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"well something's lost, but something's gained, in living every day" -joni

Sunday, May 09, 2004

Review of Rodriguez’s "The Republic of East LA"

When I first chose to read The Republic of East LA, Luis Rodriguez’s collection of short fiction stories, I didn’t realize what an appropriate selection I had made. You see, Luis Rodriguez and I are a lot alike. For both him and me, our hometowns are not just the setting, but also a main character in our work. In Rodriguez’s book, East Los Angeles, with its ghettos, housing projects, violence, and Latin immigrants, haunts each story, taking an active role and dictating the course of events and life of each character that lives there. I find myself doing the same to my characters, by having Brooklyn become not just where they are from, but who they are. And so, I began to feel a connection, perhaps a sort of empathy, for Rodriguez.
In each short story, it is clear Rodriguez has injected himself and his life, or the life of someone close to him, into the characters. Each short story depicts the life and experiences of a character living in one of LA’s ghettos and it is clear that Rodriguez can only be writing from what he has witnessed firsthand, from the realistic descriptions of the environment to the genuineness of his characters’ feelings and resilience to their neighborhood’s shortcomings. The stories seem so real that, as I was reading, I found myself forgetting they weren’t nonfiction. For example, in “Miss East LA,” Rodriguez tells the story of a young Latino man, living in a tiny apartment in East LA, with dreams of being a writer one day. He works his way up at a local newspaper by helping to solve the mystery of a murder he is reporting on. However, the magnificence of the piece is not in solving the crime, but in the Rodriguez’s ability to reflect himself upon the character and his hunger to write; “I wanted to carve out the words that swam in the bloodstream, to press a stunted pencil onto paper so lines break free like birds in flight...” Descriptions this affecting are made so moving because they are, what I think to be, Rodriguez’s thoughts and feelings too.
The intense poverty and dangers of the neighborhoods and the gangs are brought to life equally as well. Even more impressively, he takes on the voices of men, women, old and young so well that I forget who is writing. In “Las Chicas Chuecas,” Rodriguez tells the story of Noemi and her sister, Olivia, who is in a gang, and their drug-addicted mother. In just a few pages, Rodriguez weaves in and out of gang fights, rape, abortion, and drug abuse. And all the while, he never becomes philosophical or sappy, but he maintains a distance and objective role, letting the reader realize and feel on his own the pain and desperation of these characters and residents of East LA. Each story is just a continuation of the one before; it’s as if Rodriguez moves from one story and one character to another story and character living just next door and it gives the collection a sense unity.
In the final story, Rodriguez pulls all of the pieces together beautifully; he writes of Rosalba, a forty year old grandmother, living in what can only be described as a shack, with her grandchildren, daughter, and waste of life son in law. Yet Rosalba is strong and brash, the kind of woman you know would never take anyone’s crap for anything; feeling the need to get away one morning, she forces one of her granddaughters to go out with her. After they hop in the truck and drive away- in the intense Southern California heat that sets the mood for so many of Rodriguez’s stories- Rosalba decides to buy a watermelon. And then proceeds to dance along the sidewalk to a salsa beat playing on a radio, with the watermelon on her head, onlookers staring in amazement. The line “she danced for her people, wherever they were scattered, and for this country she would never quite comprehend” sums up the deep conflict that appears in each character in this book- the inability to fully understand America and the existing inequality and structural oppression already challenging the immigrants from the second they set foot in this country. Coupled with a language barrier and a loss of ties to their homeland, the Latino community in East LA cannot totally adjust and begin to move up the social ladder; it is clear that the system is working against them and throughout the book I found myself growing frustrated, but I am not sure with whom. It is heart breaking and Rodriguez succeeds in subtly but poignantly driving this point home. But the real masterpiece of the book is what can also seen in Rosalba’s story- her perseverance and ability to laugh and find joy even the desolation of it all that. It is this presence of human spirit and the ability to survive and move on and keep going that makes each and personal story unique but also one and the same.
Luis Rodriguez is bitter about his hometown; it haunts his work and his thoughts. But he also is in love with it. I have to say I can relate. In the endearing The Republic of East LA, this love affair becomes clearer with each story as he takes the reader on a jarring voyage into the heart of his impoverished and brutal world. It is his ability to do so using evocative language and descriptions as well as an appropriate between sensitivity and objectivity that makes Rodriguez such a fine writer. And so, he sets an example for all writers, but especially those who, like Rodriguez, give their hometowns a central role in their work, fiction or not. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn about this completely different culture but who also wants to enjoy themselves doing so.

Sunday, May 02, 2004

I am choosing to respond to Cruz's "Mountains in the North: Hispanic Writing in the USA." I find the way he views poetry and writing as a way to keep the Hispanic tradition alive fascinating, although I'm not completely sure I agree with him. He writes about how the Hispanics are "battling off Anglo culture" and not assimilating, and I'm not sure how accurate he is, especially after reading Luis Rodriguez's "The Republic of East LA," which is a collection of short stories about Latinos in the Los Angeles ghetto trying to survive and build lives in this country. Yet, I do agree with him that we, as Americans, dismiss many aspects of other cultures because we use stereotypes and clump various nationalities together- as Cruz points out, we group all Latinos together, and yet there are actually many different cultures in the label "Latin." Thus, he has the right idea in his view that only by exposing more writers from every culture can we paint a "full picture" of the Americas. As a culture, I have to agree with Cruz- we Americans look for the quick fix, the easy way out, the obvious answer. And, in doing so, we miss a lot, a lot of cultural beauty and uniqueness and its tragic, really. So, in that respect, I found this piece moving, a call to action.
What i really fell in love with, though, was the way in which he describes the importance of poetry as a stronghold and defense against a society that is fixated on television and technology and all things aesthetic. "Computer screens have everybody dizzy, seeing dots in the air. Food preservatives are destroying taste buds...it is the job of writers to perceive and explain the truth." To put it simply, this is true. I have always found the perceptive people, those who are "with," who overanalyze and question everything and wonder and have constantly racing minds, the ones who suffer mentally and never settle, those who cannot find peace except in each other and with their pens, to be the most interesting. And these are often the writers, the ones to put it all into words on a page so that those who are less aware can be educated about what they have been missing out on. It is the job of the poet and the writer to paint the picture that most Americans cannot see, to find what is wrong with these aspects of society and bring the audience face to face with what is often the sad reality and truths of the world we live in. It's a dirty job but someone has to do it. And the writers of the world are the most able; they are the heroes.

Saturday, May 01, 2004

after a long day of summer internship interviews in the city, its paper magazine for this girl. i couldn't be happier. go buy a copy of it for yourself (and for me). whats weird, tho, is that as i traipsed through new york city, in search of a magazine internship, in search of my summer, i realized its so soon- summer. another year is going and will be soon be gone. i'm beginning to realize and understand what adults feel like when they say "it goes by so fast" or "the next thing i knew, i was old." and it scares me. sometimes i want the world to stop for just a second or atleast until i can pause and breathe and think, this is it. this is college. these will be the good ol' days. and they're going so fast. i want to know what happens to me and what my life will be like and where and with who i'll end up with. but its kind of nice not having any clue and just being, just taking it in from all around and trying to figure it all out, trying to keep my head above water and not over-analyzing everything that happens but then indulging myself and doing it anyways. because my college experience consists 25% of things actually happening and 75% of talking to friends about it all. its luxurious and i never want it to end.

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