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Gang Youth, Art and Soul

An Interview with Luis Rodruíguez

© 1996 by Bert H. Hoff

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Luis Rodruíguez, an award-winning poet, is the author of Hearts and Hands: Making Peace in a Violent Time. In this interview he talks about many of the themes he developed more fully later in Hearts and Hands. He has worked with Michael Meade and the Mosaic Foundation at multicultural events for youth for a number of years. Portions of his memoir, Always Running: The Vida Loco, Gang Days in LA (order on-line) have appeared as spots on National Public Radio. After reading his story in Muy Macho, (order on-line) an anthology about being a Latino in American culture I decided to call and interview him. We never got to the topic of machismo. Instead, we talked about Luis' art and his multicultural work with youth.
Luis Rodriguez
Luis Rodruíguez

Hearts and Hands book cover
Hearts and Hands
by Luis Rodriguez
Information about the book
Order on-line

Always Running
Luis' biography Always Running: The Vida Loco, Gang Days in LA
Order on-line

Luis' book of poems is
Always Running

Trochemoche (TROH-chay MOH-chay) means helterskelter in Spanish, and this book is dedicated to the helterskelter of the barrio--both its chaotic good and bad.

Order on-line

He has an essay in

Muy Macho

Order on-line

Related: Interview with Michael Meade, founder of the Mosaic Foundation through which Luis does much of his work with youth.

Bert: You've been working with Michael Meade at multi-cultural events with gang youth. How did you first get involved in Men's Work?

Luis: I've been doing this work on youth and violence for a while. When my autobiography came out, apparently Michael Meade got wind of it. He contacted me in Seattle while I was at the annual Bumbershoot Festival. I was doing some work with El Centro de la Raza. I was doing poetry and performance with about 25 inner-city kids. He invited me to be one of the teacher-elders at a multicultural event he was having in the Los Angeles area in January, 1984. I said I'd do it, because I was intrigued. I had almost no idea what "Men's Work" was, to be honest with you. You might have read in my article in Muy Macho, I had preconceptions about it.

But once I was there, and I saw that what Michael and the other people were trying to do was to bring a multicultural perspective into it-that it was not just going to be white people with money-I saw it was the kind of people I was already working with. Inner-city kids, kids who were violent, men who had been in the Viet Nam war, ex-prisoners-people like that. It turned out that the first gathering was very transformative for me.

Bert: Let's take a step back, to talk about your own path, before you met Michael Meade. You had written your autobiography, Always Running. In a nutshell, what were the kinds of things you were brave enough to share with the public about your own, personal life?

Luis: I wanted to do an honest look at what it meant to be in a gang in LA, especially in a period when violence was becoming more predominant. There have always been gangs, and different levels of violence, but by the early '70s the level of violence that we see today was beginning to happen. I was part of that. I saw the change when gangs went into guns and drugs in a more organized manner. I wanted to go back to that time and talk about what I went through, the violence that I saw and participated in. But I also wanted to talk about how I transcended it. How did I get out of this? How did I change?

My son, who is now 21, had joined a gang in Chicago. I wrote the book for him, as a father-son thing. "I'm your father. I've been through some things. I don't want you to die. I don't want you to end up where I barely survived. I don't want you to end up in prison or a morgue."

I have been shot at three times. I've OD'd with various drugs: I used drugs, on up to heroin, from age 15 until I was 19 or 20 years old. I had been in and out of jails. I shot people. I firebombed people's homes. I had stabbed people. These are things that people don't normally admit to, but I knew if I was going to get close to that reality, I had to own up to a lot of the things I had done.

Bert: Was this what everybody you knew was into?

Luis: No, not everybody. It was a small group of people. Being in a gang is not for everybody. We distinguished ourselves by how we dressed, how we talked, and how we tattooed ourselves. People could tell we were gang members; we weren't like everybody else. We wanted to distinguish ourselves. We had a whole style.

