Luis Rodriguez is not particularly interested in genesis stories. This may be because his isn't pretty: As a young teen, Mr. Rodriguez got sucked into Los Angeles's violent gang culture. He started stealing, but eventually he was involved in drive-by shootings and arrested for attempted murder. He stayed in the gang world for seven years, and even when he'd left, some of the nastier habits stayed. Rodriguez was a drug addict and an alcoholic.
"I spent 27 years living in a dream," he says. "That's a lot."
But even then, Rodriguez had a special connection to the arts. "What saved me was ... I used to do graffiti art, and then I started painting murals," he says. "And I loved books.... I would be a gangbanger walking around libraries, with librarians walking around me to make sure I wasn't doing anything. Books were my saving grace."
Rodriquez went on to publish a memoir, a novel, and a book of poems that won him the Paterson Poetry Prize. But he still lived in East L.A., and he couldn't find a bookstore.
"Most people look at [this community] and say it's not worth investing [in]," says Rodriguez, graying and short, but still thick enough to intimidate. "I always knew that poor people, even if they have no material means, have an abundance in other ways."
So Rodriguez started Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural and Bookstore in 2001. The space fuses his literary and community work: Part bookstore, performance hall, and art and music studio, the creation is what he thinks of as a Chicano cultural center. Writers share their work at open mics; kids record demo tapes or spoken-word poetry; and anyone can buy books here, at the only bookstore in L.A. County's northeast San Fernando Valley, the nation's second-largest Mexican community. Rodriguez runs the $170,000-a-year operation with money he makes from lectures and writing, with the bookstore and press's meager revenue, with state funds, and with his wife, who works full time as a volunteer. But cash-strapped California hasn't been a reliable partner in recent years.
"I was going to give it up," he says of a critical moment in 2003. "It was too hard. I spent $150,000 of my own money, the landlord tripled our rent, and no one was coming to help."
But he had an epiphany at his own open mic night. An 8-year-old girl stood up to talk to the audience about her problems. "She didn't have a poem, she didn't have a story, she just wanted to talk to people about her teachers and friends," he remembers. "She came from a broken home in a rough place, but ... she was so clear and confident. She spoke about 8-year-old stuff – you know, are my friends really my friends? But everyone clapped so hard."
A waiter from Mexico followed her, performing a Mexican poem in the declamación tradition, in which verse is recited with dramatic gestures. The night showed Rodriguez that his community needed the space he created – to perform, to create, or simply, like that 8-year-old girl at the open mic, or the 11-year-old Rodriguez years before, to connect.
"I realized I couldn't give it up – and that what's more important is not so much why you start, but why you continue," he says.
Rodriguez has also brought arts and culture to East L.A.'s gangs – he convinces these kids to replace graffiti with mural painting, tells them stories, and introduces them to native American rituals as a way of giving them a spiritual outlet.
"A lot of gang kids are dangerous, but the majority are [also] looking for something to hold. They can't find it, and the gang fills that void. So we try to fill it with community and art," he says.
The city has adopted an outreach program he built with 40 other gang specialists, who are working on taking it national. The effort comes in part from Rodriguez's work to save his own sons from gangs, work he says he started too late; his oldest son is in prison, serving 28 years for attempted murder.
"My oldest kids were neglected by me. By the time I got to them, they were teenagers, really angry, and it was hard for me to be in their lives," he remembers.