In his autobiographical book Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in LA, Luis Rodríguez describes an incident that makes clear the violent reality of his childhood in the barrios of Los Angeles. One evening, when Rodríguez was ten, he and his friend Tino went to play basketball outside a local school. A police car pulled up, and the officers yelled for them to come over to the car. When the boys refused, the police chased them. Trying to get away, Tino climbed atop the school, fell through a skylight, and died.
Tino was not the only person Rodríguez saw die. By the time he turned eighteen, twenty-five of his friends had been killed by rival gangs, police, drugs, car crashes, and suicides. And Rodríguez’s experience isn’t unique. From 1990 to 1998, for example, more than six thousand LA youths were killed in gang-related incidents.
Rodríguez believes we cannot continue on our current path of criminalizing those whom society cannot accommodate, outlawing their actions, and declaring them the enemy. These people against whom we are waging war, he writes, are children who ultimately want what any child wants: respect, protection, belonging. On the most basic level, he says, children who join gangs want the same things as children who join the YMCA, Little League, or the Boy Scouts.
What does society provide them with instead? Within a three-mile radius of South Central Los Angeles, there are 640 liquor stores and not one movie house or community center. Rodríguez points out that “gangs flourish when there’s a lack of social recreation, decent education, or employment. Today, many young people will never know what it is to work. They can satisfy their needs only through collective strength — against the police, who hold the power of life and death; against poverty; against idleness; against their impotence in society.”
Born in the United States of Mexican parents, Rodríguez spent his early childhood in Mexico. Later, his family immigrated to the U.S., and he joined a gang in his teens. He and his fellow gang members saw no future outside their community. “We were kind of confined to a world,” he says. “The sense was you couldn’t get out of this world. You were supposed to conform to the poverty, to the factories, to whatever people said — this was our lot. . . . I think poetry allowed me to see beyond that.”
Rodríguez left the gang life behind in large part because of literature. For a time, he attended high school close to where his father worked, and after school he would wait at a nearby college library for his father to get off so they could go home together. To kill time, Rodríguez browsed the stacks, and that’s where he discovered the literature of revolution: Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land, Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the works of Haki Madhubuti and Amiri Baraka, and, most important to him, Piri Thomas’s Down These Mean Streets. He eventually dropped out of school and ended up back on the streets, but, he writes, “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.”
In part because of the violence Rodríguez committed in his youth, he has “sentenced” himself, as he puts it, to a lifetime of community service. He serves through his art, giving readings and workshops at prisons and elsewhere, and through the organization Youth Struggling for Survival, which he founded in order to help young people leave behind violence and find meaning. He is the author of three books of poetry — Poems across the Pavement (Tia Chucha Press), The Concrete River, and Trochemoche (both Curbstone Press) — and the children’s books It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way (Children’s Book Press) and America Is Her Name (Curbstone Press). He also runs Tia Chucha Press, which is dedicated to publishing emerging socially conscious poets.
I interviewed Rodríguez on Labor Day in Chicago, not too far from Haymarket Square, where a tiny marker commemorates the labor activists whose executions in 1886 led to the creation of the original labor holiday, on May 1. We sat in Rodríguez’s small but comfortable living room and talked of what it would mean to stop thinking of gang members as criminals and to start seeing them again as children and young men and women, the future of our communities. As we spoke, his five-year-old son sat on the couch behind him, occasionally peeking around at this stranger who had entered their home, then ducking back behind his father’s protective figure.
Jensen: In your book Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in LA, you wrote that gang violence in the sixties was only the beginning of “a consistent and growing genocidal level of destruction predicated on the premise that marginalized youth with no jobs or future are therefore expendable.”
Rodríguez: When I was growing up in the 1960s, only a few people were dedicated to living “the crazy life.” It wasn’t for everybody. For the most part, those who lived it were troubled kids who looked more at the dark side and were willing to do things most people probably wouldn’t — to break bounds and become outlaws. We didn’t want everybody in the gang; we wanted only the ones who’d manifest a kind of craziness, who’d be loco, who were what they now call gaga palos: “really hard.”
But in the last thirty years, many more people have become economically marginalized. And once you’re economically marginalized, you’re marginalized in every other way, too. LA provides a good example of this. Many Mexicans moved there to work in the factories and sweatshops, but in the seventies and eighties, all the big shops, steel mills, auto plants, and meatpacking plants began shutting down. Whole communities built on these industries suffered, and the kids in these communities grew up not only unable to go to college, but unable even to get a job. They started feeling expendable. And when you see yourself as expendable — when you’ve been told often enough that you are expendable — it’s very easy to “go crazy.”
