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
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