My L.A. Past, My Chicago Experience
In the mid-1980s, at the invitation of Carlos Cumpián and Carlos Cortez, I joined the Board of MARCH, the Movimiento Artístico Chicano, and launched what we then called the Illinois Latino Writers Project, with the goal of encouraging and promoting local and statewide Latino literary production. As part of the initial work we proposed, I drew up a questionnaire and sent it to many of the writers I had come to know. In addition to Cortez and Cumpián, among those answering were David Hernandez, Carmen Pursifull, Salima Rivera, and Luis J. Rodriguez. I drew heavily on the questionnaires to develop essays and encyclopedia articles about some of the authors in question, and sometimes I jobbed them out to my undergraduate students seeking to develop work about each writer. Many sets of questionnaire answers have been lost, but luckily some have survived, including the answers sent to me by Rodriguez. He wrote his answers in 1988, early in his Chicago time, only some years after his move to Chicago in 1985 and still prior to his departure in the year 2000. Undoubtedly he would have answered differently on the eve of his departure. However what he says in 1988 may sill have considerable value as a document reflecting his thinking-in-evolution with regards to past and future phases of his life and work. Indeed, these notes constitute a mini-autobiography that serves as an anticipation of Rodriguez’s best known book, Always Running and also of some of the orientations toward poetry and urban processes that he developed in Chicago and which inevitably had some impact on the writing and work that would lead to his recent appointment as the poet laureate of the southern California megalopolis to which he was to return.
Let me just add to this note a few of my best memories of Luis in his Chicago years. First I remember the solidaridad he showed toward David Hernandez and Carlos Cumpian, as he worked long hours to produce the first fully professional publications of their books. Second I remember our sharing a room at a Chicano Studies conference in Holland; and I remember our subsequent trip to Amsterdam where I more or less led him, María Helena Viramontes and a few others around the Anne Frank House — I remember the awed silence of our little group and I remember when Luis stopped at the final plaque you can see before you leave — the plaque which reads “So that this never happens to any people ever again.” I had always been impressed by the statement — I mean Frank could have easily referenced the Jewish People. But he said the absolutely right thing, and Luis needed no explanation. “Right on,” he said. Finally I remember the day he parked his pickup by my house in Wicker Park some time after the publication of Always Running. “Luis, where’s your Lexus?” I asked him. “At the garage waiting for you to wash and shine it, “ he joked. But I knew the book had changed everything. “You’re going back to L.A.,” I conjectured sadly. “Well, we’re talking about it,” he said. But I knew that he’d be gone before the winter cold and snow began. And so it was.
I reproduce Rodriguez’s contribution more or less as he submitted it to us, as a narrative without the original questions, and involving only the smallest number of editorial corrections. Those interested may wish to consult an essay on Rodriguez’s Chicago writing by Raúl Contreras and Marc Zimmerman elsewhere in El BeiSMan.
I was born in El Paso, Texas in 1954, although our family lived in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua. Our mother had three of her children born on the U.S. side of the border in El Paso. It’s a regular occurrence in border towns. When I was two years old we emigrated directly from Mexico to Los Angeles. A sister was born there at East LA’s General Hospital. We moved into the Watts area of LA, near where an older half sister and her-husband had first settled. Later, when I was about nine years old, we moved into the San Gabriel Valley in a barrio just east of LA. The barrio was called Las Lomas — the hills — one of the oldest and poorest in the area. Although we later moved to San Gabriel city I didn’t lose my ties to Las Lomas. When I was 18, I moved to East Los Angeles where I lived on and off until I was 30 years old. My first marriages, as well as my life activities, were based in East L.A. until I moved to Chicago in 1985.
My mother was born in Chihuahua, Chihuahua from a Tarahumara Indian mother and a blue-eyed Mexican railroad worker father. My father was born in Coahuayutla, Guerrero. His father was a revolutionary soldier with Venustiano Carranza (my mother’s father fought with Pancho Villa, supposed enemies). After the 1910 Mexican Revolution my grandfather on my dad’s side became a general and leftist polemicist promoting the ideals of the revolution. He wrote books, lectured, and when he died, the President of Mexico sent an emissary to his funeral. My father was training to be a doctor and biologist. He even went to school in Indiana and lived in Chicago for a time. He wrote one book on biology. He was a high school principal when he met my mother in Juárez. By that time he had been married about three times. He already had two daughters and two sons. One of his daughters died at infancy. One of his former wives died giving birth to a son, a mulatto from Veracruz, on the Caribbean side of Mexico. My mother, on the other hand, had never been married, and never even dated, until she met my father. When they married, she was 27, and he was almost 40.
