Always Running is recommended reading for the college-bound student, but every student I know who has read it liked it. Its author, Luis J. Rodriguez, was born in Mexico, but grew up in Los Angeles, in many impoverished neighborhoods. He recounts his early life in Watts when his brother, who had “a hunger for cruelty,” regularly beat him up. He also spent time with friends recounting local urban legends and Mexican myths.
His parents had a hard time keeping jobs although his father had been a teacher and high school principal in Mexico. Stories of the prejudice against his mother are many. She was helpless without knowledge of the English language.
Rodriguez began running from the police early in life as he pilfered from local markets and broke rules such as entering school grounds after 4:40 P.M. On one such trip, his friend, running from the sheriff, fell through the roof of a building and died.
The first time Rodriguez saw gang shootings was on school grounds. Seeing the fear they put in everyone including the teachers, the “broken boy, shy and fearful . . . wanted what Thee Mystics had; . . . the power to hurt somebody.” Conditions in his life helped him move in the direction he wanted to go—Garvey High School is so bad that Luis had three teachers and five substitutes in his homeroom the first year. When a shop teacher accidentally cut off his own finger, Rodriguez found it and saved it in his locker, showing it around until it decays. When cliques are forced to join gangs, Rodriguez joins. Eventually, most of the gang’s members are dead or on drugs, so Luis was initiated into Las Lomas, enemy to Sangra. On this night, he was beaten and later told to plunge a screwdriver into an innocent man—which he did.
There are many stories of Rodriguez being set up by the police, of heavy drinking, burglary, being shot at, and eventually sniffing “anything”—paint, gasoline, clear plastic, etc. Later Luis will use PCP and heroin. He thinks of killing himself.
Rodriguez entered Mark Keppel High School where there is a yearly ‘tradition’ of violent fighting between the Chicanos and the whites. As gang activity heated up, several youth centers open up in the area. The gangs took them over, but Rodriguez met Chente, who helped form MEChA and other Chicano groups—someone who “could get the best from the system . . . without being a snitch or giving in.”
Rodriguez discusses hits on rival gangs, a rival gang’s decision to kill his sister for his deeds, the raping of many girls by local gangs, and his own early sexual relationships. Though all this would offend a sensitive reader, that same reader would have already been made sick or given up reading over the incessant violence.
Miraculously, although Luis is kicked out of school after school, he began to frequent the junior college library. Book displays on Puerto Ricans, Chicanos and African Americans were an opening to a better world for him, one that made him feel connected to the best in people. He finally went back to high school and made connections, becoming a leader. After more trials as an adult in the old neighborhood, he realized that there is no more life for him there.
Though Rodriguez states that he wrote this book to help his own son stay away from gangs, I’m afraid that what will draw some of teens to the book is the graphic violence and sexual encounters. For my own part, I had a rough time with Rodriguez because he didn’t seem particularly contrite about anything he had done. My sense was that he found his own actions beyond his control because of his environment.