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Luis J. Rodriguez: From Gang Member to Governor?

Posted on Mar 7, 2014

By Sonali Kolhatkar

  Writer and activist Luis J. Rodriguez at his independent bookstore and community center Tia Chucha in Sylmar, Calif., in 2011. AP/Damian Dovarganes

There is little that Luis J. Rodriguez has not done in his life. The 60-year-old Chicano poet and best-selling author has been a member of a gang, faced felony charges, struggled with drug addiction, worked in various countries as a journalist, painted murals, taught prisoners, organized against war and racism, and run a cultural center and bookstore in Los Angeles.

Now he wants to be governor of California.

Rodriguez gained national fame with his 1993 memoir, “Always Running, La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A.,” about his teenage years in a gang struggling with routine violence and the challenges of being an immigrant. Writing in the first chapter, Rodriguez evoked the day-to-day reality facing young people in his community: “But on those days the perils came out too—you could see it in the faces of the street warriors, in the play of children, too innocent to know what lurked about, but often the first to fall during a gang war or family scuffle.”


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His lyrical prose and brutal honesty earned him numerous accolades, including a Carl Sandburg Literary Award. But it also brought on a number of campaigns to ban the book from various schools. “Always Running” earned a spot on the American Library Association’s top 100 banned books list and Rodriguez says it is one of the most checked out and most stolen books from public libraries.

With more than 400,000 copies sold, “Always Running” launched Rodriguez’s illustrious writing career. He now has more than a dozen nonfiction and poetry books under his belt and has won more awards, including the PEN Josephine Miles Literary Award and the Paterson Poetry Book Prize. Today, he runs the beloved Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural & Bookstore in the Sylmar area of Los Angeles, a crucial space for low-income communities of color to explore literature, politics, music and art.

In a recent interview I asked Rodriguez why he is running for governor of the nation’s most populous state and the 10th largest economy in the world, and why he is in a race against the popular Democratic incumbent Jerry Brown. His answer was simple: “I’m trying to tap into the discontent of people who feel that the Democrats or Republicans don’t represent them ... and who feel that the electoral process is not really speaking for them.” More than 20 percent of California’s voters classify themselves as “decline to state,” meaning they do not want to be affiliated with either the Democratic or Republican party. Rodriguez hopes to persuade those voters to side with him and thereby challenge Brown to tackle big issues such as poverty, prison reform, health care and climate change.

Just as President Obama’s tenure has dampened progressive criticism on a national level concerning matters such as wars, corporate misdeeds and climate polluters, Brown has provoked a similar effect in California. Brown is a solid Democrat in that he has taken up some progressive causes in the state such as solar energy and funding public education. But, like many establishment Democrats, he has also been wary of taxing corporations, championed the environmentally destructive practice of fracking and refused to significantly reform the state’s broken prison system, among other actions. So, just as a vocal independent can draw attention to important issues ignored by the two major parties in a federal election, a candidate like Rodriguez has the potential to push an already progressive state electorate further to the left.

Fittingly, Rodriguez has won the endorsement of the California Green Party even though he is running as an independent candidate. The Green Party’s values of sustainable and equitable democracy are clearly reflected in his ambitious platform, which takes aim first and foremost at California’s high poverty rate. Rodriguez told me, “I’m talking about ending poverty. Why not?”

Despite its enormous wealth, California has the highest poverty rate in the country, approaching 24 percent, the U.S. Census Bureau has found after adjusting for the state’s high cost of living. “Almost everything stems from [the fact that] people cannot survive,” Rodriguez summed up. “We have to fight for a state that keeps people here and keeps people thriving.” To that end, he poses a challenge to the current economic system itself, saying, “Capitalism cannot feed everybody, cannot house everybody.” So, he asked, “how can we have a world that is equitable, where everybody is thriving?”

His answer is to go beyond what Brown, and even what Democrats and President Obama consistently rely on nationally, and that is raising the minimum wage. Although Brown signed a bill last year increasing California’s minimum wage by 25 percent, to $10 an hour by the year 2016, he has opposed a severance tax for oil companies operating in California.

Rodriguez believes such a tax, which even states like Alaska and Texas impose, should be enacted to help pay for anti-poverty programs. In other words, he wants government to “work for everyone,” rather than just corporate and wealthy interests.


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