Early Years in Los Angeles
My father moved his new young family from Juárez to Los Angeles for political as well as economic reasons. He disagreed with the ruling powers in the country. This kind of dissidence meant the loss of work, jail, and possibly lethal ramifications. However, moving to L.A. turned out to be a greater hardship. My father could not work as a teacher or biologist because of language problems and because the U.S. would not recognize his credentials. He was often unemployed, or worked in construction, factories, selling pots and pans or insurance. We suffered a number of evictions in Watts, sometimes homeless and forced to move in with comadres or with my older half sister. For a while, there were 11 of us crammed into a one-room house; our belongings stuffed into a garage. Bitter fights among us were constant and violent. At one point my sister accused my mother of having an affair with her husband. One time she even stabbed her husband with a finger nail file in one of the battles. I tended to retreat into myself, silent, into my imagination.
The streets were hostile. We lived in mostly black neighborhoods. There were many fights and threats. My brother became an angry, broken boy. They placed him in retarded classes because he didn’t speak English. They had me building blocks in a corner my first year of school (I never went to kindergarten because my mother needed my help taking care of my two younger sisters). My mother found work as a domestic or as a worker in the garment district. Later she did piecework at home — what’s called “homework,” a very exploitative job done by many immigrant women in LA. My brother, three years older than me, took out most of his hostility against me. I refused to play with him but my mother insisted — and threatened to whip me if I didn’t. But it may have been worse being with my brother, José René. He threw me off rooftops, threw balls at my head. One time he even tied a rope around my neck and almost choked me. I had rope burns for a week. I turned out to be a shy, fearful young boy. My favorite retreat was into books. Although I didn’t speak English, I picked up quite a lot on TV and radio. I went to libraries and learned to read.
Unlike the rest of my family, I was emerging as a good student and reader. Then it all came to a head when I was six years old. My mother was tired of the poverty and tension living in LA. She moved out of the house we were in, away from my dad. We lived in living rooms and cars until my mother found a way to get us back to Juarez (there were no homeless shelters then). Leaving my father was hard for mom. But she felt alone, with no family, in Watts. One day we packed our essential belongings. My mother had obtained train tickets to take us to the border. We were going back to Mexico. I remember that day vividly. Mama bought me comic books for the first time and even got us candy. It was a special day. My dad offered to drive us to the Union station downtown. All the way there I read and read. My parents were having a terrible argument. Then my mother broke down and cried. The sense of their talk was that Mama wanted Dad to come with us. He refused. He would never go back to Mexico. No matter how hard it was in the United States. Even if he starved, he would never go back. At the steps of the Union station, tickets in hand, my mom in tears, she decided to stay with dad. She knew it would be near impossible for a single mother of four children to survive in Mexico. I know she didn’t want to. I knew it hurt her to do so. But for us kids, she stayed with dad and we never left. A couple of years later, with the help of a poverty agency, we moved into South San Gabriel, a barrio in county territory just east of East LA.
With all the moves, evictions, etc. by the time I was 12 years old I had gone to seven schools, and lived in eight to 10 homes. Although I remained a good student, 12 years old was a transition time. I became introduced to girls and to drugs. Kids were beginning to drop pills, drink and smoke yesca (pot). Some of the vatos even shot heroin in school restrooms. The cholo life was emerging. Kids from East L.A.’s Maravilla Housing Projects were coming in; so were kids from Las Lomas barrio also. There was a graffiti street style. I got drawn to it. I remember the time Thee Mystics gang came to the school. They had chains, bats, knives and home-made guns. They terrorized everyone, including the teachers. I wanted that power. Soon I started wearing cholo style clothes and started looking for trouble. I got kicked out of classes. I started stealing. (I had actually been stealing since I was seven years old in Watts — but I kept most of this to myself. I would go to markets and fill lunch boxes full of toys).
