Luis J. Rodriguez, the Chicano Activist poet running against Gavin Newsom
From gang life and drug addiction in East LA to community organizing, activism, and becoming an internationally acclaimed poet and writer, Luis J. Rodriguez has walked a long and arduous path. Now Rodriguez is running for governor in the California primaries under the campaign slogan “Imagine a New California for Shared Well-Being. Then Let’s Build It!” Primary voting will take place on June 7. In this installment of The Marc Steiner Show, Marc speaks with Rodriguez about his campaign and why—in this urgent and dangerous political moment when the right is ascending, climate change and inequality are accelerating, and working people’s faith in the political system is collapsing—he is taking on Gavin Newsom’s political machine.
The Real News Network
By Marc Steiner
May 31, 2022
Luis J. Rodriguez is a current candidate for California governor; his campaign has been endorsed by the Green, Peace & Freedom, and Justice parties. Rodriguez is an acclaimed writer and poet who served as the official Poet Laureate of Los Angeles from 2014-2016. He is the author of numerous novels, memoirs, children’s books, and essay collections, including Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in LA and It Calls You Back: An Odyssey Through Love, Addiction, Revolutions, and Healing. He is also the founding editor of Tia Chucha Press and co-founder of Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural & Bookstore in the San Fernando Valley.
Pre-Production/Studio: Maximillian Alvarez
Post-Production: Stephen Frank
Marc Steiner: Welcome to The Marc Steiner Show here on The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner, and it’s great to have you all with us. You know, we’re in the midst of elections in this country. Some of them are very critical. In California, they have an open primary, where voters can vote for anyone, regardless of party affiliation, and then the top two winners face off in the general election.
One of those running for governor as candidate for both the Green Party and the Peace and Freedom Party is political activist, poet, writer, community leader, Luis Rodriguez. In full disclosure, I first met Luis in the early ’90s, when we were both much younger political activists. And when I started my radio show in 1993, he was a guest on that show to talk about his widely acclaimed memoir Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in LA. Since then, he’s written a new memoir: It Calls You Back: An Odyssey Through Love, Addiction, and Healing. And Borrowed Bones is his latest book of poetry. Those are among the 16 books he’s already written.
He and his wife Trina founded Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural Bookstore, which is the center of community life and activism in their community. His campaign for Governor of California is built around the theme ‘Imagine a new California, with shared well-being; then let’s build it.’
Luis, good to see you.
Luis Rodriguez: It’s been a while.
Marc Steiner: It’s really good to talk with you. Let’s jump right into this. The very first time that you and I met was in 1993. You had just finished writing Always Running.
Luis Rodriguez: Yeah. Yeah.
Marc Steiner: Just for people who are not familiar with your work and all that’s been done before, just take us back to a little bit about Luis Rodriguez, and the writing of that book, your life in the world of the streets, and what led you to becoming such a political activist and revolutionary, and a writer.
Luis Rodriguez: Well, that book, as you know, became a big deal. I didn’t know it at the time. Bestseller.
Marc Steiner: Right.
Luis Rodriguez: I ended up going on Oprah Winfrey, Good Morning America. I was on all kinds of shows, your show, Entertainment Weekly. It got to be a big deal because of one thing: the LA uprising. It happened the year before, in ’92. My book comes out, one of the only two books that came out about LA gang life. Mine’s from a Chicano viewpoint, and Sanyika Shakur’s from the Crips and that world.
And the reason why it was important is because the uprising just threw everybody for a loop. People didn’t realize how bad things had gotten in these inner cities. You know what I’m saying. The relations with the cops were crazy. The economy had been gone. I was explaining about how the industry had left. The deindustrialization of America had been going on since the ’70s got really big during the Reagan administration. I mean, whole industries gone. Steel mills and rubber mills, auto plants. And LA was the largest manufacturing center of the country, so actually it was the biggest rust belt, even though it wasn’t in the Rust Belt. So, the impact of that is that South Central, East LA, all these poor Black and Brown communities, and poor white communities, were all being undermined, and the only people that were able to do anything were gangs, because drugs came in at the same time. Remember the crack epidemic? It was all going on at the same time.
