What to do with those whom society cannot accommodate? Criminalize them. Outlaw their actions and creations. Declare them the enemy, then wage war. Emphasize the differences–the shade of skin, the accent in the speech or manner of clothes. Like the scapegoat of the Bible, place society’s ills on them, then “stone them” in absolution. It’s convenient. It’s logical. It doesn’t work.
Wow. Wow, wow, wow. Always Running should be required reading, not only for every high schooler but for every adult in the U.S. I think it has the potential to open a lot of people’s eyes as to the reality of what life can be like for low-income Latino immigrants, and hopefully encourage them to be more compassionate and support more social service programs for those who are struggling. Perhaps even more importantly, I think it provides relevance and support to a lot of urban teenagers, many of whom are dealing with the same issues as Rodriguez.
To back up a bit: Always Running is the memoir of Luis Rodriguez, a Chicano who grew up in California in the 1960s and ’70s. Living in poverty, mistreated by teachers and the police, and surrounded by violence, Rodriguez quickly comes to believe that running with a gang is one of the only ways he can protect himself and have something to call his own. This coincides with the rise of Chicano gang culture in California. As young as 10, Rodriguez’s life centers on drugs, sex, fighting, and stealing, and it seems like many people in his life give up on him–in addition to him giving up on himself. Through the guidance of some educators at a community center, Rodriguez slowly begins to turn his life around and to become a youth activist in the Chicano movement.
This book was eye-opening in many ways. I was shocked by how cruelly Rodriguez and his friends were treated by the police, even as young children. So many times in the book, Rodriguez or his friends are doing nothing–perhaps standing somewhere, or walking, or talking–and the police antagonize them, baiting them into reacting, and then beat and arrest them. While I am aware of the reputation of the L.A. PD, I had never stopped to think about their interactions with Mexicans. And I recognize my own white privilege here–knowing I will never be stopped by police for the color of my skin–even though I am half-Mexican. (Mexicans come in all shades of skin color, and I am on the lighter end of the spectrum.)
In the barrio, the police are just another gang.
While it can be graphic–there are some disturbing descriptions of rape, for example–I appreciated Rodriguez’s honesty as he recounted just how lost and angry he and so many of his friends were. There are undercurrents of righteous rage at the unfairness of the system, of the majority, but there is also a lot of hopelessness and pain underlining that rage. Luis was basically alone in a country that not only doesn’t understand him–and the struggles he faces every day at school, on the street, in his home–but also doesn’t want him. The desire to fit in somewhere and be a part of something bigger than himself is a huge factor in Rodriguez’s eventual fall into gang culture, and really underscored how necessary it is to be accepting of all cultures and ethnicities.
I was also impressed by the strength Rodriguez shows in deciding to change his life for the better. The catalysts for him seemed to be his interactions with the activists at a youth community center. I was already convinced of the importance of community centers, but to see read about them actually engaging gang youth in improving their lives was very moving. It also seemed to inspire Rodriguez, who now does speaking engagements at high schools and youth centers across the country, telling his story.
One creative decision that I did not entirely enjoy was the non-linear storytelling. Rather than following Luis chronologically through his life, we are treated to snippets from here and there, usually mediations on a theme. However, even this skipping around grew on me through the sheer power of Rodriguez’s narrative. I was able to overlook this stylistic choice and even, eventually, forget about it.
Extremely powerful, and left me thinking about it long after I read the last page. This book is just as important now as it was when it was first published in 1993, and I highly recommend it to everyone. Yes, everyone. Read this book now!
I received my copy free for review from Open Road through NetGalley.
Bookwanderer Rating: Four out of five stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: “There was another kind of magic which made me feel special, to look at my Indian-descended mother and uncle and believe in the power of civilizations long since written off, long since demeaned and trampled.”