Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for It Calls You Back includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Luis Rodriguez. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
“You’ll be back.” These are the words that Luis Rodriguez hears as he is departing Los Angeles County Jail, where he was incarcerated for assaulting police officers and resisting arrest after he tried to intervene in the beating of a handcuffed young woman. Instead of predicting a return behind bars, these words serve as an onus for Rodriguez to make more of his life. Clawing his way out of street life and heroin addiction, Rodriguez embarks on a journey that will turn him into a successful journalist, community activist, praised poet, and most importantly, a family man.
But Rodriguez’s journey is anything but smooth. He must come to grips with his own struggles and failures as a husband and father while encountering his own father’s past demons. He fights valiantly to prevent his son from succumbing to the gang lifestyle, but in the end will watch him be hauled away in handcuffs. Amidst the fights, addictions, blackouts, battles, and hardship, Luis will emerge from his odyssey a changed man with a calling to prevent others from falling into the same pitfalls he did.
QUESTIONS AND TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
- It Calls You Back opens with: “You’ll be back.” Who said this to the author? What impact did those words have on him? Do you think his journey may have been different if he hadn’t heard those words?
- How does Luis’s statement “I can hardly wait to have a funeral like this” explain the “glory” behind dying for a gang? Do you think his son Ramiro said something similar? What steps did each of them have to take to avoid having such a funeral?
- At one point in the story Luis is invited to paint a mural for a Catholic university in California. In the end, however, he turns down the project. Why do you think he did this?
- Luis attempts to build an honest life for himself and lands a job at the St. Regis Paper Company, yet this experience is not without its problems. How did his job at St. Regis almost lead him back to his former gang lifestyle? How did he overcome the temptation? Discuss this in terms of the dichotomy that Luis later addresses of how ex-prisoners struggle to obtain and keep gainful employment.
- Discuss the following statement on page 22: “A revolutionary mind and a revolutionary life were probably the worst things you could strive for in America.” What does this mean? Do you agree with this statement?
- How do you think Luis’s life would have turned out if he’d stayed at Bethlehem Steel? Would he have found himself on a similar path eventually? Why do you think he took the “crazier” option?
- Luis eventually finds himself as a junior reporter for the San Bernardino Sun. Discuss how his time as a junior reporter on the police beat reawakened the knowledge of the dangers of drugs and gangs. How was this experience in the work place different from his experiences at St. Regis or Bethlehem Steel?
- Throughout It Calls You Back the author shifts between stories of his personal and professional life, giving the readers a complete view of the success and strife he was experiencing. How does this narrative organization add to the mood and pacing of his story?
- Luis struggles to balance his dedication to his activism with a dedication to his personal life. In many instances he pours all of his energy into his professional efforts, leaving his personal life to suffer. Discuss his relationships (with his children, Camila, Deborah, and Yolanda) and how they suffered and benefitted from this back and forth. What relationships did Luis have to give up for the sake of his profession and calling? Were some of these relationships doomed to fail?
- Why did Luis become fixated on making his relationship with Trini work? Does he really have a healthy relationship with her?
- At the end of It Calls You Back, Luis fights doggedly for his son Ramiro not to be sentenced to life in prison. Why do you think Luis continues to fight for Ramiro even after he’s accused of attempted murder?
- What did you think about Ramiro’s monologue at the end? Do you think his changes are genuine? Why do you think he did not heed the words of his father, but instead had to go through the experience on his own?
ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
- Luis Rodriguez continues to be active today. Follow his exploits and learn more about his work and poetry at http://www.luisjrodriguez.com/
- In Chicago, Luis started Tia Chucha Press, a cross-cultural poetry publisher, and later helped create Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural and Bookstore in the northeast San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles. Find out how the arts and cultural expression can empower persons, families, and communities at http://www.tiachucha.com/
- As a group, read Luis Rodriguez’s poem, “The Concrete River” at http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15616. What kind of imagery and emotions does it evoke? Were you reminded of any scenes or descriptions from It Calls You Back?
A CONVERSATION WITH LUIS RODRIGUEZ
One of the most moving parts of It Calls You Back is the talk that Largo gave you before you left the county jail. What impact did this encounter have on you? Do you think that Ramiro could have benefitted from such an exchange?
