At age 40, Luis Rodriguez figures he should have enough life experience to deal with the problems of his 20-year-old son, Ramiro. He talks to Ramiro, draws him out about what he’s feeling. He talks to Ramiro’s friends, offering a nonjudgmental ear. He takes the boys to sports events and even helped them start a youth group. But none of it seems to matter. Ramiro is in trouble–gang trouble.
What makes the situation especially painful for Rodriguez is that he has had to watch his son repeat the same dangerous steps into street culture that he himself took 20 years before. “I was into gangs at 11 years old,” says Rodriguez. “I didn’t get away until I was 18. Twenty-five of my friends died by the time I got out. It was a hard-core experience and I didn’t want my son to go through it.”
Rodriguez, a writer and poet, didn’t tell Ramiro about his gangbanging days; he was afraid of providing a bad role model for a boy already filled with anger. But when he discovered Ramiro’s involvement in street life, he decided to set his past down in writing. The result, Always Running–La Vida Loca: Gang Days in LA, won Rodriguez the 1993 Carl Sandburg award and the 1994 Chicago Sun-Times Book Award. It was one of the New York Times’s “notable” books in 1993 and was recommended for teenagers by the New York Public Library. The book has become essential reading for young people and adults trying to figure out the allure of what Rodriguez calls la vida loca–“the crazy life”–and Rodriguez has become a gang expert on the author’s lecture circuit; he travels the world pleading the cause of young people, breaking down and explaining the reasons they join gangs and offering alternatives to keep them out.
But when it comes to his own son, Rodriguez is just another worried father. Ramiro appears to be out of the gangs for the moment, but as Rodriguez knows there is no firm line between in and out. “When I got out, my homeboys would always look me up, ask me to do armed robberies with them, try to pull me back in. I get angry and then I get scared when I think about my son being involved with gangs. I barely survived it. What are his chances? He’s a good kid and I believe in him, but I’m afraid he might get killed.”
We kept jumping hurdles, kept breaking from the constraints, kept evading the border guards of every new trek. It was a metaphor to fill our lives–that river, that first crossing, the mother of all crossings.
The details of Luis Rodriguez’s life don’t fit the accepted notions about what attracts kids to gangs. Both of his parents were in the home; neither drank or did drugs; they didn’t fight a lot. His family was poor but his father held a degree in biology. He instilled in Luis a respect for books that saw him through difficult times. His older brother had been a good student and athlete, supplying another positive role model.
When Rodriguez was born his family lived in the border town of Juarez, Mexico. Like his siblings, however, Luis was born on the El Paso side of the border, a U.S. citizen–his mother made sure of that. Life in poverty-ridden Juarez was hard for an educated man like Rodriguez’s father. He’d hoped to become a doctor but wound up as principal of the local high school–still a fairly prominent position. Rodriguez’s mother was his secretary. In Always Running Rodriguez writes that local politicos drove his father out of his powerful position with trumped-up criminal charges. Although he was found innocent after a drawn-out trial, he was convinced that the U.S. would offer a better life for his family.
So they crossed the river and moved to “La Colonia,” the Mexican section of Watts. Luis’s father, who was never able to master English, could only find occasional construction or factory work; his mother cleaned houses. Everywhere they went they were treated as outsiders. Luis quickly learned to recognize a phrase that would define their existence in the United States: “This is not your country.”
“In those days, you weren’t allowed to speak Spanish in school, they literally beat it out of me,” Rodriguez remembers. His older brother was put into classes with mentally disabled children because he didn’t speak enough English. Young Luis didn’t speak much English either, but he understood enough to know that he was not wanted in the school, that he was a burden to the teachers and students. Allowing a Spanish word to slip out, even during recess, was cause for punishment, so he learned to withdraw and become invisible, lurking in the back of class, speaking only when he had to go to the bathroom.
