MOST OF US know Luis J. Rodriguez as the author of poetry, memoir, and fiction — 15 books to be exact — best known for the bestselling memoir, Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A. (Touchstone) — perhaps one of the most censored books in the country. His latest book is the sequel, It Calls You Back: An Odyssey Through Love, Addiction, Revolutions, and Healing (Touchstone), of which The New York Times Book Review said: “Rodriguez’s account of his coming of age is vivid, raw […]. Here’s truth no television set, burning night and day, could ever begin to offer.” Rodriguez, the son of Mexican immigrants, is also a political activist, an announced candidate for California governor, and co-founder/creator of Tía Chucha’s Café & Centro Cultural, a multi-arts, multimedia cultural center in the Northeast San Fernando Valley. It is here that many in the community have come to be enriched and share in the literature, music, and art that are the pillars of this very special meeting place. And many Chicana and Chicano authors from across the country — myself included — have shared in and helped support the literary pillar of this important endeavor. The peripatetic Rodriguez agreed to answer a few questions for LARB about Tía Chucha’s as it celebrates its 13th anniversary.
How did the idea of Tía Chucha’s come about?
When I was a teenager in the early 1970s, I took part in a barrio community center that included photography and mural painting (both of which I did). In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I worked with the L.A. Latino Writers Workshops establishing writing circles in the barrio and in prison, readings of Chicano writers (such as Jose Montoya, Lorna Dee Cervantez and Gary Soto), and editing a literary arts magazine called ChismeArte. I was also poetry curator and co-founder of perhaps the first art gallery and performance space in Echo Park (now a community renowned for these) named Galeria Ocaso. After I moved to Chicago in 1985, I worked with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and the Chicago Teachers Center to do writing workshops in homeless shelters, schools, and juvenile facilities. I continued with prison writing circles in Illinois and around the country. In addition, I co-founded the nonprofit Guild Complex, a literary arts organization working with gangs and other troubled youth. I also co-founded the organizations Youth Struggling for Survival and Humboldt Park Teen Reach.
In 2000, my wife Trini and I moved our family back to Los Angeles, this time where she grew up — in the Northeast San Fernando Valley. This community had around 500,000 people, mostly Mexican/Central American, yet no bookstores, art galleries, movie houses or decent cultural spaces. In 2001, Trini and I established, with other family members and community, Tía Chucha’s Café Cultural, LLC. In 2003, we started the nonprofit Tía Chucha’s Centro Cultural. We integrated a bookstore, performance space, and a variety of arts, music, dance, theater, and writing workshops, as well as festivals. In 2007, we disbanded the LLC and donated all the equipment, books, computers, and more to the nonprofit.
In a dozen years we raised more than a million dollars for arts programming, outdoor events, open mics, author readings, film nights, and community dialogues. Much of this is done in collaboration with schools, other nonprofits, and cultural circles. We also publish books through Tía Chucha Press which actually began in 1989 in Chicago. And we have a resident Mexica Danza group — the Young Warriors — a youth empowerment project, along with many healing and indigenous cosmology classes.
What is the interplay between your identity as a writer and the purpose of the Tía Chucha’s?
I identified with the Chicano literary output that began to rise strongly in the 1960s, gaining momentum in the 1980s and continuing to the present. These writers were publishing stories and poems that expressed the migrant experience, urban barrio life, and the struggle to break out of poverty, discriminatory practices, and second-class status. Tía Chucha’s is part of this thread, to help fill in the emptiness of material poverty — as well as spiritual and imaginative poverty — by tapping into the creative capacity in everyone. I’ve learned that the arts are key to revitalizing economies, families, and persons. My particular calling as a writer aligned with the community’s need to be heard, to tell their stories, to express and positively impact the world around them in an expansive way, with a multiplicity of practices and means.
How has Tía Chucha’s survived during tough economic times?
We drew on the already existing creative genius in community — the artists were always here. Once we set up a gathering place where arts could be learned, expressed, and performed, people came out in large numbers. We obtained funds from federal, state, county, and city funding sources. We managed to garner support from the California Community Foundation, the Annenberg Foundation, the Weingart Foundation, and Pantarea Foundation, among others.
Individual support also grew, including from Bruce Springsteen, John Densmore of the Doors, Cheech Marin, Lou Adler, Dan Attías, Jackson Brown, and more. When the economy faltered for much of the region, and arts funding was cut out or curtailed, we continued to prove that the arts are vital. A 2012 film and book we produced called Rushing Waters, Rising Dreams: How the Arts are Transforming a Community made a strong case for this. The book and film were taken throughout the Los Angeles area, and to cities around the country. This we see as a clarion call of a new way of relating, sharing and developing. A new age is upon us: postindustrial and post-scarcity. We can dream, study, plan — and then work methodically and steadily to make this happen. We have no choice. The disconnections and despairs have forced us to the brink. In the ensuing darkness we must let our imaginations lead the way. If my writing and community work mean anything, it’s to get us to generate a cooperative, abundant and just world. Why not?
Tía Chucha’s Centro Cultural & Bookstore will be celebrating its 13th anniversary on Saturday, March 22, 2014, from 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. More information can be found at www.tiachucha.com.