By J. Ivan Cazares
Before he even became a teenager, Luis J. Rodriguez was introduced to drugs and gang culture. He’d participated in drive-by shootings and used heroin before even starting high school. It’s not an uncommon story in Los Angeles’ lower income communities, but he overcame the adversities he faced in his youth and became the official Poet Laureate of Los Angeles from 2014-2016, a renowned novelist, journalist and activist. He’s also a husband, father and great-grandfather. Rodriguez spends most of his time helping others overcome similar adversities through his involvement in the various non-profits he’s helped found and by visiting inmates in prison and juveniles in correctional facilities.
“I like to say that I wasn’t scared out of gang life; I was cared out. There were those who recognized me as a creative person when they saw me draw or do graffiti. It only took one or two people to want to mentor me,” Rodriguez said.
Information gathered by the Los Angeles Police Department suggests that more than half of the 16-year-olds that have ever been arrested for assault carried a handgun or belonged to a gang by the age of 12. The information also suggests that 80% of violent crimes are committed by youths 14 through 24 years old.
Rodriguez sees the U.S. prison system as a perpetuator of gang culture and is a strong advocate for reform. He’s particularly worried about the large number of prisoners afflicted by mental illnesses and the conditions of the facilities in which they are treated.
“The facilities are horrible and almost the majority of people suffering from mental illnesses in the country are incarcerated,” Rodriguez said. “I felt that visiting prisons, the mass incarceration system, was one of the best ways I could make a difference.” He visits juvenile facilities and prisons to facilitate educational workshops, poetry readings and healing circles.
He was first drawn to activism during a string of walkouts by students in 1968 known as the Chicano Blowouts or East LA Walkouts. He continued his activism through the social instability of the ’70s and it was around this time that he met his wife Trini Rodriguez.
“We didn’t see each other that way for a very long time, but he was someone I could talk to when I was introduced to activism,” Trini said. I had a very different background. I grew up in the San Fernando Valley with a very traditional Mexican family. It was a very integrated community so I was surrounded by many cultures.”
She became an educator after graduating from Cal State Northridge and became politically active as an educator. Luis didn’t pursue a degree, but he did pursue higher education through night classes at East Los Angeles College and other schools. He earned a journalism certificate from Cal State Berkeley through a program no longer in existence.
“I met Luis at the opening of Tia Chucha’s. You could say he’s been like a mentor to me,” Michael Centeno, executive director of Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural, said. “I was inspired when I met Luis and started learning about his life. My passion is film. I started volunteering and attending weekly film night at Tia Chucha’s.”
Tia Chucha’s is a non-profit culture center and bookstore in the San Fernando Valley founded by Luis and Trini. They serve on the board of the non-profit and remain involved but they’ve passed on the responsibilities of the day to day operations to a new generation of activists they’ve helped mentor. The organization offers free and low-cost bilingual resources for low income youths and exposes them to the arts in the form of mural painting, dancing and music.
Centeno was inspired to pursue his dream of becoming a film maker my Luis and has vlunteered at Tia Chucha’s since it opened in 2001. He’s always drawn inspiration from Mexican wrestling and incorporates into his work.
Luis believes the arts have the power to transform a person’s life and continuously works to expose new generations to the arts and latino culture. He hopes to inspire younger generations to embrace their culture and define their identities themselves.
“We used to use the word Chicano because we didn’t want the authorities to label use. We chose the label for ourselves. Now I find myself using Chicanx or Latinix, because that’s what the younger generation identifies with it,” Luis said.
Luis and Trini are working on a podcast called the Hummingbird Cricket Hour on which they discuss literature, social issues, the arts and current events. They are currently working on reworking the podcast but have 23 episodes currently available on itunes and iHeartRadio.com.