When he was nine, the family moved to South San Gabriel, an unincorporated part of LA County. This was an area of factories, farmland, and migrant camps, home to some of the poorest people in the area. Here Luis and some friends created a club, or clica, Thee Impersonations. “We weren’t in boy scouts, in sports teams or camping groups,” Rodriguez writes. “Thee Impersonations is how we wove something out of the threads of nothing. . . . There were other clubs popping up all over, many challenging anybody who wasn’t into anything. All of a sudden every dude had to claim a clique.” These clubs began as outlets for the raging hormones and restlessness of adolescent boys. They had jackets, they had colors, they had identification cards. They played football and went on trips to the beach or the mountains. But soon the clubs began consolidating, and their pastimes became more serious. Rodriguez and his homeboys advanced to shoplifting, bike and car theft, burglary, and finally armed robbery by the time he was 13. At age 15 his parents forbade him to enter their house without permission; he lived in the garage.
In high school there were strict color and class divisions; the whites took college prep courses, Mexicans took “industrial arts.” Luis fought a lot. He shot people. He plunged a screwdriver into a man and firebombed a house. He took pills, mescaline, heroin, and PCP.
His father, who had written textbooks in Mexico, was now a janitor at a junior college in the San Fernando Valley, and he transferred Luis to a relatively prosperous high school near the college, where he hoped Luis would get a good education and a different outlook on life. His curiosity piqued, Luis signed up for classes in photography, literature, and advanced art. But a counselor quickly informed him that the classes were filled, he wasn’t academically prepared for them, and the industrial arts classes were more suitable for his needs. He fell into his old pattern of getting into fights and was labeled violent and uncontrollable. He had already shown an interest in literature: he had started pecking out his experiences on his father’s old typewriter. But there was no formal way he could pursue this interest.
After school Rodriguez would wait in the college library for his father to finish work. He browsed through the books there, checking indexes for entries under “Mexican,” but he found little to interest him until he happened upon a special shelf near the front of the library. Under the watchful gaze of the librarian, he discovered books like Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land, Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, and Piri Thomas’s Down These Mean Streets–books about the streets that he could relate to.
Though he eventually dropped out of the new school, the experience of that library stuck with him. “I ended up back in the streets,” he writes. “Somehow, though, it wasn’t the same as before. A power pulsed in those books I learned to savor, in the magical hours I spent in the library–and it called me back to them.”
By now it was 1970; in the wake of the Watts riots of 1965, federal money was flowing into the barrio and political consciousness was high; Rodriguez fell under the influence of a youth center director who got him into a summer job program and introduced him to organizing. He went back to his old high school and became a leader of the Chicano students, who were now demanding more say in the operation of the school and more classes and programs to suit their needs. He became a columnist for the school newspaper and staged walkouts to protest school policies. Demonstrating against the Vietnam war in an East LA park, he was beaten by police and arrested in what later was called the “East LA riot.” He was 16 years old. They put him in a jail cell next to Charles Manson.
Rodriguez had been in and out of jail cells all over LA from the time he was 13. Jail was one of the places he worked on his “Pachuco blues,” or gang tales. By the time he was 17 and a high school senior, he had a pile of work, poems and vignettes, that he showed to a teacher on a whim. She entered it in a Chicano literary contest sponsored by a Berkeley publisher. He was shocked when he saw his words typed in manuscript form. He couldn’t believe that he had managed to string these sentences together, he who had most of his Spanish snatched away and had never learned English very well either.
Rodriguez was chosen as one of two honorary winners in the contest. His prize was $250, a plane trip to Berkeley, and a contract with the publisher. He graduated from high school and entered California State University, majoring in broadcast journalism and Chicano studies. He seemed to be on his way. But he had not yet escaped the violence of the barrio.
One day Rodriguez saw a woman being beaten on the street by a police officer. He tried to stop it. He sees the incident as the turning point in his life. “When I got political, I got dumber,” he says. “Nobody gets involved in a police arrest. But I had changed. It was a matter of honor.”
Rodriguez says he inadvertently kicked the police officer in the scuffle. Facing a stiff sentence for assaulting an officer, he copped a plea and spent two and a half months in the LA county jail. “I don’t think I would have survived any longer,” he says. “Two months in the LA county jail is like three years in the state penitentiary. The jail was run by a prison gang. If you had a rep on the street as a soldier, they’d ask you to do things like get information to people or kill snitches. If I had stayed longer, I would have had to kill somebody. You didn’t have too many options.”
When he got out, Rodriguez swore he’d never go back. He got married at 20 and moved to South-Central LA to distance himself from his gang. He worked in steel mills, foundries, and construction sites. He began working with local gang kids. Ramiro was born when he was 21.
