I remember the first time I heard about Luis Rodriguez; it was 1993 and I was reading Lowrider Magazine. In between the pages of vintage bombs, girls and ads for rims, there was a feature on Luis and his book, Always Running. In the article he spoke about his past as a gang member and how writing had changed his life. He also mentioned that his teenage son, who was starting to get into trouble himself, was the reason for writing the book. It made me want to read Always Running, so I went around to a few bookstores in my neighborhood but no one carried it. Soon I lost the drive to find the elusive book and forgot all about it. I guess it wasn’t my time to read it.
Fast forward to 1995. I wanted to get the hell out of Los Angeles. I felt isolated. I had no sense of community or belonging so I got a job selling t-shirts for the band Nik Turner’s Space Ritual. Nik was a founding member of Hawkwind, the influential space-rock group. The band had several other ex-Hawkwind members but due to legal reasons they could not use the name Hawkwind. There were fifteen of us touring in an old school bus with no air conditioning. It was the middle of summer during a horrendous heat wave. At every stop the thick heat and humidity followed. After a while I didn’t know what it felt like to be dry. I've never sweated so much in my life! Most of the shows on the tour were complete caves. The shows were booked in thousand capacity venues with only thirty people in attendance. The former members of Hawkwind, who once played in front of festival size audiences, never once complained about the ill-attended shows or the extreme heat. Every night the over fifty-year old space rockers gave it their all. It was inspiring to say the least, to see these older men bring it every night.
During the long drives I read. I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Black Elk Speaks and Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul On Ice. I had fun on the tour and started to open up to the band and crew. The band played great every night. But after the shows, on those long drives to the next city, that isolating feeling would return and I would sink back inside my head. The audience for Nik Turner’s Space Ritual was predominately male with very few persons of color attending the shows. It was like a rock and roll Star Trek convention, a close-knit community of people who loved everything outer space and rock and roll. At first, I admit, I thought they were a bunch of freaks. Yet the Hawkwind fans treated me with respect because I was with their favorite band. Race, religion and gender didn’t matter to them. Space rock did. They had their own community and network that set up shows for Nik Turner and other likeminded groups. They used space rock chat rooms to let other space rock aficionados know about upcoming shows years before Myspace came along. I admired their dedication and their sense of community. Experiencing that and reading books like The Autobiography of Malcolm X inspired me to find something I could call my own. The Black and Native American experience in America was the same as my experience in this country. Yet I wished someone could write a book about the experiences of Chicanos living in America.
The tour was a safety zone. I was apprehensive about returning home to the same old crap that I'd left a few weeks back. After the last show in San Francisco, I bought a plane ticket back to L.A. The bookstore in the San Francisco airport had Always Running on display. I bought the book and immediately read a good chunk of it on the plane ride home. I was engulfed in it. It spoke to me like no other book. Luis’s stories were like mine: The feelings of alienation, stories of people trying to take away your dignity, the feeling of always wanting to run away, and in the end, finding your place. Even though I was never in a gang I felt those same feelings of isolation that Luis wrote about. This was the book that I had craved for years. He wrote everything I felt.
When I arrived in LA, I was sitting outside the Burbank Airport, once again engulfed in my book. I was so engulfed that I didn’t notice the airport security guards that hovered over me. “Where are you coming from?” the airport security guard asked. I told security that I was previously in San Francisco. They asked to check my bags. I replied, “Do I have a choice?” They said no. So they searched. They didn’t ask to check anyone else’s bag that came off of the plane, only mine. I wasn’t carrying anything illegal so I wasn’t scared that they would find something. But rather than to take me somewhere private to search through my belongings, they did it out in public, where everyone could see. Everyone was staring at me, assuming I was guilty. My clothes, underwear and all, were spread out on the loading zone where the people waited to be picked up.
They didn’t find anything. They helped me shove my clothes back into my bag and took off. No apologies, nothing. I sat down and waited for my ride, somewhat fuming but all too used to the racial profiling. A black baggage handler sat next to me, a witness to the whole event, shaking his head as he said, “Black and brown, that’s the only people they ever check.” We nodded at each other with that same understanding. I pulled out my book and started to read again. My ride came and I finished reading all the way home.