It’s the same here in Chicago, which used to be a big industrial city. The industry has fled, and the kids — whether African American, Puerto Rican, Mexican, or poor white — are all going crazy. They even acknowledge this in the names of their gangs: the Insane Nations, the Maniacs. And it’s not happening just in big cities, but in the cornfields of Nebraska and in small towns in Wisconsin.
Jensen: What’s the connection between economic marginalization and marginalization in other areas?
Rodríguez: Our culture’s value system is built around being “productive,” which is defined as having a job. Even if you’re poor, when you’re employed you have a sense of being valuable in society. When your job disappears because of new technology or moving factories to Central America, it’s easy to internalize that feeling of worthlessness, instead of connecting your personal experience to larger economic and social issues.
I contend that “productivity” is not a wise place for a society to put a person’s value, but that doesn’t alter the fact that if you’ve got 70 percent unemployment on the west side of Chicago, that’s a large group of people who have “no value” to society. And if you have no value to society, everything else follows right behind: Schools don’t bother to educate you. Cops beat you up. And eventually society puts you in prison, to get you out of the way.
Young people, whether or not they’re working, have to be given a sense of who they are and the opportunity to do something with themselves. So often, when these kids turn violent, we see it as a behavior issue, and the kids themselves often feel they’re going crazy, that there’s something wrong with them. But there are plenty of larger problems that these kids are merely expressing.
Jensen: Reading your book, I was struck by how incomprehensibly different our childhoods were.
Rodríguez: My family moved from Mexico to a very poor, predominantly black and Mexican neighborhood in South Central LA, and the first time my siblings and I walked up the street, we got beaten up. Then there were railroad tracks we had to be sure not to cross, because whites lived on the other side, and if you crossed the tracks, they would beat you up. No matter where you went, someone was waiting to hurt you, to make sure you understood your place and how the world worked. In such an environment, you learned quickly that the world was full of limitations. You didn’t cross the tracks. You didn’t cross certain streets. You didn’t take certain classes. Teachers constantly told you to shut up, told you you’d never amount to anything. They told you not to speak Spanish. If you did, they’d hit you.
I grew up going to church, and my mother and father were fairly good parents, so it was hard for me to believe the world could be as violent as it seemed. Even by the time I was ten, when I had already seen so much violence, I didn’t quite believe it was real until the evening my friend Tino and I went to play basketball, and some cops chased us, and Tino fell through a skylight and died.
I ran from the cops that evening not so much because I was afraid, but because Tino said they would beat us up, and because he ran. I couldn’t quite make the connection between playing basketball and getting beaten up. But there the cops were, chasing a couple of kids whose only crimes were shooting baskets and being poor and Mexican.
My family was always dislocated, never fit in. No matter how many barriers we crossed, there were always more in front of us. Even when we later moved to the San Gabriel Valley, the schools there had a tracking system. (It’s illegal, but it still exists.) If you were Mexican and from my barrio, the Lomas, you were put in what they called the “dumb classes.” If you tried to break out of that track, they found ways to keep you in your place. I tried to take classes in art, photography, and literature, but the counselor told me those classes were all full. It was always the same: “I think you’ll find our industrial-arts classes more suited to your needs.” We were to work with our hands. They were preparing us to be factory workers.
Growing up in these circumstances, it’s easy to become violent and rageful. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable — or unexpected — response. If you’re treated like an outlaw, why not be one, even be proud of it? So by the time you’re, say, eleven, you’re starting your own gang. It was a way for us to belong to something, to embrace ourselves when others beat us.
You might ask where our families were during all this, but our parents were working hard just to stay alive and were unable to see what was happening. My mom and dad were good people, but they couldn’t handle the difficult questions we brought them. When we told them the cops were beating us up, they couldn’t believe it. “What are you talking about?” they said. In Mexico, maybe, but not in America. Not here.
So where could we go? All the adults denied what we were experiencing every day. Some — cops, teachers, and so on — were even saying that there was something wrong with us. So we had to create our own little world where only we could speak the language, and where we could define our own values, define ourselves. Then we could say, “We don’t care about your values,” and scare those who were prejudiced against us. That’s a big reason we tattooed ourselves and walked a certain walk and wore certain kinds of clothing. We wanted people to know we were coming, and we wanted to say to them, “You may not respect us, but you’re going to fear us.”
These suicidal impulses don’t emerge on their own. Society encourages these kids to turn their hatred inward because otherwise there’s a strong possibility they would turn their rage against the system.