Rodriguez had sworn off drugs when he left gang life, but alcohol was legal. “I let go of the drugs. Drinking took its place,” he says. “At steel mills, there are lots of opportunities to drink, everybody was an alcoholic. I was enraged all of the time. I liken it to Vietnam veterans; they’re back into a calm world but they’re still raging about what they went through. The drinking was a major outlet to deal with it.”
The rage and drinking undermined Rodriguez’s marriage, and after three years he got divorced. Ramiro was two and his daughter Andrea was ten months old. They stayed with their mother.
Shortly after the breakup, Rodriguez began to pursue writing in earnest. He took night classes in creative writing and journalism and in 1980 quit his industrial work to join the East Side Sun, an East LA weekly. For six months he emptied the garbage, swept the floors, wrote stories, and did some photography for $100 a week. Later that year he moved to the San Bernardino Sun and covered the police beat for two years, but he says he alienated his Republican editor by writing from his community’s viewpoint. After being let go there he freelanced and did PR for unions and Latino newspapers. He also organized Latino literary workshops in East LA.
In 1985 black activist Nelson Peery, an old comrade from his political days, invited Rodriguez to come to Chicago to edit the leftist Peoples Tribune. When he arrived he found a burgeoning poetry scene and dove in, joining up-and-coming performance poets like Patricia Smith and Michael Warr in local bars, clubs, and theaters.
“LA didn’t have the same kind of scene,” Rodriguez remembers. “Chicago seemed to be pioneering the whole saloon poetry scene. I started to read, find my voice, and get my issues out about LA because of the distance.”
His first book of poetry, Poetry Across the Pavement, was published in 1989 and won the Poetry Center Book Award at San Francisco State University. He founded his own press, Tia Chucha Press, named for his beloved crazy aunt Chucha, to publish his work and that of other local poets. The press merged with the Guild Complex in 1991. His second collection, The Concrete River, won the 1991 Pen Oakland/Josephine Miles Award for literary excellence.
Meanwhile, Rodriguez’s children, Ramiro and Andrea, were living in LA with their mother, visiting Chicago for a few weeks every summer. Ramiro didn’t say much about his life in LA, but eventually Rodriguez learned from his mother that the boy, now 13, had begun to run away from home and become violent.
“She called me and said, “You need to be a father to him,”‘ says Rodriguez. “There wasn’t a lot of closeness between us.” So Ramiro came to live with his father and stepmother in Chicago. “The first year he gave us hell. He was resentful and he didn’t know how to articulate it. He ran away, got kicked out of schools. He would go off if you challenged him. He didn’t respect us or our authority.”
At the same time, the family was trying to cope with its own problems: there was a new baby in the house, for one thing, and Rodriguez’s drunken rages were getting worse. After 20 years of drinking, alcohol was starting to control his life. It fueled many of the fights between Rodriguez and his son.
Rodriguez remembers rage springing up just as he was starting to value life. He says he used alcohol to calm his demons and wash away the memories of gang violence and inner-city brutality.
“There’s alcoholism in my family, but it’s a funny “heredity’ thing because when we were Indian people before the Europeans came, we didn’t have alcohol,” he says. “But after the intensive alcoholization of our people, we started inheriting certain aspects of alcoholism. All of my uncles were alcoholics. My grandfather was a terrible alcoholic. My mom tried to keep it away from us as kids. But it didn’t help. When I became an adult, I became like my uncles. I think it did come from my anger, growing up in gangs. Alcohol was a good way to ease a lot of the pain, a lot of the anger. Ramiro has the same temper I have: a very short fuse. We would rage at each other. I can be really terrible and I think part of his rage against me was to get me to shut up.”
Finally it dawned on Rodriguez that Ramiro was going down a path that was familiar to him. “I think the first time I realized it was when he started sneaking out in the middle of the night,” Rodriguez remembers. “I remember this terrible dream I had. He was running through the street and the street was all wet. I saw a body and I went over and turned it over. It was Ramiro. I woke up full of sweat and really upset. When I went to his room he was gone. It reminded me of what I used to do, sneaking out at night. That’s when I realized he had something in the streets that was calling him.
