Social Stratification in Always Running
Always Running, by Luis Rodriguez, boldly addresses multiple sociological themes that embody the entirety of the story. Rodriguez’s social construction of reality was predetermined by society’s expectations on him due to his race, socioeconomic background and upbringing, and his education. Because of these aspects of his life, his past had no story and his current actions and future were already set up to fail, falling into the stereotype of a “drug taking, violent gang member,” with no other possible options. According to Society: The Basics, by John Macionis, both culture and social class shape the reality people construct. Social construction of reality is “the process by which people creatively shape reality through social interaction,” (Macionis, 120). Luis Rodriguez’s interactions with schoolmates, gang members, teachers, and police officers have shaped the way he views himself in retrospective to society. Each interaction places Rodriguez in an immovable place, where he is stereotyped. The theme of social stratification and social construction of reality interact together to create a recurring theme throughout Always Running through Rodriguez’s upbringing and gang experience, his schooling and jobs, his interactions with authority, and his pursuit out of the gang system. Always Running portrays Rodriguez’s life by demonstrating the effects of social stratification, which allows society to rank people into categories of hierarchy.
Beginning with Rodriguez’s ascribed status, he was raised with uncertainty and instability in the US, and his background was determined as a constant jobless and financial struggle. Not only did he experience a low socioeconomic status, he was discriminated against due to his ethnicity and his ability to speak Spanish as his first language. Society determined his upbringing as unable to succeed and set him up for failure. Each of these aspects of Rodriguez’s background were ascribed, which is a status that you are born into and unfortunately have little social mobility. His social stratification and social construction of reality was determined by how people treated him and his family in the United States. Because his family had experienced such discrimination and had been placed in an immovable caste system, Rodriguez had no other choice than to see his circumstance as his permanent reality. He describes, “The refrain ‘this is not your country’ echoed for a lifetime.” (p. 20) This idea became his reality and the unfortunate reality for all minorities of his kind. His reality was constructed by what the United States allowed them to enjoy and how much of it. Rodriguez’s family was “allowed” to enjoy the freedom of America but struggled to find financial security and experienced discrimination daily. This portrays the amount of power others have in determining another’s reality.
Rodriguez’s upbringing directed him on the path of violence as well. Rodriguez describes, “Even my brother enjoyed success in this new environment. He became the best fighter in school…the big white kids tried to pick on him, and he fought back, hammered their faces with quick hands, in street style, after which nobody wanted to mess with him. Soon the bullies stopped chasing me home when they found out I was Joe’s brother,” (p. 31). Rodriguez’s way of surviving the discrimination was through self-defense. Seeing that his brother could survive such abuse, society had set up Rodriguez to have to resort to the same tactics. This led to Rodriguez’s involvement in gangs, he described, “It was something to belong to- something that was ours. We weren’t in Boy Scouts, in sports teams or camping groups. The Impersonations is how we wove something out of the threads of nothing,” (p. 41). The police officer catching this group of Mexican boys simply spending time together late at night set up Rodriguez’s perception of himself; that no matter what, his ethnicity would set him up for fear and trouble. Formerly known as a club, their gang had created a safe space for the boys to embrace where society had placed them. Being stratified into this socially constructed idea of a Mexican, Rodriguez learned the necessity of power to be feared. Rodriguez said, “It never stopped, this running…the police, the gangs, the junkies, the dudes on Garvey Boulevard who took our money, all smudged into one. We were always afraid. Always running.” (p. 36) His upbringing and ascribed statuses set him up for the gang lifestyle that promised him protection and community. “I don’t mind paying for my mistakes…Sometimes we pay even when there’s been no mistake. Just for being who we are…Just for being Mexican. That’s all the wrong I have to do,” (p. 144). Being Mexican became a “failure” in society’s eyes, which became his perception by no fault of his own.
