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Music of the Mill


In a stunning literary achievement -- with a power and scope reminiscent of John Steinbeck -- Luis J. Rodriguez captures the soul of a community in this epic novel about love, family, workers' rights, industrial strife, and cultural dislocation

As the World War II cultural and industrial boom birthed a new California, a mighty steel industry rose with the potential to make modest dreams real for the workers willing to risk their lives in the ...

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In a stunning literary achievement -- with a power and scope reminiscent of John Steinbeck -- Luis J. Rodriguez captures the soul of a community in this epic novel about love, family, workers' rights, industrial strife, and cultural dislocation

As the World War II cultural and industrial boom birthed a new California, a mighty steel industry rose with the potential to make modest dreams real for the workers willing to risk their lives in the mill's ferocious heat.

For the Salcidos, the Nazareth mill became an engine for survival. Luis J. Rodriguez chronicles the simultaneous evolutions of this American family and the enormous enterprise that drove them -- from optimistic and cohesive units questing for stability and prosperity to disintegrating entities whose dreams have long since lost their luster.

Spanning six decades, the novel conveys the drama, resilience, and humor of working-class life during a little-known era in American history.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Rodriguez chronicled his youthful days in an L.A. gang in his 1993 memoir, Always Running, and while his latest novel ends with a cautionary portrait of a gang soldier locked away for life, it focuses on diverse characters living, loving and just trying to get by in the L.A. barrios over a period of 60 years. Within the multigenerational saga of the Salcido family and its deep ties to the Nazareth Steel Mill, Rodriguez's main character is 20-year-old Johnny, a second-generation mill worker who tries to fight the abusive powers-that-be inside the operation's corporate and union hierarchies. The novel hums with intensity as Rodriguez passionately dramatizes the battle the mill's minority workers wage against the often-violent, KKK-aligned white mill workers in the 1970s. Rodriguez also does a wonderful job describing the cacophonous, overheated, smoke-filled plant: "From the parking lot, Johnny sniffs the sulfur and limestone smells, the iron and coal dust, and he realizes what a powerfully sensual world the mill is." Positive, uplifting messages woven into many scenes can make the book feel didactic, however. Rodriguez's heart is in the right place, but his ambitious, engrossing novel would have been more melodious had he taken a more subtle approach to the book's politically and socially progressive agenda. Agent, Susan Bergholz. 6-city author tour. (May) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
This novel follows three generations of a family in Los Angeles. In 1941, Procopio Salcido walks away from poverty, his parents, and siblings in Mexico. In Los Angeles, he finds work in a steel mill, one of the few places that accept Mexican laborers. Procopio works in the dangerous mill, raises his family, plays by the rules, and assumes that his sons will follow his path. The novel then turns to Procopio's youngest son, Johnny, as he matures from juvenile criminal to young father and labor leader. Johnny has a mission to eradicate the racism that keeps African Americans and Mexicans from advancing at the mill. He faces down violence and discrimination and tries to make the workplace better. The steel mill becomes his purpose in life. Johnny's daughter, Chena, continues the story. Growing up in the hostile streets of Latino Los Angeles, she has been raped, seen her boyfriends shot, and witnessed her brother sent to prison. The workplace she thought she would walk into, the steel mill, closed years ago. Chena reaches back to her ancestors' indigenous ways for meaning. Thoughtful teen readers will find much to ponder in this book-the working world, the realities of physical labor, cultural identity, discrimination, the joy and responsibility of family, and the question of how much freedom does one really have when choosing a path in life. This novel begins as historical fiction but becomes a gritty depiction of contemporary Los Angeles. The language and themes in this book are for mature readers. VOYA CODES: 3Q 3P S A/YA (Readable without serious defects; Will appeal with pushing; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12; Adult-marketed book recommended for Young Adults). 2005,Rayo/HarperCollins, 308p., Ages 15 to Adult.
—Tina Frolund
Library Journal
The story of one family connected to the Nazareth Steel Mill over decades of war, racial tension, and transition to a technology-based economy. From the author of Gang Days in L.A.; with a six-city author tour. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Mexican-Americans and other minorities struggle for power in an L.A. steel mill, in a heartfelt but disjointed first novel from this poet, autobiographer and storywriter (The Republic of East L.A., 2002, etc.). The prologue, set in 1944, sees Procopio Salcido, 19, gravitate from northern Mexico to L.A., where he marries the even younger Eladia and is hired by Nazareth Steel (modeled on the now-defunct Bethlehem Steel, where Rodriguez once worked). The Salcidos have six children, but when their only daughter dies in infancy, Procopio shuts down, neglecting his five boys and devastating the youngest, Johnny, who winds up in prison. Fast-forward to 1970 when Johnny, now 20, joins Nazareth as one of the craft crews. His life at the mill until 1982, when it closes, is the heart of the story here. There is an old guard of racist white millwrights headed by Earl Denton, a Klan leader, along with a progressive group of young communists organized by college graduate Harley Cantrell. Johnny emerges as a natural leader, organizing a black/Mexican slate that almost defeats the old guard in union elections. Violence is rife. When women join the crews, one loses four fingers in an "accident" and her supervisors are badly beaten in a reprisal. Cantrell is murdered by a hit man. Always dominant is the mill itself, "an earth monster who can devour you." Rodriguez veers haphazardly between the mill's routines, its race-based politics and its disruption of domestic life, as the overwhelming stress drives the workers to drink. It all makes for a good story, but Rodriguez doesn't know how to tell it: what should be dramatic high points (the election result, the murder) are just hiccups, while characterdevelopment, like that of Johnny's turnaround from inmate to organizer, simply happens. And, with the mill's closing, Rodriguez runs out of material. The final third shifts into the first-person as Johnny's grown daughter Azucena, a barrio hell-raiser, describes la vida loca. Powerful forces clash but don't engage in a way to involve the reader.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060560775
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 2/28/2006
  • Edition description: with Bonus Pages
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 587,111
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Luis J. Rodriguez is the author of several critically acclaimed books, including Always Running, The Republic of East L.A., and Hearts and Hands, as well as poetry and books for children. He lives with his family in California.

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Read an Excerpt

Music of the Mill

A Novel
By Luis Rodriguez

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright ©2006 Luis Rodriguez
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060560770

Chapter One


An overhead crane with massive iron jaws lifts several tons of red-orange forged-steel ingots from their soaking pits. The crane moves across its tracks and lowers the ingots onto stainless-steel rollers that push them into the pounding forge of the 32-inch mill. With enormous force, the forge rams down on the ingots, shaping them into long beams to be transported to other mills for more precise shaping -- into I beams, H beams, plates or rods of various diameters. Nearby, a gondola car on a narrow-gauge track brings in more newly formed ingots for the soaking pits inside Nazareth Steel Corporation's two-man-high chain-link and corrugated steel fence that faces Slauson Avenue.

Johnny Salcido looks on from across the street, although he doesn't stay long; the heat from the ingots-known as "hot tamales" because of the high temperatures and their shape-penetrates the clothing and skin of anyone standing there, even at that distance.

But for as long as he can, Johnny eyes the steel mill. He watches as waves of heat rise into the air from each virgin ingot. This is where he's going to work. Work he desperately needs. It's May 1970. He's been married for a month and unemployed for a lotlonger. Lanky but muscular, Johnny has sharp dark features, a thick head of hair that he wears combed back, and a whisper of goatee under his bottom lip. But he also has a streetwise stare at age twenty. After surviving drugs, stealing, violence, and jail, his ready-for-anything demeanor is sensed by all who know him. Now Johnny's ready for a new wife, a new) job, perhaps even a family.

Although he doesn't have a clue as to how to start this new life, Johnny is prepared to do whatever he has to. Working at Nazareth Steel is his one chance to straighten up and to prevail-not just survive. This is what his mother, Eladia, has told him repeatedly while he was behind the razor wire and barred doors of the California Youth Authority prison. He had argued with her -- he didn't want to cave in to the mill, where his father, Procopio, had spent a quarter of a century. This is the same father who kicked Johnny out of the house when he was fifteen, forcing Johnny to fend for himself in the trash-lined streets, crash in friends' pads, and sleep in the drug dens of his neighborhood. Procopio expected his sons to be working men, not bums or petty crooks, like Johnny seemed to be.

Yet, after his release, Johnny figures that if he doesn't find work in the mill he may have to return to stealing, the drugs, and, most likely, a jail cell ... what a plan to fall back on, he thinks.

As it is, Johnny's four older brothers also toiled in the mill-three of them are still there: Junior, Rafas, and Bune; the other, his oldest brother, Severo, died within months of being hired at Nazareth.

Ever since Johnny has been exiled from the family, they all only came together for him once-at his wedding. But the estrangement lessened when word got around that Johnny had been hired at Nazareth -- without a recommendation from his father, which would have been a surefire way to get hired. A fact Johnny's particularly proud of, and something his father didn't like hearing at first. Deep down, though, Johnny knew that Procopio felt relieved his youngest son was following in his steel-toed footsteps.

The mill is a hard nut to crack; thousands line up weekly to apply for whatever shoveling or hauling jobs are available. Johnny, however, is assigned to the maintenance crew, a prestigious prospect in the poor South Los Angeles barrio where he grew up. Not everyone is allowed to work on these crews, and he knows it.

By the time Johnny's hired, Nazareth Steel has been continuously running its powerful electric furnaces, rolling mills, wire mill, warehouses, and scrap-metal yard on several acres of prime land for thirty years. Generations of fathers and sons and grandsons have already toiled in the mill by then. Nazareth feeds off the large number of Mexicans in surrounding communities, including East L.A.; blacks and Mexicans from South Central L.A.; and blue-collar whites and Mexicans from communities like Bell, South Gate, and Lynwood. The workers come from far-flung Southern states like Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana; from Indian lands in Oklahoma and Arizona; and distant Mexican states like Durango, Sinaloa, Sonora, Chihuahua, Jalisco, and especially from Zacatecas, where silver has been mined for centuries.

