By David R. Gayton
In the realm of literature there exists a place specially reserved for the autobiography as a literary genre. Some of the best examples of this genre are great and pivotal literary works such as Rousseau’s Confessions, Elie Wiesel’s Night, Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery, William Styron’s Darkness Visible, Malcolm X’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Richard Wright’s Black Boy, and Luis J. Rodriguez’s Always Running. A singular characteristic of these books, and the autobiographical genre in general, is that often these books have been deemed controversial, and in fact many, such as Richard Wright’s Black Boy, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and Luis J. Rodriguez’s Always Running have often been spotted on the lists of the most banned books in America. While it is true that these works often contain unabashed literary representations of violence, sex, addictions, and abject poverty, it is also true that by their very nature as autobiographies these literary representations mirror the unabashed violence, sex, addictions and abject poverty of a very real American way of life.
Published in 1993, Always Running is the first of Luis J. Rodriguez’s autobiographies. Subtitled “La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A.” Always Running is an admonitory tale that traces the author’s development from a shy and uncertain boy who pees himself in class, to a juvenile delinquent who subsequently becomes a young man who possess a clear and assured vision of himself and his place within society.
Born in El Paso, TX, but reared in Ciudad Juárez, México, Luis J. Rodriguez’s narrative begins with the tale of his family’s arrival in Watts, a south central neighborhood of Los Angeles, during the late 1950’s. Then, as now, Los Angeles has almost always been a city of great contradictions, a city were extreme wealth, glamour and splendor coexists with extreme poverty, misery, and squalor. One such contradiction is the role Mexicans and Mexican Americans have played within the civic life of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles County. Romanticized within the Spanish Colonial Revival style of architects such as Bertram Goodhue, and in literary works such as Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel Ramona, Mexicans, their descendants, and their culture have often faced a very bitter opposition in the United States. Often that reality has been one of injustice, segregation, disenfranchisement, and marginalization by a political, legal and societal system that has for a very long time been inherently exclusive.
From Watts the narrative continues, and Rodriguez and his family eventually settle in the unincorporated towns and cities of the San Gabriel Valley. East Los Angeles, Monterey Park, Torrance, and Garvey form the background of Rodriguez’s story and formative years. Relegated to a marginalized existence at the fringes of Los Angeles, Rodriguez informs the reader that during the 1950’s the streets of the South San Gabriel Valley often went unpaved and basic domestic utilities were in many cases lacking. Neighborhoods in the Valley such as El Jardin, Monte Flores, Bolen, and Las Lomas became veritable ghettos entrenched in deep rooted rivalries between territorial neighborhood gangs. Rivalries, such as the conflict between the gang Rodriguez would eventually join (the Lomas) and the Sangras (short for San Gabriel), often dated as far back as the 1940’s or prohibition days. Under these circumstances, Rodriguez’s transition from child of immigrants to juvenile delinquent can be seen to have been a very subtle, although not an altogether unavoidable process. Entering Garvey Middle School during the mid 1960’s, the decay that the young Rodriguez encounters there is already decades old. He writes of his old school:
Bloody Kotexes on the hallway floor. Gang graffiti on every available space of wall. Fires which flared from restrooms trash bins. Fights every day, including after school on the alley off Jackson Avenue. Dudes who sold and took drugs, mostly downers, and yesca, but sometimes heroin which a couple of dudes shot up in the boys’ room while their homeys kept lookout.
Delving further into the gang initiation rites and the personal anecdotes of friends such as Payasa who would get her tongue sliced by her brothers whenever she lost a street fight, the reader is reminded of the fact that these so called hardened criminals are just high school kids. To emphasize this point Rodriguez recreates the headlines of the day. Death after death, and crime after crime, every headline is an act of violence perpetrated by a 15 or 17 year old against another 15 or 17 year old.
An important realization and a pivotal point in Rodriguez’s narrative is his realization that a lot of the violence and rivalries between gangs were instigated by the members of the Sheriff’s Department. At one point, the narrative says:
In the Barrio the police are just another gang…sometimes they come to us in the corner while we linger on the street corner and tell us Sangra called us Chavalas…other times they approach dudes from Sangra and say Lomas is a tougher gang and Sangra is nothing. Shootings, assaults, and skirmishes between the barrios are direct result of police activity. Even drug dealing. I know this. Everybody knows this.
If its possible for “everyone to know this” and yet for the internecine fighting to continue, the narrative reminds the reader of the social forces pulling and tugging at every character. Entangled within an almost apartheid political and social structure, the characters of Rodriguez’s narrative find themselves in an oppressed situation from which they find an escape not impossible, but unthinkable.
It isn’t until Rodriguez enters high school that a complete turnaround begins to happen in his life. Opposed to a failed educational system, Rodriguez begins to hang out at his school’s library where he discovers books and literature. According to his catalogue of books read during this period, there are works by Amiri Baraka, Haki Madhubuti, and others such as Brown’s Manchild in the Promise Land, Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, and the Autobiography of Malcolm X. Eventually, through the help of the staff at his school’s Chicano Student Center, Rodriguez begins to slowly separate himself from the Lomas until the point where he graduates from high school and gets accepted into Cal State Los Angeles.
Today, decades after Rodriguez’s first publication of his memoirs, the position of minorities and the poor in America is far from being anywhere near ideal. To this day the Chicano community is still plagued by some of the same issues that Rodriguez helped uncover through his books. Weighed against these issues and the long history of social injustice in America, Always Running is as much of a timely and pivotal work now, as it was in Los Angeles in 1992.