I got involved with a number of “clubs” (called gangs by others) at age 11. I helped start The Impersonations, Thee Southside Boys and later Little Gents. I was president of both the Little Gents (named after a Watts club) and Thee Southside Boys. We had jackets, club meetings, and a membership initiation. Most of it was harmless but we started to have battles with other emerging groups like Thee Ravens, The Regents, The Latin Superiors and two of the biggest in the area: Thee Illusions and Thee Mystics.
The time was the late 60s. The Vietnam War still raged on. There was the beginning of the Chicano Movement (in 1968, when I was 13, I walked out of school as thousands of East L.A. students did in the East L.A. “Blowouts”). But I got deeper into the gangs. The many clubs became consolidated around a few. The leading South San Gabriel club was called Thee Animal Tribe. It became a major street gang, with wars against other San Gabriel Valley gangs and particularly East Los Angeles gangs and car clubs. One major rivalry involved Thee Animal Tribe against a Maravilla (East LA) club called the Sons of Soul (mostly dudes from Mexico). Shootings between them led to a few deaths.
All this time, all my family worked, and I myself worked from the time I was nine, cleaning houses, yards and paper-routes. We saved up enough to buy a small house in San Gabriel. In those days it was less than $12,000 to buy a house. We did it for our parents. Over the years, we added to the house, putting up stucco, painting rooms, and even building another house in back. I was about 13 when we moved there. But it didn’t pull me out of the gangs although it was in a territory in between the two largest Mexican barrios in the area: Las Lomas and Sangra, an old neighborhood surrounding the San Gabriel Mission, one of the original Spanish missions of the state founded by Father Junipero Serra. It used to be an Indian village until the tracks were laid and then it housed the Mexican railroad workers. Sangra became the biggest rival barrio against Las Lomas. The gang in Lomas became my new family. From age 13 until 18 I had been arrested for crimes from petty theft, to gang fighting, to attempted murder to assaulting officers. I got kicked out of three high schools and even dropped out at the age of 15. I ran the spectrum of drug use from pills to sniffing intoxicating chemicals (from which I almost died in an o.d. incident) to shooting up heroin. I had been shot at on six different occasions (although never hit) and participated in gang wars that involved fire-bombings, stabbing people and then in a shooting incident in which three people from a white motorcycle gang had been shot by dudes from Lomas (I was arrested as one of the shooters).
But by the same time I was reading and writing — and that changed everything. When I dropped out, I stayed home a lot and wrote poems and stories on an old beaten up Underwood typewriter my dad had given me. Black writers like Claude Brown, Malcolm X, Don L. Lee, Julius Lester and Puerto Ricans like Piri Thomas influenced my writings. The Chicano movement was paralleling the developments in those communities. I got involved with the Brown Berets, a para-military group patterned after the Black Panthers. These were the key influences on me as a teen.
Militancy and Jail Time
At age 16, I got involved in the Chicano Moratorium Against the War. I marched with some 30,000 people in East L.A. and was one of the first arrested. I was beaten, maced and placed in cells in the East L.A. Jail, L.A. County Juvenile Hall and in the notorious Hall of Justice Prison known as the Glasshouse. I was even placed on murderer’s row for a while, in a cell with two black murderers. I had a cell next to Charles Manson who was going to trial at the time. I was “disappeared” for several days before my family finally found me. But I met other Chicano activists and emerging Marxists. I was influenced by their revolutionary talk. I wanted justice for Aztlán. I wanted rights for the Mexican people, denied them since the Southwest was conquered by the United States in 1848.
When I got out of jail I attended camps for delinquents and volunteered to participate in Mexican Youth Leadership Conferences. There I met leaders of the Chicano struggle in East L.A. like Sal Castro. I met young students who were going back into the barrios to teach and train new leaders in the struggle. I was targeted as a potential leader. Although I was heavily involved in gangs, they said I had smarts and a certain spirit. I even went back to school, led walkouts, founded Chicano youth groups and became a leading voice for the Chicano movement in the South San Gabriel area. I even tried to end some of the gang warfare. I began teatro groups and started a mural painting project involving gang youth. I got training from people like Gato Félix (from the Estrada Courts Housing Projects murals group) and Alicia Venegas, one of East LA’s leading muralists. I painted eight murals (now documented as part of the Smithsonian Institution’s California Chicano Mural Project). In school we took over buildings and challenged the school system’s tracking system and degradation of Mexican youth. But the police and powers that be were also planning their control mechanisms.
