POV home about Borders StoriesJourneyTalkSnapshotsGamesCams
POVs Borders
navigation map
border talk

featured guest
 Luis J. Rodriguez

Border Talk Discussion - Join one now
CeciliaGilbertKateBorder TalkJourney

Photo Credit:
Donna DeCesare

Your Questions   1 | 2 6 Questions

P.O.V.'s Borders visitors sent Luis Rodriguez these questions in response to his work and his answers to P.O.V.'s initial 6 Questions. Read on!

Question: You say that we have outlived any usefulness that borders may have offered and that we have advanced to a level where we can share the earth's resources with everyone. How do we begin to make this transformation? Where do we start? Has human civilization ever been good at sharing?

Luis: We start by recognizing an important fact — people make borders. They're political and historical constructs. Borders are not God-given, nor biologically, spiritually or anthropologically based. I'm not saying a border may not have an important purpose, or that even some borders aren't desirable today. But we shouldn't lose our perspective on this. If a border gets in the way of our human obligations to care for one another, to ensure that all are in fairly good shape to thrive, sure, let's divide up the planet in different, wonderful, imaginative, and interesting ways — but don't let this overwhelm the essential issue. We are one human family.

Has human civilization ever been good at sharing? Always. We did it with far lesser resources or technological tools. We do so today. There are built-in social compacts that keep us from truly losing it even as many of our leaders, the truly powerful and greedy, run roughshod through the economic, political, social, and moral constraints binding on the rest of us. We still have strong impulses to something ancestral and primordial, collective and even genetic, to put others before ourselves, to — as Jesus and most great thinkers and prophets have emphasized over the ages — "treat others as you would like to be treated."

Question: You wrote about borders within communities and neighborhoods, specifically in terms of your experiences in South Central and the Eastside of L.A. How has it been different living in Chicago? What are the border issues there? What was behind your migration?

Luis: I came to Chicago in 1985 to write and edit for a nationally published revolutionary newspaper called the People's Tribune. I became active in the burgeoning poetry scene there, helping create such organizations as the Guild Complex and Tia Chucha Press, and in work with youth and gangs (Chicago is the largest U.S. city with street gangs after LA).

Chicago is considered one of the most segregated cities in the United States. There's a long history to this, mostly linked to the industries of steel and meatpacking that helped create the city (and which have mostly disappeared). The poorest neighborhoods are the primarily African American sections of Chicago's Southside and Westside (with pockets on the Northside). The Mexican and Puerto Rican communities are not far behind them — and growing — although in my experience they are no way as devastated as the older and more marginalized African American ghetto communities. There are poor white communities in and around Chicago, but they are mostly not talked about much. Everyone appears in "their place." The well-off live in communities like the Gold Coast, the Northeast side, Hyde Park, and many outlying suburbs. Despite this, Chicago is a city of great cultural and social interaction. It has a true center, the downtown, where all subways and El trains meet. Like New York City and other major east coast metropolises, poor and rich, white and black and brown, can't help but rub shoulders or come face to face, even if fleeting, even if with dread.

LA is a wholly different monster. There are people in East LA, South Central and the Valley who've never been to the beaches. Even tourist maps of "LA" completely keep the Eastside and Southside communities off. There are whole sections of town that don't know anyone from other sections of town. People tend to live, work, and play in their own communities. Malls or parks become the centers. While LA does have a vast downtown, it is evenly divided between the poorer and crowded Eastside and the tall, glass towers of its Westside, sparsely populated by suited office and bank personnel. Race is a factor in the segregation patterns in both cities but more importantly is social class. In "gang" cities like LA and Chicago, gang structures and neighborhoods cause further divisions, the results of which have given both cities high assault and homicide rates related to gang violence.

Question: I would welcome anyone who is looking for a better life. Unfortunately, the majority of immigrants in my neighborhood come here with one thing in mind: money to send back home. The money being made in this country is being sent out of it to support families in other countries. If we don't spend some of that income here, all Americans will soon be out of work. I also object to the majority being paid under minimum wage and without paying taxes. Please write back. I would love to hear other opinions.

Luis: While it is true that many migrants to the US, especially from Mexico and other Latin American countries, send money back home (in the billions, something I've written about), they also leave even more billions in the United States. Undocumented Mexicans in California, for example, shop heavily and pay state consumer taxes (legal residents, naturalized citizens, and those born here also pay federal and state income taxes). They go to the movies (although many of them live in areas without any movie houses), dances, sports events (they are big baseball, boxing and soccer fans), and have their own events such as Charreadas (the original rodeos) and Mexican music concerts. If there is a high quality of life for many Californians, it is largely due to this greatly exploited workforce and market. They are now buying homes, cars, and sending their kids to US colleges. They contribute tremendously — much more than any perceived "taking" that people might have about them. In fact, a recent survey of welfare services in LA county show that more white people use such services proportionately than Mexicans. Are there problems because of undocumented migration? Of course, but not as much as people are led to believe.

Question: I know you have a memoir about your experience being in gangs earlier in your life, but I haven't read it. What was key in the "turnaround" in your life? When you talk about those experiences now, what do you draw out of them?

Luis: There were three major contributors to my "turnaround." One, I had help. There were a couple of teachers, a home-school coordinator, and a community organizer who saw some potential in me and tried to get me to see the resources, internal and external, that I had to reach that potential. Two, I found an art. First it was visual art (I painted 10 murals from age 17-18 even when I was heavily involved in the gang and in drugs). I also wrote vignettes and poems that eventually were sent to a contest in Berkeley, for which I won honorable mention and $250. Thirdly, I got tired. At age 18, I was facing a six-year prison sentence, I was using heroin, and I had already lost 25 friends to the madness of street violence, crime and drugs. Something in me had matured. If not, I would not have made the turn.

Nobody can change anyone's life — although they can teach, mentor, guide, direct, and have a great impact. One has to make a decision to grow up. To be responsible and own one's life. I was helped in making that decision despite the fact I was considered a "lost cause." I believe these and other factors can help "turnaround" more youth in our cities and rural communities. Other factors such as meaningful work, educational prospects, strong initiatory and community-based experiences, among others, have to be taken into account. However, today we have few if any mentors, few if any resources, few if any political will or policies for the most troubled youth to find their way. In my talks, I try to illustrate the ways communities can be re-imagined and re-established to meet the challenges of helping youth find and shape the lives they were meant to live — with purpose and connection. My experiences, both negative and positive, are used to bring these discussions to life. I did a lot of damage in my youth — some of which I paid for, some of which I didn't. I've decided to sentence myself to a lifetime of community service to help redress my past indiscretions and violations — and to give back from my own gifts to better our world.

Your Questions 1 | 2 >

Next > "We live the concept of "no borders" while acknowledging that borders have helped mother us into our present circumstances."

about Luis J. Rodriguez


Luis J. Rodriguez is an award-winning writer with eight books published in poetry, children's literature, memoir, fiction, and nonfiction. He is best known for the international best seller Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A.



Read some of Luis J. Rodriguez's poetry:

My Name's Not Rodriguez

Tia Chucha

Questions For Which You Are Always The Answer

Find out more about Luis at his website: