Diary: Luis J. Rodriguez, A Writer‘s Journey (Part One)

Tititl Ceremony, a dance tradition tracing back to ancient mesoamerica, hosted by Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural and Kapulli Xochiyaoyotl at the Sun Valley Recreational Center in the San Fernando Valley, California, February 2, 2020. Photo by Giovanni Solis

The day I decided that writing was what I wanted to do I was working as a millwright, maintaining the engines of an overhead crane above four electric furnaces at a Bethlehem Steel mill. I had on a scuffed hard hat, greasy uniform, tool belt, and steel-toed shoes. It was a substantial job. I should’ve been content. Instead, I felt as if my poems and stories were being drained out of me with every pouring of melted steel, every searing blast, every pounding forge. Sorrow came in waves. It struck me that if I didn’t do something about this writing thing soon, I never would. The year was 1978. I was twenty-four. To stay out of the trouble I was frequently in during my youth, I had turned to industry and construction. I learned skills like pipe fitting, rigging, mechanics, welding, and framing houses and warehouses. This was the right thing. But, newly separated from my wife and two babies, I was alone, afraid, unsure, drinking too much. I felt this was my last chance at bringing out what ached inside, before it became a rotting, dead thing I’d carry around.

My own family and most of my friends thought I was nuts. A writer? Who writes? What kind of life is that? You should be happy just getting a regular paycheck. The first thing I did was take night classes at East Los Angeles College: creative writing, journalism, and speech. During the day, to bring in money, I worked as a framing carpenter and later as a mechanic/welder.

Then in 1980 I gambled even that away and walked into the Boyle Heights offices of Eastern Group Publications, on Soto Street near Brooklyn Avenue (now Cesar Chavez Avenue). They published seven weekly East LA newspapers, including the Eastside Sun and the Mexican-American Sun. They agreed to allow me to write news and a boxing column and take photos. That summer, the African-American journalists and publishers Robert Maynard and his wife Nancy Hicks accepted me for their eleven-week Summer Program for Minority Journalists at the University of California, Berkeley. That got me my first daily newspaper job, at the San Bernardino Sun, when the city had the second highest homicide rate in the country. I saw far too many dead bodies from murders, suicides, drug overdoses, car accidents, and natural disasters. I also freelanced articles on indigenous and campesino uprisings in Mexico, including takeovers of land and government buildings. And I was in Nicaragua and Honduras during the Contra War—at one point, Contra rebels shot at me with high-powered rifles, and they twice deployed US ordnance bombs in my direction. Somehow I emerged unscathed. I did radio reporting and editing at KPFK-FM (Pacifica Radio) and California Public Radio. I also managed to write poetry and short stories. I took part in the Los Angeles Latino Writers Association Barrio Writers Workshops and reading series and magazine, ChismeArte.

I had a few setbacks: After my first marriage ended, I went to live with my parents for a few days. That’s when I found out the murals I had painted as a teen, and had stashed in the garage, had been thrown away, along with my early writings, which I had carefully stacked in a grocery bag. My mother thought these pursuits were a waste of time. A facilitator in a writer’s workshop around that time turned to me and said something like, “Man, you can’t write for beans!” He was right. But none of this stopped me.

Support our work:
Subscribe to receive a little book review every few days in your in-box
$5.99 for one month, $45 for a year
Or receive our free updates
Building a connected world through reading

In 1985, I ended up in Chicago, where I wrote for political and community publications. The stories I covered included police terror, labor strikes, and the undocumented, including how the US government in the 1980s held migrant children in unmarked motels so their undocumented parents would come get them—and be deported. I managed a reporter/writer job at WMAQ-AM news radio on the night shift and weekends, and for a while I was in the printing industry as a typesetter, including for Chicago’s archdiocese. By 1988, I became active in Chicago’s vibrant poetry scene, home of Slam Poetry. I did poetry workshops in homeless shelters as well as juvenile lockups and prisons. After a number of rejections from book publishers, I decided to publish my first book myself, Poems Across the Pavement, which came out in 1989. I typeset the book after hours at the publishing house I worked at. I was thirty-five. In 1993 I wrote a memoir called Always Running that sparked surprising acclaim. I quit all my jobs and toured thirty cities in three months. My world changed with this book, which came out a year after the Los Angeles Uprising. It was one of a handful of publications that spoke from knowledge about LA gangs, which politicians and some media blamed for the destruction that followed the acquittal of the police officers involved in the beating of Rodney King. 

Since then I’ve written poetry, children’s literature, fiction, and nonfiction; and audiobooks, e-books, handmade limited-edition art books, CDs, short films, videos, and plays have been created from my stories and poems. More recently I’ve moved into blogging and podcasts. And I’ve become a script consultant on three TV shows, including FX’s Snowfall, co-created and produced by the late John Singleton, dramatizing how crack first invaded the ghettos and barrios of Los Angeles with CIA complicity.

But in the end I’m all about books. Somehow that fading dream in the steel mill found root and soil—even when I received enough rejection slips to wallpaper my house. The best assurance I was on the right path occurred when my mother visited the publishing house and cultural center I run with my wife Trini for the first and only time. This was a few years before she died. She walked in unsteadily, using an aluminum walker. I began to tell her about what Trini and I were doing with this enchanting space that offered a bookstore, an art gallery, a performance stage, arts workshops, and a full coffee bar; when we founded it, there were no bookstores, movie houses, or comprehensive arts spaces in the northeast San Fernando Valley, home to half a million people. Tia Chucha’s, named after my favorite aunt, also drew on indigenous cosmologies from Mexico and US Native peoples, my mother’s heritage. As I talked, to my dismay, my mother began to cry. I stopped and in Spanish asked her, “Amá, why are you crying? I didn’t create this place so you’d be upset.” She then turned to me—keep in mind, I was in my early fifties—and in Spanish said, “I think, mijo, you’re finally going to be okay.” 

[Read Part Two here!]

Luis J. Rodriguez is the author of the memoir Always Running and fifteen other volumes of memoir, poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and work for children. He was the Poet Laureate of Los Angeles from 2014 to 2016 and is the co-founder of Tia Chucho’s Centro Cultural, bookstore, and publishing house in Los Angeles. This Diary is adapted from his new book, From Our Land to Our Land, newly published by Seven Stories Press.

Book Post is a by-subscription book review service, bringing short and well-made book reviews by distinguished and engaging writers direct to your in-box. Subscribe to our book reviews and support our writers and our effort to grow a common reading culture across a fractured media landscape. Coming soon: Alvaro Enrigue on Samantha Schweblin; Recently: Stephen Kinzer on the Pentagon and Climate Change.

Mac’s Backs Books on Coventry, in Cleveland, Ohio, is Book Post’s current partner bookstore. We support independent bookselling by linking to independent bookstores and bringing you news of local book life as it happens in their aisles. We’ll send a free three month subscription to any reader who spends more than $100 there during our partnership. Send your receipt to info@bookpostusa.com.