“He was being kicked out of school. The cops were picking him up. There were all kinds of things that indicated something was happening. Eventually I confronted him and he just told me, “Well, yeah, I’m in a gang.”‘
Rodriguez took the news badly. “I felt everything that a father goes through,” he says. “I told him, “No. You ain’t gonna be in no gang.’ You know, that’s just the way a father is. He took it the same way I would’ve took it. He ran away for two weeks.”
At first Rodriguez felt helpless, but then he realized he could use his firsthand knowledge of gangs and of what Ramiro was going through. “Instead of being a father that didn’t know what was happening, I realized I could go back and remember. Why did I get in gangs? What helped me get out of it? I started working with Ramiro [instead of insisting] “There will be no more gangs.’ I didn’t make the gang the issue anymore.”
Like a lot of young people drawn to the gang life, Ramiro felt his homeboys were his family; he couldn’t trust anybody else, but they accepted him for who he was. So Rodriguez decided to start family counseling, hoping it would pull deeper issues out of his son. The family pulled together. Andrea, who was 13 at the time, decided to move to Chicago to help her brother. Their mother agreed to travel from LA to attend counseling sessions. “He had so much to get through,” says Rodriguez. “It was a life and death issue.”
But before the counseling could begin, he had to send Ramiro to a psychiatric hospital.
“It was only a stopgap measure because he got picked up by the police and they were going to put him in the Audy Home,” Rodriguez says. “I didn’t want him there because I know what it’s like. I’ve been in. I would lose him. He was too young, too impressionable, too angry, too confused. So I got him into this psychiatric hospital–not because he’s crazy but because he had all these problems. He had all this anger. It was a place where I could visit him every day and talk about these issues.”
But the hospital wasn’t that good for Ramiro. They kept him in leather restraints because he was so violent. They kept him on drugs. After three months, Rodriguez decided to get him out.
“It was good for a while, to keep him from going to the Audy Home, but it wasn’t good in the long run. They were just trying to keep him medicated and they weren’t dealing with the issues.”
One of the issues that arose in counseling was that Ramiro had been physically abused by at least one of the men who had lived with his mother after her breakup with Rodriguez. “I had heard things here and there, but nobody would tell me what was happening,” remembers Rodriguez. “He was living in LA when it happened. His mom would call and she always gave me these glowing reports. It’s kinda my fault because I should have found out. I later found out that once she called me from a battered women’s shelter. I guess the attitude was maybe I’d be angry. Maybe I’d be upset. Maybe I’d kill somebody. But I didn’t really get into their lives. When she said everything was great, I just left it alone and said, “OK, cool.’ I was doing my writing. I wasn’t really worried about it. Later on, I felt bad that I had essentially abandoned them.”
In the psychiatric hospital, Ramiro asked why his father hadn’t been there for him and his sister. “It hurt me to hear these things,” Rodriguez says. “I wanted to change that and I felt the only way to do it was not to cry or feel bad but to start now. I wanted to be there for him as much as I could.”
When Ramiro got out of the hospital, he was more determined than ever to be with his homeboys. But Rodriguez understood his motivation and refused to give up. “We gave him some choices, one of which was going to a boys’ home or staying with us. He decided to stay with us. I wanted him to know that he couldn’t just give up on us.”
Around the same time Rodriguez moved his family out of Humboldt Park. It wasn’t solely because of the gangs, but he thought this was a chance to get Ramiro away from bad influences. Of course Ramiro would sneak back to the old neighborhood. “It was the same thing I did, the very same pattern,” says Rodriguez. So he decided to do something drastic: “I decided the best way to talk to him was to write a book.”
I learned something about my father’s love, which he never expressed in words, but instead, at great risk, he gave me the world of books–a gift for a lifetime.
Rodriguez had piles of writing about his gang years stuffed in a drawer. He had planned to write a novel someday. Now he decided to write a nonfiction account, hoping he could tell his story with enough power to save his son’s life.
He took eight months to write the 251-page book, working full-time as a typesetter to pay the bills and moonlighting as a newswriter for WMAQ radio on weekends. Curbstone Press published Always Running in 1993. The critics loved it and so did Ramiro. “He didn’t know what I was doing until it was published,” Rodriguez says. “Then it all started coming out.” Rodriguez saw visible changes in his son’s behavior. “He got more articulate, he started respecting me. He learned more about who I am. He went voluntarily with me on the promotional book tour, to five cities.”
