city” in conflict is one that arises from the poet’s inability to find a common ground between himself and his urban environment. While he tries “to capture the city” in his writing, he seems to feel his identity challenged in the process. This leads him to experience anxiety, guilt, loneliness, and desire — emotions that in turn bring him to reflect on the socio-political order in which humans struggle to find some sense of liberation and rebirth. For Rodriguez this approach provides him with an insight into what it is like to be a human and have to survive urban challenges such as unemployment and homelessness.
Compared to The Concrete River, Trochemoche is a more sophisticated and complex collection of poetry that shows the maturation of Rodriguez as an accomplished and prolific poet. But the romantic longing for a harmonious world leads him to a romanticization of history that blurs more than clarifies. Two poems within that same collection, “Cinco de Mayo” and “Civilization,” distinguish between the artificiality of present day society and the authenticity of societies past and lost such as the indigenous cultures of the natives of Mexico. In “Cinco de Mayo” the poet describes the grandeur of the Zapotec people:
“We are the gentle rage; our hands hold
the steam of the earth flowers
of the dead cities, the green of the butterfly wings.
Cinco de Mayo is about the barefooted, the untooled,
The warriors who took on the greatest army
Europe ever mustered — and won” (15).
The poet celebrates the legacy that the Zapotecs have left him, the ability to face a threatening civilization and still defeat it with nature. From this passage there is an indication of a longing for a past of triumph that the poet implies is no longer attainable. This perspective is more clearly enunciated in the poem “Civilization”. In this poem Rodriguez turns sarcastic about modern society and its superficiality:
There are days when sunshine is toxic...
when all civilization is a squabble
in my partner’s gaze and morality is a gun at my head.
I didn’t make this place. So what if I say you can eat it! Eat it
And choke. This heart-a-choke, this diet of hypocrisies,
This horse feed of fed horses (63).
In this passage the poet argues that modem society is a place of hypocrites who feed off their own hypocrisies and in turn contaminate the world with their behavior. Rodriguez is disgusted with the fact that the hypocrisy has become a part of his own life and is all but impossible to offset because it has a hold on his life. Unlike the previous poem cited, in “Civilization,” the superficiality has increased to the degree that it is no longer possible to turn back to a time or place like that of the Zapoteca people. Nevertheless, heroic examples from the past point to the fact that something must be done.
Returning one last time to The Concrete River, we note that Rodriguez includes a key poem set in Los Angeles whose title will later become that of his autobiography. “Always Running” portrays a gang member constantly pursued by the violence and the insecurity that thrive in the city and that he fears will victimize his children. The persona in this poem claims that the city’s power is too strong for him and so all he can do is run away to a different place where he can seek safety.
“So I drove the long haul to Downey
and parked near an enclosed area...
On rainy days this place flooded and flowed...
since a child, the river and its veins of canals
were places for me to think. Places to heal.
Once on the river’s bed, I began to cleanse.
I ran into the mist of the morning,
carrying the heat of emotion
through the sun’s rays” (64).
Much like the boy protagonist of Tomás Rivera’s classic … y no se le tragó la tierra, who hides in the space under his house to find a place to think about his situation, Rodriguez’s protagonist seeks some sort of haven far away from the city, that is a natural space, a river bed, where he tries to find “places … to think [and] … heal.” However, he soon realizes that his only possibility for salvation is to run once again. The hope for some kind of natural refuge protecting him from the oppressive and dangerous qualities of the city turns out to be an illusion; somehow he must find his salvation in the very city that threatens to destroy him. What we have here, so early in his Chicago adventure, is a kind of uncanny anticipation of the drama that, as noted at the outset of this essay, provides the Chicago-based introduction and frame for Rodriguez’s L.A.-centered autobiography. As noted, Rodriguez himself ran all the way from L.A. to Chicago, where, in the introduction to theautobiography, we find him running once again — in fact, chasing after his son Ramiro in a key Latino barrio (Humboldt Park) where not even his father-poet’s rising star has been able to shield the son from the same kinds of destructive and corrosive forces which so marked his father’s youth. We are left with the mysteries of repetition and also the mysteries behind the many sons of Latino poets who seem to make all the wrong turns in the cities of our world.
Some Final Thoughts
During his many years in Chicago, Luis Rodriguez strove to become a poet who could deal with the tragedy of the city in relation to his Mexican and Latino background. Through the years and through three collections of poetry, Rodriguez learned to do just that. He incorporated three key themes that Canas identified as crucial in urban poetry, and he gave that poetry the ethnic and personal dimensions required to make the poetry his and his people’s. Rodriguez is able to describe the urban experience through extreme metaphor in the context of a semantics usually associated with nature. More importantly, he has provided an insightful perspective on the contrast between the artificiality and the richness that nature has offered many poets, but Rodriguez has given it a special spin in a way that has helped to transform the face of Latino and Chicano poetry. It seems all too clear that what gifts the Los Angeles Chicano brought to Chicago, he enriched and developed here in ways that provided the basis for his mature work on his return to Los Angeles.