What is happening now, of course, is that more and more kids aren't making it economically, are not culturally involved, and are being abandoned. More and more kids are leading this gang kind of lifestyle. Gang membership, which as a special thing for a small group of people, is becoming more and more prevalent. Now the white and Asian kids are into gangs, it's not just the African-Americans and Latinos.

Bert: What happened in your own life that gave you pause and encouraged you to see that you had to share your own story and publicly confess, as it were?

Luis: I did it because of my kids. I've been in Chicago for eleven years, and moved into a neighborhood with a lot of poverty and a lot of youth in gangs. I realized my son was getting pulled into it. A lot of it is not a bad thing. I don't want to be anti-gang. I know that white kids join gangs, and gangs offer a lot of important stuff-fellowship, respect, family. These kids are looking for something. That's something I've learned in working with these youth. They are on a spiritual quest that the culture cannot attend to, cannot meet. Unfortunately, they can't do it for themselves. As peers you cannot find the initiative or the initiation. You cannot find the proper ways to go through the stages of life, unless you're guided through it. That's not what's happening to them.

But I saw my son getting pulled in. It was for very good reasons, natural reasons, but I was afraid that he didn't know what was possible. He might come to a most destructive end. He was going the way of Death if he continued to be involved.

I wrote the book for him, but it turned out to be for all the "homies," all the kids in the neighborhood whom I started to work with. I wrote itbook to show them what I've gone through. I've been a writer for over 16 years. I've done books of poetry. I knew that I could get the language, find the words. It's very difficult…

Bert: To find the images. That's what strikes me as what's important about poetry. It's the images that are more important than the words, isn't it?

Luis: Yes. Unfortunately a lot of people have gone through worse than anything I've gone through. But they haven't been able to find the images-the poetry-to express what they've gone through. I had the fortune to become a writer and to find those images. It was a healing process for me, a process that I hope will be healing for other people.

Bert: So then you found yourself enmeshed in this circle of your son and his "homies." What did you find that it was important for you to do with them?

Luis: Several things. I went back to what saved me. That included having a purposeful life, a conscious life activity, directed from the inside out. That's what needed to be taught. It was a road of knowledge, of achievement-a road of art. I find that art is the most viable means to talk about violence. This is something that Michael Meade talks about, that allowed me to gravitate towards what he was doing. His storytelling, poetry and ritual were what the kids have been hinting at. Art can take many forms, but the idea is, how can you transcend the violence and the trauma in your life? How can you go through the stages of your life, when there is no community that invites you and welcomes you?

Art begins to help you open up to things that you otherwise wouldn't have opened up to. It's called having a metaphorical life. People all need to have that, where they actually go through the life and death rituals in stages where they grow up, but they don't actually have to die in the process. For example, these young people need to be initiated into the adult world. Something has to die so that something else can be born. Unfortunately, they interpret this metaphor literally.

What I was trying to do in my book was to give these young people a different path to help them to get that purpose in their life that will allow them to keep going. I believe that every young person has a calling in life, and that has to be tapped into. They need an environment that will really bring that out.

Bert: I wrote an article for our June issue, that I called "Blessing." I talked about a king, a mentor, or an older person giving blessing to younger men, to allow them to express their creativity. That sounds similar to what you're talking about. So what were the kinds of things that you could give blessing to, to bring out in gang members who had never been in touch with their artistic or creative side?

Luis: Poetry ended up to be a good way to get into writing. A lot of these kids had not been exposed to the written word. But they were doing rap. They were already doing a language-based art. They were doing what all people do. I heard a saying once that when people confront obstacles they create music. That's what these youths were doing, creating music. They were using a language-based music. So from there I took them to other areas of language expression.

They do a lot of skits. They do extemporaneous theatrics. These have a general framework, but they create the dialog as they go along. It's very beautiful!

They've done artwork, images. Some of these kids are graffiti writers. They call themselves aerosol artists. It's so beautiful and so expressive that I thought, "This is the way to go. They're doing it anyway." I wasn't giving them anything they weren't already doing, but they were being outlawed for it. They were getting beaten up. They were getting put away. They were getting chased down the streets for creating art. I thought there had to be a place where they could do this, where it can be valued or, as you say, blessed. They need more craft knowledge. They need the mentoring that will give them the knowledge they need to get more into it.

