|CONVERSATION: LUIS RODRIGUEZ|
April 29, 2002
| RAY SUAREZ: The book
is "The Republic of East L.A." It's a collection of short stories
about the barrios of Los Angeles. The author is Luis Rodriguez, essayist,
poet and storyteller. He's lived and worked in the Los Angeles neighborhood
he writes about, and in these stories he sketches very real people living
with hope, struggle, modest victories, and sometimes crushing setbacks.
Luis Rodriguez, welcome.
LUIS RODRIGUEZ: Thank you for having me.
RAY SUAREZ: Now, you've been a published poet for a long time. You got a lot of attention with your memoir.
LUIS RODRIGUEZ: Mm-hmm.
RAY SUAREZ: Why did you turn to fiction?
LUIS RODRIGUEZ: You know, I actually started writing them about 20 years ago. The oldest story's about 20 years old, and I think what happened, over the last three years I really got into thinking I could do this -- because all my non-fiction work, it focuses on reality and things. I really thought it was good to begin to imagine these people -- based on real people, based on experiences I knew -- but kind of like imagine them in different situations or how they would grow. And that was intriguing to me, but also I thought I could probably do it, and ended up with about a dozen stories.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, the East L.A. that emerges from your stories is, on the one hand, like a separate universe from the rest of L.A. that's known by tourists and many Americans from TV shows -- very much a part, yet very much hooked into the life of the rest of the city, all at the same time.
LUIS RODRIGUEZ: Yeah. I think that's kind of what makes it what it is. It's got a flavor all its own. People who don't know L.A., the L.A.has a certain kind of sameness, you know, but when you get to East L.A., it's like a different world. People are out in the street. People are actually... families are everywhere. There's things happening all the time. It's more compacted. And I wanted to catch that flavor while, at the same time, it definitely tied into all the communities, especially the working-class communities all around L.A.and other cities, because these stories are really ultimately about working-class people.
RAY SUAREZ: The people have their own language, customs, street ways, extended families, relations, yet they still have to live in that other city. They work there. Sometimes their kids go to school there. Their bosses live there. So that west side is there, but not there, at the same time.
LUIS RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, it's almost amazing because you can see downtown's big huge skyscrapers over, looming the barrios. But there's people there that have never been further beyond downtown. There's some who have never been to the beach. And this is an amazing thing when you think about it. How can you live in L.A. and not have gone to the beach? But there's self-contained parts of those communities.
Yes, there's people that get around, they work in those places, they know where the job and come back home, and they seem to just see home as "that's where everything is." That's where their families are. And there's kids that I know that just don't know anything else. They mention L.A.... they actually use L.A. like it was another world. It's, like, "wait a minute, you live in L.A." "Oh." They never think of it this way.
RAY SUAREZ: But the people on the west side don't exactly get to East L.A. that often, either.
LUIS RODRIGUEZ: Exactly. That's the other side of it. They really ignore it. It's a city that people talk about. It's got rumors all over the place. People know about the gangs and poverty, but very few would ever venture into East L.A. Proper. Very few, if you ask them what's it like, they have no idea. They just know what's over there is across the L.A. River, and that's really the end of it.
RAY SUAREZ: The cast of characters that emerges from these stories sort of illustrate the whole range of Mexican- American life at the beginning of this century. Some people have been here for many generations. English has become more dominant than Spanish in their home. Many people got here just, like, the day before yesterday, yet they live together.
LUIS RODRIGUEZ: I wanted to bring that out. There's tensions because of it, of course there's also connections, but the tensions people don't talk about. And, as you know, one of the stories actually has two brothers who see differently the Mexican population coming in. And you do have these people who have been there so long, and all they do is speak English, and then you've got this new large number of immigrants that's recently come in.
And then, all of a sudden, you start seeing fairly poor people looking at each other and saying, "wait a minute, I'm better than you." You know what I'm saying? They start playing that game, you know, "we're both poor but I'm better than you." Pretty soon you start seeing people put people down. And I wanted to bring it out because I see that East L.A. has got a lot of beauty, it's got a lot of strength, but it also has some of these things that we need to look at. Why do we end up hating our own people just because their status or their place is different than ours, or because they speak more Spanish or vice versa? I think it's a matter of looking at what we have as a community that ties us, versus what makes us different.