Marc Steiner: Right.
Luis Rodriguez: So, it was a perfect storm. So, my book was about all that leading up to it. I got into gangs in the ’60s, ’70s. I got into it heavy duty. I was homeless for three years. I was on heroin for seven years, in and out of jails, juvenile hall. But, the political struggles of the time, the civil rights, all the social justice of the time woke me up, got me active, got me into working in industry. All those jobs, I worked in a steel mill as a smelter. I was in construction. I did all these jobs because of the fact that I wanted to change the world by that. I came from the street life, completely gone, lost, and mentored into a world of revolutionary consciousness and activity that has stayed with me for 50 years.
Marc Steiner: And it has stayed with you. And all the work that you did, you and Trina, in setting up your center in California, in LA. But, let’s jump for a moment into why you’re making this run. Because California’s primary is one of those different primaries where everybody’s in it to see who the last two will stand to run. So, it could very well end up being Luis Rodriguez versus Newsom in the fall, which is what you hope to do.
Luis Rodriguez: Yeah.
Marc Steiner: So, talk about, strategically, what you’re doing, why you’re making this run, especially in this time when the right wing is surging with such power.
Luis Rodriguez: Yeah.
Marc Steiner: So, talk a bit about why you’re making this run.
Luis Rodriguez: Well, the problem is the so-called liberals, if you want to use those terms, are, for most part, quite… Not all of them, obviously. There are some good Democrats. They’re going to lose. They’re going to lose the country, you know what I’m saying? They’re not delivering. Everything that even the Biden administration said it was going to do, it’s not able to do, and we’ve got to have a voice and a choice that is really about the things that I think most Americans are really for. Polls even show this. Universal healthcare, for example. Really helping with affordable decent housing. Not just shelters or Band-Aiding the problem, but real housing for people. Jobs that actually have livable incomes. Economy and an environment that’s clean and green.
In other words, these are things that we need in this country, and apparently everybody’s lost it, both Republicans and Democrats. The corporate-run institutional parties don’t even care about these issues. They’re talking about war. War is a big deal. They’re talking about more prisons, more cops now, because crime has gone up, the same old story. And as you know, Republicans have pretty much gone… At least the Trump side and others, kind of consolidated crazy. They’re just consolidated even more about the madness, the lies and everything else they’re doing. Our country is in quite a mess, and I feel that the voice of the working class, the voice of the poor, the voice of people that have just been pushed aside. It’s not strong enough. The voice with real answers that has the big dream and also the big delivery, that’s what I’m trying to do.
Marc Steiner: So, for everybody listening, especially those folks who are listening to us now who are not in California, the California primary system is different in that when you run in the primary in California, you are… It’s everybody, and anybody can vote for anybody. You can be Republican and vote for Luis, you can be a Democrat and vote for Luis. You can be anything. So, it’s a very different primary. So it ends up being whoever wins takes on November. So I think it’s important for people to hear what you’re offering as different solutions to the madness people feel in their lives, from healthcare to the environment, to poverty. Talk a bit about, concretely, what you do. Luis Rodriguez as governor, how would that make a difference?
Luis Rodriguez: I’m endorsed – And this is historical – By the Green Party and the Peace and Freedom Party. They usually don’t endorse the same people.
Marc Steiner: Exactly.
Luis Rodriguez: And the Justice Party, Rocky Anderson, I’ve been working with him for a long time. They’ve endorsed me. I’ve got three progressive parties behind my candidacy, which I think is important. They’re trying to bring in that stronger voice in the electoral arena.
The reason why I think I could possibly win in this – Not win, but at least push Newsom, to be the second-highest vote-getter, is because the Republicans have a lot of candidates. They’re going to nullify each other, and most of them aren’t known across the state. And as you know, in California, Republicans don’t do very well. And there’s a few other independents and Democrats, but they don’t do very well. So, Newsom’s—
Marc Steiner: Right, right.
