I’m lucky. Close to my heart are many people I admire. These are men and women who, each in his or her unique way, “walks the walk.” Prominent among my heroes is Luis Rodriguez, the author of “Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A.” and many other important books of poems, fiction and thinking about the need for (and value of) art and community.
I first met Luis in the early 1990s when I took a group of teenagers — students at the continuation high school where I then shared poetry — to a reading of “Always Running.” Luis wrote this memoir of his own heroin-addicted, gang-involved, youth for his oldest son when Ramiro was getting into his own trouble. Both Luis and Ramiro read at Black Oak that evening, and my students and I were all moved and impressed.
Over the years, Luis and I have met a few times: we were on a panel about prison writing together at a Book Fair in Arizona; we had some good talks during the first national Arts in Criminal Justice conference. I witnessed Luis’s presence and power at an early Mosaic Multicultural Foundation gathering of elders and youth. But, until now, I haven’t had the privilege of seeing Luis in full action.
Luis is in the Bay Area this week, and I’ve been honored to accompany him. On Monday, we went to New Folsom (California State Prison-Sacramento), and yesterday to Log Cabin Ranch (the San Francisco Juvenile Probation Department’s post adjudication facility). Last night, Luis read as part of the WritersCorps reading series at Intersection for the Arts.
At New Folsom and the Ranch, Luis spoke to men about his own life and the deep, difficult, work he has done to honor his true destiny and to reject the fate others (from politicians to homeboys) wanted to impose on him. Art was the vehicle, community the necessary support. At the Ranch, one young man asked Luis about his accomplishments. “Learning to be a good father,” topped Luis’s list.
In CSP-Sac’s B Facility, a group of about forty men of all backgrounds and ages spoke of their own hunger to write, and of their need for programs to help them claim the good they know they have within. In A Facility, a smaller group spoke to us of the program they themselves had begun which supports them as they work toward positive personal and communal goals. At the Ranch, the teenagers were alive to what Luis shared and also still pulled by the lure of the street. Luis presented no bullet-point plan, but rather the demanding deep work of discovering oneself, opening to the help of others, committing to one’s own spiritual path whatever that might be, and to the life work of being true to one’s unique gifts.
I know our youth need what we each can give “whether we’re white, brown, black, rich, poor, or in-between.” And I also know — because I see it every day — that there is no sharing quite as important as that which flows between elders who’ve been there and youth still stuck. Luis’s own life — his immigrant parents; his addictions; his gang days; his work to become a free man, an artist, and a good father — is his bond. As he said in his keynote speech at the Arts in Criminal Justice conference, he’s done hard work, but he also knows he’s been lucky: he might well have ended up dead or in prison. Therefore, he told us, he’s sentenced himself to a lifetime of community service.
“We can never give up on our youth,” Luis said over and over these past few days. He hasn’t. He doesn’t.
P.S. There’s still time to catch Luis reading tonight at the Mission Branch of the San Francisco Public Library. 7 p.m. 24th and Bartlett.
This entry originally posted at RedRoom.