Luis J. Rodriguez
LA Weekly in 2012 named Luis J. Rodriguez one of the 60 most fascinating people in the city. Luis is the author of fifteen books in poetry, children’s literature, fiction and nonfiction, including the controversial 1993 memoir of gang life, “Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A.” This book has sold around a half million copies and was the subject of various banning battles in California cities such as San Jose, Fremont, Santa Rosa, Santa Barbara, and San Diego.
Yet “Always Running” is known as one of the most checked out books in public libraries—and one of the most stolen. Luis has received recognition for his writings from PEN Oakland, the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund, the Sundance Institute, the Chicago Sun Times, the Carl Sandburg Award, the New York Times Notable Book, the Patterson Poetry Prize, a Dorothea Lang-Paul Taylor Journalism Prize, PEN American’s “Next Generation,” and Parent’s Choice, among others.
KCET-TV and the Union Bank of California also designated Luis a “Hero of the Community” for his work co-founding and helping run the nonprofit cultural space Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural & Bookstore. Additional recognition include the “Season for Non-Violence Hero” award from the Agape Spiritual Center; the Ruben Salazar/Spirit of Struggle Award from Inner City Struggle; and an “Unsung Hero of Compassion” from the Wisdom in Action Foundation, presented by his Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Under the tenure of Luis and his wife Trini, along with staff, board and volunteers, Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural & Bookstore, a full fledge arts workshops and presentation organization, has garnered more than a million dollars in the culturally deprived Northeast San Fernando Valley. Their resident groups include the Young Warriors youth project; a mural painting collective; the Temachtia Quetzalcoatl Mexika (so-called Aztec) danza group; and the only annual outdoor literacy and arts festival in the Valley called “Celebrating Words: Written, Performed & Sung.”
After removing himself from gangs, crime and drugs that he had been tied to since 11, Luis by age 19 embarked on a life-long path of revolutionary organizing, thinking and writing. For seven years he worked in jobs like a truck driver, paper mill worker, foundry smelter, carpenter, maintenance mechanic, and steel worker. He became a journalist/poet at age 25, working for weekly and daily newspapers as well as community and news radio. He also worked for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFL-CIO), the L.A. Latino Writers Association (and its magazine ChismeArte), the People’s Tribune, WMAQ-AM All News Radio in Chicago, and the Archdiocese of Chicago.
His journalism work covered uprisings in Oaxaca and Baja California, Mexico; the Contra War against Nicaragua’s Sandinistas (Luis was bombed twice in southern Honduras, although not injured); labor battles in the U.S.; immigrant rights struggles at the workplace and in society; the rise of gangs and violence in our streets; and growing poverty and homelessness in the midst of the most obscene rise in wealth in the country.
His writings have appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Reporter, The Nation, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Inquirer magazine, Grand Street, The Progressive, San Jose Mercury, Latino USA/National Public Radio, Fox News Latino, Huffington Post, and more.
Luis was also active in mid-1980s through the 1990s in the Chicago poetry scene, home to the internationally acclaimed Poetry Slams. He was a co-founder of the Guild Complex Literary Arts Center and on the first European tour of “Slam Poets” in the summer of 1993. Luis is also founder/editor of the renowned cross-cultural small publisher, Tia Chucha Press, which in 25 years has produced the works of stellar poets such as Patricia Smith, Kyoko Mori, Elizabeth Alexander, Virgil Suarez, Terrance Hayes, Diane Glancy, Nick Carbo, Tony Fitzpatrick, Jose Antonio Rodriguez, Luivette Resto, Opal Adisa Palmer, and others.
In addition, for around 40 years Luis has worked on urban peace projects, including prevention/intervention and workshops for troubled youth in Los Angeles and Chicago, the largest gang cities in the U.S., as well as around the country. He co-founded Chicago’s Youth Struggling for Survival, a gang and non-gang youth empowerment project, and the Humboldt Park Teen Reach. His talks, readings and workshops have also been held in prisons, juvenile lockups, homeless shelters, migrant camps, Native American reservations, public and private schools, universities, colleges, libraries, and conferences as well as in Canada, Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, Peru, Venezuela, Argentina, England, France, Italy, Holland, Austria, Germany, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Japan.
His international peace and youth development efforts include working with gang youth and visiting prisons in Mexico, Central America, South America, Italy, and England. Luis was a key contributor along with forty other peace leaders and researchers to A Guide for Understanding Effective Community-Based Gang Intervention, adopted by the City of Los Angeles in 2008 and used in cities and countries around the U.S. and the world. There is now a congressional bill based on this work, sponsored by Democratic Congressman Tony Cardenas (by way of disclosure, Tony is also Luis’s brother-in-law).
For more than twenty years, Luis and his wife Trini have been sweat lodge pourers and healers in the Native American and Mexican traditions, taught by elders among the Navajo, Lakota, Mexika, Raramuri, Maya (in Mexico and Guatemala), and the Quechua of Peru. He is a founder of the San Fernando Sweat Lodge among others.
In 2011 Touchstone Books/Simon & Schuster released Luis’s latest memoir, “It Calls You Back: An Odyssey Through Love, Addiction, Revolutions and Healing,” becoming a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award. Luis was also editor with Denise Sandoval in 2012 of “Rushing Waters, Rising Dreams: How the Arts are Transforming a Community”—and co-producer of a 40-minute documentary of the same name, written and directed by John F. Cantu.
In addition, in 2014 Tia Chucha Press will reprint a 25-year anniversary edition of Luis’s first book, “Poems Across the Pavement.” That same year Seven Stories Press will re-issue his 2001 classic on youth work and urban peace: “Hearts & Hands: Creating Community in Violent Times.”
At age 22, Luis ran for the Los Angeles Unified School Board, impacting future board races for Latinos and progressives. In 2012, he was the vice-presidential candidate along with Rocky Anderson for president of the U.S. Justice Party. In October 2013, Luis embarked on an independent campaign for California Governor.