La vida rica of Chicano storyteller

By Andy Sywak Special to the Daily Planet
Tuesday April 16, 2002

East Los Angeles, the famed rough-and-tumble Mexican neighborhood, has been a continuing source of inspiration to one of its native sons, Luis Rodriguez, bringing out poetry, political commentary, a memoir and now short fiction. 

Best known for his unsparing memoir about life as an East L.A. gang member in "Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A.", Rodriguez read last night at Cody’s Books on Telegraph Avenue from his new collection of short stories, "The Republic of East L.A." A frequent speaker at youth conferences and schools, Rodriguez also spoke at San Lorenzo High School during the day.  

With three works of poetry, two children’s books, and two non-fiction titles to his name, "The Republic of East L.A." represents Rodriguez’s first foray into adult fiction. The twelve stories in the collection chronicle different characters as they make their way around the boulevards and sidestreets of the author’s hometown.  

"They’re (the stories) based on real people, people I’ve known, experiences I’ve had, or stories I’ve heard," Rodriguez says about the tales, most of which were written over the last three years. Rodriguez wrote the final story, "Sometimes You Dance With the Watermelon," twenty years ago. It was from revisiting this story and others that "The Republic of East L.A." came to be.  

"I’ve put the gang situation in the background," Rodriguez says, hitting on the new stories’ relation to "Always Running." "Most of the stories are not about gangs. Even though that’s what East L.A. is known for, there’s really a lot more to it than that so I decided to focus on other aspects of East L.A. life and culture." 

Citing literary influences from fellow L.A. author T.C. Boyle ("I love T.C. Boyle" Rodriguez says), to Tobias Wolff, Robert Olen Butler, and Native American writer Sherman Alexie, Rodriguez aimed to be as original as he could in his adult fiction debut. 











"I am purposefully trying to have my own style," he says, "which I’m not sure how well I succeeded at. I really tried to not write like anybody - it at all possible - but the influences are there." 

As a seasoned political organizer and speaker to at-risk youth, Rodriguez is used to communicating his experiences directly and up front. Did he find the less linear and more subtle form of fiction hard to adjust to?  

"Some of the issues, social and political, these people are involved in are a part of the background of the story," he says. "But of course with fiction, you try and not make it an essay. You gotta try and make sure the characters and the situations they’re confronting makes it a story, and not impose the situation."  

Involved in gangs during his youth, Rodriguez has been speaking at schools and juvenile detention facilities for over twenty years. Discussing his talk in San Lorenzo, Rodriguez said he planned to speak about "the importance of everybody finding their particular art, their particular purpose, their passion. That’s the way I look at my writing, it’s a very innate passion that I have that keeps me going, that’s gotten me through a lot of hard times… I think it’s important to show why art and purpose is important to find in your life."