That's the direction I decided to go. They needed activities that were meaningful, activities that could take them away from what was happening in the streets, end the destruction and have something that was very beautiful, very heroic. You need the elders, for example, to hold the ground so the youth can make their glorious mistakes. That means allowing room for them to open up and express.

Bert: The image that came to my mind as you said that was, "Hey, look at me!" In effect, the only way we "see" these young kids in the barrios and the ghettos is in order to send them away, to condemn them for what they're doing or who they are. "Hey, look at me! I'm a real person and I've got valuable expression and I have something to add." You're providing these kids a medium for saying that…

Luis: Without being judged, without being put down. That has to do with something that's at the heart of the culture. The culture gives people social value. These kids aren't going to work. They're not going to be "productive." They're not going to be "great citizens." So these kids, literally, don't have any "value" in society. They're not being mirrored in their lives, their images, their innate worth. So they work real hard to say "Hey, look at me!" They have to have a value that's not dependent on a job or going to school. They're not getting those things.

When you see their art, see its value, and say it's beautiful, it hits at their innate value. They know they have that, no matter what's going on. The art is a value that has no monetary value, no "socially productive" value. It's just beautiful in itself. When you see these youths this way and honor them this way, it changes their whole view of themselves.

Bert: I was once an "emergency" substitute teacher in the Philadelphia ghettos. My kids had lots of free periods. In one, a girl was illustrating a comic-book romantic story she had written. A boy had taken some colored paper from the art room and was making an alphabet book so he could help his younger brother read better. The principal came in and I showed off my prize students. The principal grabbed the girl's story and ripped it in two, saying, "we don't allow comic books in school." The boy showed off the book. "'A' is for apple. 'B' is for ball…" "'B' is for boy," the principal shot back. "Go pick up that scrap paper on the floor over there, boy."

Luis: That same experience, in many forms, is happening every day in so many communities. These kids are being ignored, or wiped out, condemned or put down. Then you see them respond in ways that are very destructive, because there's no other way to go. If you don't have a means to be more constructive, if you can't live a full life, you can't help but be destructive.

Bert: So this work took you from trying to help the "home boys," to the national level, where you're working with El Centro de la Raza at Seattle's Bumbershoot festival, already doing your soul work and mentoring work in your own Latino community.

Luis: I'm doing this work all around the country, from Hartford to Dallas to Seattle. I do a lot of this stuff. What Men's Work offered was a place to take this stuff, so I could take it to a new level that I otherwise might not be able to reach.

Bert: But before Michael Meade reached you, you had some reservations about this "middle-aged, middle-class white male Men's Movement."

Luis: I didn't think that they were going to go deep enough. I was afraid they would just sit around and talk to each other. They could not really deal with their own issues unless they could look at the very kids that were outcasts of the communities of this country.

Bert: There's no soul work without community work, as Aaron Kipnis and Harris Breiman say.

Luis: That's right. And the community has to be extended. It can't just be the white, middle-class community, either. That seems to be the big issue right now. People are saying to go into your own community and just work with your kids. I agree with that. I think that's fine. But obviously that means you can't also be available for the work that's going on in other communities that you have connection with. A lot of the people that are in middle-class communities are the ones behind the laws that clamp down so heavily on these kids I'm working with. So if you want to work only in your community, just remember that we're all tied up together in this. You demand more prisons, longer prison terms, and trying kids as adults in the inner city, because that community doesn't mean anything to you. But we are all one community. We all have to start looking at each other.

There's no way these white, middle-class guys can resolve it by just looking at each other. In the same way, I don't think that these ghetto kids can resolve it just by looking at each other. I value the importance of going to men's conferences in which the mixture is very rich-kids from the urban communities, where violence is very real, and guys who don't know anything about this. That's part of the dynamic interaction, where you have to look at each other and look at your own soul and look at the soul of the whole culture, and begin to figure out ways to work together. To me, that's very important.