Luis Rodriguez’s schooling experience was demonstrated as a social construction of his reality due to his social stratification. In high school, Rodriguez described, “The school separated these two groups by levels of education: The professional-class kids were provided with college preparatory classes; the blue-collar students were pushed into ‘industrial arts,’” (p. 84). Before starting high school and allowing his intelligence to determine the types of classes he took, his ethnicity and the prejudices that came with being ‘other than white’ determined this. Being Mexican and isolated lead Rodriguez to a place where he wanted to be untouchable. Everywhere he walked, his reality was set, even if Rodriguez tried to break the social construction. He says, I’d walk into the counselor’s office for whatever reason and looks of disdain greeted me- one meant for a criminal, alien, to be feared. Already a thug. It was harder to defy this expectation than to just accept it and fall into the trappings. It was a jacket I could try to take off, but they kept putting it back on. The first hint of trouble and the preconceptions proved true. So why not be proud? Why not be an outlaw? (84) This shows that his reality has been created and his social mobility out of this system is impossible. He understands that no matter how hard he tries to prove this pre-assumed idea of Mexicans wrong, he will constantly be put back in his place where society has assigned him. Because the school system was set up for Rodriguez and his kind to not be as successful as white students, he was removed from Mark Keppel High School for his involvement in multiple fights against white students. Being separated from schooling placed Rodriguez as a busboy in a restaurant, where he had to carry his birth certificate around due to his constant fear of deportation.
Due to Rodriguez’s interactions within his work, his reality of pursuing a steady job that would lead to success was lessened. For example, constantly being addressed with, “Hey boy…” became his identity; his new name. When Rodriguez returned to Taft High School, he tried to oppose what society had told him to learn by attempting to take classes that would expand his education. When he was placed in industrial type classes, he addressed, “’I had to- that’s all they’d given me,’ I said. ‘I just thought maybe I could do something else here. It seems like a good school and I want a chance to do something other than with my hands.’ ‘It doesn’t work that way,’ she replied. ‘I think you’ll find our industrial arts subjects more suited to your needs,’” (p. 137). Rodriguez’s reality to pursue a privileged education was denied because of the presumptions that came along with his academic record and ethnic background. He was assumed to be a violent Mexican male who needed an educational outlet in order to attempt to succeed in his lifetime. The education system became a social construction of his reality. This demonstrates the lack of power granted to him. “I recalled when I first entered school in Watts, how I had been virtually written off, pushed into a corner with building blocks and treated like a pariah; how in Garvey I had been heaved out of classes and later in high school, forced to drop out and labeled failure,” (p. 218). Anytime the school system continually turned against him and his freedoms, it was inevitable for Rodriguez to return to the streets.
His education finally moved forward when Chante’s organization called, “The Collective” invited Rodriguez in to discuss social issues, which led him to return to school. Because of school organizations such as ToHMAS, MASO, and HUNTOS, His culture finally had a supported voice by teachers like Mrs. Baez. This demonstrates that by having support, the reality for Chicano students was more respected. Another example of Rodriguez’s reality being socially constructed is through his interactions with authority figures, such as the police force and his teachers. Each interaction between himself and the Chicano group and these authority figures have determined how he views himself and how he is set up to act. Due to the preconstruction the police have of any Chicano involvement in crime, Rodriguez goes back and forth between jail and his gang. After non-fatally shooting a man, he struggles with the influences he is affected by in these jailhouses and the effect the police officers had one him. He says, “Sometimes the police just held me over three nights and then let me go at the start of the week to keep me off the street,” (p. 189). The police force’s influence not only determined the reality of incarceration for Chicanos, but also how they perceived themselves. For example, while discussing how to end barrio violence in the town, one woman expressed, “‘We need more police protection- we need to stand up to these hoodlums and put them behind bars.’ ‘That sounds like cops talking.’ Chente said. ‘These aren’t criminals without faces. They are our children! What you propose only pits the community against itself- and the police would like nothing better than that,’” (p. 194). It became normal for police officers to find a group of Mexicans drinking in their own homes and immediately pulling out guns, prepared to fire at any given moment.
