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Kean University welcomes award-winning author and former gang member, Luis J. Rodriguez

By Francesca Figalo
On October 6, 2011

  • Luis J. Rodriguez

The son of Mexican immigrants, Luis J. Rodriguez struggled with his identity throughout his adolescence.

Although an American citizen, Rodriguez did not speak English, but his passion for literature did not stop him from picking up and reading a book. "I learned English by reading books," he said.

Years later, Rodriguez became an award-winning author and today, he travels to different places to talk about how art transforms communities. "What makes us human is being imaginative and creative," he said.

On Oct. 4, Rodriguez spoke at the Wilkins Theatre at Kean University about his latest memoir, "It Calls You Back: An Odyssey Through Love, Addiction, Revolutions, and Healing," as part of Kean University's lecture series. He shared his life with Kean students.

As a child, Rodriguez was raised in a poor neighborhood. His family was not supportive and he felt like he did not belong.

At the age of 13, he joined a gang. "I wanted power; I wanted respect," Rodriguez said. He became involved with drugs and theft. A couple of years later, he was accused of murder and was sent to prison.

Rodriguez's life became more difficult after prison. Twenty-five of his friends, also gang members, died. He had no family or friends. He had to decide whether to stay or to leave the gang. 

"I made a promise to never go back to jail or commit a crime again," he said.

When Rodriguez started a family, he took more responsibilities. After his son's birth, he stopped taking drugs. Unfortunately, he abandoned his children when they were young.

Rodriguez chose a better path for himself, but when his son was 15 years-old, he joined a gang. At 20, Rodriguez's son was sentenced to 20 years in prison for shooting at police officers.

Rodriguez regrets not being there for his children. "If we're not the parent or the family that we should have been, we will lose our kids," he said.

Today, Rodriguez's son is neither in prison nor part of a gang. He took his father's example. "If my son changed his life is because he saw me change my life," Rodriguez said.

In 2003, Rodriguez initiated a non-profit cultural arts center and bookstore in Sylmar, CA, called, Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural. The center is a community that was created for everyone, and its purpose is to teach people about their roots and about the native indigenous language. 

He also explained that the center helps people who do not know who they are to reconnect with themselves.

After years of struggles, Rodriguez discovered who he really is. Books helped him to find his true self. Now, he is willing to help those in need, especially gang members. "They're human beings caught in other circumstances," Rodriguez said.

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