Bert: With these reservations about men's gatherings, what was it that Michael said and did that enticed you into participating in a multicultural event with him?

Luis: For one thing, Michael is one of those "white people" who don't consider themselves white people. That's an important step! "White people" have no value to me. There's no such thing as a "white person." In culture and history there have been white people only in relation to somebody else being black, or darker. To me it is a historical issue that has been created in order to distinguish people, but in reality the best thing to do is to get people not to relate that way at all. Instead we can relate to your background, where you came from and who you are. Michael was a kid from New York. A kid with an Irish background. A learned man. He has worked as a truck driver as well as in corporations. He has done things that, to me, are what make him into a real person, not just "I'm a white guy and I feel bad for you," or "I'm a white guy and I hate your guts."

That seems to be a way that people relate, they respond to "white people." Michael seems to say, "don't respond to white people, respond to me the way I am. Respond to a human being the way I respond to you. You haven't been "dissed" or put down or beaten up. I respond to you as a human being. I don't want a cop to be beating up on you just because of the way you look at him." Or to have your kid beaten up like that. That happened to my son, and there's nothing you can do about it. "I don't want to have to go through this, so I have to respond to you the way I want you to respond to me."

I think Michael Meade is good at doing that, using stories and poems. He has a highly developed sense of what is spirit and what is lacking I spirit in the culture. I also wanted to work with Michael because he's worked with Malidoma Somé, whom I have a lot of respect for. He's brought in a lot of people like that, people from other cultures with a lot of knowledge. These are people who don't want to make doctrine or dogma out of it, but are trying to make it real. These guys are trying to do the genuine work that I'm interested in, not just superficial or New Age stuff. This is genuine, really scary, dangerous work. To me, because of that it's more revolutionary than anything else people are talking about when they say "This is the radical movement," or "No, this is the radical movement." The work these guys are doing is dealing with radical, primal stuff so we can transcend it, and transcend not just ourselves, but the whole culture.

We're not just talking about personal change. That's where I think a lot of the psychotherapeutic work seems to be. It's all about personalities and individuals changing. I'm saying that that has to happen, but after that happens the whole culture has to change.

Bert: You described your first multicultural event as a transformative experience. What was the energy like when these gang kids met up with a bunch of middle-age, middle-class "men's movement" guys? I would imagine there was a lot of tension in the air.

Luis: That's always going to be the case at an event like this. They feel their lives are threatened. They feel they're going to die. This was true at both ends. A lot of the Black and Latino kids felt the white guys were going to kill them. They didn't like having them around. They didn't like the way they felt, the way they thought.

Bert: I guess my own preconceptions and stereotypes come up. If I were thrust into the middle of a group of gang kids wearing their colors and tattoos, I'd be nervous about my own life.

Luis: Right. And that's the way some of the white guys responded. But some of the men of color responded like their lives were being threatened. When you confront that kind of tension, you're talking about opening up whole new possibilities for some real interaction. The inner hate and rage levels begin to be brought out. It's very beautiful because what they do with ritual and poetry and stories relates to these common threads that everybody has. What comes out is a kind of emerging ritual, rather than fixed ritual.

Bert: What kind of opening ritual would you do, then, to acknowledge and work with this kid of tension?

Luis: The most basic stuff is poetry and drumming. This allows people to connect without words. Then something interesting happened. The young people were getting very exasperated with the older people fighting with each other about racial issues. Remember, these were white youths as well as youths of color. "You haven't even seen us. We're here. You should be helping us, not hating each other." So we ended up turning it over to the youths.

At the end of the last retreat, the youth put together a closing ritual for everybody. One part of it was a kind of litany for the dead, where they would pour their fear into the fire and name people in their lives who had been killed. It was so beautiful to hear all these young men talk about all the death and pain they've gone through in their lives. We wanted the older men to hear this.

Then they started this beautiful rap session, extemporaneously going on for hours with drumming in the background. It was a way of showing how the young men could rap about the changes going on in them.

Bert: I imagine hearing the kids rap for three hours was a lot more effective to the older men, than the books and articles they may have read about life in the ghettos.