Luis Rodriguez: The whole news here that Newsom has got it in the bag, whoever is going to be the second highest vote-getter probably will be a Republican, and he’ll run circles around that guy. What we’re trying to say is, where is that third way, that third voice, that voice that is talking about these issues? I’m the social, environmental, economic, and health justice candidate. I’m bringing in all these issues that the young people were fighting for when George Floyd was murdered, that Bernie Sanders was about. Universal healthcare, all these issues that got pushed aside, I’m the guy that’s talking about this.
How do we end mass incarceration? And I don’t mean by just closing down the prisons, but also thinking about the economy of those communities that got bought into prisons being their only economy. How do you deal with deadly militarized policing? How do you change that? I’m the one that has the answers and can do that. And the answers really lie not in one person, like me, but because I’m connected and talking to all the people impacted. The answers lie in the impacted people themselves. I’m bringing them to the table. You know, the homeless, the unhoused, the laborers, the farm laborers, un-unionized. There are all these people. We’re trying to bring them to the table. This is a collective effort of these voices that don’t get heard otherwise.
Marc Steiner: So, the work you’ve been doing for years now at Tia Chucha’s Centro, your bookstore and café, you and Tia, your wife, and what you created there, and that movement you’ve created out of there. I read this interesting piece the other day where people were arguing about how we listen to economists too much, they give us nothing but a lot of gobbledygook. We should start listening to anthropologists, philosophers, artists, and others about the future of our society. And in some way, you represent that alternative, that idea. So, let’s talk about, if you could take on Newsom, and if you could beat Newsom, what would be the things you could concretely do to change the lives of people stuck in poverty, and the issues people face with the police and more? Tell me what you would do.
Luis Rodriguez: One example from Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural & Bookstore is that we’re in a community, half-a-million people that had no bookstores, no movie houses, no art galleries, no culture life. That’s most of the inner city. That’s most of these rural, poor communities. They don’t got nothing. And we created a space where people can congregate, do art, express, learn music, dance, theater, writing. Being creative to me is also being revolutionary. Because when you’re creative, you’re critical, you’re thinking, you’re able to put yourself out there, and we’re giving people the tools.
So, now, we just had a Celebrating Words festival. 2,500, 3,000 people showed up. This is in a community where 25% of the elementary school kids are homeless, mostly Mexican and Central American.
Marc Steiner: 25%?
Luis Rodriguez: Yes. This is a poor inner city community here in LA called Pacoima, and we were there. 3,000 people there, and there was music, and poetry, and singing. There was dancing, there was breakdancing, there were vendors, community vendors. There was this beautiful congregation. I say community is our mother, and that’s what we are. We’ve created a nurturing mother out of community. I would like to take that vision to the whole state, where these communities that have been pushed out and don’t have nothing will come alive with their own powers and their own energies and their own creativity. That, to me, is powerful.
We have neighborhood arts: theater, writing, social, public art, murals. All that stuff would be in every neighborhood. Because creativity opens the door to say, well, then how do we also resolve these other issues? These intractable issues, like unhoused, like poverty. All these things are being part of a scarcity economy and a scarcity narrative that gets people to feel like, I’m limited. We can’t do it. And every politician seems to fall into that limited idea. So, our thing is, let’s imagine big. Our slogan is, “Imagine a new California of a shared well-being, then let’s build it.” Nobody talks about shared well-being. I’m the only one that has that, and that’s what I’m going to strive for. It’s a different politic, but it’s also… Once you have that problem completely addressed, the solution is right next to it. How do you implement shared well-being in a state, the fifth largest economy, like California?
And for the rest of the country, I would say it’s an important example. If we can make it happen here, we can make it happen anywhere, but right now the State of California won’t be run by Democrats, and so-called liberals have a lot of problems. And the Republicans don’t have answers, so we have to look somewhere else.
Marc Steiner: I want to explore concretely… I’m imagining a Luis Rodriguez administration in California. And as you said, California is the fifth largest economy on the planet. The fifth largest economy. So, how would you begin to deal with the issues of poverty that people face? What would be the things that would turn that around, that you can see? Within this system we’re in now, what would you begin to do to change that reality?
