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Luis J. Rodríguez

In 1954, Luis J. Rodríguez was born in El Paso, Texas. He grew up in Watts and the East Los Angeles area, where his family faced poverty and discrimination. A gang member and drug user at the age of twelve, by the time he turned eighteen, Rodríguez had lost twenty-five of his friends to gang violence, drug overdoses, shootings, and suicide. He wrote two autobiographical accounts of his experiences with gang violence and addiction, It Calls You Back: An Odyssey Through Love, Addiction, Revolutions, and Healing (Touchstone, 2012), winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Autobiography, and Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A. (Curbstone Books, 1993), winner of the Carl Sandburg Award of the Friends of the Chicago Public Library.

His books of poetry include My Nature is Hunger: New & Selected Poems, 1989-2004 (Curbstone Books, 2005), winner of a 2006 Paterson Poetry Book Prize; Trochemoche (Curbstone Books, 1998); The Concrete River (Curbstone Books, 1991), which won a PEN West/Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence; and Poems Across the Pavement (Tía Chucha, 1989), which received San Francisco State University’s Poetry Center Book Award.

He is also a journalist and critic and the founder of Tía Chucha Press, which publishes emerging, socially conscious poets. In May 1998, Curbstone Press published his first children’s book, entitled América Is Her Name. In 2014, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti appointed Rodríguez as the poet laureate of Los Angeles. Rodríguez currently resides in California and manages the Tía Chucha Cultural Center in San Fernando.

Selected Bibliography


My Nature is Hunger: New & Selected Poems, 1989-2004 (Curbstone Books, 2005)
Trochemoche (Curbstone Books, 1998)
The Concrete River (Curbstone Books, 1991)
Poems Across the Pavement (Tía Chucha, 1989)


It Calls You Back: An Odyssey Through Love, Addiction, Revolutions, and Healing (Touchstone, 2012)
Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A. (Curbstone Books, 1993)

By This Poet


The Concrete River

We sink into the dust,
Baba and me,
Beneath brush of prickly leaves;
Ivy strangling trees--singing
Our last rites of locura.
Homeboys. Worshipping God-fumes
Out of spray cans.

Our backs press up against
A corrugated steel fence
Along the dried banks
Of a concrete river.
Spray-painted outpourings
On walls offer a chaos
Of color for the eyes.

Home for now. Hidden in weeds.
Furnished with stained mattresses
And plastic milk crates.
Wood planks thrust into
                thick branches
                serve as roof.
The door is a torn cloth curtain
                (knock before entering).
Home for now, sandwiched
In between the maddening days.

We aim spray into paper bags.
Suckle them. Take deep breaths.
An echo of steel-sounds grates the sky.
Home for now. Along an urban-spawned
Stream of muck, we gargle in
The technicolor synthesized madness.

This river, this concrete river,
Becomes a steaming, bubbling
Snake of water, pouring over
Nightmares of wakefulness;
Pouring out a rush of birds;
A flow of clear liquid
On a cloudless day.
Not like the black oil stains we lie in,
Not like the factory air engulfing us;
Not this plastic death in a can.

Sun rays dance on the surface.
Gray fish fidget below the sheen.
And us looking like Huckleberry Finns/
Tom Sawyers, with stick fishing poles,
As dew drips off low branches
As if it were earth's breast milk.

Oh, we should be novas of our born days.
We should be scraping wet dirt
                with callused toes.
We should be flowering petals
                playing ball.
Soon water/fish/dew wane into
A pulsating whiteness.
I enter a tunnel of circles,
Swimming to a glare of lights.
Family and friends beckon me.
I want to be there,
In perpetual dreaming;
In the din of exquisite screams.
I want to know this mother-comfort
Surging through me.

I am a sliver of blazing ember
                entering a womb of brightness.
I am a hovering spectre shedding
                scarred flesh.
I am a clown sneaking out of a painted
                mouth in the sky.
I am your son, amá, seeking
                the security of shadows,
                fleeing weary eyes
                bursting brown behind
                a sewing machine.
I am your brother, the one you
                threw off rooftops, tore into
                with rage--the one you visited,
                a rag of a boy, lying
                in a hospital bed, ruptured.
I am friend of books, prey of cops,
                lover of the barrio women
                selling hamburgers and tacos
                at the P&G Burger Stand.
I welcome this heavy shroud.
I want to be buried in it--
To be sculptured marble
In craftier hands.

Soon an electrified hum sinks teeth
Into brain--then claws
Surround me, pull at me,
Back to the dust, to the concrete river.

Let me go!--to stay entangled
In this mesh of barbed serenity!
But over me is a face,
Mouth breathing back life.
I feel the gush of air,
The pebbles and debris beneath me.
"Give me the bag, man," I slur.
"No way! You died, man," Baba said.
"You stopped breathing and died."
"I have to go back!...you don't

I try to get up, to reach the sky.
Oh, for the lights--for this whore
                of a Sun,
To blind me. To entice me to burn.
Come back! Let me swing in delight
To the haunting knell,
To pierce colors of virgin skies.
Not here, along a concrete river,
But there--licked by tongues of flame!