Luis: That's the heart of the ritual. You really can't know until you're right there getting shot at. The ritual opens it up and lets you express it, so that others can feel the experience, so it can be their experience as well.

Bert: I wonder if there was a phase two for the older guys. "I've been doing this Men's Work stuff for quite a while. I'm a liberal, and don't have a prejudiced bone in my body. My heart goes out to these kids." Then, two or three days into the event, there's a confrontation, that my assumptions, my speech, my very mindset is riddled with prejudices and stereotypes that I'm not even aware of.

Luis: A lot of guys thought it was OK just because they cared enough. They then had to realize that this prejudice was deeper, ingrained in their very being. They needed to recognize that.

This is where a lot of their pain, grief and anger came out. I've had guys stand up and say, "You know what? To be honest with you, I'm really scared that you're going to kill my boy." Everything comes out. They may be liberals, and full of compassion, but they really are scared of these kids. "You're going to come to my house or try to kill my kid, so I'm going to have to kill you."

It comes out because there's fear underlying all this, and nobody's looking at that fear. Fear is the basis of much of the violence that we're responding to. I think that the people who don't want to respond to it are still scared of it, to the point that that's how they would respond if they had to. Then they hate the fact that there's this grouping of outcast people knocking at the door. I think ultimately they need to feel, not so much guilt that they're responsible for the kids' plight, but that they're directly involved in setting that up. We're talking about white liberals who, over the years, have kept themselves from being part of this. They live in gated communities, or nice, gentrified areas where there are security guards and they don't have to worry about homeless people walking down the streets. They have done everything to secure themselves, and then become liberals. That's very safe. If you're safe, you can be anything. But can you be a liberal and a real person if you have to be in this, every day?

Bert: I saw a similar thing when we were using federal anti-crime funds for community-based programs in New York City. We would fund a project and the Project Director would move out into the suburbs. Who could blame him?

Luis: It's like anything else. We have a society that lives on different tiers. Unfortunately, this has destroyed whatever democracy we had left in this country. If you have a tiered society eventually, when everything goes bad, everything is going to go to the lowest level. For example, if the worst schools are in the inner city, you think this doesn't affect your kids. But when the economy gets tight, the middle class neighborhoods will also go towards having worse schools. Because they ran away from those areas and didn't fight for the city schools, didn't say that every kid should have a decent education, they're paying for it now. Our best survival is to make sure that every kid gets a good education. Instead, it's "kill or be killed," and "I've got to take care of my own."

Unfortunately, the inner-city kids understand this. They know that everybody's leaving them in a garbage dump. So they incorporate the same conflict, kill or be killed. They literally do it, instead of understanding that the survival of all is dependent on the survival of each.

Bert: So by mid-week the participants at the multicultural community were into their fear. How did you then turn this into a bonded community?

Luis: We did this through ritual. Again, it's an emerging ritual-it emerges from the dynamic of what the men get into at the conference. This is where the men start coming together. I'll give you an example. There was a white guy. He wasn't a liberal. Actually, he was a pretty racist guy. From the beginning of the event, he'd get up and say, "You know, I hate all you Blacks and Mexicans. I don't know why, but I do." Apparently as a kid he had been beaten and stabbed by minority kids. He really had hate. He went through all this struggle, struggle, struggle. When he got up he yelled at people. He couldn't believe what people were saying. The struggle continued. Then, finally, when the ritual pulled it all together, I guess he had done some transforming, to the point where he offered to wipe the feet of all the men who were coming in barefoot from the muddy fire area. It was a very beautiful and humbling thing for him to do.

Ritual allows certain things to happen that wouldn't have happened if you just talked about it. Sometimes just talking it out is not going to be enough, even though words are important. It's got to go to the level of art, to the level of transcendence, to finding the beauty. Here a guy offered to wash the feet of all the men-black, white, Latino. It was very humbling. You can tell he had gone through something.