The reality of constantly being in fear of living was what these people were forced to deal with on the daily basis. This type of fear stripped away freedoms others had the luxury of embracing. Rodriguez said, “They were about locura, the spirit of existence which meant the difference between living life to the fullest and wandering aimlessly upon the earth, taking up space, getting in the way,” (p. 206). The Chicanos felt pointless, that whatever they did in their life, the police would end up involved and they could never move upward in their social mobility. Their existence was constructed for them, and any sign of struggle against this resulted in incarceration or death. The last example of police influence on Rodriguez’s reality was when he defended a woman being brutally beaten by a police officer. For simply vocally advocating for the woman in her misery, he was charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and assaulting an officer. This fear was instilled back into Rodriguez by no choice of his own.
Last, Rodriguez’s pursuit and attempts out of the ‘comfort’ of the gang system exemplifies how his socially constructed reality is exhausting and inevitably difficult to escape. He expressed this by saying, “But we were often defeated from the start,” (p. 219). The gangs became a source of home and support when the rest of the world was a force against them. Any sight of upward social mobility was shot down, making it even more difficult to escape the gang related lifestyle. Rodriguez had to reach a place of desperation in order to discover the fight within himself to move forward. He contested, “I arrived at a point which alarmed even me, where I had no desire for the internal night…I required more, a discipline as bulwark within which to hold all I valued…I figured I could help the homeboys become warriors of a war worth fighting,” (p. 237). The reality that society gave these men and women nothing to work for that was worth the fight set them up to resort to gangs, suicide, drugs, and a seemingly pointless life. The power America holds put Rodriguez in a place of terror and where meeting America’s expectations was a set to fail. Rodriguez testified, “I’ve talked to enough gang members and low level dope dealers to know they would quit today if they had a productive livable wage job…If we all had a choice, I’m convinced nobody would choose la vida loca, the insane nation- to gang bang,” (p. 251). His attempts to escape the gang system were that much harder because of the way his reality was established.
In conclusion, Luis Rodriguez’s life was socially constructed from the past of his upbringing, his schooling and gang affiliation, his interactions with authority, and his attempts to escape the gang system. Each aspect depicted a struggle that unnecessarily became practically impossible to defeat. Society decided without Chicano’s consent how to deal with their culture, pushing them towards a lifestyle that gave them no future and no power. Rodriguez states, “Outlaw their actions and creations. Declare them the enemy, then wage war. Emphasize the differences- the shade of skin, the accent in the speech or manner of clothes…Gangs flourish when there’s a lack of social recreation, decent education or employment,” (p. 251). It is not the fault of those involved in the system but society’s fault in placing these people inevitably here. Rodriguez concludes, “You have worth outside of a job, outside the ‘jacket’ imposed on you since birth. Draw on your expressive powers. Stop running,” (p. 251).
Rodriguez, Luis J. Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A. Willimantic, CT: Curbstone, 1993. Print.
Macionis, John J. Society: The Basics. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2004. Print.
A Never-Ending Battle? Tools Necessary to Combat the Injustice of Class Oppression
Sometimes, we pay even when there’s been no mistake, just for being who we are. I don’t mind paying for my mistakes. But it seems like we’re paying for everyone else’s mistakes too.–Luis RodriguezAlthough injustices like racial oppression are present in everyday life, one often cannot fathom how such a large-scale offense can be solved through individual resistance alone. In the graphic memoir Always Running, Luis Rodriguez chronicles his methods of tackling societal oppression and racial prejudice, ranging from conformist resistance to transformative resistance. As Rodriguez becomes completely entrenched inside of a gang life replete with drugs, his mentor, Chente, inspires him to take a stand against the addiction of heroin culture through conformist resistance. Soon after, Rodriguez’s efforts mature into what Daniel Solórzano and Dolores Bernal describe as transformative resistance, as he turns toward targeting the oppression of minority Hispanics at Keppel High School. Because Luis grows up in an unforgiving Anglo-dominated world, he believes that the only power he has is in fulfilling his stereotype: the role of criminal or gang member.Deeply conflicted by his commitments to the Lomas gang, Luis takes a step toward breaking the barriers of his own personal oppression with a staunch refusal to engage in drugs. By twelve years old, Rodriguez had already become well-versed in the