The Red Road…
Every once in a great while, you find yourself in an unbelievable moment. We all know it. It tends to be the time where you just want to pinch yourself because it just doesn’t seem real. When I got an invite for last night’s poetry reading featuring one of my favorite authors Luis Rodriguez, that became my moment.
Now for those of you who don’t know Luis, not only is he known as a best selling author and poet, but he is a truly remarkable person. He uses his writing to save many young Chicano/Mexican/Latino gang members in Los Angeles and now around the world. However, the most interesting thing I find about Luis is that he has used his writing to also save himself.
Luis was born in El Paso, TX and his family moved to South Central Los Angeles shortly thereafter. In his book “Always Running: La Vida Loca- Gang Days in L.A.,” he talks about his struggle as a youth growing up on the gang ridden streets of L.A. He tells an honest account of not only what happened but gives an insightful picture of how. He gives the grave reality of the consequences of gang life including losing 25 friends by the time he was 18, his own struggle with heroin and alcohol addiction and his own grief around his son following a similar gang led path, which led his son to a 13 year prison sentence.
The reading was at the Francisco house in South Central L.A., an area that is still today entrenched with gangs and hopelessness. All the inhabitants of the house are formerly incarcerated men, many of whom had served 25 plus years in prison. Many of which were also at one point or another actively involved in gangs. Luis spent the evening not talking at the men, but meeting them where they were.
He opened with one of his poems “The Calling.” The poem talks about a moment in his life where he started to realize that he had a greater purpose and a voice from a jail cell. Just before he was locked up that time around, he was part of one of the very first Chicano AntiWar Protests. It was through this experience that he found that he really started care about something bigger than himself. It was also at that point that he decided that he needed to document it.
He described walking the Red Road, a Native American term for walking on the path to success. He said along your path, many will be standing with you, but only you can lead it. He told the story of how he could save so many youth, but no matter how hard he tried, he wasn’t able to save his son. Through all of this pain, there is grace. His son has also had a transformation inside the prison gates and he was just released two weeks ago.
After the reading, Luis invited me and a few others (Shirley Wilson, the host of Scales of Justice, Julia, a GOTB Regional Coordinator and two recently released lifers) to dinner. When we got to the little-hole-in-the-wall Mexican place, we walked in and I felt like I had walked through a door with Brad Pitt. Everyone knew who Luis was. Needless to say, our service was great! One man, who was a professor at the University of Texas, came up to our table and asked Luis if he could shake his hand. He told Luis about the poetry class he teaches with his work. Luis humbly smiled and shook his hand and gave a genuine “Thank You” to the man. Meanwhile at the table, the rest of us joked around with Luis about how this must have been staged. Luis with his great sense of humor said, “Okay okay you all just can’t be fouled, can you?” My response, “We’ve spent too much time in prison.” Everyone went into hysterics.
On my way home, I thought about that night and what an eclectic group of people I just had dinner with. I then thought about my own Red Road and I just smiled for a second. Out of all the paths I could have taken, mine is one where I am sitting next to a former lifer who just got out of prison last month, across from a man who has been on Oprah and Nightly News, on the other side of an amazingly intelligent caseworker, diagonally to another lifer who started the Honor Yard in Lancaster prison, and at the other corner to a woman who finds redemption in her son’s murder by talking to all of us. This my friends is one crazy Red Road, but I love every second of it.