by Luis J Rodriguez
‘The Big Orange?’
Los Angeles is more of a prickly pear cactus than an orange, cactus being natural to the region anyway. I presently live on Orange Grove Avenue in the San Fernando Valley. From the early 1920s to the late 1950s, the Valley had up to fifteen thousand acres of a fruit the Spanish first seeded in California in the 1500s. Now the orange groves are gone, replaced by single-family homes, palm-tree lined streets, strip malls, warehouses.
Due to years of drought, this past year my family removed all the grass from the front yard and planted succulent plants, sage, an elderberry tree, mint and other healing herbs, including the Yerba Santa (eriodictyon californicum), used by native healers in the state for generations. And, of course, prickly pear cactus, with origins on the continent going back ten thousand years. A friend of mine living in London, originally from New Zealand, came by recently and took photos. I said, ‘Nothing much to see, dude’. He gazed at me, paused, remarked, ‘This is exotic where I’m from’.
I suppose it would be. Los Angeles is dreamland, popping up in Hollywood movies, even when the scenes call for New York City. LA images have blown up on flicks from Rebel Without a Cause to Grease to Terminator. The Hollywood sign as well as Downtown’s high rises with their flat tops (for heliports) are known in every corner of the world. Venice, Santa Monica or Malibu beach piers and sand get prime time on TV and in film.
I don’t think of ‘El Lay’ that way. I’ve lived in the parts of this City of Angels furthest removed from heaven. My story is the story of the ‘other’ Los Angeles.
My family settled here in the mid-50s from Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico when I was two. We lived in Watts, an African American and Mexican ghetto or barrio (neighbourhood). We stayed in several homes, were evicted a few times, and ended up in a tiny two-bedroom house on 105th Street near McKinley. My youngest sister Gloria was born at East LA’s General Hospital when we lived there; I remember the red-faced, tiny infant my mother brought home whom my father nicknamed ‘The Cockroach’.
I have a much older sister, by some twenty years actually, named Seni (my dad turned around the name ‘Ines’, a mistress of his, when he named her). She preceded us to Watts with a husband and two daughters, and lived on 111th Street. I stayed with her a couple of summers when my family took off for Mexico and left me behind. I never knew why they did. Soon after the Watts Rebellion of 1965, her home was torn down to make room for Locke High School.
I started at 109th Street School in first grade since amá (Mexican slang for ‘mama’) didn’t want me in kindergarten until another sister, Ana – a year younger than me, whom my dad called ‘The Duck’ – could attend. On the first day, I went from classroom to classroom because I didn’t speak English and the teachers didn’t want me. A teacher finally let me stay, but she had me in a corner with building blocks most of the year. I’d pee in my pants since I didn’t know how to say I had to go. Whenever a Spanish word left my mouth, I got punished, even swatted by the school’s principal. I made the mistake one day of stepping into the kindergarten class my sister was in so I could pick her up. The teacher slapped me across the face in front of everyone.
And that was the better part of the day. At home, my brother Jose – three years older and known as ‘The Frog’ – beat the shine out of me whenever he could. He once threw me off a rooftop. Another time he dragged me around the yard with a rope around my neck. He even solicited his friends to knock me around (you meet Jose now, he’s one of the nicest guys you’d ever want to know).
By the way, apá (my father) nicknamed me ‘The Cricket’ because apparently I had a little skip in my step when I first walked. In the summers, to avoid lice, my mother cut off all my hair and I became ‘The Bald Cricket’.
Watts was then and now the poorest neighbourhood in Los Angeles. The iconic Watts Towers are here, created by Italian immigrant Simon Rodia over a 33-year period. When Rodia finished in 1954, he left the towers in the care of a Mexican family and never returned. As a child I climbed those structures – so sturdy even rambunctious children couldn’t compromise the cement, rebar and wire mesh spirals with seventy thousand embedded pieces of porcelain, tile and glass. Neither could earthquakes, nor the man-made machines that the city used in an attempt to knock them down. Today the towers, still standing, are behind a chain-link fence in a park housing an art gallery, art studios, meeting rooms and an amphitheatre. In my early twenties I returned to Watts and other South LA neighbourhoods, like Florence, with my first wife. My oldest son Ramiro and daughter Andrea were born during that time, 1975 and 1977 respectively.