Luis Rodriguez: They expect a $95 billion surplus in the budget. Just the shortcuts alone, putting it into the fundamental issues. And I’m talking about poverty, I’m talking about homelessness, I’m talking about oil drilling, getting rid of fracking, all the drilling. Put it into clean and renewable energy. These are things that California has pioneered, but has not fully put everything behind it. I would put it into those things that we know can work.
I would work with the Indigenous peoples, because I work with them now, to address the wildfires. Wildfires are big in California, as you know. It’s all over, but really big here.
Marc Steiner: Everywhere.
Luis Rodriguez: They know how to burn, the scrub burning, how to log in such a way that it works with the rhythms of nature and what’s going on so that wildfires don’t destroy, but actually help regenerate more. I would work with them. They have Indigenous people on their advisory, the forestry service, their advisory. But advisory, they don’t listen to them. We have answers. The answers are in the people themselves.
Again, I have a group, I work with a group called Homefulness in Oakland. Mostly Black, East Oakland, Black community, Mexican community. They have created eight houses out of their own funding, fundraising and everything. Eight units for homeless people, beautiful units. I’m not talking about small little hovel homes that don’t have anything, and outhouses in the back. I’m talking about good units. And the City of Oakland, they won’t let them open it up. They’re putting one obstacle after another. This is a city that has encampments everywhere you go, and they won’t let them do it.
Marc Steiner: That’s insane.
Luis Rodriguez: I would stop the barriers to get people from doing their own answers.
I remember during the uprising, speaking of that. There was a beautiful saying that the Bloods and Crips created when they united, and I used it all the time: “Give us the hammer and the nails, and we will rebuild our communities.” It’s a metaphor for what I’m talking about.
Marc Steiner: So, strategically, I’m curious… I mean, you’ve been inside of politics and organizing for a long time. A long time. How are you organizing this campaign to put yourself in a position to be the person and the party, the parties, to take on Newsom? Especially around registering people to vote, getting people to the polls, what are you able to do?
Luis Rodriguez: Well, this is the biggest hurdle we have. The poor people, the working-class people in the state generally aren’t voting. And for good reason. They see voting as an inept, corrupt platform, and I get it. It’s been that way, pushing people to say, maybe we should make it come alive again, with real candidacy, real answers, a real movement of people. I’m pushing these people. That’s why I’m going up to Central Valley, which is the poorest part of the state, as poor as any part of the Deep South. That’s why I’m going through all the major cities. I’m going all over LA, San Diego, Santa Ana. I’m going to Oakland, the Bay Area. I’m going to Salinas. I’m going to Sacramento. All these communities where the homeless are everywhere, and you see them everywhere you turn, I’m trying to go to them and say, let’s make this a mobilization for your interests.
To me, the electoral arena is inept because we turned it over to the corporations, you know what I’m saying? We pretty much turned it over to the big money. And I think that we have to fight for it, like every space. We have to fight for every space, including this one. And I don’t mean fighting like acting crazy and doing destructive things, I’m talking about strategy and thinking and vision, organizing. So, we’re going up and down the state trying to organize a way to get the second-highest vote so that I can challenge Newsom all the way to November. I don’t have any money because all my money is little-people money. I don’t get corporate donations; I don’t want them. I’m trying to build this out of the small money, and it’s very hard. People are really suffering. But I’m doing it anyway, to prove to people that we can challenge the big boys. What’s his name? Newsom has $25 million in his campaign.
Marc Steiner: Damn!
Luis Rodriguez: I don’t think he’s used a fraction of it. He doesn’t need to. So, we’ve really got to challenge him from that end of it. That’s the goal that we’re going to try to reach by June 7, which is the primary election. People can vote now, by the way. That’s the other thing. The ballots are in people’s homes. You can vote from home for no reason. Absentee ballot, anybody can do it. It’s easier. But again, we have to educate people. Use that ballot. Use it for your interests. This is part of the struggle we’re having. But that’s where we’re going.
And people are beginning to open up. Everywhere I’ve gone, there’s been so much… When they hear me, people love it. But can we turn that into the votes we need? That’s the struggle we’re in right now.
