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Art Rodriguez Puts His "East Side Dreams" to Paper

by Mark Gabrish Conlan/Zenger's Newsmagazine Sunday, Jul. 22, 2001 at 9:15 PM
mgconlan@earthlink.net (619) 688-1886 P.O. Box 50134, San Diego, CA 92165

Award-winning Latin-American author Art Rodriguez couldn't even read until his 30's. Today he's the author of Latino Literary Award-winning book "East Side Dreams" and "The Monkey Box," a haunting evocation of his family's origins in Chiapas, Mexico and eventual emigration to the United States.

errorArt Rodriguez Puts His East Side Dreams to Paper

Copyright 2001 by Zengers Newsmagazine Used by permission

A lot of people think they cant write because they never went to college, Art Rodriguez, award-winning author of East Side Dreams and The Monkey Box, told an audience at Casa del Libro bookstore in San Diego July 20. When I was young I had a very rough childhood and didnt learn how to spell, read or write. I had dyslexia while growing up and I learned to read as an adult. In my 30s I started a business in San Jos with trucks and dumpsters, and until about five or six years ago I still didnt know how to write or spell. The only words I could spell were is and the.

At first Rodriguez wanted to learn to write only to be able to do his own business correspondence instead of entrusting it to the girls who worked in his office. I bought a computer program on learning to type and came to work two hours early every day to learn, he recalled. After two months I was pretty fast. I asked my wife what I should write, and she said, Youve always been a good storyteller. Write your stories.

Rodriguez first attempt at a book lasted 30 pages before his computers floppy drive froze up and corrupted his disc. It wasnt very good. When he showed his wife what hed printed out, she said, You cant write like this. For one thing, all those words are misspelled; and also the whole page is a run-on sentence. He had to ask her what a run-on sentence was. After he went to the library and checked out some books on grammar and writing style, he tried again. This time he got through 50 pages before he once again lost his computer file.

The third time was a charm. Not only did his computer survive long enough to allow him to write an entire book (by then hed learned to save his files to the hard drive instead of trusting in floppy discs), the book was East Side Dreams, an account of his rough childhood in San Jos. It starts when I was 16, Rodriguez explained. I served three years in the California Youth Authority, and the book starts there and then I dream back to my early childhood and take you all the way to how I started my business.

East Side Dreams won two 1999 Latino Literary Awards best first book and best cover art but the award of which Rodriguez was proudest came when the New York Public Library named it as one of the 200 best books for teenage readers. Rodriguez had actually aimed the book at that audience, intending it as a cautionary tale and even taking out two scenes of drug use that he thought might set a bad example for his readers. I meet many parents at book festivals, and they tell me that since their kids have read East Side Dreams theyve stopped partying, started studying and started really thinking about their futures, Rodriguez said proudly.

At his Casa del Libro appearance, Rodriguez read a chapter of East Side Dreams called The Report Card, an intense description of the fear he had of his father and an instance in which his father whipped him severely for doing badly at school. A lot of kids go through this, Rodriguez said. Its not always physical abuse, but sometimes the verbal abuse can be just as bad. East Side Dreams is inspirational not only to kids but to adults, a lot of whom remember what happened when they were growing up. Its like therapy to them.

Like many other adults who were abused as children, Rodriguez recalled that his relationship with his father was transformed when he grew up and they could experience each other man-to-man. I asked my dad why he was so hard on us as kids, when now we were friends, and he said, When you were kids you were wild little devils, Rodriguez said. Maybe we were, but now you cant raise your kids that way. Youd go to jail. I found I could raise my kids with love, and it works.

Rodriguez later relationship with his father was summed up by a funny story he told his Casa del Libro audience. One time, my father came from Mexico and wanted to bring everyone tequila, he said. But youre only allowed to bring so much tequila over the border. My father had a drugstore in Mexicali and my uncle was a doctor who had his doctors office next door, and so my uncle would write prescriptions and send them next door to my doctor to fill them.

Well, my dad would get his brother to write him prescriptions to take IVs every day, so hed come across and hed have a case of IV bottles. Hed dump out all the IVs and fill them up with tequila. So hed bring them out and give us all a bottle of tequila. And it was really funny, because one time we were at my sisters house. He came, and my family all went over there to see him. We were in my sisters kitchen, and we looked like sick people, because everyone had their own IV of tequila hanging from the ceiling with our shot glasses, and we were all laughing and drinking tequila.

After Rodriguez wrote and published East Side Dreams, he had an idea for another book. This one, called The Monkey Box, was a family history starting with the meeting of his great-grandfather and great-grandmother in 19th century Chiapas, Mexico. My great-great-grandparents were dukes in Spain, and their son became a priest, Rodriguez explained. They were really proud of him until he had an affair with a girl, she became pregnant, she died in childbirth and the family made him an offer: he would leave the country with his daughter and they would give him his part of the family inheritance. They sent him to Mexico with a lot of money, and he made an arrangement with a family in Chiapas to raise her. He was supposed to come back every so often, but he never did. He just disappeared.

For his reading from The Monkey Box, Rodriguez chose a chapter telling what happened next: the fateful meeting of his great-grandfather, Francisco Chico Rodriguez from Sonora, and his great-grandmother Lydia, the priests illegitimate daughter who was being raised by her foster-father, Dr. Miguel Gonzalez. When an old woman in town, referred to in the book as The Busybody, saw the two of them together, she told Dr. Gonzalez, who responded by organizing a lynching party and attacking Chico.

Eventually Chico recovered and the lovers eloped, and their son Romulo was Art Rodriguezs grandfather. Indeed, Art so closely resembles Romulo that when he went to visit his great-uncle and great-aunt in Chiapas they mistook him for Romulo and he had a hard time convincing them that Romulo was long dead and the person at their doorstep was actually Romulos grandson.

I wrote The Monkey Box so people could appreciate our heritage, Rodriguez explained. My mother hardly gave me any stories. Once our grandparents and parents pass away, if nobody has taken their stories and written them down, theyll be lost. There is one man in San Quentin who is writing a journal, and he said he was inspired by my book. Thats the only way anyone will know about you, if you write down your stories.

Rodriguez said hes nearly finished with a sequel of sorts to East Side Dreams which will fill in the gaps he left in the previous book, as well as a novel about the Mafia. This project was inspired when he actually got the proverbial offer he couldnt refuse from some local Mob-connected businesspeople, and while he didnt take their offer, he couldnt help but wonder what the consequences might have been if hed gone in with them. My book is fiction because in it I accept the deal, and I get into this mess I cant get out of, he said.
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