Annual Watts jazz and drum festivals have brought hundreds to the park and towers. In 2015, I read poetry at one of those festivals with Ramiro, then forty; a kind of homecoming. Yet even with new housing and a few refurbished alleys and streets, not much has changed in Watts. Today it has a forty per cent poverty rate. It is now majority Mexican and Central American. Many African Americans in the city have been pushed out, especially after the Watts Rebellion (more people were killed there than in any other riot of the 1960s) and the 1992 Los Angeles Uprising (the most destructive civil disturbance in the US in fifty years).
This is ‘riot city’ after all.
With gentrification and other displacement, a significant proportion of LA’s African American population is now in desert towns like Lancaster or in the ‘Inland Empire’ (where Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties meet). Nonetheless, African Americans remain at the heart of Watts and most of ‘South Central Los Angeles’, now known simply as South LA.
I started out in Watts, but over the past sixty years I’ve lived in far-flung communities in and around Los Angeles. From the ages of eight to nineteen, I resided in the ‘other’ valley, the San Gabriel Valley, a former fruit and nut growing area that had become industrialised and suburban by the 1960s. Wham-O Toy Company had a plant there as well as other fabrication companies. Majority white, the SGV was dotted with a hundred or so poor Mexican migrant communities, many named after the terrain such as Las Lomas (the Hills, my barrio), Canta Ranas (Singing Frogs), Monte Flores (Mountain Flowers), Cherryville (for the fields the migrants worked in), or El Jardin (The Garden). These barrios often had dirt roads, no sidewalks, abandoned cars, goats and chickens in backyards.
In the SGV, we first lived with Seni and her family in a two-bedroom apartment, now eleven of us with all the kids and adults. The children slept on blankets in the living room. Unfortunately, Seni developed bipolar disorder – although then it wasn’t called that and we had no idea what the heck was going on. She pulled the hair off one of her daughters and stabbed her husband with a nail file. Evicted, the family split up and my dad, mother, brother, two younger sisters and I ended up in a one-bedroom squat in South San Gabriel, a mostly Mexican migrant community.
These migrant communities began in the 1940s, but by the 1960s there sprouted a uniquely organised and influential gang culture. Called cholos, a word originally meaning lowlife Indian Chicano (American of Mexican descent), the gang members created the now-famous black and grey tattoo style and sported oversized (but ironed) khaki pants, long white T-shirts or Pendleton flannel shirts, small hats or beanie caps. Specialised graffiti covered walls, fences, telephone poles, underpasses. Cholos had their own way of talking, of walking. They were keepers of the pachuco (gang member) traditions from the 1930s. Almost every gang from other cultures in LA emulated the cholo style – Bloods and Crips, as well as refugee youth from El Salvador, Cambodia and Armenia.
I was a cholo from the ages of eleven to nineteen as part of Las Lomas street gang, eventually using every known drug at the time, mostly heroin, as well as getting jailed locally and at the East LA and Norwalk substations, a juvenile hall and two adult facilities: LA County Men’s Jail and the old Hall of Justice prison.
Las Lomas, a relatively small and extremely poor barrio, also had one of the most violent gang wars in the 1960s and 1970s with another Chicano barrio surrounding the old San Gabriel Mission called Sangra. One of the first and biggest lowrider car clubs, Groupe, was born in the unincorporated South San Gabriel community that included Las Lomas. One of the largest, and for a time, the most violent ‘one percenter’ (outlaw) motorcycle clubs ever, The Mongols, arose from there as well.