Jensen: Years ago, I asked Native American writer Ward Churchill why oppressed groups so often turn to violence, and he said, “If you tell people they’re insignificant long enough, they may one day prove their significance by blowing your brains out.”
Rodríguez: I think that’s hard for people to accept, because not everyone has felt the kind of deep meaninglessness that can bring you to that level. But it does happen.
Jensen: So how do these gangs end up shooting mostly at each other?
Rodríguez: I think it starts with self-hate. When you’re given so little esteem by society at large, your social club becomes your only source of real pride: these are my “homeys,” and we’ve got our jackets, and we’ve got our name — the Gents, Kings, Superiors, Regents, Chancellors. We gave ourselves those grand names because we wanted to lift ourselves up. But all the time, self-hatred was festering underneath, because no matter how much pride we tried to build up, there was still that nagging voice saying, You ain’t no good, you ain’t no good. And so, eventually, we turned on each other. Our biggest enemy became not the police, the teachers, or the white guys, but each other.
Jensen: But why?
Rodríguez: Let’s say you’ve got your social club, and you’re really proud of it. Now you and your homeys go to a party wearing your jackets, and you look across the room, and you see another group of guys wearing their jackets. You’re mirror images of each other. They look like you, and you look like them. They act like you, and you act like them. You hate yourself, and you hate them. You feel as if they’re moving in on your party. So you challenge them, or they challenge you. It escalates. You fight them, and if one of them beats you up, you get five other guys to beat him up. All anyone has to do is throw a gun into the mix, and pretty soon somebody will use it. And once one side uses a gun, the other has to use a gun to pay them back. So it doesn’t take long for kids who are suicidal, self-hating, and on the edge of madness to start killing each other.
Jensen: You’ve written that “there is an aspect of suicide in young people whose options have been cut off. They stand on street corners, flashing hand signs, inviting the bullets.”
Rodríguez: Before we explore this further, I want to say that not every kid in a gang is violent. Most join just because it’s their neighborhood gang, their friends are in it, and they want protection. Ninety percent of what gangs do is hang out. What we’ve been told about these kids’ being “super-predators” is a myth. Most of what they do is boring, boring, boring.
But within each gang, there will often be a hard-core group of people who are violent. Maybe they’ve been beaten up by their dads, or by cops, or they’ve seen too much violence in the street. Whatever the reason, they’re in a gang and they’ve got all this hatred, so eventually the gang becomes the place where they can lash out at the world for everything it has done to them.
What they’re doing, though, is not just homicidal but suicidal. They’re killing people just like themselves, and they’re setting themselves up to be killed the same way. They hope to die in a blaze of glory. All other value has been taken away from them, but at least they can die for their barrio. It’s a very heroic stance. I know, because I used to take it. I would shoot at members of other gangs, but I would also challenge them: “Come and shoot me.” It’s all connected. You want to kill them, but you also want them to kill you.
Jensen: Is this in any way conscious?
Rodríguez: Very rarely. I try to explain it to the gang members I work with, and sometimes they agree. “I never thought of it that way,” they say.
These suicidal impulses don’t emerge on their own. Society encourages these kids to turn their hatred inward because otherwise there’s a strong possibility they would turn their rage against the system. This is where the police often come in. Sometimes their methods are as obvious as taking members of one gang over to another gang’s territory and forcing them to paint over that gang’s graffiti. But often it’s subtler than that. All you need to do is facilitate the flow of weapons and drugs into the community.
Now, people may find this hard to believe. . . .
Jensen: “Not in America,” as your parents would have said.
Rodríguez: Exactly. But it’s been proven that this happens. Usually you can’t pinpoint it, because the cops are smart enough to use indirect means. But they allow certain things to happen that will turn kids against each other.
Jensen: A couple of years ago, I read an article in which the lead singer of the rock group Rage against the Machine called the police “the biggest and most violent gang in the country.”
Rodríguez: That’s the way we saw it, and that conclusion is easy to come to: They’ve got the guns. They’ve got the uniforms. They’ve got the talk. Often, they even have gang names.
The interesting thing is that the gangs and the cops need each other. The gang member and the cop are practically created from the same cloth. Cops are marginalized in our society, in that they’re assigned to deal with the people nobody else wants to deal with. Nobody wants to give these kids jobs, psychological counseling, a proper education, spiritual engagement — anything they really need. So society says to the cops, “You take care of them.” And the cops believe they really are the “thin blue line” that separates this “garbage” from the rest of society.