They did a two-man show. Rodriguez spoke as a former gang member, Ramiro as an active one. “It was very powerful to listen to me and then to him,” Rodriguez recalls. “He explained why kids join gangs: they’re looking for families, they’re looking for something to do, a place to belong. A lot of times in their own communities or families, they don’t get this. I didn’t feel I had to set him straight. Everything was right. I think he was speaking from his heart and a lot of youth could relate to what he was saying.”
Ramiro also began reciting poetry during the book tour. At the psychiatric hospital he’d been asked to write down his feelings; he began to write essays and eventually developed them into poems. “I’d take him to readings and he’d pick up things,” says Rodriguez. “He’d carry a little notepad around and write down his thoughts and they’d turn into poems. During the tour, I’d have him read a poem before we’d talk about an issue.”
But as the book he had written to save his son’s life drew more and more attention, it tugged Rodriguez away from Ramiro. Readings, book signings, and speaking engagements monopolized his time. While he was away, his wife Trini did the best she could, trying to manage a baby and two stepchildren. But she couldn’t control Ramiro. When Rodriguez returned from a 30-city tour in the spring of 1993, he discovered that his son was even more enmeshed in the gang life.
“I went on a three-month tour and he really needed me. He got back in the streets. He got in trouble in school. I think it was partly because I wasn’t there. It was good that I did the book, but it was pulling me away from him. It’s a balancing thing, being there as a father and not letting the book get in the way. At the same time, the book was opening up this whole world where I could give my son opportunities that he hadn’t seen before. It was kind of like they were both necessary.”
The book and the notoriety it brought Rodriguez began to drive a wedge between father and son. Rodriguez was making a living and helping other young people by speaking about gangs. But Ramiro resented the absences, and during them slid deeper into street life. Rodriguez decided that he could no longer go on tours for more than two weeks at a time. He had to be a consistent presence for Ramiro.
There was one positive development while Rodriguez was on tour: Ramiro tried to hide his gang activity, which Rodriguez interpreted as a good sign. “I knew what he was doing, but it was good because it meant he cared enough to do that. It was a big step because before what he said was, “I don’t give a damn about you or anybody.’ Now he was at least thinking that he could appease me. It was like, “Maybe I do care what my dad thinks.”‘
Still trying not to make gangs the issue, Rodriguez encouraged his son to bring his friends home. “I asked him, “Why don’t you bring your homeboys to the house?’ It gave them a sanctuary, a place to hang out where there were no drugs or violence. We even had a couple of his friends on house arrest. All his friends were always respectful. We never had any problems from them. That’s when they decided to develop a youth group.”
Like his father before him, Ramiro began to get involved in organizing. He and 100 young people formed Youth Struggling for Survival (YSS). It started as a peace summit among rival gangs and evolved into gang and nongang members alike uniting to voice the issues that young people face. Last August Ramiro helped organize a citywide youth conference that addressed issues like police brutality, lack of jobs, and violence. Rodriguez acted as their consultant. “Even though they were still in gangs, they were looking for alternatives, looking for positive things if given half the chance. It’s touch and go, back and forth. They’re doing OK, then they make a mistake and they’re in jail. But at least we could be there for them. We talk to them, help their parents out.”
Rodriguez was also encouraged when Ramiro’s poetry was selected for an anthology called Open Fist: An Anthology of Young Illinois Poets. But Rodriguez knew his son wasn’t going to leave the gang. Acting as a spokesperson and youth organizer helped Ramiro articulate and understand his experiences, but he couldn’t yet get out of the gang life. That, Rodriguez knew, would take time.
“The only way for him to pull away from it is the way most kids do, he has to mature out of it. He doesn’t have to be jumped out, he doesn’t have to betray his gang. All he has to do is mature out of it,” says Rodriguez. “That’s the way most gang kids get out if they don’t get killed, shot, or go to prison.”
Last winter, Ramiro appeared to be on his way. He was involved with YSS, encouraging his gang friends to join. He had attended several peace summits. Then, one day in December, Ramiro and a friend got picked up for a drive-by shooting incident. Though no one was hit in the alleged shooting, the police are calling it attempted murder.