As an active gang member, I got kicked out of high school for fighting in my first year and eventually I dropped out altogether. At fifteen my parents threw me out of the house (by then we had moved to the City of San Gabriel). I slept where I could: along the LA River; in abandoned cars; in all-night movie houses; on church pews; in shuttered warehouses; in vacant lots. I carried a .22 handgun, both for protection and to mug tourists on Olvera Street, in the original city of Pueblo, or
My refuge, however, was Downtown’s Central Library, where writers like Ray Bradbury and Charles Bukowski spent time. I hungered for books, including Charlotte’s Web, The Martian Chronicles and the black experience books of the 1960s and early 1970s: The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown, Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas, along with those written by James Baldwin, Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Don L Lee (Haki Madhubuti) and George Jackson.
I returned home, against my parents’ wishes, and cleared out a small room next to the garage that had no running water or heat. I stayed there until I was nineteen. In the garage, hidden amid boxes and piles of old clothing and other debris, I found an old Remington ribbon typewriter and wrote vignettes, thoughts, feelings. A youth mentor entered my life and before long I painted murals and got active in community organising. While I still burglarised homes and shot up heroin, I also took part in Chicano Movement marches, protests and gatherings. In an agreement with my mentor, I returned to school, led three walkouts, wrote a column of my thoughts for the school newspaper and studied revolutionary theory. I received my high school diploma, catching up on lost credits against the odds, even though I was too late for the cap-and-gown ceremony.
At nineteen, community members who wrote letters on my behalf and showed up in court, saved me from a long prison term for allegedly fighting with police (I was trying to stop officers beating a handcuffed Chicana while she was on the ground). I embraced the guidance and teachings coming my way and began the process of owning my life instead of turning it over to the gang, to drugs, to crime. By then I’d lost twenty-five friends to gang violence, police killings, heroin overdoses, suicides.
I married my high school sweetheart – she was only two months out of high school – at twenty. Almost a year later I held the newly-born Ramiro and promised never to go back to La Vida Loca (The Crazy Life). Andrea arrived two years later. I’ve kept that promise for my children, even though I had another twenty years of drinking (and rage) issues to contend with. But I was on a new trajectory. Over time I was victorious.
When Mayor Eric Garcetti named me the official Poet Laureate of Los Angeles in 2014, he did so in that Central Library, next to those very shelves I once roamed past as a lost and drug-addicted gang youth, shelves that now hold many of the fifteen books of poetry, fiction, non-fiction and children’s books I’ve published.
Who could dream up this stuff?
If you go to the San Gabriel Valley now, you’ll notice the Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Japanese lettering on the tops of buildings and strip malls. The SGV now has the largest Asian population in the US. Many white people left. Many of the Mexican migrant communities were razed. Mansions and townhouses, for a while, were being built next to small wood-frame shacks. This began around the mid-80s, a sort of gentrification (since this involved people with money, not the poorer Asians from Cambodia or Laos).
This year, 2017, a Luis J Rodriguez Reading Park was created at the Sanchez Elementary School in Rosemead. I attended that school when it was part of the unincorporated and blighted South San Gabriel neighbourhood. Poverty, gangs and even the trafficking of girls, often through motels along Garvey Avenue, permeated the area in those times.
Now the homes are larger, stuccoed. The dirt roads are paved. The school looked clean and modern when I visited. On the day of the dedication I talked to the children – a mostly Asian group, sprinkled here and there with Mexican faces. As a student, I was sorry-ass – shy, bullied, awkward. I joined a gang at eleven and everything changed. As a child, I never would have imagined that I would return in my sixties, to celebrate this space in my name.
After leaving the San Gabriel Valley, I moved into public housing projects in the San Pedro community of the Harbor. The Los Angeles Long Beach Harbor is the country’s largest commercial port. Oil refineries, canneries, shipyards and shipping containment yards abound. Migrants from Croatia, Portugal, Italy, Ireland and Greece made up much of the workforce for decades, including as unionised longshoremen. On the east side were the Mexicans and African Americans. The Vincent Thomas Bridge, the first welded suspension bridge, fifteen hundred feet long, connected San Pedro to Long Beach. It’s also a Hollywood star, appearing in movies like Gone in 60 Seconds, Lethal Weapon, To Live and Die in LA and Charlie’s Angels.