This speech helped me move from one intense life—of drugs and gangs—into another one of activism, study, and writing. My own homeboy recognized I didn’t really belong in the criminal end of “the crazy life,” that perhaps I could transcend the chains of this reality to one of being an autonomous, creative, and whole person. Ramiro needed to take the same message deep into his own sense of himself, something he eventually did but only after many years in prison.
You turned down the opportunity to paint a mural for a Catholic university in California. Have you picked up a paintbrush since? Do you ever wish to return to painting or do you feel your talents are best used elsewhere?
I stopped painting altogether after working on eight to ten murals in and around my South San Gabriel neighborhood. This was probably linked to the heroin use during this time. When I left heroin, I also left many things I was doing at the time, including, interestedly, graffiti and painting. But my love of language and the shaping of words and stories didn’t die. I tried many artistic expressions in my youth but the one that prevailed beyond the violence and drugs turned out to be writing. I feel this has to do with my true passions and innate soul callings.
It Calls You Back highlights many struggles in your life, including those within law enforcement. Do you see police officers as a force to be wary of or an ally in your cause? Why do you think they tried to impede so many of your helpful community efforts? Was it a misunderstanding or something more?
For generations, due to racism and the social class nature of control in this country, police pitted themselves against poor neighborhood youth, particularly in gangs. In a way they were a larger better-organized and armed gang. Yet over the years I’ve met many caring police officers. I have family members who work for law enforcement. Some officers have brought troubled youth to me to mentor out of drugs and violence. In proper gang intervention work, it’s best if law enforcement become partners in keeping our youngsters away from the ravages of the streets and prisons. But this has to start with respect, common cause, and a new imagination about policing and community. I’m open to explore such possibilities. I will also continue to challenge any abuse or injustices linked to law enforcement. When it comes to the wellbeing of our communities, nobody should get off the hook. Not me. Not gangs. Not politicians. Not businesses. Not parents. Not the police.
As a junior reporter for the San Bernadino Sun you were assigned many unpleasant news stories, including viewing multiple instances of gang violence. How did you steel yourself from these difficult assignments?
My street experiences had already prepared me for what I saw in terms of the terrible outcomes of domestic and societal violence. But I also learned to see this from another side, from what police and social service workers had to address when violence maimed or killed people. The devastation can be total to families and communities. Putting people away without rehabilitation and restoration continues the violence by other means. At the time, however, my way of handling the trauma involved escaping into bars, crawling into a bottle to stop the screams in my head and keep from caving into the deep pain surrounding so much loss. I was being traumatized again, but with few healthy means of dealing with this.
While stationed in Miami in the early 1980s you commented that “the culture helped mediate the politics.” Do you believe this still holds true to many conflicts today? Or is culture more of an impediment?
When culture involves community-based dance, music, writing, theater, visual arts, and media arts, this can liberate us from the constraining and oppressive nature of our political and economic fracturing. Yet much of our culture is used as entertainment, like a drug, to get us not to look at problems long enough to do something positive and lasting about them. Authentic culture pulls the broken pieces of community together. It allows the engagement of the imagination with human energy to affect change. It teaches us ultimately that to be complete as a human being is to be complete as an artist. As the saying goes, artists aren’t a special kind of people; each of us is a special kind of artist.
How did you feel when Analisa told you that your place was in the United States, not in Mexico? Do you still think about returning to Mexico? What effect did Analisa’s words have on you?
Like many activists in the 1980s, I romanticized the upheavals and uprisings in Mexico and Central America, pulling me away from the work that was needed in the United States. Analisa’s admonishment helped me realize I needed to be part of the U.S. revolutionary process, that what happened in this country would have critical impact on most of the world. And that to be in solidarity with international battles for justice and equity did not mean sacrificing the hard work needed to bring adequate social transformation here. At the same time I had to recognize our humanness beyond borders and that the healthy and thorough development of each depended on the healthy and thorough development of all. I have since returned and renewed my ties to Mexico, particularly its indigenous communities. But I also learned where to strategically place my energies and gifts in helping create that clean, just, and free world we all deserve regardless of the country.
You share some extremely powerful and often-times painful experiences with the reader. What mindset did you have to get yourself into to be so open with your audience? Were there any stories you chose to omit? Conversely, were there any stories you almost omitted but chose to leave in?