As you know, cops go crazy, too. I’m sure you’ve heard about the high rates of abuse, alcoholism, and suicide among police. Why does that happen? Because despite all the cop shows and movies idealizing the police, they are in no way capable of handling the problems society has abdicated to them.
The gang kids end up paying the highest price. Society says they’re the enemy, so the police beat them up and harass them and even kill them, or put them in prison for almost nothing. All because society doesn’t want to deal with their problems.
Once, I was at a retreat, and a gang member got up and said to one of the white guys there, “My friend was killed by the cops, and I hate white people.” The white guy responded, “I had nothing to do with it.”
I think they were both missing the point. The kid wasn’t focusing on the real economic and social issues, and the white guy was forgetting that there are many people living in the suburbs, and especially in gated communities, who have removed themselves from the larger community, and who demand that cops “take care of” inner-city kids. Clearly, when a kid gets killed by a cop, the resident of the gated community is not pulling the trigger, but he or she has helped make that kid’s death possible — and in some ways inevitable. The police are killing inner-city kids in the name of protecting that gated community.
Now, I don’t hate cops. In fact, I feel bad for them the same way I feel bad for these kids. We’re setting both groups up. They’re all caught in the same web.
Jensen: What is that web?
Rodríguez: It starts with social pathologies. The pathologies may be violence at home, violence in the community, or whatever. But society is not entirely to blame. Much of the responsibility lies with the person who is caught in the web.
If you go into a prison, you’ll see that many gang members, especially the Mexicans, have spider-web tattoos. If you ask them why, they’ll say, “Society is coming at me, and I’m caught in the middle.” What I say to them is “You, too, are creating the web. No matter what society has done, no matter how marginalized you are — economically, socially, psychologically — you’ve got to identify with that role in order for the trap to work. La vida loca is a web that you’ve spun yourself. You’ve created your own prison. Yes, what happened to you was awful, inexcusable, but that pathology stays with you only if you socialize yourself around it. It’s up to you to stop identifying with these roles that society has thrust upon you.”
Of course, the answer is not to pretend the pathology doesn’t exist, that you’re not actually caught in any web, that you don’t or shouldn’t feel anger. If something happened in your life, or in your family, that really hurt you, that caught you in its pathology, then you have to go through those wounds to be renewed, to be reborn out of it. There’s a saying, “The wound is the womb.” We all have to be reborn. And that’s true not just of troubled young people, but of everyone, at every stage of life.
Native cultures are rich with initiations and rites of passage. A big reason kids get into gangs is because our society doesn’t provide them with initiation rituals that are meaningful to them, that validate who they are and what they feel. So they create their own rites of passage, but their rites are not complete because they don’t come from a larger communal tradition, and they aren’t validated by society. In fact, they’re explicitly invalidated: “How could you possibly join a gang?”
People generally don’t see the initiation role of these gangs. Or of prison. Prison is a profound initiation, an experience intense enough to get anyone to renew themselves. But again, it’s completely invalidated. The community condemns the offender, the jury convicts him, the judge sentences him, and the cops are there throughout the process. But after the kid has done his time — when he returns to the community — nobody is there for him. All those people who were so adamant about putting him away have moved on. There’s no follow-up. So the potential rite of passage is invalidated by society, and most kids end up going back to prison, where their experience is valid. It’s the same with the gangs: if the larger community doesn’t validate and recognize what these young people are trying to do, they’ll keep going back until they’re either in prison, dead, or addicted to drugs.
These kids . . . pick up and distort certain values of mainstream society: “Survival of the fittest.” “Kill or be killed.” . . . Expressions like these are capitalism in a nutshell.
Jensen: I wonder if part of these kids’ suicidal impulse comes from confusing actual physical death with the need to die to one way of life so that another can be born.
Rodríguez: What has to die if you’re going to be reborn is your infantile ego. Its death is necessary and natural. But you’re right: kids don’t understand that. They believe you really have to die. These kids need to die symbolically, but they’re doing it for real because nobody’s explained to them what they’re going through.
Another reason these kids are so violent is that they pick up and distort certain values of mainstream society: “Survival of the fittest.” “Kill or be killed.” Gang members always say these things. Expressions like these are capitalism in a nutshell, the whole social order. You go to the stock-market floor or the boardroom, and you’ll see “kill or be killed” in action. Only, when the kids learn it, they don’t get it quite right. They believe somebody really has to die.
