Luis Rodriguez: From Weapons To Words

Photo of Cristina Gutierrez
29 September 2016

Luis Rodriguez (b. 1954) grew up in the midst of gang culture but managed to turn his life around. Here, we follow his journey from gang member to Los Angeles‘ poet laureate.

Born in the border town of El Paso, Texas, Luis Rodriguez was destined to be one of the many voices for Chicano culture. He came from a family of migrants that lived on both sides of the U.S./Mexican border, sharing time between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. When Rodriguez was two, his father wanted to set some permanent roots down. So they moved to Watts, California, where they lived until Rodriguez was eleven.

This was around the time Rodriguez began spiraling into the dark abyss of gang culture. It started with small acts, like shoplifting. Then, at 12 years old, he began to abuse drugs and alcohol. As he got older, the crimes became more severe. During his teen years, he would get into fights. Sometimes, the violence escalated and weapons were involved. Although he never killed anyone, he witnessed several friends die at the hands of others. These events never stopped him from continuing down this dark path. The longer he stayed, the harder it was for him to get out.

The cover to Luis Rodriguez’s famous book Published by Simon and Schuster.

Yet through all this, he found a safe place at the LA Public Library. Rodriguez would spend all day reading every book he could get his hands on. It was a way to escape the gang culture that took over his life. In fact, he calls himself, ‘the weird homie with the books.’ He was active in gang culture, but still carried books wherever he went. It was a slow process, but Rodriguez finally began to exchange bullets for words.

In one of his last stays in prison, Rodriguez wrote Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A. It chronicled his gang life and helped others realize it’s never too late to turn their life around. The book did so well, he released a sequel: It Calls You Back. These books gave Rodriguez the opportunity to speak at various schools, where he hoped to change the way young people view themselves, and to make better choices.

He even opened a bookstore, Tia Chucha’s. It’s in the San Gabriel Valley and focuses on Chicano/a art and culture. Tia Chucha’s primary function is to keep local kids off the street and keep them somewhere safe after school. Rodriguez believes art can help save young kids from making the wrong choices he made. The store holds an open mic night, where kids can come and perform their art in whatever form it’s in.

In October of 2014, Los Angeles’ Mayor, Eric Garcetti, named Luis Rodriguez the city’s poet laureate. He was named at LA Public Library, the same place Rodriguez used, as a young man to hide from the gang lifestyle. Since he is barely the second poet laureate to serve Los Angeles, it unclear how long he will serve. As poet laureate, Rodriguez is responsible for speaking in public and creating new poems for the city. For more information, you can visit the library’s website.

In addition, you can read one of his most famous poems, ‘Piece by Piece’, here or visit his website. Alternatively, you can visit Youtube and listen to him read some of his poetry out loud.

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