Mexicans and blacks work in the low-paying, backbreaking labor crews on all three shifts -- the plant never sleeps -- while the higherpaid construction, maintenance, and electrical crews consist mostly of Southern whites, brought in specifically for the skilled jobs. Most of the foremen and all of the management are also white.

By 1970, after a decade of bitter civil rights battles, including the 1965 Watts riots and disturbances in East L.A., Nazareth begins to break down its own racial barriers. A consent decree has been signed with the United Steelworkers of America that demands blacks, Mexicans, and Indians enter the once-restricted repair crews; a similar decree will later allow women to work in all areas of the plant (besides clerical positions, that is).

That's why Johnny Salcido -- badass ex-cholo, ex-pinto, and onetime druggie -- manages to get a position in the "oiler-greaser" gang, the first level of the millwright craft crews at Nazareth. Although the term oiler-greaser sounds derogatory to Johnny, he knows this is good news. After his release from the CYA facility in Chino, his parole officer said factory and foundry jobs awaited wards of the state-prior to his release, he was trained in basic mechanics. His bride is a beautiful eighteen-year-old South Central L.A. girl, formerly named Aracely Velasco. Everything seems to be looking up for Johnny. Everything.


Excerpted from Music of the Mill by Luis Rodriguez Copyright ©2006 by Luis Rodriguez. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Reading Group Guide


An 18-year-old Yaqui Indian leaves his village in Northern Mexico. Traveling by foot, he looks for work, for hope, for life. On his way, he meets a strong, young Mexican girl, and they marry and settle in L.A. When young Procopio gets a coveted job at the Nazareth Steel Mill it means a good paycheck, a way to provide for a family, and a shot at a life in America -- "big-time" for a Mexican migrant. Thus begins the story of the Salcido family in America. Like all beginnings, it is hopeful.

Music of the Mill is told in three parts, each part telling the story of one generation: Procopio, his son Johnny, and finally Johnny's daughter Azucena. The struggles change over the years, from a mill dominated by KKK members to white, old-line labor unions to the lack of jobs after the mill closes, to gang life and drugs, to cancer.

The story of a family fighting for a better life is the story of America itself. What is new is the almost unheard before voices of the Salcidos themselves, the blacks and Mexicans working in the Mill, Harley, the white revolutionary in their local labor union, and Velia, one of the mill's first female steelworkers. In his first novel, Luis J. Rodriguez presents a world of American workers, wives, daughters, brothers, and artists that is utterly original and gripping.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Music of the Mill is structured in three parts: Procopio's story, Johnny's story, and Azucena's story. Why has the author structured it this way? How does the structure help tell the story?

  2. The first two parts (Procopio's Prelude and The Nazareth Suite) are written in the third person while the last part, Azucena's Finale, is written in the first person. Why? How would the novel feel different if all three parts had been written in the third person, or the first person?

  3. All three generations of the Salcido family have drug and alcohol problems. How do they deal with their substance abuse issues differently? How do their struggles with addiction reflect society's evolving attitudes towards addiction?

  4. Rodriguez has created characters that are anything but stereotypical. They are multi-dimensional and very real. Discuss some of the characters and their good qualities as well as their flaws. What about the minor characters? Are they also fully realized, complex people?

  5. The Salcido family members go through many changes at the mill, in American society, and in their relationships with each other. In what ways do their struggles get easier, from Procopio and Eladia's to Johnny and Aracely's to Azucena's time? In what ways are their struggles harder? In what ways are they unchanging?

  6. The mill is a powerful presence in the Salcido family history. Discuss the ways in which the mill was a force for good in their lives. In what ways would their lives be different if Procopio had never secured a job at the mill?

  7. On page 271, a group of teens in a car yell out the window at Azucena, "Go back to where you came from." How does she respond? As a reader how does this bigoted incident bring you into the realities of modern America? How does it figure into Azucena's struggle to figure out who she is and where she wants her life to go?

  8. While her brother Joaquin is in prison, Azucena is working to stay sober and pursue singing as well as being a mother. What is Rodriguez saying about the role of art in communities and cultures?

About Luis J. Rodriguez

Luis J. Rodriguez is the highly-acclaimed author of several books, including The Republic of East L.A., Hearts and Hands, Always Running, as well as collections of poetry and books for children. Rodriguez helped establish Chicago's Guild Complex, one of the largest literary arts organizations in the Midwest, and the publishing house, Tia Chucha Press. He has spent over 25 years conducting workshops and readings in prisons, homeless shelters, migrant camps, universities and Native American reservations. He is also cofounder of Tia Chucha's Café & Centro Cultural. A former steelworker himself, Rodriguez now lives with his family in California.

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