“We bailed him out,” says Rodriguez. “I saw it as the same thing I went through. I was doing very well and then I had a setback. It’s never a clear break. It’s always back and forth. I realized I needed to be there to push him in the right direction.”
Several months later, Ramiro was arrested in another shooting. (Again, no one was hit.) He was in the county jail without bail. This time Rodriguez decided not to help. “I wasn’t going to even get my lawyer to work with his case because I felt it was something he needed to go through. But his sister made a very moving plea to me.”
Andrea, now 17, cried when she heard her father was thinking of leaving Ramiro in jail. She and Ramiro had suffered together growing up in LA. “She told me, “Dad, he’s crying out to you and he really needs you even though it doesn’t seem like it,”‘ Rodriguez remembers. “She convinced me and I knew in my heart that she was right.”
Rodriguez got a lawyer for Ramiro. He had kids from schools he had visited write to Ramiro in jail. Family and friends called and wrote. Rodriguez sees the situation as the same thing he went through. It wasn’t until he was thrown into LA’s county jail that he realized what he didn’t want to do with his life.
“I never betrayed my gang, never turned my back on them, never asked to be kicked out. It was more like I was on another path. I didn’t want to be doing kid stuff, shooting people. Life had more meaning to me.
“Unfortunately, I’m a very rageful person,” says Rodriguez. “Growing up with my rages, it hasn’t been easy for Ramiro. I raged all the time. I wouldn’t hit nobody. It was always screaming. He would just hide. Nobody would confront me.”
Two years ago, Rodriguez signed up for an alcohol recovery program, vowing that his home would no longer be a place of anger. “I had to stop drinking. I really thought there was a time I could stop. But my doctor told me I wasn’t going to make it. I wasn’t even 40 years old. I went through the Rational Recovery program.
“I was always the kind of guy who drank a lot and I’d always be hurting people. The kids motivated me. I had to be all the way there for them and I couldn’t do that when I was drinking. I couldn’t be a good husband, a good writer, a good father.
“I’ve been sober for two years. Ramiro saw my example and he told me he didn’t want to drink anymore. It’s good that it came from him. He turned his back on drugs right away. He even helped his friend into a drug recovery program. We’re kind of helping him mature by being there for him.”
There comes a moment when one faces the fresh features of an inner face; a time of conscious rebirth, when the accounting’s done, the weave in its final flourish, a time when a man stands before the world–vulnerable, nothing-owed–and considers his place in it. I had reached such a moment.
Rodriguez stands before a class of 20 grammar-school kids at El Hogar del Nino, a Pilsen community center. They’re listening intently as he describes his LA childhood. “In those days, you weren’t allowed to speak Spanish,” he says. “But they didn’t teach me to speak English very well. Language became power to me. In my poems I told the stories about my life. Even if you don’t have a command of the language, your stories are important.”
Pushing back his black Kangol cap, he reads a poem about a rooster who thought it was a dog. The children listen while they pass around and eagerly scan The Concrete River and Poems Across the Pavement.
“It’s more than just about roosters,” Rodriguez says when he finishes the poem. “It’s about people trying to be like other people. People don’t like that, they want you in your own little place. Poems are usually about more than one thing.”
He reads “Race Politics,” a poem about how he and his brother tried to cross the tracks to the white grocery store where they had the “good food.” His voice rises as he recites:
There we were, two Mexicans,
six and nine–from Watts no less.
Oh, this was plenty reason to hate us.
Plenty reason to run up behind us.
Five teenagers on bikes.
Plenty reason to knock
the groceries out from our arms–
a splattering heap of soup
cans, bread and candy.
Plenty reason to hold me down
on the hot asphalt; melted gum,
and chips of broken
beer bottle on my lips
The poem ends with the small boys getting beaten and Rodriguez’s brother demanding a promise from him:
When they had enough, they threw us back,
dirty and lacerated;
back to Watts, its towers shiny
across the orange-red sky.
My brother then forced me
to promise not to tell anybody
how he cried.
He forced me to swear to God,
to Jesus Christ, to our long-dead
keepers of our meddling souls.