One may not think so, but to be real in this writing, to be as honest as possible, proved to be difficult. The truth can heal but it can also hurt. I tried to move toward the healing aspects, but often the hurting and healing came together. I’m aware this memoir relates events from my perspective, and that the people I write about have their own, just a valid, ways of seeing things. Mostly I looked at my failings, but I also had to address the failings of those I most loved. I did omit many stories, but most of these were repetitious or similar ones that would only have bogged down the book. I kept the harsh realities I lived through as intact as I could, with my apologies to everyone. I almost omitted one or two key aspects—my father’s issues for example. That proved to be more troubling. In the end, I opted for telling things like they were. I may suffer for this, but sacrificing comfort for truth, healing, art, and change is worth it if done with dignity, grace, and deep awareness.
You write that peace cannot exist without “justice, economic means, community engagement, ongoing and comprehensive resources.” Do you think that this is why the concept of peace eludes many populations and areas of the world? What would you say to those who think that peace is too difficult to obtain?
We have a presumption of scarcity, that there are only limited resources and means available for everyone. Along with this is the presumption that the powerful, the cunning, the ruthless will win what resources exist, and too bad for the rest of us. Peace is an action verb not just a noun. It has to start with a presumption of abundance—that in nature, as in ourselves, there exists the immense capacities to renew and regenerate. In a world where bottom-line capitalism is described as “dog eat dog” (an insult to dogs), “only the strong survive,” and the most valued are those with the most possessions, peace is not possible. Where there is hunger of any kind—physical but also spiritual, cultural, and political hungers—there will be no peace. People want peace programs, peace pacts, peace songs but not necessarily a change in the environment that gives rise to the imbalances of the world. Peace is a revolutionary series of acts toward drawing out the abundance in our natures as well as in nature, and in the seemingly limitless new technologies. It’s an alignment of all three to our governance that will make peace real and vital for everyone.
What was it like watching your children make the same decisions (and mistakes) that you made? Did you feel that you had failed them in some way? Or, were their choices just part of the experience of growing up?
I definitely failed my oldest children. But as wiser people have said, nothing succeeds like failure if one is open to its lessons, stages, and direction. I also can’t take away the individual choices my oldest son and daughter made—they have to own their decisions. The point is all this is related. Ramiro was being punished for what wrongs he did, but there were hardly any adults held accountable for the abuse, humiliations, and dismissals forced upon my son. If we treat our children with respect, meaningfully, with true caring, and likewise if our communities value all its children, we won’t see the kinds of trouble we’re seeing today. I’m not going to take away anyone’s personal responsibility for their life, but I must also emphasize the responsibility of society to be attentive to our children, not to give up on anyone, and to make personal and social transformation essential to any process of addressing the natural trouble youth, families, and communities must go through.
You tell the reader that “the world is changing; community leaders have to change as well.” What advice would you give to community leaders who are struggling to create change?
This is a time to be imaginative, re-energized, to trust. We need proper relationships between elders, mentors, parents, youth, and children. The alignments of our present age are toward cooperation, cohesiveness (in the midst of diversity in humans and cultures), and connections. Toward the bounty and beauty in all things. The industrial-based (and much of the post-industrial) world is inadequate to what we all sense can truly happen. Real justice and peace are within our grasp. Community leaders need to have a clear understanding of the direction of this motion, and within that to allow for a variety of efforts, expressions, voices. We’ve reached a time in which we can create our own history, not just be driven by it, and allow the best in all of us to rise and triumph. It’s now possible for the dream and reality to become one.
It Calls You Back is the sequel to your bestselling memoir Always Running. What advice would you give to someone who wants to write a memoir? How must they prepare themselves for the experience? Is it worthwhile?
Any unique, compelling, powerful story is worthwhile. Humans and communities are wellsprings of stories. The earth itself holds stories in its rocks, bushes, trees… and even in earthquakes and fires. Memoir has the quality that the story—even if some of the facts are changed—is not made up. But memoir is also based on a more or less re-imagining of what happened. People who expect memoir to be a fully accurate account of one’s life or stage in life will be disappointed. But truth is paramount, even if names, details, circumstances aren’t exactly as they may have been due to the filtering process—or even just to protect people. But the prism of memory can also congeal, crystallize, and make succinct what is otherwise complex and confusing. Also reflecting on the qualities and features of your life can draw out lessons that can resonate with others. One’s story has been described as having been written before one is born—the key is to live it out. Writing this story should not replace having a full, conscious, and active existence.