Teaching Always Running by Luis Rodriguez

Synopsis: Always Running is a unflinching look at Chicano gang life in East Los Angeles. In his autobiography, Rodriguez writes about the blessings and horrors of gang life, and shows how he was able to find a way out. The book is a coming of age tale written in a poetically frank and brutal style that will captivate the reader. Dealing with the harsh realities of gang life, sections of the autobiography may not be suitable for all readers.

Challenge 1: Family, Friendship and Survival: The Allure of Gang Life
Luis Rodriguez wrote Always Running as an effort to dissuade his son from making the same mistakes that he did in his youth. The stories that he relates in this autobiography are horrifying; this truly is a cautionary tale. Students are already being fed images that glorify the gang lifestyle through today's media. Hip-hop artists like Snoop Dogg and The Game don't hide their gang affiliations, sporting their colors and rapping about the pride they have in belonging to a gang. Even fashion trends embrace gang culture, sideways hats and sagging pants; it's hard not to miss middle class, suburban psuedo-cholos and cholas shopping at the local mall. Considering these factors, it is important for the classroom teacher to move carefully through this text, and examine the various aspects of gang life.

In fact, many teachers may have students with gang affiliations inside of their classrooms. These affiliations often run through generations of family members and be an important part of a student's life. A gang may offer a sense of belonging, safety, and power. Gang affiliation is hard to understand for people from outside gang life, including most of us literature teachers. Gangs are a complex culture offering to meet unfilled needs in young people's lives. Recognizing the role of gang's is an important starting point if the classroom teacher really wants to discuss and understand gang life. Teachers may have a hard time reaching students if their starting point is simply dismissing all aspects of gang life or saying that, "Gangs are bad." For many students, the issue isn't that simple; they may know good from bad in their choices and actions, but find gang life to provide a comfort and belonging that they don't receive at home or in school. In such a discussion, students with knowledge of gang life may emerge, perhaps for the first time in their education experience, as class experts and resources. Other students may have stereotypes and racial prejudices regarding gangs that need to be discussed and analyzed.

One strategy for dealing with the allure of gang life is through writing. The teacher can ask students to develop alternate choices for some of the characters in the book. For instance, instead of choosing to join a gang, one student's character might choose another path. The student will then have to think critically about the impact that decision would have on that character's life. How would their friends and family react to that decision? Where else can the character go to find support and love? Or, a student might choose a character who is an active member of a gang, but wants to make a positive changes in his or her community. What would be the challenges that this character might face? Students will find that the issues related to gang culture are more complex that they might have imagined. In addition, by imaginatively embodying a character through writing or performance students are able to safely experiment with situations that, in the real world, could be a matter of life and death.

Students may need a bit more background information to help them thoughtfully embody a character from the book. The following resources will help students get some background information about gang culture and Luis Rodriguez.

Interview Video with Luis Rodriguez

Luis' Thoughts on the Gangbusters Policy

Rodriguiz Talks about gangs and his son.

A resource for gang awareness

The Official Luis Rodriguez Homepage

An extensive interview with Rodriguez

Challenge 2: Hardcore Reality: Dealing with Issues of Sex, Drugs, and Violence in Always Running

For many students, issues related to sex, drugs, and violence are prevalent in their lives. While some may feel that these issues are best addressed in the home, unfortunately many students do not have a support system that will help the address such issues in a mature way. For many students, the classroom is the only place that they are able to discuss these issues with an adult. While these topics are controversial, carefully guided discussion in the classroom can help students think critically about decisions that could be life or death.

In Always Running, Rodriguez writes honestly about encounters involving sex, drugs, and violence. If a teacher simply has students read through the text without stopping to discuss these encounters, they may be doing their students a disservice. The classroom teacher should not simply gloss over or ignore issues involving sex, drugs, and violence in the literature being studied in their classroom. This sends many different messages to the students, some of them dangerous. For example, if the class reads a section of the text that contains a disturbing description of violence, and this section is not discussed, or even commented on by the teacher, students receive the message that this type of situation is simply part of life, an everyday occurrence. Instead, teachers should stop and give students time to reflect upon the impact of that section of the text. In our society, images of sex, drugs, and violence are coming at students so quickly that they often almost go unnoticed. Students are truly becoming desensitized. It is the teacher's duty to slow down the onslaught of images and help students think critically, and, hopefully, make positive choices in their own lives.

Writing is a powerful tool in slowing down and filtering thoughts and ideas regarding issues involving sex, drugs, and violence. One way to use writing to help students think critically about these issues is to have students choose a character from the text and a scene from the text that has their character facing an issue involving sex, drugs, or violence. In a creative piece, have students write as the character that they have chosen reflecting on the situation and decision that they made from twenty years into the future. What impact has that decision had on their life? Do the have regrets? What could they have done differently. All too often, students don't think about the future, especially with regards to issues involving sex, drugs, and violence. This exercise can help students realize that their actions today will have a positive, or negative, impact on their future.

While it can be dangerous for some teachers to address controversial topics in the classroom due to a nervous administration, conservative parents or religious groups, the fact is that the literature classroom can be a powerful tool in helping students think critically and make appropriate decisions. The link below deals with Rodriguez's thoughts on this topic.

Censorship and //Always Running//

Additional Resources

The movie My Family, 1995, also deals with Chicano life in California. The movie would make a great pairing with the book. Although it doesn't primarily focus on gang life, it does an excellent job of portraying the effect of gangs, violence, and crime on Chicano families. The movie narrates three generations of a family living in California. The first generation, Jose and Maria, are living in California not long after the land was ceded to the United States. Chucho, one of their sons, is involved in a gang in the 1950s. Although the gang scenes are somewhat reminiscent of West Side Story, the message about violence is the same when gang members push each other over the edge. Chucho is brutally killed while his little brother Jimmy watches from across the street. Chucho's death has a profound effect on Jimmy, who also turns to violence and crime in retaliation. It is not until Jimmy has a family of his own that he is able to move on from his reliance on violence for survival, and find survival in his family instead. [This movie is rated R for language, very little violence, and a couple of sensual scenes. My sophomore / junior Spanish III classes watch this movie with signed permission slips from their parents. My Spanish students love the movie and I think students reading Rodriguez's Always Running would make a lot of connections to the book. (Lindsay Steenbergen)]

external image 8939510.gifAlways Running is, as Jeff describes, a sometimes brutal and always unflinching look at the life of a gang member. Another book that addresses a Chicano male coming-of-age story is Victor Martinez's Parrot in the Oven. Parrot in the Oven also addresses the issue of gang membership (the 14-year-old protagonist is on the brink of gang initiation, but has some experiences that make him question that decision), and deals with family relationships, poverty, and discrimination of the Chicano culture. Parrot in the Oven doesn't depict as much brutality and violence as Always Running, but it still portrays the difficult choices facing an adolescent living in a Chicano community. While Always Running is probably most appropriate for 10-12th grade students, Parrot in the Oven is a good fit for 8th or 9th grade students. (Lindsay Steenbergen)

Contact Information for Luis Rodriguez

Listen to Luis read his poetry.

external image 1064768.gif
Cool Salsa: Bilingual Poems on Growing Up Latino in the United States edited by Lori M. includes poems by Luis J. Rodriguez, specifically "'Race' Politics," "The Monster," and "The Calling." These poems all deal with the subject matter of Always Running, and Rodriguez's experience growing up in L.A.

Student made video of chapter 6 of Always Running

by Jeff Patterson