culture of hard-core street life. Once he moves to Reseda, Rodriguez is introduced to the John Fabela Youth Center, where he meets Chente, the man who plays a crucial role in bringing him out of the gang life. “Chente played administrator, father-figure, counselor and the law” (Rodriguez 146). For Luis, Chente is the influential mentor who offers him a better life, one without the drugs or violence typical of the streets, and is the inspiration that allows him to engage in conformist resistance in his personal life. “Students today often identify transformational role models and mentors as influential people who inspire and socialize them to be concerned with and struggle for social justice issues in their school and community” (Solórzano and Bernal 6). Chente actively demonstrates his commitment to social justice with his progressive work in the disadvantaged youth programs, which eventually commits Luis to greater involvement at the center. Luis slowly finds himself broadening his experiences and realizing that there is more to this world than surrounding himself with gang violence. By passing up the chance to do heroin, Luis is demonstrating that he is motivated to create a better life for himself (one with social justice), but one that can only start with personal change. He is not challenging the existing systems of oppression (primarily the major disadvantages faced by minorities stuck dealing with their gang-ridden neighborhoods). Thus, Luis does not target the roots of the problem: namely, that heroin and other drugs are easy to procure in such crime-filled barrios. Luis is not seeking to change institutional oppression here, but instead to bring about awareness of better opportunities for himself and his gang member friends. Luis’s techniques of resistance soon evolve into a much more effective weapon in the pursuit to have his underrepresented minority culture recognized.Arriving at Keppel High School and seeing the pronounced divide between racial classes, Luis resolves to bring more recognition to the Chicano population by auditioning for the part of Aztec mascot. After enduring several more brushes with the law, Luis is allowed to return back to school and promises Chente that he will take this second chance seriously. He becomes increasingly involved with the Mexican organization at school, and founds ToHMAS: To Help Mexican American Students. “At first, the club concerned itself only with benign aspects of school life. But the barrio realities, and the long-standing issues of inequality and neglect, kept rearing their heads” (Rodriguez 173). The next step for Luis as head of ToHMAS was to win the part of “Joe Aztec”; only then could the Chicano students of the school finally put an end to the ridiculous mockery of their Aztec heritage and reclaim the culture as their own. In taking a proactive stance against the profound white-supremacist attitudes at Keppel High, Luis’s activism has finally matured into the most effective type of protest: transformative resistance. He changes the dynamics of the entire school by challenging its blatant ignorance of historical Mexican culture; this resonates with Solórzano’s mention of proving others wrong. “Proving them wrong seems to be a process in which students confront the negative portrayals and ideas about Chicanas/os” (Solórzano and Bernal 4). By taking back the character of Joe Aztec from ignorant whites and accurately representing a major part of Chicano culture, Luis shapes the road for better minority awareness and respect. His actions directly call attention to the root cause of the problem by bringing about awareness of how racist the school would be if historically accurate depictions of Aztec dancers were denied. It is a clear critique of the systemic oppression against disadvantaged, disrespected Chicanos, a feeling that pervades the whole school. Luis’s act of transformative resistance also serves to better his life situation; by engaging in more ToHMAS-centered activities, he is able to stay out of gang life and focus on his academic pursuits. Thus, his behavior is not destructive like self-defeating resistance would be. More so, instead of reinforcing the present oppressive institutions, he actually deconstructs them, gaining gradual acceptance from the school. Luis’s keen awareness of the social injustices facing Chicano youth at Keppel High as well as his motivation to target its root causes are both key components of his transformative resistance.As Luis Rodriguez so effectively demonstrates in Always Running, the transformative resistance technique is a powerful weapon of choice for the struggle against racial inequality. Even though Rodriguez is deeply drawn to the intense power behind gang life, he begins to engage in more progressive methods of challenging oppressive institutions, which Solórzano and Bernal label conformist resistance. Not long after, Rodriguez learns to forcefully wield the most potent tool of student protest, transformative resistance, during his time at the racially divided Keppel High. Rodriguez’s narrative account in Always Running is clear evidence that all individuals have the potential to successfully reform oppressive factions of society if transformative resistance techniques are used.