To stay out of trouble, I worked as a truck driver, a school bus driver, a paper mill worker, a foundry smelter, a welder-cum-mechanic in a chemical refinery and a millwright in a steel mill, in and around Los Angeles. I learned carpentry, mechanics, welding, pipefitting, and more.
After that winter in San Pedro, I went up the road (twenty-seven miles) to live in Boyle Heights, entryway to the vast Eastside, where more Mexicans live than in any other US community. This is the ‘Lowrider Capital’ of the world, with mariachi musicians roaming the restaurants and bars, street vendors, taco trucks. I helped turn gang youth around in the housing projects of Pico Gardens and Aliso Village, at the time the largest poor persons’ housing west of the Mississippi River. I also lived in the Eastside communities of Lincoln Heights and City Terrace, including the White Fence barrio, known as home to LA’s first street gang from the turn of the last century. East Los Angeles, both city and unincorporated areas, has the oldest continuous street gangs in the country.
After marrying my first wife in the old Guadalupe Church on Hazard Avenue in East LA, we stayed in the barrio of Pasadena. Then, Pasadena’s Old Town had drinking dives, sleazy diners, boarded up buildings. Today it’s classy and full of street life. The Fair Oaks Park is sweet, quiet, surrounded by upscale housing. But when I lived there it was known as ‘Wino Park’, complete with junkies and drunks.
The marriage failed when I was back in Watts. Prior to this we worked with neighbourhood children and youth, black and brown. We held weekly talent shows in our backyard and film showings against an outside wall of the house. I then ended up in the industrial cities of Huntington Park and Maywood in Southeast LA. Industry in Los Angeles was undergoing a massive shift. People forget that Los Angeles is the largest manufacturing centre of the country. Every industry has existed here from auto plants and tire companies to meatpacking, defence industries, garment manufacturing and aerospace.
Los Angeles doesn’t just make movies.
De-industrialisation, along with the creation of cheap labour markets in Mexico, Central America and Southeast Asia, and the introduction of new technology like the microchip, hit the whole capitalist world. Los Angeles was rocked with three hundred plant and factory shutdowns by 1984. We were part of the ‘rust belt’ that demolished Midwest US industry in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Pittsburgh – only LA was on the West Coast.
My twenties were marked by considerable instability. By age thirty, I’d had two children, two marriages, two live-in girlfriends, a myriad of other girlfriends, drinking partners, one-night stands. I’d been fired, pushed out and laid off. I was living those Bruce Springsteen songs of fast cars, all-night bars, broken marriages and job loss.
My second wife and I lived in Echo Park, a thriving Mexican-Central-American barrio that, again, became gentrified through displacing poor residents and setting up extra policing. I started taking part in writing workshops there with the LA Latino Writers’ Association that also had a reading series and a literary and arts magazine, ChismeArte (gossip art). I soon headed this group with offices at the famous cultural space Self-Help Graphics in East LA. I began my first prison writing workshops in 1980 in Chino Prison (I’ve been going to prisons to teach, read and talk ever since, for thirty-seven years). I also helped establish Galeria Ocaso on Echo Park’s Sunset Boulevard (ocaso means sunset), pushing Chicano art, poetry and song, but working with all communities. Higher rents forced us to close.
When my new wife left, I moved in with another woman and later bought my first home with her in Highland Park, a strong Mexican community. I remember walking from Avenue 57 to York Boulevard where taquerías (taco stands), panaderías (bakeries) and botánicas (Latino stores for folk remedies, medicinal herbs and spiritual products) thrived. But with the economic rug pulled from under it, Highland Park became home to one of the most violent street gangs, The Avenues.
In 2009, as part of the gentrification process, over a thousand LAPD officers, and law enforcement agencies from various areas, raided the neighbourhood with tanks and other armoured vehicles, arresting hundreds, and burning down the home of one of the area’s main drug dealers. The Avenues are still around, but under a massive gang injunction that arrests whole neighbourhoods. Youths are placed en masse in gang databases, and those alleged to be gang members can’t assemble in groups of two or more, can’t have cell phones or baseball bats and can be stopped for sporting tattoos and cholo attire. There are now forty gang injunctions in LA covering eighty neighbourhoods, mostly in line with the wishes of developers to remove poor black and brown people from core urban areas.
