Many students know about Luis J. Rodriguez’s memoir Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in LA. We have multiple copies in the library as it has remained popular. From my conversations with students who’ve read the book, I know that the gang action is what appeals to them, and this is unfortunate as the purpose of the book is to show how Rodriguez gets sucked into that life and how he works to get out of it.
Still, I understand why students would miss this in Always Running. However, Rodriguez’s new memoir, It Calls You Back has a much clearer look at his life, at his struggles to come to terms with his past, at the reasons why his youth and gang activities haunt him as he works to be both responsible and creative. It is far more honest about his part in things going wrong. This time there is no sense of the politically correct ‘mistakes were made,’ but instead, Rodriguez painstakingly details not only the many hurdles placed in his way, but also his own errors. He talks about the terrible consequences of his actions.
Rodriguez begins his story with a police beating and a trip to jail because he had tried to stand up for a woman who was being beaten by police. In prison, fellow gang members tell him that he shouldn’t get involved in other people’s business. But Rodriguez is maturing and knows that the time has come for him to make a difference in the world. He tells them that he wants out of the gang life. He’s surprised when they agree to release him, and tell him this is his chance to turn things around not only for himself, but for others.
As Rodriguez admits, his heart is always controlling his behavior. He marries much too young and quickly has two children. (Ironically, when his own daughter decides to set up a household and have a baby as a teen, Rodriguez tells her just what a teacher had told him and his girlfriend—this is a bad idea, it will create obstacles to your life’s dreams and goals, etc. It didn’t work with Rodriguez, and it didn’t work with his daughter. The heart wants what the heart wants . . . . Happily, daughter Andrea is later able to get back on track with her life and graduates from college.)
Rodriguez speaks honestly about his rage, his post-traumatic stress remaining from his earlier gang life. Although he later has other children with his third wife, children who seem to thrive, it is his relationship with his first son, Ramiro, that much of the book details. Ramiro ended up gangbanging just like his father had. And no amount of Rodriguez telling him to learn from his father’s experience could change that. Ramiro was imprisoned for attempted murder over a road rage incident in which he tried to kill the other driver.
Rodriguez does more than just talk to his son about starting a new life. He participates in a dizzying number of community organizations. He is one of the principal organizers, and attends events in many countries. He is a writer and sometimes a news reporter. Having seen things from both sides, he understands the causes of crime. Nevertheless, he is frustrated in his attempts to bring this out, to have articles published.
Through much of his life, Rodriguez is poor. Although he’d had a job at Bethlehem Steel with decent wages and insurance benefits, he was stifled by the grueling work and the deep, institutionalized prejudice he encountered there. He makes a courageous decision to quit doing industrial work and put his energy into creative endeavors. Unfortunately, this is a sure way of staying impoverished, as many a creative soul will tell you. And, truly unfortunate is that impoverished parents have a much more difficult time keeping their kids in an environment where they can thrive. Rodriguez puts a lot of effort into changing his neighborhoods, but it is a monumental task, especially with little outside support.
Rodriguez is also a poet, and although there are some clunky descriptions and passages in It Calls You Back (especially, for some strange reason, on his relationships with women), the reader will find the poetry as well. I enjoyed this memoir, the work of a mature man taking an honest look back at his life. I recommend it to all high school students, but especially hope that those who’ve read Always Running will read this to get the rest of the story.