If you think about it, many of these gangs are creating little capitalist systems in their own marginalized, impoverished ways. Drugs becomes their industry, and they literally “kill or be killed” to make the sales. They become very adept capitalists, but, just as with their initiation rituals, their business ventures aren’t legitimized by society as a whole, so they aren’t able to invest or hold on to the money, which means they won’t have much to show for all their years in business. They’ve bought into the whole system, yet they’re deprived of what they need most, which is social recognition. So they stay in their own destructive business and often end up in prison. Prison is full of entrepreneurs who, in another environment, would have been thriving capitalists. They’re the first ones to tell you, “I was just trying to make money.”
I remember one time I went to a juvenile hall and read some poetry. Afterward, one guy got up and asked, “Is there money in poetry?”
“Actually, there is,” I said, “but that’s not why I do it. I do it because I have the love and the calling.”
He said, “Forget that stuff. If it don’t make dollars, it don’t make sense.”
I thought, Who taught him that? The truth is that we all taught him that. Every commercial and program on TV, every message our society sends pushes him in that direction. He’s just trying to be a part of society. The problem is that he’ll never be a part of it. Instead of being a pillar of the community, he’s in prison.
Jensen: Given our society’s value structure and the reality of 30 to 70 percent unemployment in some communities, what can we do to keep fifteen-year-old kids from killing each other?
Rodríguez: It’s hard. When I was growing up, I would have shot anybody I thought was in my way. But I matured. That’s another thing most people don’t realize about gang members: most of them don’t get killed; they just mature. They start a family or start working, and they begin to think, Well, this ain’t the way to go: shooting people and seeing my friends get shot.
But how do we save the kids? We change society. And that’s where it gets hard. As long as we have an industrial economy, we aren’t going to get far. It’s industry that created gangs, because industry invented unemployment. The first street gangs we know of came into being in England during the Industrial Revolution. Soon after that, they appeared in the industrialized parts of the U.S., like New York City, for example, where immigrants came to work in the sweatshops. The first U.S. gangs were composed mainly of Irish-immigrant kids. Later gangs were made up of Eastern European immigrants, then Jewish immigrants, then Italian immigrants. Like the gangs of today, these gangs had colors and names; there were gang wars and rumbles. In fact, the most devastating gang rumble ever recorded wasn’t between the Bloods and the Crips, but between the Dead Rabbits and the Bowery Boys — two Irish-immigrant gangs in Hell’s Kitchen. The fighting lasted several days and left a hundred casualties, including at least a dozen dead and several cops shot.
So gangs are products of the industrial age, which is largely over. Unfortunately, the end of the industrial age doesn’t mean the end of gangs. The last time we had a shift of this magnitude was more than a hundred years ago, when the U.S. transformed from a plantation-agricultural society into an industrial society. That transition unleashed all sorts of chaos, and we’re going through the same thing now with the switch to a technological, information-based economy. This new economy is unable to integrate everybody, so we’re seeing a whole layer of society that doesn’t quite fit into the capitalist system anymore. Now we’ve got to figure out what to do with these people.
Gangs have exploded all over the country. And it’s not just black and brown kids anymore. The fastest rise in gang membership is among whites. I did a reading in a coal-mining town in eastern Ohio. The mines and mills there had all shut down, and the families whose grandfathers and great-grandfathers and great-great-grandfathers had worked in those mines and mills now had nothing. Two hundred kids showed up at my reading, all white. And they were really into what I was saying. If I’d closed my eyes, it could have been South Central LA or the west side of Chicago. They listened to heavy metal instead of rap, but they were all out for revolution, just like kids in LA. They had nothing to believe in and nowhere to go. Unfortunately, many of them were messed up on drugs — methamphetamines. That’s when I began to see that the problems don’t break down along racial lines, but have to do with fundamental economic changes.
In order to turn this period of change into something positive, we’ve got to undermine the logic of capitalism and reclaim whatever remnants of community we still have. Community has never been what capitalism says it is: a conglomeration of discrete individuals all pulling in their own selfish directions. Real community has always been made up of families, or just people, coming together for the benefit of everyone. It’s based on the premise that the survival of the community depends on the flowering of all of its members. In order for capitalism really to take hold as it has, that kind of community had to be discarded, discredited, and forgotten for many generations and replaced with dog-eat-dog nonsense. So now we have to revive the old notion again.
These gang members are striving for some kind of genuine community, one that will care for them, that won’t just let them slide or punish them. What they want — what each of us wants — is a community that addresses their souls, that gives their lives meaning. Every community that seeks to reestablish itself needs to start asking how it can bring purpose and meaning back into the lives of its children.
Jensen: So how do we do that?
