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A photo of Luis Rodriguez speaking in a library wearing a grey and black suit. 

Writing as Activism: An Interview with Luis Rodriguez, Poet Laureate of Los Angeles

“The humanities can be a beacon for the road we must be on, a road with little or no markers or guideposts, one we have to make ourselves.” – Luis Rodriguez

Luis Rodriguez is a poet, novelist, memoirist, short story writer, children’s book writer, and essayist. He is a community & urban peace activist, mentor, healer, youth & arts advocate, husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. From 2014-16, Luis served as the official Poet Laureate of Los Angeles. He is also the founding editor of Tía Chucha Press and co-founder of Tía Chucha’s Centro Cultural & Bookstore in the northeast San Fernando Valley. Tía Chucha’s Centro Cultural & Bookstore is a current Humanities for All Project Grant recipient.

To celebrate National Poetry Month, we caught up with Luis to ask him to share with us more about his experiences becoming a writer and advocating for youth and his commitment to uplifting his community through the arts and humanities.

How did you become a writer?

By accident… but, looking back, I know it was no accident. Language in some form, its use, and mastery was in my soul’s DNA. It was a calling during the worst time in my life. I was a drug addict, in a gang, homeless, in and out of jails, when I began to write. I finally cleared out a small cell-like room in the family’s garage and moved in. No heat. No running water, but it had a roof. I painted all over this room—I was also a graffiti artist. In addition, I “rescued” an old beat-up Underwood Typewriter I found in the garage and began to write—very badly, I must add—my first stories, thoughts, ideas, fragments of what would later be poems. The fact I loved to read made this possible. Even homeless, I spent hours in the libraries. I would have books under my arms when I went to the ‘hood’ to hang out. I was the weird homie that loved books. Reading and writing saved my life.

You have focused attention on enhancing education and other supports for young people and their families. Why are reading and writing so essential to youth development?

Seeking knowledge is an innate human need. However, schools often knock this quest out of us. Knowledge is obtained from teachers, from experiences, from traveling. It also comes from reading. Self-study should be an aim of all study. Self-discipline should be the outcome of proper familial or community discipline.

In my case, to stay out of trouble when I left drugs and crime, I worked in industry—in a paper mill, in a smelter, in construction, as a carpenter, and four years in a steel mill. But when deindustrialization hit the US hard in the 1980s, I decided to renew myself into what I always wanted to be: a writer. I took night classes and entered a minority journalist program at UC Berkeley. I worked in weekly newspapers and a daily newspaper and wrote for news radio and magazines. I freelanced stories from throughout the country as well as Mexico and Central America—including indigenous uprisings and during the Contra War. I got involved in poetry scenes in Los Angeles and Chicago. By 1989 my first book of poetry appeared. In 1993, I published my bestselling memoir. I now have 16 books in all genres.

What inspired you to found Tía Chucha’s Bookstore and Cultural Center? What role does it play in the community?

When my wife Trini and I returned from Chicago—where I lived for 15 years—to our city of origin, Los Angeles, we landed in the northeast San Fernando Valley. It was 80 percent Mexican and Central American, some half-a-million people with no trade bookstores, no movie houses, no decent cultural spaces. We decided to create one with the royalties from my books—instead of, say, buying a Lexus or a swimming pool. Tía Chucha’s Centro Cultural & Bookstore is named after my favorite relative, an aunt, who loved to play guitar, sing, do poetry, and paint. I wanted to honor that creative spirit. It’s where the idea of transformative arts, arts as healing, as essential, found a home and which has now spread around the state, country, and even the globe. We teach music, dance, theater, writing, and visual arts and have an art gallery and performance space. We hold cultural festivals. We are indigenous-based—my mother had roots among the Raramuri (Tarahumara) people of Chihuahua, Mexico. Yet, everyone is welcomed.

You were named poet laureate of Los Angeles in 2014. How did you envision your role and the role of poetry in society more broadly?

I started with a premise—everyone is a poet. Language is one of the most powerful inheritances we have as human beings. Poetry is the highest form of language expression. I went everywhere to draw out poetry as well as inspire it. I was asked to do a minimum of six events the first year as L.A.’s Poet Laureate. I did 110 events. The next year forty libraries invited me to read or do workshops; the city asked me to do at least two. I did all forty. I also produced the largest anthology of Los Angeles poets through our own press, Tía Chucha Press, called “Coiled Serpent: Poets Arising from the Cultural Quakes & Shifts of Los Angeles,” edited by Neelanjana Banerjee, Daniel A. Olivas & Ruben J. Rodriguez. My aim then as now is to help make poetry an every day, every occasion thing. The rising star of the US Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, demonstrates this—I worked with her when she was 17 years during my time as L.A. Poet Laureate.

What will the humanities of the future look like?

Presently, especially during the Pandemic, we are seeing the fissures and fractures of our social fabric. Every institution is in crisis, including churches, political parties, and government. It’s a time not to keep doing the old things in the old ways. It’s a time of imagining, which is what the humanities are about. We are in the rising feminine—a time of reflection, visioning, designing. Instead of carrying around the corpses of old ideas and forms, weighing down our traction, we should be rebirthing new concepts, new ways of thinking, and doing. To be wombs, not tombs. I’m excited for the humanities now. Time to be present—with threads of the past linked to threads of the future. This is also a precarious time—one of danger and opportunity, which is what crisis represents. The humanities can be a beacon for the road we must be on, a road with little or no markers or guideposts, one we have to make ourselves. What Joseph Campbell called the “pathless path.” Campbell spoke of this for individuals, but as a culture and society, we are entering a similar threshold. The humanities can illuminate the way.

About Luis Rodriguez:
For over 40 years, Luis has been doing writing workshops, poetry readings, lectures, and healing circles in prisons, juvenile lockups, jails, migrant camps, Native American reservations, homeless shelters, public & private schools, colleges, universities, libraries, bookstore, festival, and conferences all over the United States, Mexico, Central America, South America, Europe, and Japan. He has 16 books in all genres, including the bestselling memoir “Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gand Days in L.A.” Luis is the founding editor of Tia Chucha Press and co-founder of Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural & Bookstore in the northeast San Fernando Valley. From 2014 to 2016, he served as Los Angeles’ official Poet Laureate. Luis’s last poetry book, “Borrowed Bones” appeared in 2016. His latest book is 2020’s “From Our Land to Our Land: Essays, Journeys & Imagings of a Native Xicanx Writer.”

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