Paralleling what was done in cities throughout the United States to destroy the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, A.I.M., the movement in East L.A. was being destroyed. Leaders were being shot; prison gangs came into being and recruited from the streets; drugs, particularly heroin, were widely accessible. Wounded Knee, East LA, Southside Chicago, Harlem and the Bronx...we were being hit from all sides. The intensity can’t be described in a few words. But by the age of 18, I had to leave the neighborhood or face being killed. Already 25 of my friends had died. I even faced a long prison term when police jumped on me for trying to help a handcuffed Chicana who they were beating on the ground. Community members rallied behind me and I got convicted of lesser charges and released from county jail. However, the community center we had struggled to build was being destroyed. The youth group in school was losing its strength. The all-consuming gang wars — that have now reached genocidal proportions — were beginning at that time. Drivebys, Crips and Bloods, etc. all became real, making L.A. the Beirut of America registering more gangs, more gang killings than any other city. When I left Lomas, I became immersed in left politics, joining Marxist study circles in East L.A. (kept secret because of the activities of the political police). Later I joined the Communist League and became a founding member of the Communist Labor Party in 1974 (in Chicago) when I was 20.
By that time, I had married an East L.A. woman, had a family, attended college for a brief period, but mainly worked in industry — a steel mill for four years, but also in foundries, at construction sites, at chemical refineries — while maintaining a strong political involvement in various L.A. struggles and trying to take my beginning steps as a writer. I even won honorable mention in the Quinto Sol Chicano Literary Award from Berkeley at age 18 for a series of “barrio” vignettes I had been working on since I dropped out of high school. But to my great disappointment, in spite of my early writing efforts and recognitions, I found out I did not know how to write. In my Marxist study circles. I learned to read better and write reports, summations, theories — this became the schooling I had never received before. I learned a lot about strategy and tactics, about street warfare and organization. For about seven years, I didn’t write any literary works except a novel I was trying to develop by drawing on my short stories, vignettes and poems. I just kept carrying this material through three marriages, five live-in relationships, four children and moving from place to place — East LA, San Pedro, Boyle Heights, Pasadena, Watts, Echo Park, San Francisco, San Bernardino, Huntington Park, Highland Park, and Chicago. My political work, relationships and family, and industrial work kept me busy most of this time. I still cherished literary work, however. I began to read upcoming writers from black, Puerto Rican and Chicano communities. I read some Latin American literature and opened up to the Beat writers such as Burroughs, Kerouc, Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti. I became an early fan of Charles Bukowski. I especially liked the author Bukowski says was the best ever, John Fante (I remain a fan to this day, although Fante is long dead). I also picked up mysteries and some science fiction.
The world was opening up to me. It took this long for it to happen since I was denied most of this while growing up. Following my first divorce, I quit my last industrial job to work as a journalist for seven East L.A. community papers. I began to take courses at East L.A. College in creative writing, journalism and speech.
In 1980, I was accepted as one of the few without a college degree to attend The Summer Program for Minority Journalists at the University of California, Berkeley, an intensive, hands-on journalism boot camp. When I graduated (as class valedictorian no less), they found me my first daily newspaper job in San Bernardino, California. I mostly covered crime and disaster stories, but I also did some stories on minority and barrio affairs. I began to freelance and travel to New York City, Mexico and Central America. My interests then were in famous journalists like Pete Hamill (one of my favorite writers), Mailer, Didion, Capote, etc. I read a lot of Jewish immigrant literature, new black writers. In 1982 I returned to Los Angeles to head up the L.A. Latino Writers Association and take on the job of publisher/editor of Chismearte, a Latino literary and art magazine. I learned a lot about grants, workshops and readings. I became acquainted with literary magazines and facilities (Beyond Baroque, Black Mountain Writers, the New York Surealists, etc.). I also became more aware of Chicano writers and brought to East L.A. such writers as José Montoya, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Alurista, Rudy Anaya, Estela Portillo Trambley, etc. Chismearte, was East L.A.’s only literary arts project — in an area with almost a million people, the size of Manhattan or Washington D.C. We opened the magazine to people like Jim Sagel and Jimmy Santiago Baca of New Mexico. Our workshops produced writers like Harry Gamboa, Manazar, Mary Helen Ponce, Helena Viramontes, Roberto Rodriguez, Marisela Norte, Naomi Quiñones — as well as Pulitzer-winning journalist-poet Victor Valle of the L.A. Times.