Rodríguez: First, by recognizing that these kids are assets to the community. They’re not empty vessels that we have to pour resources into. They’re born with gifts, and all they need is enough nurturing and support to make it through the early stages of life and become competent and confident human beings. That is what creates community. You’re not going to create community out of a bunch of disconnected, wounded, maimed, hurting people, which is what we already have.
Every stage of a person’s life brings different developmental needs, and a real community intervenes appropriately at every stage. But that’s not happening in our society. For example, when you’re twenty years old, you’re approaching a major crossroads in your life, but by that age, most of these gang members are put away in prison and forgotten. Never mind putting kids in adult prisons; I don’t think twenty-year-olds should be put away at all, because there’s still time to change their lives. Huge changes take place in the early twenties.
It may be a cliché, but kids really are our future. We’ve lost that basic human understanding, but we can learn it again. It comes back if we just let it. It’s what my friend the mythologist Michael Meade calls “bone memory.”
I do poetry workshops with kids in prison. Many of them say, “I don’t want to write a poem.” I tell them just to write randomly, and I give them suggestions to help push them. When they write, all the memories start coming back. They’re astounded. They didn’t know they had it in them.
We try to teach these kids that their creativity is inexhaustible. It’s a lesson that can save their lives. They want to die because they’re in a box and don’t know how to get out of it. In prison, they’re condemned to being useless, and they need to know that they’re still useful in the world, that they can still have some impact through their creativity. They need to learn that, no matter how constricted their external circumstances may become, their creativity is boundless.
I’m no expert on Carl Jung, but I like his idea of the collective unconscious: that we all have an ancestral pool of knowledge and experience that we’ve somehow forgotten about. We tend to think everything is unique to us, and some of it is, but a lot of it is common to the human experience. And we can tap into that shared source.
We often do sweat-lodge ceremonies with gang members, especially Mexicans, because in their bones these kids are indigenous people. Part of why they are so wounded and violent is that they’ve been de-Indianized. So we work with indigenous elders to try to burn away five hundred years of colonization and get these kids back in touch with their roots. When they come out of it, often something has changed deep within them, and some of these gang members become beautiful human beings. It’s important never to give up. Some of the kids I work with do terrible things. Some of them are sitting in prison. But we don’t give up on them.
Never mind putting kids in adult prisons; I don’t think twenty-year-olds should be put away at all, because there’s still time to change their lives. Huge changes take place in the early twenties.
Jensen: It sounds as if you’re saying that one of the most important things we can do, not only to help get kids out of gangs, but also to undermine capitalism, is to value children for who they are.
Rodríguez: Valuing children sounds so innocent, but if we really put it into practice, it would destroy capitalism. Capitalism cannot withstand that kind of change in values. If you start bringing forward these communal, traditional, cooperative ways of living — which are far older than capitalism — capitalism will begin to wither. Capitalism is based on scarcity, whereas these traditions are based on abundance.
In the temporary communities we create with these kids, we try to give them the knowledge, love, and attention they need to go forward on their own paths and become responsible for their own journeys. Capitalism tries to force us into the molds of factory worker, manager, and so on, instead of recognizing that each of us is imprinted with some destiny that we have to fulfill, some place we must go, regardless of race or class.
And once you’ve gone out into the world and found your own destiny, you have to come back and use your new understanding to strengthen your community. It isn’t like the American Dream, where you go to college, get a well-paying job, and leave behind forever the town where you grew up. Your community owed it to you to help you find your potential, and you owe it to your community to give back more than it gave to you.
When I was growing up, I took so much away from my community. I hurt a lot of people. I may not be spending my life in prison, like some guys I knew growing up, but that’s just because I got away with my crimes. I took from my community, and now I need to give back to it. So I’ve sentenced myself to a lifetime of community service. No judge made me do this. I do it because it’s what I need to do. And I serve through my writing, my words, my work: not through something outside of myself.
Jensen: Through the center of your being; just through who you are.
Rodríguez: To me, this is where the real revolution lies. Because revolution is a healing process. There’s a wound in the land, in the center of the culture, in all of us, and we need to take a healing road. We need to heal personally, communally, and socially, and to participate in the healing of the land. Revolution should be a kind of rebalancing, not just an attempt to overturn the government and get rid of the people who run it.
Jensen: Where do drugs fit into all of this?
Rodríguez: Drug culture is American culture. The situation has changed dramatically over the past thirty years. The kids who were using heavy drugs like heroin back then — at least, in my community — were poor Mexicans: in other words, only the marginalized kids. Now it’s not just Mexicans. It’s middle-class white kids who are shooting up. Plus, the heroin now is many times more potent than it was thirty years ago. Back then, you had to mainline it to get a real high, and you could use it for a while before becoming addicted. Kids these days are just snorting it, and they’re overdosing.
