In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, the Latin American/Hispanic Student Organization invited 2014 Los Angeles Poet Laureate, author and activist Luis Rodriguez to speak at an all school assembly Wednesday. Rodriguez discussed his hopes for the future of society and the correctional system. He also shared personal stories of his time in a gang, dealing with substance abuse and discrimination in the justice system.
Growing up in downtown Los Angeles, Rodriguez shared how embracing literature allowed him to depart from his life of crime and give back to his communities. He said he found sanctuary in the downtown Los Angeles Public Library, where he fostered his love of literature and poetry despite dealing with addiction and gang violence.
“I think people should be cared straight,” Rodriguez said. “People cared for you. You cared for others. I got cared straight. I had one or two teachers who cared for me. I had one mentor from the youth council who cared for me. I had adults who said, ‘You know, you don’t have to do this. You don’t have to be on heroin. You don’t have to be in the street. You’re smarter than this.’ And I didn’t believe them, but they kept at it. They kept at it. I was cared straight, not scared straight.”
He now volunteers around the world speaking, holding readings and teaching writing workshops for people in underprivileged areas and prisons.
“A lot of people can’t go into these prisons,” Rodriguez said. “They don’t know how to work with them and I have been finding some of the greatest humans beings sitting there.”
Rodriguez emphasized the importance of diversity within a community, and said that he believes people should be able to express their different ideas without fear of discrimination.
“Underneath all those differences what do you find? A common humanity,” Rodriguez said. “We have something that all of us can relate to. All of us care about each other, care about our families and want the best for our children. Isn’t that right? And if we are going to unite, let’s unite under the essential things that make up our common humanity.”
LAHSO student leader Daniel Varela ’18 said that he hopes that students will learn from some of Rodriguez’s messages and take away some inspiration.
“I [want] everyone [to] take a moment to analyze their own lives and see what they can do to make change in the world and I think one of the most important things that he brought up, although he didn’t mention it, is hope,” Varela said. “You can be wherever you are at in your life but as long as you make the necessary steps to change where you are at and the circumstances you are given, with hope you can change anything and make it a better place for yourself.”
Rodriguez finished with a discussion on the value of poetry in a country’s culture and encouraged students to appreciate this form of literature more often.
“I want you to look at poetry differently,” Rodriguez said. “Look at poetry for something more than what you might think. If you don’t understand it, read through it three or four times. There will probably be a lot of density in those words because language and poetry are dense. It is supposed to be that way. It is supposed to get you to read over and over again. You are supposed to discover new things each time you read it.”
Following the assembly, students and faculty members were invited to meet Rodriguez at a reception in the Feldman-Horn Gallery.