Marc Steiner: And we’re about to find out. But I’m really curious, in all of this, your political perspective on what California faces, and what the nation faces with this massive rise of the right wing in our country, the failure of neo-liberal politics to answer needs of the people, which is, in part, what’s fueling the right wing, along with the racism in this country that’s fueling the right wing. And, politically, what you’re doing is a response to all of that. So let’s talk a bit about your analysis about how that changes, and why that’s a centerpiece of who you are and your campaign.
Luis Rodriguez: Well, I think one of the reasons why the right wing is rising and consolidating, despite that they’ve completely gone mad… But I think it’s madness by design. They know what they’re doing. They know that chaos is exactly what they need. And one of the things about the chaos is that it’s fractured the left response, it’s fractured the response from the working class and the poor. A lot of the poor working class, especially if they’re white, have been pulled away from the working class of everybody, and they’re being pulled away by saying, your interest has nothing to do with these immigrants, with these Black people. They’re trying to pull them away by saying, you have separate interests. This has been historically how the US has done it, how we did it with slavery and everything else, constantly pulling away these forces.
The only way we’re going to challenge the right wing is if we begin to unite on those interests and those issues. I don’t mean ideologically, because I think this is beyond ideology. I’m trying to work with people who are church Christians as well as Indigenous spiritual practitioners, as well as people that don’t believe in any of that stuff. I’m trying to work with Republicans and Democrats. I’m trying to work with independents, but I’m trying to get them to say, can we unite around these central issues that this country is about, and needs to be about? I’m trying to get away from just being in an ideological battle. That’s the wrong battle to be fighting on, you know what I’m saying? Because we’re talking about an American historical thread we’re pulling. Where do we go from here, to bring the actual issues and equality and push them out of the way? How do we create a society that, in fact, has, like I said, shared well-being? That, to me, pretty much summarizes where we’re going.
Marc Steiner: I want to give people the sense of you as well, because I was thinking about this this morning before we had our conversation, about how your own life as a Chicano, as a Mexican American man, whose mother is Indigenous from Mexico, whose father was college educated and from Mexico, were pushed into the poor working class when they got to this country. So, on the one hand, you had this home of books and education, but also in the streets, and the streets can take over a person’s life, and you ended up arrested and in jail, and all these stories about your life. So, that combination, that dialectical crossing, in many ways defined you, obviously, but also defines what the battle is facing America today. I mean, I really thought about that this morning as I was thinking about getting ready to see you again.
Luis Rodriguez: You know, I think the biggest thing I would say is that my family and my parents were educated Mexicans, but they never could have their credentials seen. My dad was a principal of a school, elementary school. My mom went to secretary school, which is big in Mexico. My wife’s parents only went to first and second grade because that’s all they could get. My parents went further. But as soon as they got here, it didn’t matter. They had to work. My dad worked in [dog] factories and paint factories, and he was selling construction, and he ended up retiring as a custodian, a janitor. My mom worked in the garment industry, which is horrendous work.
And I think what I saw was their spirits getting crushed. They were hard-working people, but their spirit was completely crushed. And I didn’t want that for me. I rebelled against what I saw poverty does to people. The material poverty is one thing, but that spiritual poverty is one of the worst things. And you see it in every inner city. And then when the drugs come in, you can see why the people go there, why drugs are a big deal. So, I was seeing that in my communities, and I fell into it. I fell into it. I say we played ourselves. We played right into the traps. I think the thing that was important was to have a vision of a country, a vision of a world, but also a vision of yourself personally. How do you impact that? How do you come into it?
I came into it with my passions, which turned out to be reading, because of my family, turned out to be writing, what turned out to be impacting the world with language. I was terrible at language when I was in first grade. You couldn’t speak Spanish or you’d be punished in Watts. I went to schools in Watts. And I remember a teacher slapping me across the face in front of the whole class because I spoke Spanish. These are things that people don’t know impact you. I was telling somebody, I’ve been running for governor since that day.
Marc Steiner: [laughs] Right, I hear you! Yes! Right.
