The way it is

Mexican-American poet/author Luis J. Rodriguez boldly challenges mainstream America to reconsider what we think we know about the Latino world — and about minority culture in general.

Rodriguez grew up in South Central Los Angeles, where he was heavily involved in gang life. He documented those experiences in his 1993 memoir, Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A. (Simon & Schuster) — a New York Times notable book that also bagged the Carl Sandburg Literary Award and the Chicago-Sun Times Book Award.

Rodriguez isn’t running anymore, though. Now settled in Chicago, he has penned three books of poetry: Poems Across the Pavement (Tia Chucha, 1989), the winner of San Francisco State University’s Poetry Center Book Award; The Concrete River (Curbstone Press, 1991), which garnered a PEN West/Josephine Mile Award for Literary Excellence; and Trochemoche (Curbstone Press, 1998). He has also written a children’s book, titled America is Her Name (Curbstone Press, 1998) and is the founder of Tia Chucha Press — dedicated to publishing the works of Latino writers.

The poet was rescued from the mean streets when a Latino youth center was set up in his neighborhood; its director, to whom Rodriguez’s second book of poetry is dedicated, showed the promising young man a detour from his dead-end road — a gift he has never forgotten.

“We were kind of confined to a world,” the poet once revealed. “The sense was, you couldn’t get out of this world. You were supposed to conform to the poverty, the factories, to whatever people said — this was our lot. And I don’t — and I didn’t — really believe that, and I think poetry allowed me to see that.”

Rodriguez has dedicated his life to helping those in situations similar to the one he escaped through words. He started the Youth Struggling for Survival movement, which strives to turn young people away from violence. Rodriguez also works with adult male inmates and hosts workshops and poetry readings. (For four years, he gave weekly poetry workshops at a Chicago shelter for homeless women.) In the introduction to Trochemoche, Rodriguez writes: “There is nothing more powerful and transformative in a human being than an awakened heart, an engaged imagination, the clarity of purpose associated with conscious life-activity.”

Trochemoche — which translates as “helter-skelter” — covers an impressive spectrum of topics and emotions. In “A Tale of Los Lobos,” the poet relates a hilarious incident in which he and three of what he calls his “Chicano buddies” are mistaken for the band Los Lobos at a small beer joint in Charleston, W.V. (“‘I liked the way you played guitar/at the gig earlier.’/’That wasn’t me,’ I explained./’What I want to know,’ the girl then asked,/’is how you got rid of the goatee so fast.’.”) In “To the police officer who refused to sit in the same room as my son because he’s a ‘gang banger,'” Rodriguez seethes with indignation at that dubious public servant — who declined to appear on a radio show with the poet and his son: “How dare you!/How dare you pull this mantle from your sloven/sleeve and think it worthy to cover my boy.” In “Notes of a Bald Cricket” — an extended prose poem — the author wrestles honestly with alcoholism and its negative effects on his life and relationships.

Rodriguez recently launched a series of one-week residencies — sponsored by the North Carolina Literary Consortium — which will take him all over North Carolina in the next few months. He’ll be giving readings and workshops for at-risk teenagers, Mexican immigrants, inmates, homeless men and women, and high-school students. All are welcome, however, to tune into this poet’s inspiring and enduring vision.

Luis Rodriguez will present a free reading and workshop at St. Justin Center (97 Haywood St., across from the Civic Center) on Saturday, Jan. 29, 2-5:30 p.m. (Asheville poet Allan Wolf will read from his work, as well.) The event is sponsored by the Asheville-based Writers’ Workshop and the Asheville Latin American Society; members of Asheville’s Latino community are particularly encouraged to attend (an interpreter will be on hand). A dinner (costing $15 per person) follows the workshop, to be held at Rio Bravo (34 Tunnel Rd.) beginning at 6 p.m. For dinner reservations or to learn more about this and other Writers’ Workshop events, call 254-8111.

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