Those are the kinds of things that happen with ritual, and why eventually the ritual becomes the way the men start bonding and working together. It doesn't always work, and it doesn't work for everyone, but it definitely becomes a way that you can show people that when all else fails, go back to spirit. Go back to yourself. Go back to your art. Go back to that ritual space, so you can open up to these things.

It's a very difficult thing we're trying to do. That's probably why it's worth doing. It's like the old saying, "The only causes worth fighting for are lost causes." There's always the chance of people not making it, or people becoming worse off, but when you do have victories there is that bonding that can carry you a very long way.

Bert: Michael Meade likes that Rilke line, that my role in life is to be decisively defeated by greater and greater beings.

Luis: And if people don't risk doing that hard, dangerous work, they're not really living. That's where the liberal thing gets exposed. People are willing to do nice, comfortable, compassionate things, and no boats are being rocked. But that's not good enough. You've got to get to that place where perhaps you're not going to win and not going to come out entirely unscathed.

Bert: What happens to these kids after a multicultural conference?

Luis: We try to do some follow-up, especially with the young men. Some of the men have gone through three or four conferences now, and are something of a "teaching core." They're taking a much stronger leadership role. There has to be some follow-up. You can't just open up all this stuff, then drop it. Some of the young men follow up by being helpful at other events, or being involved with other men in doing stuff for their community. We have had beautiful things happen. For example, one of the young men who had been in prison for many years got word at one of our conferences that his brother-in-law had been killed. The men got together and contributed money so he could go back for the funeral. They did it out of a sense of community-"You're part of us, and we're part of you. What hurts you hurts us."

We've also had opportunities open up for people for whom it wouldn't have happened otherwise. I was facing the same thing. They were trying to give my son 30 years in prison. The men at the conference my son was at got together and wrote a letter to the judge on his behalf. They actually moved the judge, who had a reputation as a "hanging judge." He as so moved he gave my son a much lesser sentence, an opportunity to do a "boot camp," house arrest and three years of parole. He wouldn't have to do any hard prison time if he complied with the program. It was an opportunity most kids would never see.

Bert: Where do you see all this going?

Luis: It's got a long ways to go, because we're talking about working with only a few men at a time. It's a big country, a vast world. The only work worth doing is work you do one step at a time, where you can dedicate a lot of intense effort on one or two things. But I think the seed of something bigger is in this. I can't say what this bigger thing is going to look like, or what form it's going to take, but I do think that something has got to change at the very heart of society. It's got to be a radical change, and it's got to be as revolutionary as it can be. What all this work is leading towards is that kind of confrontation at a very basic level in this country. I'm not talking about it taking the form of uprisings. That's already going on. Talking about a radical transformation in this country to go into the future. But the way to get there is by going back-going back to some traditional things that we've forgotten. Going back to some basic threads that have made this country what it is, that are still valid. We've let privilege, power and self-interest take over to the point where everybody suffers. The whole idea about racism is that it's a chain around the necks of the racists as well as the victims of racism. If we believe that, we realize that if we break the racist chain, we free ourselves. It's a conflict that has to be understood by more people. This is going to be the transformative power that happens. I can't name it and I can't shape it, but I know that whatever we're doing now has to move towards being at the center of the whole culture.

Bert: What would you say to encourage people doing Men's Work to take this work out more broadly into the community?

Luis: We need to look at those who are the outcasts of our society and culture. Whenever a society goes through the kind of transition we're going through now, it always needs to be where the key to the future is being held. This is not the elite, the people with all the power and wealth. That seems to be where everyone is looking, but you have to look at the bottom. At the bottom you'll see not just the ugliness, but the beauty of it. Not a society that is completely caved in, but a society that begins to flourish out. I'd say to anybody doing Men's Work that they should look elsewhere, whatever that may mean. Don't just look at what you think you're looking at. People think they're looking at themselves, going inside themselves. That's a very important part of it. But the closer you get to yourself, the closer you get to the places that are the scariest. What I'm saying is that in order for it to be vital work, it has to be scary. With the art and the ritual work that's being done, I can see some very important transformations going on, that we need to have in this culture.

Click here to read an intervie with Luis' colleague Michael Meade

Click here to continue

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