By 1980, I left industry and began a journalism and writing career, working for weekly and daily newspapers, public radio and magazines. I covered stories in the San Francisco Bay Area and San Bernardino (when it was the second most homicidal city in the country). I saw dead bodies: the victims of murders, suicides, drug overdoses, car accidents and natural disasters. I reported on land and city hall takeovers by the indigenous and campesino (peasant farmer) population in Mexico, as well as the Contra War in Nicaragua and Honduras, where I was shot at by high-powered rifles and bombed twice, although not hurt.
My activism led to a right-wing newspaper editor blacklisting me, meaning that I couldn’t work in Southern California daily newspapers. So I ended up as a publicity hound for a public employees’ union, including during the largest union battle in US history, which involved the representation of mostly clerical and blue-collar workers in the University of California system. The union won.
After a break up with my live-in partner, I returned to Boyle Heights, to a house owned by my brother Jose. He was working as a phone installer and lived with a wife and two daughters. Jose lost the house when his two older children, who had been kidnapped by his first wife and missing for years, suddenly turned up at his door. They had been told that Jose had died in Vietnam. But an aunt, finally recovering from years of heroin addiction, revealed to them where he was. Jose was ecstatic, but soon enough found out that his first wife had obtained welfare benefits during all those years in a Central California town. Now he owed the state back payments – to pay up, he lost the house and had fifty per cent of his wages garnished.
In 1985, just before I turned thirty-one, I moved to Chicago to work for a left-wing newspaper, in book publishing and news radio (CNN, Westinghouse and NBC). That same year I got together with my last and greatest love, Trini. We married in 1988 and by 1994 had two boys, Ruben and Luis (otherwise known as Chito). Trini also helped me raise Ramiro and Andrea as troubled teenagers. Unfortunately, Ramiro joined a Chicago gang and, before turning thirty-five, had spent around fifteen years, including one stretch of thirteen-and-a-half years, in state prisons. We wanted to push him away many times, but couldn’t. We held on tight as he took us through Hell on a roller coaster.
I became active in helping out the homeless, prisoners and gang youth. I took part in the Slam Poetry movement that began in Chicago, creating a poetry publishing house, Tia Chucha Press, and later became a member of the first Slam Poetry Tour of Europe. My best-selling memoir, Always Running – La Vida Loca: Gang Days in LA, came out a year after the Los Angeles Uprising and I was on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Good Morning America, National Public Radio and Entertainment Weekly, as well as making various other TV, radio and print appearances. I toured thirty cities in three months, and then covered the burgeoning gang violence in El Salvador. That year, 1993, I sobered up completely; I’ve been clean now for twenty-four years.
My world changed with Always Running, one of two renowned books written at the time about LA gangs, who were considered responsible for the destruction that followed the acquittal of the police officers in the case of the beating of Rodney King. Trini and I bought a house in the largest Puerto Rican community of Chicago.
By 2000, Trini and I moved back to Los Angeles, mostly to keep our young sons from the traps that had claimed their older brother. We couldn’t lose any more boys. Andrea and her daughter Catalina later joined us. Trini grew up in the barrio of Pacoima in the northeast San Fernando Valley. Interestingly, her large Mexican family (her parents had eleven children) never got involved in gangs or drugs despite the environment. We wanted to be close to this amazing family. By now, there were tonnes of nephews and nieces.
We lived in Pacoima for six months before buying a house in the two-square-mile city called San Fernando, surrounded by the Los Angeles communities of Pacoima, Mission Hills and Sylmar. Trini and I helped establish Tia Chucha’s Cultural Center & Bookstore in 2001, then the only bookstore, art gallery and multi-arts space for half-a-million people in the Northeast Valley, once known as the ‘Mexican side of the Valley’ (now Mexicans are all over).