Things are starting to fall apart all over. Even the people who really believe in capitalism, who benefit the most from it, are dying from it, too. Capitalism is killing middle-class white children as well as the poor. Those weren’t gang members who carried out the Columbine killings. Those were middle-class kids. You know which community has the highest number of heroin addicts per capita in the country? Plano, Texas — a gated community. What do you do when even living in a gated community isn’t going to save you? There’s a great street saying: What goes around comes around. You can’t kill off the Indians and rob them of their land and build an industrial society that steals the blood and soul of every immigrant and not pay a price for it. We’ve all paid a tremendous price for it, and we’ll continue to pay.
Heroin addiction, alcoholism, and gangs are just symptoms of much deeper problems. And one of those problems is that we no longer have anything resembling a spiritually based communal life. I took drugs for seven years, and then I drank for twenty years. Now I’ve been sober for six. But for that twenty-seven years, I was sleepwalking, not believing in anything.
Jensen: How did you get sober?
Rodríguez: It began with writing Always Running. Finally telling that story after twenty-some years was extremely healing. And I had to do it. My son Ramiro was in a gang, and I wanted to save him, but I felt totally inadequate. I didn’t know what it meant to be his father. I didn’t know what to do. So I wrote that story for him.
The process of opening up to all the terrible things I’d done was transformative. But I was still drinking, and my drinking was taking me away from my kids, my writing, my marriage, everything. I couldn’t go to AA. I’d tried it three times. I knew a lot of people whose lives had changed because of AA, but I knew myself well enough to see that I would have become addicted to it: just substituted one addiction for another. Drugs and alcohol are all-consuming. So is recovering from them. I didn’t want to be consumed by either. I went through a Rational Recovery program, a non-twelve-step alternative to AA. The program made it clear that if I was rationalizing drinking, I could just as well rationalize not drinking. I started putting my life together, and pretty soon I didn’t want to drink anymore. That’s how it happens many times.
I won’t lie to you: heroin feels good. You can’t tell kids, “Just say no.” It’s a great feeling. In order to let it go, you’ve got to have something better to replace it. One of the reasons so many poor kids — and now rich kids — do heroin is that it’s one pleasure society can’t take away. Cops and teachers and other adults may look down on you, but none of them can deny you that pleasure. The physical addiction is strong, but nowhere near as strong as your brain’s grip on that lonely pleasure.
Jensen: It’s that spider web again.
Rodríguez: Exactly. Your brain has to change its viewpoint, change its vision, and stop holding on to that pleasure. Only then can you say, “I’m never going to do drugs or alcohol again.” That’s the only way to get off it and stay off it.
Jensen: What’s the relationship between sobriety and revolution?
Rodríguez: There’s a strong connection, because drugs are one way people avoid vital issues in their lives. Drugs take everything away, leaving you with no time for anything else, whether it’s raising a family, getting a decent job, understanding yourself, or trying to transform the world.
I’ve been a revolutionary for a long time, but after I became sober, I realized how inadequate all my previous efforts had been, because so much of my energy had gone into finding my next drink. It was the one need that came before all others. When I was able to get drinking out of the way, I began learning more, reading more, writing more, and meeting more people. I began trying to communicate more with my own kids, and also with kids in the community. I started my own press, Tia Chucha Press, named after my favorite aunt. I helped create Youth Struggling for Survival here in Chicago and cofounded a group called Rockamole [rhymes with guacamole] in LA that puts together music and art festivals. I couldn’t have done any of this when I was drinking.
Jensen: It seems to me that one of the most important things we can do to change this culture is to create alliances between groups with common interests, like farmers and environmentalists. How can we do that with inner-city kids?
Rodríguez: Someone once pointed out to me that the word respect comes from the latin respectus, which means “to see again.” It’s a beautiful concept. We have to see each other again. We have to see the gang member again, and the poor farmer, too. As we see them again, we find they’re not that different from us, that a thread connects us all: the Indian on the reservation and the immigrant just arriving on these shores; the middle-class kid in the suburbs and the gang member in the inner city. The more we look, the thicker that thread becomes. Sometimes it may be invisible, but it’s there. We’ve got to make it more visible. There is no such thing as a separate reality. What we do here affects people over there.
Jensen: What you’re saying is doubly true for two kids from different parts of the ghetto, wearing different-colored shirts.
