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Words prevailed over gangs for Luis J. Rodriguez

Even when he was a notorious street punk, shooting at people and shooting up heroin, there was always something a little different about Luis J. Rodriguez.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Even when he was a notorious street punk, shooting at people and shooting up heroin, there was always something a little different about Luis J. Rodriguez.

If he wasn't pulling a knife to settle a dispute or running to avoid the law, Rodriguez was just as likely to be off somewhere reading: Homer's "Odyssey" maybe; or John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath"; or some other great work.

His heroes were never the elder members of his East LA street gang, but the great Los Angeles noir writer John Fante and the city's poet laureate, Charles Bukowski.

"My favorite book when I was a kid? It was 'Charlotte's Web,'" the author says, grinning with embarrassment as he sits in the back of Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural, the modest bookstore-coffeehouse-performing arts center he and his wife, Trini, founded nearly a decade ago.

"I just loved that book," Rodriguez continues, pretending to turn its pages as he moves his hands across a table that is empty except for a couple of coffee cups. "I used to read it all the time."

Behind him are shelves crammed with books. There is everything from Ray Bradbury's classic "Fahrenheit 451" to Victor Viallasenor's "Rain of Gold" to a 1993 publication called "Always Running, La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A."

The latter, which has gone through more than two dozen printings and sold more than 400,000 copies, turned Rodriguez, then a struggling poet with a drinking problem, into one of America's pre-eminent Chicano writers.

Following its runaway success, he published more than a dozen other books: the acclaimed novel "Music of the Mill"; a celebrated collection of short stories, "The Republic of East L.A."; several volumes of poetry and a couple of children's books. His latest work, "It Calls You Back: "An Odyssey Through Love, Addiction, Revolutions and Healing," was released this month by Touchstone, a division of Simon & Schuster.

"Luis has an incredibly important place in, I started to say Latino letters, but he has an important place in American letters as well," said Ruben Martinez, author of "Crossing Over" and a professor of literature at Loyola Marymount University.

The 57-year-old author, however, could just as easily have been a one-hit wonder after "Always Running."

As he recounts in that book, he was 18 and facing six years in prison for assaulting a police officer when a judge gave him two months in jail instead. The judge also promised the budding career criminal that it would be his last break.

"That gave me a chance to say, 'Maybe I need to save my life,'" recalled Rodriguez, whose demeanor evokes images of the flawed hero of the Kris Kristofferson song "The Pilgrim, Chapter 33," the story of a person who is a "walking contradiction."

A stocky man with intense eyes whose body is still marked by crude gang tattoos, Rodriguez can exude an intimidating presence. At the same time, he is a soft-spoken, gentle person, someone able to quote classic literature or gang slang as easily as he can switch a conversation from English to Spanish.

Although he left much of the gang life behind when he left jail, he reveals in "It Calls You Back" that giving up heroin, booze and brawling was far more difficult.

Even while writing "Always Running" he was drunk much of the time, often feuding with his wife — and ex-wives — and ready in those days to scuffle with just about anybody who looked at him the wrong way.

That included his eldest son, Ramiro, who followed his father into gang life and ended up doing more than 10 years in prison for attempted murder before he was released last year. Although father and son are close now, Rodriguez blames himself for much of his son's woes.

Through his own troubles, however, there was always one dream Rodriguez never gave up on was that someday he would be a successful writer.

He was born in El Paso, Texas, to Mexican immigrant parents, and moved to California at age 2. He became addicted to books as a child when he arrived at elementary school unable to speak or read a word of English. Books became the key to teaching Rodriguez the new language.

Even during his gang years, he recalls, his love of the written word never wavered. One of his fondest memories is seeking out the only bookstore in his barrio neighborhood and visiting it dressed in full gang regalia.

"I was all-Choloed out when I first came in, and I'm pretty sure he thought that I was going to rob him," Rodriguez says, laughing as he recalls the bookseller's reaction. The two eventually became friendly, and when he got out of jail Rodriguez began taking writing classes while he worked a series of blue-collar jobs, including at a steel mill. Years later, much of that experience found its way into "Music of the Mill."

Rodriguez was working as a news writer for radio station WMAQ in Chicago when he wrote "Always Running," part of a desperate attempt to turn his son away from gangs. Although the effort failed, he now realizes the book saved his own life.

After its publication, he turned away from drinking, dedicated himself to writing and returned to Los Angeles where he lives with his wife and two youngest children in a quiet, largely Latino section of the San Fernando Valley.

"He's gone through so many hoops of fire that would have destroyed an ordinary human being," says longtime friend Sandra Cisneros, author of "The House on Mango Street."

"But he's just come out of it and kicked himself up to a higher grade. He's just kept rising and rising until he's become a really extraordinary human being."

Rodriguez, for his part, is modest about his achievements. He insists that luck played no small part.

"I have to say, I was very much in a bubble for some reason," he says, noting that in all his gang-banging years he never caught a bullet or overdosed on heroin.

"I've been shot at, I took heroin, I stabbed somebody, I even shot somebody. I got arrested for attempted murder. But you know, I really escaped all that."

Rodriguez does not consider himself someone special because he believes most people, given the chance, can realize their dreams as he did his. It's a message he carries in discussions with gang members, guys who remind him of himself 40 years ago.

He tells them he knows staying sober, staying drug-free, staying out of gangs and jail isn't easy. That's why he titled his latest book "It Calls You Back."

"Because it will always call you back, and you've always got to stand firm."