On receiving word of his appointment as L.A. poet-laureate, Rodriguez was quoted as saying the following:
For me poetry is deep soul-talk, a transformative energy, one of the most powerful means to enlarge one’s presence in the world. Now I will join with the mayor in a new and imaginative journey to make Los Angeles a livable, welcoming and artistically alive place.
These words speak to Rodriguez’s stance, articulated in Chicago, in which poetry not only expresses the disarticulations wrought by capitalist modernity, but also seeks to counter the losses involved in the process. In this light, we might well ponder what Latino and Mexican Chicago lost with Rodriguez’s return to L.A. in the 1990s. To be sure, some of the key writers, Carlos Morton, Ana Castillo and Sandra Cisneros were gone even before he arrived. Over the past several years, Carlos Cortez died, and the Movimiento Artistico Chicano (or MARCH) itself seemed to have declined, with Raúl Niño’s silence and Carlos Cumpian’s ever-more extended silence except for a reading of his play on Buffalo Bill and a chapbook of poetry. Ray Gonzalez came but didn’t stay long, and Chicago didn’t come to register much if at all in his work. Brenda Cárdenas also came to the city and gave us hope, but left for a job in Milwaukee after only publishing a first slim volume of poetry. Luis Alberto Urrea, the most prolific Chicano writer in the city, continues to write mainly about the border, with few literary forays I know of into the world where he works and breathes. Susana Sandoval, who maintained a Mexican presence in the Guild Complex after Luis left, seems to have turned toward other priorities (though hopefully a collection of her work will emerge). Other figures can be named — Chicago Ricans like Johanny Vásquez, Eduardo Arocho, and Rey Sanchez — Chicano barroom slam poet Gregorio Gomez and many others of course; but if we add to this list the demises of Chicago Puerto Rican writers Salima Rivera and David Hernandez, and the departure of prolific and ever more rich Jewish Cuban American Achy Obejas, we might well be talking about the decline of Chicago Latino literature written in English, at least as we knew it in the previous century.
Of course, Ana Castillo makes her returns and more than any one else, no matter how many other places she evokes, almost always provides us with characters and events centered in Chicago. And Alexai Galaviz-Budziesqewski’s Painted Cities, with stories about Pilsen has received positive reviews. But clearly what has filled the void of Chicago’s Chicano and Latino writing is the rise of Latino and Latin American literature in Spanish, as, starting in the early 1980s, one immigration wave and then another have brought a large and still growing number of writers who continue to write mainly in Spanish but who increasingly seek to deal with the city in ways not unrelated to those provided by Luis Rodriguez.
We can only regret Luis’s departure and the decline in Latino writing in English, which has become more pronounced in recent years. But considering the new wave of Chicago Mexican and Latino writers who have been writing and publishing Spanish language texts rooted in and examining Chicago’s evolving worlds, we would have to conclude that, in spite of changes, the adventure of Chicago Latino writing continues. In this sense we may expect that other writers, following Rodriguez or others, will discover and develop new ways of dealing with the city in its processes of change, oppression and redemption.
Canas, Dionisio. El Poeta v la Cuidad: Nueva York y los escritores hispanos. Madrid: Ediciones Cátedra, S.A., 1994.
Rodriguez, Luis J. Poems Across The Pavement. Chicago:Tía Chucha Press, 1989.
_____. The Concrete River. Willimantic, Connecticut: Curbstone Press, 1991.
______. Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L. A. Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 1993.
______. América is her name. Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 1996.
______. Trochemoche. Willimantic, Connecticut: Curbstone Press, 1998.
______. It doesn’t have to be this way: a barrio story / No tiene que ser así: una historia del barrio. San Francisco, California: Children’s Book Press, 1999.
 Rodriguez read and discussed this passage from his Trochemoche introduction at a presentation of his book at Chicago’s Harold Washington Library, August 24, 1998.
 As Wikopedia notes, the poem appears in Merrill’s posthumous collection, A Scattering of Salts (1995); much in tune with Rodriguez’s overt political vision, Merrill goes on to reference Teapot Dome, Watergate, the Iran-Contra affair and the Whitewater scandal as parts of the slush.
Marc Zimmerman is author of U.S. Literature (1992), Defending their own in the Cold: the Cultural Turns of U.S. Puerto Ricans (2011); he has edited volumes on Latin American/Latino transnational processes, Latinos in U.S cities and Chicano art in Mexican Chicago. He is currently developing essays on Chicago Latino writers and artists, as well as stories on his Latino and Latin American experiences.
Rafael Carrera was a student in Marc Zimmerman’s seminar on Chicago Latino literature at UIC in the late 1990s. Zimmerman has been trying to locate him for several weeks and hopes El BeiSMan readers can help in the search.
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