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Always Running | Study Guide

Luis J. Rodriguez

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Always Running | Context


Always Running and the Chicano Literary Tradition

The term Chicano (feminine Chicana; gender-neutral Chicanx) is not synonymous with Hispanic (of Spanish origin), Latino (of Latin American origin), or Mexican (of Mexican origin) in that the term Chicano refers specifically to residents of the United States who are of Mexican descent. Always Running by Luis Rodríguez falls squarely into the 20th- and 21st-century tradition of Chicano literary renaissance literature, which examines the experiences of Chicano immigrants and their descendants in the United States.

The Chicano literary renaissance took hold in the United States during the second half of the 1960s (although its roots can be traced as far back as the 1870s, when literary responses to the annexation of Texas (1845) and the Mexican-American War (1846–48) began to appear). Peaking in the 1970s and still active, it has produced a tapestry of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, drama, and essays that affirm and examine Chicano and Mexican ethnic identities and experiences. While primarily aimed at its own community, the work of Chicano writers also serves as a means to enhance the social consciousness of the dominant Anglo (white) culture in United States.

In the new introduction to Always Running, Rodríguez states that he cannot claim that the book "is representative of the vastly multifaceted Chicano gang life." Yet, he addresses historical, political, economic, and social aspects of that life at length. His contention that gangs are the product of centuries of social disenfranchisement is backed by extensive historical and social research. The subjugation of indigenous societies in Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean by European cultures has, since the late 15th century, both pushed those native peoples to the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder and kept them there. The formation of gangs such as those in which Rodríguez spent much of his early life is a present-day manifestation of the social and economic disparity that has largely defined the Americas since the so-called age of exploration.

Chicano Gang Activity in Los Angeles

In Always Running, author Rodríguez relates an early life spent involved with gangs. By the time he became part of the Animal Tribe and the Lomas, gangs had long been a fixture in the community of Los Angeles (as well as in places such as Chicago, New York, Newark, and Oklahoma City). The earliest Los Angeles Chicano gangs formed in the barrios (impoverished Spanish-speaking neighborhoods) during the 1920s. Initially, the groups had no formal structure. They were simply cliques of impoverished males between ages 14 and 20, united for protection and to socialize with others who shared the same language and culture.

Culturally, economically, and geographically marginalized from opportunities afforded to the white population, these groups built their own identities from territoriality; gangs would go to extreme lengths to defend their turf from outsiders, most often other gangs. Their oppression by society in general also led the gangs to value displays of antiauthoritarian behavior. Committing crimes conferred status within the gang. Jail time commanded respect.

Over the decades Chicano gangs in Los Angeles became more structured and their activities more ritualized (and violent). Leaders arose from among the veteranos, older members who had been shot or stabbed in gang fights or served prison sentences. An elaborate system of self-identification arose, including tattoos, graffiti, and hand gestures specific to each group. New, younger members were actively recruited. Initiation generally involved the commission of a crime to demonstrate allegiance and later evolved to being jumped in, or beaten by the other gang members.

By 2018, Chicano gang-related violence (and U.S. gang-related violence in general) was at or near an all-time low. Some of this decline can be attributed to activist efforts at making peace among gangs, along with an increased police presence in gang-ridden areas. At the same time, there has been no appreciable decrease in the actual number of gangs. The root causes of gang formation—poverty, lack of opportunity, racism, and inadequate education—remain. As research has consistently shown—and as is abundantly demonstrated in Always Running—when a society does not offer its youth a sense of belonging, those who are disenfranchised will create their own societies to fill that need.

Troubled History of the Los Angeles Police Department

Throughout Always Running (which takes place between 1956 and 1993), Rodríguez references the ongoing tension between Los Angeles's Chicano community (its gang subculture, in particular) and law enforcement authorities. His story can be seen as a chapter in the Los Angeles Police Department's (LAPD) long and violent history of conflict with Chicanos, black people, and other minorities.

Rodríguez was born in 1954, the year that the Supreme Court handed down the Brown v. Board of Education decision mandating an end to racial segregation in public schools. Activism both for and against civil rights strengthened in its wake, making at least some degree of cultural conflict inevitable. In August 1965 a white patrol officer pulled over a car containing two black stepbrothers in Watts, a Los Angeles neighborhood. The driver, Marquette Frye (1944–86), failed a sobriety test and was arrested. He resisted, and a scuffle ensued. A crowd gathered, and more police arrived. A sheriff's deputy used a nightstick on Marquette as the crowd, attracted by the commotion, swelled to hundreds. The incident kicked off six days of widespread rioting, now known as the Watts riots, during which the National Guard was summoned. An estimated 34 people were killed, over a thousand were wounded, and $40 million worth of property was damaged or destroyed. A subsequent report on the incident identified its root causes as widespread distrust of the LAPD, high poverty, and lack of educational and employment opportunities among the area's minorities.

The following two decades saw frequent investigations into police brutality and corruption in the LAPD. In 1990 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other civil rights groups filed a class-action lawsuit against the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. The move was a reaction to a well-documented and systemic pattern by police of racial harassment, excessive force, and unlawful searches and seizures in the largely Chicano community of Lynwood, near South Central Los Angeles. A federal judge concluded that Lynwood deputies, motivated by "racial hostility" and with the full knowledge of their superiors, routinely used "terrorist-type tactics" that violated civil and constitutional rights.

On March 3, 1991, the LAPD's strong-arm approach received international attention in an incident that author Rodríguez examines in the epilogue of Always Running. Four police officers were videotaped beating an unarmed black man named Rodney King (1965–2012) when he attempted to evade arrest for a traffic violation. About 13 months later—the day after Los Angeles's two most notorious gangs, the Crips and the Bloods, announced a peace treaty—a California jury found the four defendants in the King beating not guilty of assault and use of excessive force. The announcement of the verdict sparked several days of riots throughout Los Angeles, with 42 people killed and over 5,000 arrested, nearly 90 percent of them Chicano or Latino (of Latin American origin) or black. The following year, a federal jury convicted two of the four officers of violating King's civil rights; they were each sentenced to 30 months in prison. In 1994 King was awarded $3.8 million in damages.

The King incident would prove to be far from the last racially tinged scandal involving the LAPD. The 1996 O.J. Simpson (b. 1947) trial—in which the famous black football star was acquitted of murder—further tarnished the department's reputation. LAPD detective Mark Fuhrman (b. 1952) was found guilty of perjury in his testimony against Simpson. His claim that he had never used a racial epithet was disproven by audio in which he not only used racial slurs but bragged that he liked to line black people up against the wall and shoot them.

This event was followed in the late 1990s and early 2000s by the Rampart scandal, in which several members of Los Angeles's anti-gang unit CRASH were convicted of abusing suspects and falsifying reports. Investigations into CRASH's activities led to the firing or resignation of nearly 20 officers, several of whom were criminally indicted, and the overturning of more than 100 convictions. Many of the allegations against CRASH officers remain under investigation. The U.S. Department of Justice placed the LAPD under a federal supervision decree that ended in 2009. Since then, there have been fewer allegations of corruption and misconduct against the department. However, a 2016 survey found that nonwhite residents still deeply distrusted the police and believed that officers continued to exercise racial discrimination. Between 2012 and 2014, more than 1,300 racial bias complaints were filed against the department. The department investigated and dismissed all of these complaints.

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