My writing began to take some real shape. I finished my novel draft, a short story collection and a large number of poems and prose pieces. I freelanced also for publications like the L.A. Weekly, Nuestro Magazine, and others. Later I worked as a public affairs associate for AFSCME, while I did freelancing for magazines like The Nation. I became an executive committee member of the American Writers Congress based in New York City and founder of the National Writers Union.
My work in the union and as a freelancer took me to Miami, New York City, Denver, Austin, TX, Portland and Salem, Seattle, Washington D.C., Baja California, Mexico City and Oaxaca, Nicaragua, Honduras and Puerto Rico. In 1985, following the break up with my “third” wife, I was offered to be editor of the political publication The People’s Tribune, based in Chicago. Although I had been in Chicago many times since I was 18, now was the time for the big move.
Coming to Chicago
The fact is that I really needed to get away from L. A. I had turned over my editing work with Chismearte to some other people (who later lost it all — it ceased publishing and existing soon after I left: a major disappointment for me). I quit my AFSCME job (which paid quite well), unloaded a house I half-owned in Highland Park and a really nice rental I had in Boyle Heights. I got to Chicago in May of 1985 — driving straight through by myself from L.A. with a pickup truck and U-Haul. (I left my kids in LA, but they later joined me when I got more settled).
I worked for the People’s Tribune until 1988; I also sustained myself by working in the printing industry, primarily as a freelance typesetter and later as a typesetter full time for the Archdiocese of Chicago (I learned this trade on the job, picking up computer skills with the Peoples Tribune). It was in these jobs where I honed my editing and writing skills and learned about the publishing end of the business (helpful now as publisher of Tía Chucha Press, which began in 1989 with the publication of my first book Poems Across the Pavement). Later I worked for WMAQ-AM All News Radio in Chicago and currently am a part-time news writer for them. And I did freelance articles for publications like Chicago Reporter, Playboy, Hispanic Link, etc. In 1988 — three years after I got to Chicago — I started to do readings in the city’s bar-and-cafe scene. I was accepted right away. I have read in all the city’s reading venues, including schools, some libraries, and universities. Through Guild Bookstore as a center, and later the Guild Complex, I have continued my involvement in the literary scene.
My Writing and the Impact of Chicago
My experiences, my political orientation and the journalism training shaped my writing. It is very real, yet subtle and lyrical. My themes run the gamut from barrio life, to the workplace, to political concerns — and even love. In my poetry, I try to get very personal while keeping the weight of my political conviction. The key thing about writing is to write literature that matters, that has an impact — which will change lives. But only recently have I felt that I have matured in the craft. I am essentially self-taught. I am self-driven on reading as much as I can, almost everyone I can. I try to be on top of literary issues and contemporary writers. I subscribe to many magazines and reviews and try to keep up with new works.