Today, Ramiro has been out of prison for seven years, living with Trini, Ruben, Chito, our dog Chula and me. Ramiro is now gang-free, crime-free and drug-free. Ruben graduated from UCLA, magna cum laude. Chito is writing stories, film scripts, and trying to carve a creative path for himself. Andrea is back in Chicago with her mom and Catalina, as well as a new son, Jack Carlos (of Mexican-Irish descent). Presently, I have five grandkids and three great-grandkids, mostly in Illinois.
Los Angeles is in deep transition. With four hundred and sixty-nine square miles traversing deserts, oceans, wooded mountains (snowy in winter) and dense urban communities (Pico-Union, for example, a Mexican-Central-American community, is more densely populated than Manhattan), the city is being remade into a high-rent, low home ownership area. It has the largest homeless street population of any US city (around fifty thousand) and one of the richest zip codes (encompassing Beverly Hills, Brentwood and Bel Air).
The inequalities here are stark and widening.
Since my return to Los Angeles I’ve taken friends, guests and journalists from around the United States, England, Italy, Brazil, Japan and Australia, as well as a TV crew or two, on what Ramiro calls ‘The Cholo Tour’ – no beaches, Hollywood trappings or Disneyland. I’m talking about Watts, San Pedro, East Los Angeles, Echo Park, the Los Angeles River, Downtown (including the massive Skid Row) and sometimes the northeast San Fernando Valley – the ‘other’ LA. Places I’ve laid my head, places with character, people on the streets, all kinds of violence and poverty, but also with life, murals and poetry.
These places do not exist on tourist maps. The visitors get amazed at how much character and life there is, how dishevelled some of the streets can appear, but also the wonderful smells and sights laden with taquerías, auto shops, marketas and musicians. They gawk at the old brick buildings and Victorian structures that pop up here and there. And even if the homes are small and wood framed, they are largely clean, with flowerpots and sometimes stalks of corn and chicken coops.
One TV crew from Europe wanted me to show them gang members. I said no. I don’t do ‘gang tours’. They were disappointed, but what they saw was eye-opening just the same. Ironically, as we sat in a taco stand to take a break, a gang shootout happened across the street. One dude ran up to a car and began firing into it. The car sped off. It was fast and furious, and didn’t cause much of a commotion. In fact, the TV crew was so busy eating and talking that they didn’t even think to look up. I didn’t say anything.
This is the LA where Santa Ana winds scatter around dry leaves, and droughts make kindle out of the formerly green; where wildfires are metaphor and reality for our internal and external terrains; where the city is music but also muscle, a rain dance often with no rain, neon glare and smog-tinged skyline, held together in a spider-web called freeways; a place where even Jacarandas and palm trees are transplants.
This is where the city’s buildings are bricked and nailed together with stories, survival stories, war stories, love stories, the kind of harrowing accounts Los Angeles exudes at 3 am, when ghosts meander the upturned pavement or rumble by on vintage cars, and all-night diners convert to summits for the played out, heartsick and suicidal.
There’s a migrant soul in this rooted city, Skid Row next to the Diamond District, waves of foam against barnacled piers, cafés and boutiques next to panaderías and botánicas. Ravines and gulleys turn into barrios; rustic homes with gardens dot bleak cityscapes and suburbs burst with world-class graffiti.
Fragmented yet cohesive, Los Angeles demands reflection on ourselves and on the unstable ground we call home, where people die for lack of a roof or food or compassion. As renowned LA writer John Fante would say, these persons are ‘songs over sidewalks’, imaginations on the interchange, humanity that deserves connection, touch, breath. These roads, bridges, alleys also contain concertos. Breezes over the ocean’s darkest depths are rife with harmonies. And a howling moon and red sunset serve as backdrops for every aching interlude.
Los Angeles is where every step rhymes, where languages flit off tongues like bows across strings, skateboarders and aerosol spray cans clatter as daily percussion, and even angels intone ‘we can do better’, while haggling at garage sales.
edited by Matthew Smith
Wundor Editions | 239 pp | £20