He looks at the class and asks them what the story is about. A ponytailed girl quickly answers “racism.” Rodriguez nods his head and gives a little lesson in the nature of poetry.
“I’m not going to tell you racism is no good, I’m going to bring it to life for you,” he says. “I’m going to make you feel like you’ve been beaten up. I say it with music, there’s a music, there’s a rhythm, there’s a beat. There’s a way of telling a story. I believe all of you can do this. All of you are valuable. It’s important to tell your stories.”
A few months later, in his Logan Square home, Rodriguez speaks of his son’s story. “Ramiro’s telling his story about his experiences helped him transcend and voice what he was going through,” he says. “He learned about what I went through, but he wasn’t able to really connect it until he started going through [some of the same things]. Then what I wrote and what he went through started to converge, then he began to grow.
“He’s going to be 20 years old now. I know the book, all his work with the youth, plus things going on in the streets are forcing the issue with him. The gang isn’t the same anymore. That’s what happens to these kids, things keep changing. Some of his homeboys aren’t there for him no more. He feels a lot of the irony. It’s not this glorious army of people who’ll always be there for him. Some are going to betray you. When you’re in jail, who comes to visit? These are the realities he’s learning. A lot of these kids have to learn the hard way. Gangs serve a very important function up to a certain point. The rest of it, you gotta start finding somewhere else. I still haven’t attacked his gang members or why he joined a gang. If I did, it wouldn’t work. He says it’s something he had to do. His friends mean a lot to him. I just want him to understand that the world is very big and vast. There is so much he can give to his community, to his homeboys, by being more socially active and less violent.
“He’s learning to deal with his anger somewhat. Every once in a while he’ll go off. It’s very normal for teenagers to go through this. His biggest beefs are with his teenage sister. I try to get them not to argue the way kids do. It’s just when it’s mixed up with all this other stuff that it looks very ugly. How do you try to get him to control all this anger?”
Ramiro got out of the county jail after two months. He’s awaiting two trials for the shooting incidents. In the meantime he’s working and he’s enrolled in an English class at a local college.
“Believe it or not, I see him as more prepared intellectually than I was when I got out of gangs. There’s just not enough alternatives for him like there were when I was growing up. There aren’t too many options. There was work you could do. Now even this doesn’t exist. Going to college is like this big, beautiful thing to him but he doesn’t know what he wants to do.
“But he’s doing OK. He’s not an angel, though. He gets into trouble and right now he’s trying to control hanging out in the streets. There’s a lot of excitement out there. There aren’t too many alternatives for that kind of excitement. There’s not a lot of social recreation going on. The schools don’t really engage these kids intellectually or creatively. The gang serves a lot of that. It’s a place where they do get engaged. There’s excitement, fellowship, acceptance.
“I see him trying; [before he got his present job] he went out on interviews but the jobs weren’t there. He’d come back very sad. A friend of his went for a job all the way out in the suburbs and he was two minutes late. They saw him, figured this inner-city kid is late, you can’t come in. People are really closing doors on them. They want it both ways. They want these kids not to be gangbanging in the streets but they’re not opening doors for them. These kids are trying. I’ll tell you, they’re trying. They do get disappointed. They do get hurt. You gotta keep pushing, you gotta keep pulling.
“A lot of these kids are on kind of a suicide path. The way inner-city kids commit suicide, they don’t always blow their brains out. But they put themselves in the position to get killed. They don’t call it suicide but what they do is the same thing. That goes back to why I speak, why I go to these schools, prisons, centers. So I can keep talking to people about what kids need so that they get the help. We need to be there for them. We don’t want them to be helpless, but the best way not to be helpless is to be helped. You can’t really care for yourself unless society cares for you. When you value yourself and have some self-worth, then you can do for yourself.
“Ramiro has calmed down a lot since he got out of jail. He always had it in him. He always had this beautiful side and now I see more of it come out. He’s more open, more respectful.”
The poet takes out a lined sheet of paper and begins reading:
The day the world took my life away. The day I took my life away from the world. I opened up my eyes, to the world that has chained me, to this dying earth. My heart has been broken. Not for the love of someone else. But for the love I did not have for myself.
He looks up and shakes his head, a worried father feeling fear, hope, and even pride. The poem was written in jail by his son.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.