Chicago influenced me tremendously. It is a gritty, streetwise town. In my opinion it’s open to voices such as mine. This has helped shape what and how I write. More imagery. More emotional power. More of a connection to real people and processes. Although there are academic writers in Chicago, this is not academic material. The Latino writers in Chicago tend to have more of this than say those of L.A. They don’t seem to have the urban, barrio realities as much. They have this industrial experience, the steel mills and stockyards. This dynamic of living in a town with large numbers of Puerto Ricans and Mexicans. We have to relate. This is not true for L.A. or NYC where there’s really one major Latino community to deal with. This dynamic has helped shape the writings of Chicago/Latino writers. I am talking about David Hernandez, Carlos Cumpián, Carlos Cortez, Gregorio Gomez and new writers like Raul Niño. It seems to help shape the works of Latinas from Chicago like Sandra Cisneros, Ana Castillo and new ones like Sandra Santiago. It’s different from the folk work of those mainly rural writers in New Mexico and parts of Texas — with writings mainly on migrant work and undocumented experience. In L.A. the Latinos write esoteric political tracts or urban/vato loco material. Generally it seems to turn inward, to the barrio, away from the mainstream: little caring if it goes over. In Chicago there’s more of a sense of what will go over — without losing the original impulses, language or roots. And the poetry audience here is in general eating it up. As far as publishing, this is very hard in Chicago since there are few publishers. But it seems easier than in L.A. where most writing is being geared to the movie industry (and some theatre). I felt quite comfortable and supported when I started Tia Chucha Press here. I’ve gotten manuscripts from other leading Chicago poets — whether Latino or not. I don’t think this could have happened in Los Angeles, and even less in NYC, the publishing capital of the country. There may be other places with more resources and opportunities (Minnesota seems very good right now. Even San Francisco.) But Chicago is definitely emerging as a major literary center in the United States — and the Latino poets here are at the heart of it. There’s very few, if any, other cities you can say this about.
And Now Los Angeles
I feel I am speaking for my people. Right now they are L.A. people, often undocumented, in the street — city folk who were once from el campo. There are so many stories of theirs that need to be told, related, sung and read. I am both a Latino (Chicano) writer and a writer (as far as craft development) who happens to be Latino. In my case, I believe the writing makes the difference. There are many good writers, with great stories, with great experiences. I don’t have to compete with them. My orientation as a revolutionary, and how I say it, makes the difference. I like being on the edge... but not so far out there that I’m not understood. Coherence, even if lyrical, is important to me at this stage. I don’t feel trapped by any of this because I’m using it all to my advantage.
Like most writers — especially those of color — I don’t have as much access to resources, funds or opportunities. I am the one who finds the cracks in the system, and pull myself through them. I wanted to be armed with knowledge. I’ve sat on literary panels for the Illinois Arts Council, the Department of Cultural Affairs in Chicago and have done some grants with groups like the MacArthur Foundation. I have learned a little about using what little there is to my advantage — and I’ve helped others in the process. It’s never adequate. But I have to learn to do what I do, even if there were no resources at all — that’s how important I feel about what I do. Of course, I would have had more help and resources if I weren’t Latino (or even insisting on it as an orientation) but I probably wouldn’t have had as strong a motivation as I do now.
Conditions have not changed for Latinos much since I was a child — except in a de jure sense. In reality recent immigrants are still suffering through many abuses. The economic situation is in acute crisis. Many former gains have been lost. There’s a need for new struggles, but on a new basis. I think it’s extremely critical for Latinos to learn, educate and challenge the system at all its levels. My doing so in culture, at the level of literature is quite an achievement, especially given where I started, but it took so much learning and maneuvering to do so. Latino children are just not being taught. Technology is at a very high level, but few Latino workers or people of color are being taught at these levels. Technology promises plenty for all. It promises the end of scarcity, which is the basis for the inequities in this world. But it’s held in the hands of a few highly trained and powerful people. Without technological knowledge, without this power, we cannot make the technology work for us. Latinos also have the ability to communicate in two languages. This is dangerous I believe. That’s why Latino youth, despite this advantage, suffer from not being good in any language — Spanish or English. We have to master both. This also ties us to the greater changes and struggles throughout the hemisphere. We are a vital link to this. We need to turn this fact in our favor. I see Chicago becoming a major center of Latino literary expression for some time. I see it growing. It is drawing so many people here. We are already considered a political power bloc. Our ties are also extensive — to Mexico, to Texas, to Puerto Rico, to New York... we are truly a center.
Sometimes we don’t see it this way. We sometimes act like “second-city” parochials. But our vision is longer and greater. Again the key is development, learning, craft and mastery — the hardest part. My work can’t help but be linked to this. I feel proud to have my roots in L.A., and my current ties to Chicago. I feel part of something big. I want my writing to help shape and form the future developments of Latino literature; I carry the weight of this not as a burden, but as a responsibility.