Rodríguez: That’s what I try to get these gang members to realize: that it’s another human being just like them whom they consider the enemy. I tell them to ask themselves why they want to kill this other guy. What is the history behind it — not just the recent history of “He beat up one of my friends,” but the larger history? How much of their anger is real, and how much of it is the result of manipulation, or of not seeing clearly?
Jensen: Does what you’re saying apply also to the cops who are beating these kids up or manipulating them into killing each other?
Rodríguez: That’s an important and difficult question, and leads to one of the most difficult questions of all — that of violence.
I won’t say whether violence is or isn’t necessary, but I do think most revolution is nonviolent. Most of what we’re talking about is teaching and healing. I think a lot about the Zapatistas in Mexico. They came down from the mountains with guns when they started, but most of their fighting has been through poetry and words. It’s important to note, however, that the Zapatistas do carry guns. They haven’t walked down like lambs to the slaughter. So I can’t say we should never be armed. But it must be done in connection with larger issues. The beauty of the Zapatistas, or of others like them, is that they know there’s something bigger empowering them. It has to do with the imagination, with reexamining our ideas and perceptions and laying bare the basics of who we are.
If I look at a cop and see him as just a man in a uniform, he’s my enemy. But if you take the uniform off, and he’s at home trying to raise his family, then he’s just like me. It’s what that badge represents that I want — and need — to deal with, not that particular cop, who’s just a fellow human being, no better or worse than you or me. I want to destroy the system that put that cop in a position where he’s going to beat up me or my kid, where he can come into my house and decide what is right and wrong. But I have absolutely no desire to kill that particular person, who may have to do whatever it is he’s doing just to make a living.
It’s extremely important for us to examine the issue of violence, because it isn’t theoretical. Violence is a given in our society. Some of these kids are armed to the teeth. I always tell gang members, “If you’re going to die for a five-block piece of land that you don’t even own, or for the name of a gang, or for someone’s shoes or jacket, you’re selling your life very cheap. If you’re going to die for something — and we all die someday, anyway — why not die for something big? Die for the whole world.”
Of course, we need to move the emphasis away from dying. When I was a kid I would ask myself what I was willing to die for. Now I ask what I’m willing to live for. And if you know what you want to live for, you begin to want to live; you do everything you can to live. And you no longer want to kill, because part of the reason you want to kill is that you don’t care if you die.
In my talks, I get really adamant about the need for change, and once somebody asked me, “Are you talking about overthrowing the government?”
I said, “No, I’m talking about overthrowing the consensus that we all participate in that allows kids to be killed in the street.” That’s what I’d like to see overturned. Our governmental and economic systems can withstand bombs and bullets, but they couldn’t exist in a society where we took care of everyone: No poverty. No homelessness. Nobody hungry. Nobody needing medical care and dying just before they get to the steps of the hospital because they don’t have insurance.
Things can change, even in a cynical world where so many perceptions are deeply entrenched. We must undermine the idea that the current system is somehow inevitable and immutable. One place we see this idea enshrined is in prison. Sadly, I know about that.
My son is serving a twenty-eight-year sentence in a maximum-security prison. I go to see him as often as I can. He tries to keep his spirits up, but recently he said, “I can’t see myself changing. I can’t see myself losing this rage.” I knew he was just repeating what everything in his surroundings tells him. He was buying into what the system wants him to believe: that he’ll always be crazy. But my own experience is proof that change is possible. I’m very gentle now. Not that long ago, you wouldn’t have wanted to get near me. And if I can change, then anyone can.
The system teaches a different concept. The belief that things can’t change is central to the logic of addiction. It’s what keeps you trapped in the web. When you’re surrounded by pathology and abuse, it’s easy to feel you can never break free of that web of addictions. But it’s still possible. Nobody says change is easy. It takes effort. But it’s possible. That’s why I called one of my books It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way. When you’re in a gang, you feel you’ll never leave it. Gang members often say, “Can’t stop, won’t stop.” But then they learn some small lesson, or discover a different way of looking at things, and suddenly the world cracks open for them, and they see that it doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t have to live in a world where more poor kids go to prison than to college.
If we really want revolutionary change, if we really want kids to stop killing and dying in the streets, we need to reimagine society. For me, it all starts with saving these kids, the worst cases. We have to have courage and put our morality on the line. We can talk about morality all we want, but it really boils down to this: when my neighbor’s house is burning, am I going to jump in and save him? His life versus mine. That’s the true test of it. And right now the house is burning around these kids, and the most moral people I know are the few who are diving in to save them — and, in the process, saving themselves.