We’re in Los Angeles this weekend, visiting with Samantha’s oldest, Max, who is a freshman at UCLA, and looking at potential colleges with his sister, Erica. I’ve long had a love-hate relationship with L.A. (Truth be told, when it comes to California, I’ve always been more of a northern Cali-guy.)

pexels-photo-59305.pngThat said, I love the climate and many aspects of L.A.’s diverse cultures. But I have a hard time with the city’s drain on natural resources, especially its profligate use of fresh water and the ridiculous number of cars on the roads—did I say roads? I mean superhighways.

The city sprawl has devastated the natural environment here and, even though the air has gotten cleaner here over the years, with stricter regulations on auto emissions being a key factor in that progress, the smog has worsened for the past two years despite reduced emissions. The relentless expansion of residential communities into what’s called the urban-wild interface has led to increased fires, as well as worsening the impacts of drought and flooding when the rain finally comes.

Still, I learned a lot about LA while researching a biography of the Italian-American novelist John Fante back in the late 80s-early 90s, a project I never completed but which drew me closer to understanding the allure of this City. And coming out here frequently over the past six years, I’ve grown to appreciate it more and more.

With that in mind, I wanted to share a poem by an Angelino poet, and Luis J. Rodriguez, the former Los Angeles Poet Laureate, was the first who came to mind. Originally, I was going to share his poem, “The Concrete River,” with its Whitmanic-Beat Generation yawp, but then I found his “Love Poem to Los Angeles,” and it somehow seemed more appropriate this week.

For those of you who don’t know Rodriguez’s story, his is a classic American tale of son of immigrants struggling to get by in a country that has a love-hate relationship with its immigrants.

As a youth, Rodriguez fell in with gangs in East LA—his most famous work is an account of that experience, Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A. Later, after an incident where he was arrested for trying to stop police from beating a young Mexican woman, Rodriguez quit drugs and the gang life, became a community organizer, went back to school, and started writing in earnest.

He founded the Tia Chucha Press and the cultural center-bookstore of the same name, received the Hispanic Heritage Award for Literature in 1998, and became Poet Laureate of L.A. in 2014, the year he also ran as the Green Party Candidate for Governor of California. Rodriguez ran on a platform of clean energy jobs, single-payer health care, a severance tax on oil companies, and reforming the California prison system. He did not advance to the November election, which was won by incumbent Governor Jerry Brown.

Here is Luis J. Rodriguez’s “Love Poem to Los Angeles”

 

Love Poem to Los Angeles

with a respectful nod to Jack Hirschman

 

1.

To say I love Los Angeles is to say

I love its shadows and nightlights,

its meandering streets,

the stretch of sunset-colored beaches.

It’s to say I love the squawking wild parrots,

the palm trees that fail to topple in robust winds,

that within a half hour of L.A.’s center

you can cavort in snow, deserts, mountains, beaches.

 

This is a multi-layered city,

unceremoniously built on hills,

valleys, ravines.

Flying into Burbank airport in the day,

you observe gradations of trees and earth.

A “city” seems to be an afterthought,

skyscrapers popping up from the greenery,

guarded by the mighty San Gabriels.

 

2.

Layers of history reach deep,

run red, scarring the soul of the city,

a land where Chinese were lynched,

Mexican resistance fighters hounded,

workers and immigrants exploited,

Japanese removed to concentration camps,

blacks forced from farmlands in the South,

then segregated, diminished.

 

Here also are blessed native lands,

where first peoples like the Tataviam and Tongva

bonded with nature’s gifts;

people of peace, deep stature, loving hands.

Yet for all my love

I also abhor the “poison” time,

starting with Spanish settlers, the Missions,

where 80 percent of natives

who lived and worked in them died,

to the ruthless murder of Indians

during and after the Gold Rush,

the worst slaughter of tribes in the country.

 

From all manner of uprisings,

a city of acceptance began to emerge.

This is “riot city” after all—

more civil disturbances in Los Angeles

in the past hundred years

than any other city.

 

3.

To truly love L.A. you have to see it

with different eyes,

askew perhaps,

beyond the fantasy-induced Hollywood spectacles.

“El Lay” is also known

for the most violent street gangs,

the largest Skid Row,

the greatest number of poor.

Yet I loved L.A.

even during heroin-induced nods

or running down rain-soaked alleys or getting shot at.

Even when I slept in abandoned cars,

alongside the “concrete” river,

and during all-night movie showings

in downtown Art Deco theaters.

The city beckoned as I tried to escape

the prison-like grip of its shallowness,

sun-soaked image, suburban quiet,

all disarming,

hiding the murderous heart

that can beat at its center.

L.A. is also lovers’ embraces,

the most magnificent lies,

the largest commercial ports,

graveyard shifts,

poetry readings,

murals,

lowriding culture,

skateboarding,

a sound that hybridized

black, Mexican, as well as Asian

and white migrant cultures.

 

You wouldn’t have musicians like

Ritchie Valens, The Doors, War,

Los Lobos, Charles Wright &

the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band,

Hiroshima, Motley Crue, NWA, or Quetzal

without Los Angeles.

 

Or John Fante, Chester Himes, Charles Bukowski,

Marisela Norte, and Wanda Coleman as its jester poets.

 

4.

I love L.A., I can’t forget its smells,

I love to make love in L.A.,

it’s a great city, a city without a handle,

the world’s most mixed metropolis,

of intolerance and divisions,

how I love it, how I hate it,

Zootsuit “riots,”

can’t stay away,

city of hungers, city of angers,

Ruben Salazar, Rodney King,

I’d like to kick its face in,

bone city, dried blood on walls,

wildfires, taunting dove wails,

car fumes and oil derricks,

water thievery,

with every industry possible

and still a “one-industry town,”

lined by those majestic palm trees

and like its people

with solid roots, supple trunks,

resilient.

 

Luis J. Rodriguez

from Rattle #52, Summer 2016
“Tribute to Angelenos”

Here is a wonderful video of Luis J. Rodriguez reading “Love Poem to Los Angeles”

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