We don’t have a choice on where we are born but even in the toughest of neighborhoods, people rise and succeed. Always Running, currently playing at CASA 0101 is based on the memoirs of Luis. J. Rodriguez, a former gang member and substance abuser who went on to become a celebrated American poet, novelist, critic, and columnist.
He was born in El Paso, TX in 1954 to Mexican parents who lived across the border in Chihuahua. The family moved to California and settled in a San Gabriel Valley barrio called Las Lomas near the San Gabriel Mission.
Barrio life in the 60s and 70s, when he was growing up, was tough in Los Angeles. Luis became a member of the local street gang at the age of 12. Lomas and Sangra, a gang from a nearby barrio, were sworn enemies. Throughout his teen and young adult years he was sent to juvenile detention and men’s prison numerous times, including a stay where he was in a cell next to Charles Manson. Violence was the norm and many of his friends died from gang fights, overdoses, police shootings, and suicide. For seven years he abused drugs, including heroin and LSD. His parents finally threw him out of their home forcing him to sleep in cars, sidewalks, and abandoned warehouses.
During that era, the police were not to be trusted. When the two gangs attempted to form a peace treaty, the cops would purposely incite violence to give them a reason to go into the barrio.
Mentorship helped save Luis
He hung out with other gang members at a local youth post and an organizer named Chente became one of his mentors. Chente had grown up in gang territory himself and was also an organizer in the Chicano Movement, part of the Brown Berets and a leader in Chicano school walkouts. At the post, he helped gang members by getting them interested in art and mural projects, Chicano studies and offered support when they got in trouble. Luis was into graffiti art so he hooked him up to study at the Goez Art Studio in East Los Angeles.
Despite his drug abuse and gang involvement, Luis was a lover of books and would often escape to the LA Central Library and neighborhood book stores to read.
In 1993, after his oldest son was born, he became clean and sober.
On his website, Luis states that he is dedicated to a clean, balanced, abundant, cooperative, healing world. No more capitalist private property relations, exploitation, war, or inequities.
“In essential things, unity; in nonessential things, liberty. In all things compassion.”
Almost Running at CASA 0101
The stage production of his novel, Always Running La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A was adapted by Luis J. Rodriguez and Hector Rodriguez. It is currently playing at CASA 0101 in Boyle Heights with Hector Rodriguez directing.
Rufino Romero gives a powerful and affecting performance as Luis from his angry teen years through his conflicted young adulthood. At one point, he becomes involved with Viviana, a young Chicana girl from Sangra, fetchingly portrayed by Rachel Lemos. Her two brothers are members of the Sangra gang and the couple soon realizes their love affair is doomed.
Joshua Nicholas gives a compassionate performance in the role of Chente Ramirez, the youth organizer who supported Luis as a teen and helped him when he got into trouble.
One moment that stood out for me is when Luis is sitting in jail next to a rival gang member played by Jesus Tadeo Rodriguez. For a short time, they discover that the two of them have much in common and could have easily been friends if they weren’t enemies.
The entire ensemble is adept and compelling playing multiple roles as gang members and ancillary characters in the show.
Be forewarned that Almost Running doesn’t shy away from the violence, drug abuse, or other harsh realities that many diverse low-income working-class neighborhoods still continue to deal with.
2102 E. First St. LA CA 90033
If you are in the Los Angeles area and would like to attend Always Running, tickets and current showtimes are available on Eventbrite.