Poet laureate, former gang member speaks on campus about importance of youth guidance


Dylan Nelson | @DylanNelson99

Poet lauterate Luis Rodriguez reads from his book “Borrowed Bones: New Poems from the Poet Laureate of Los Angeles” Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017 during a presentation in part of the Nancy and Micheal Glassman lecture series in the SIU Student Center. (Dylan Nelson | @Dylan_Nelson99)

By Amelia Blakely

Los Angeles Poet Laureate Luis Rodriguez talked about the importance of forming creative spaces for children in a speech delivered on campus Tuesday night for Hispanic and Latino Heritage month.

“Art can save lives,” Rodriguez said. “If you give kids a dream, they will make it happen.”

Rodriguez, a former gang member, said he was homeless at 15 years old and addicted to heroin for seven years while he lived in Los Angeles.


A troubled child, Rodriguez was in and out of jail growing up. During these formative years, Rodriguez said he loved to read and the many hours spent at Central Library in downtown Los Angeles made him appreciate literature.

At 19 years old, Rodriguez faced his first prison sentence. It was then that Rodriguez said he realized he needed to quit heroin and the gang.

“I had to make a decision,” said Rodriguez. “I decided I did not want to be owned.”  

In 1973, after his community got involved and began a letter-writing campaign on his behalf to change his charges, a judge lowered his conviction and Rodriguez was sentenced to a short stint in county jail.

After he got out of jail, Rodriguez said began working with gang members in prison and troubled youth. His work continued for 40 years.

Rodriguez said in his experience, troubled young people who don’t have a creative space in which to express themselves bottle up their rage until it explodes and destroys their lives.

However, Rodriguez said anyone can change if they are given mentorship, guidance and the resources they need.


“If you give kids enough love, care and support, they will change their lives,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez said society has helped create this problem by funneling more money into prison systems than educational institutions. When employers and administrators lack tolerance for troubled youth, he said young people are left with limited choices.

“Every human being gets into some kind of trouble and trouble is how you make a life,” Rodriguez said.

His frank depictions of his gang life have won Rodriguez various literary awards, including the Carl Sandburg Literary Award.

Some of his works include his best-selling memoir “Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A.” and its sequel, “It Calls You Back: An Odyssey Through Love, Addiction, Revolutions and Healing.” His most recent poetry book is “Borrowed Bones,” which was published in 2016.

Rodriguez said society can take beautiful humans and turn them into monsters by taking away educational and creative resources. He said everyone should stand alongside children when they are in trouble and help them find their path and talents they can offer the world.

“It’s in our hands to create communities that love our kids and provide them resources,” Rodriguez said.

Staff writer Amelia Blakely can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @AmeilaBlakely. 

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