Luis Rodriguez: That pain and that suffering and that humiliation, and trying to battle against it, and seeing my parents’ spirits crushed completely, and saying, no. This is not just chemical imbalances, people mentally ill because something is wrong with them. This is life imbalances. This is economic imbalances. Let’s point it where it is. Who’s behind this? What are the corporations, the big money, all these people, the big banks, everything that contributed to our lives being completely driven to the very bottom? I’m for raising that up. We need to have that spirit come alive and rise up. Who are we, where we need to go, and how we can actually achieve these things. People cannot live their whole lives constantly not achieving the basics of their needs, and we’ve got to make that real for everybody.
Marc Steiner: One of the things, the way the California system is set up, it’s really important – That’s the way the primary system is set up – That the politics and vision you have, the dream and deliver that you talk about, shortening your campaign title, is something that needs to challenge both the neo-liberal and the right-wing order, to say we have a different way of doing this. And that California is almost, because of the way it is, it can be a light to lead that for the entire nation.
Luis Rodriguez: I think that’s what, I’d like to see that as a national important campaign, not just for the state, the whole country, to look at, again, I call it a third way, another way to go that’s viable and credible. We have a lot of ways to go, but it’s not viable and credible yet for anybody. How do we make that third way viable and credible? And it’s not Republican, and it’s not Democrat. And again, I’m not against certain Democrats, I’m not against even some Republicans. I’m trying to reach out to everybody. But we need another way to go. Is that a third party? I don’t know yet. I don’t know what that is. I’d like to think maybe it could be. Maybe it could be many parties. But we need to have a third way that actually embodies the dream, embodies the imagination, embodies these kinds of communities.
If we all sat down, we would all say the same thing about what we could use and need in our communities. And once you can imagine that way, then you can say, how do we realize that? What are the practical steps that we need to do to make that happen? That’s what I mean by dream and deliver. So, I would like that to be the way our country begins to look at this, and not get stuck on the paradigm, that binary, Democrat and Republican. As you know, the madness that’s leading toward the right wing, which is more consolidated, more able to come together as the rest of us are fractured, trying to figure it out.
Marc Steiner: Luis Rodriguez, your voice is critically important, and I’m really glad we had a chance to talk today. It would be amazing and beautiful to see you take on Newsom after June the 7th to have a different way for America to see that we have a different place to live for all of us to survive together and grow. So, thank you for all the writing you’ve done over the years, and the work you do in the community.
Luis Rodriguez: And let me just say, yeah, if you don’t mind, if people, even across the country, if they want to support something like this, they should go to luis4governor.org. Not only is my platform there, but we’re looking for donations. We’re looking for whatever anybody can give, across the country. Because I think this is a battle for the whole country. And if people are interested, go to luis4governor.org. Give us donations, give us help, give us support. We’re not corporate money. It’s not going to be big money. It’s little money. But little money, as Bernie Sanders proved, could be big if you have enough of it.
So, I’m hoping that other people around the country can see, this is my battle, too. California is important for the rest of us. The way California goes, in many ways, is the way the country goes, so let’s make this be fruitful and encompassing of all of us.
Marc Steiner: Well, I wish I was a registered voter in California, and Luis, I—
Luis Rodriguez: Thank you.
Marc Steiner: I thank you so much, and thank you for all the work you’ve done over the years, and thank you for this campaign.
Luis Rodriguez: All right.
Marc Steiner: And I look forward to seeing you after the 7th and seeing what happens!
Luis Rodriguez: Sounds great! Thank you.
Marc Steiner: Thank you, brother. Great to see you.
Marc Steiner: Thank you all for joining us today, and please let me know what you think about what you heard today, and what you’d like us to cover. Just write to me at [email protected] and I’ll get right back to you. And again, links to Luis Rodriguez’s campaign and literary work will be attached to the story.
And I want to thank, first of all, our editor-in-chief Max Alvarez for stepping in to engineer this segment, and as always, the creative Stephen Frank for editing and making us sound good, and Kayla Rivera for helping produce the conversation, and to all of our hard-working creative crew here at The Real News. Thank you for joining us. I’m Marc Steiner. Stay involved, keep listening, and take care.