RAY SUAREZ: There are people with more and less education, people who have married out and married in-- are these the kinds of strains that we'd see on a typical block in East L.A.?
LUIS RODRIGUEZ: Well, you know, I think partly when you go to East L.A., You know, some blocks are almost all recent immigrants, and then some are older. People actually will own their homes in East L.A., which is not that many, but the ones that do have been there for many generations. You have to know kind of like which area is what. Then you have all these in- between things. I think what I wanted to do with these stories was to kind of bring in more of that part of East L.A. that we're not used to.
Again, I'm not saying that the gangs are unfair, or the poverty is unfair-- it's all there-- but that's what generally people talk about. What I wanted to do is... it's in my book, too. What I wanted to do was bring these other people that you don't normally think about, like a young kid who has a rap/metal band. People don't even think that East L.A. would even pay attention to that. But East L.A., like all parts of this country, they have all kind of tastes. They have reggae bands, they have rap, and they have the traditional kind of music, the mariachis and others. They also have los lobos-type bands, but they also have punk bands, and rap and metal bands, and I wanted people to realize that East L.A. has all the variety of different things that most people wouldn't think that it would have.
RAY SUAREZ: And an aspiring journalist and skilled tradesmen. You know, just like anyplace else.
LUIS RODRIGUEZ: That's right, and even a winito. ( laughs ) I had to tell the winito story, too.
RAY SUAREZ: Meaning, for those who don't know?
LUIS RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, there's a little story about a young guy who ends up an alcoholic. But it's, like, you see the winitos in the corner, you know they're in the neighborhood, but whoever bothers to find out what their story is? And I wanted to bring in a story of one of them, just to see how that would work out. It's a very sad story, because basically, you think about it, there's some sadness that has to be part of that, but I wanted to bring in this kind of evolution of this young man who he becomes one of the local town drunks.
RAY SUAREZ: So, when you finish these stories, do you want people to walk away from the book thinking, "this is a different pla.ce from anyplace I know"? Or do you want them to have this experience with your book and say, "you know, life in this place is a lot like life in many places in the rest of America?"
LUIS RODRIGUEZ: I think the best thing is if they thought both those things at once. To me, if the stories work, if they thought, "man, these are people that are very unique, very special," and at the same time, they're thinking, "you know what? I know these communities. I've been there. They're in Chicago. They're in New York. They're in Texas." You know what I'm saying? And they're not even all Mexicans. Sometimes you can see that working-class strain of immigrants who come to this country over several generations. And they... they're part of that, you know, so I wanted people to be able to find those connections as well as to say you know, these are also very uniquely vital people in their own way.
RAY SUAREZ: And is life getting better in the neighborhoods that you're writing about? Did the boom of the '90s miss the boats in East L.A., as well as other places in the Southland?
LUIS RODRIGUEZ: Well, I think like most parts of the country, it's affected by what happened in the economy. On the one hand, the economy changed on them. These were factory-working people. The big plants, where a lot of them are working-- the meat packing, there is a big steel mill that, in fact, I used to work in-- they all left. They all left in the '80s, and then the people who were left were, "well, what else do we do?" So they get into the service industries. And supposedly that's what's helping them, but even that's not helping. And I think that they're representative of all the economic shifts that's going on in this country where you've got communities that have been pretty much abandoned.
The thing that keeps East L.A.alive, though, is the large number of Mexican immigrants who come in who work at the very lowest of the economic, you know, ladder that there could be, but they're still hard- working people, they're still good people. They still have great values from Mexico that they bring in, and this keeps the kind of churning that East L.A.is, the kind of mix that it keeps showing up. So I think, on the one hand, it's suffered a lot over the last few years, but on the other hand, I think it also gained a lot of strength, and who knows what the future is going to hold? But when the recession happened, they suffer along with it. But when things pick up a little bit, some of them do better.
RAY SUAREZ: "The Republic of East L.A." Luis Rodriguez, thanks.
LUIS RODRIGUEZ: My pleasure.