By Liz Blood
We spoke to writer Rudy Landeros about his life-long career of helping others—first as an Austin, Texas police officer targeting violent crimes against immigrants, then as a United Nations officer in war-torn countries. Now, Landeros writes to help others and himself.
LB: When we’ve spoken before, you mentioned you wanted to write because there were people you want to help. Who are they?
RL: Specifically, the children in families who are going through the same thing that me and my brothers and sisters went through with an abusive parent .
LB: How did you begin as a writer?
RL: At first it was catharsis to get pent-up emotions out of me after I came back from Afghanistan. I took a writing class. When I was in Afghanistan, there were attacks and bombings all around us, even though we—the United Nations—weren’t the targets, we worked in the same areas that were targeted, so the rockets and bullets still affected us. It took me almost a year after I returned to Austin from Afghanistan to get back into normal life. I was really anxious. Writing helped calm me down. I wrote about many of the incidents that occurred when I was there. Then I started writing about critical incidents that occurred before I went to Afghanistan and was stationed in Sierra Leone, West Africa also with the United Nations. It was very violent there, too. When you come back from places like that, you’re jumpy, jittery and emotionally drained. The act of writing about these incidents really helped to calm me down. To me writing acted as a pain killer.
LB: Did you decide then you wanted to write a memoir?
RL: Yes. I started thinking that maybe someone else would find these experiences I’m writing about interesting. I started with writing about incidents that occurred in Afghanistan, then about my time in Sierra Leone, then about my work as a police officer in Austin, Texas. Going from being an officer directly into Sierra Leone and then Afghanistan—you encounter a lot of violence. And the violence all ties back to people being bullied, persecuted, and oppressed—whether it’s an abusive father or someone caught up in a war. I wanted to help. And after you leave, you still carry that desire with you. The writing brought it all out of me and became a way to maybe help others.
LB: How long were you a police officer?
RL: For twenty-four and a half years in Austin. I became a police officer in 1982 and worked in East Austin, the place where I went to Jr. High and High School. I also worked in the Montopolis neighborhood where I grew up. One of the things that was happening regularly when I became an officer was the robbing, raping, and assaulting of undocumented immigrants. They were being violently robbed and attacked. Criminals did this because illegal immigrants were afraid of being deported and so they wouldn’t report things to the police. Thugs knew this and so they targeted the immigrants. It was very violent. On a regular weekend you’d have anywhere from 15-20 violent robberies and attacks on immigrants in East Austin. That’s when I started to really want to help people. In about 1984 I was selected to be a part of the Austin Police Department’s Hispanic Crimes Unit—a six-person, squad of Hispanic, Spanish-speaking police officers. We were a plain-clothes unit whose mission was to stop the violence against these immigrants. We arrested people left and right and began to gain the trust of the community. They realized if they were victims, we would help them. Word got out and undocumented immigrants began reporting crimes.
LB: Was your childhood the reason you became a police officer?
RL: It was one of the reasons. I wanted to stop the abuse happening to families, usually by an abusive parent, many times a father that abused and beat his children and his spouse. As an officer I saw a lot of that and helped a lot of families in terms of arresting an abusive spouse.
During my career as a police officer, I worked my way up the ranks. When I retired from the department I left as an assistant chief. In 1994, when the Rwandan genocide was happening, I decided I wanted to work for the UN. It impacted me because, basically, nobody did a damn thing about that genocide. In less than a year, over 800,000 people were killed in Rwanda. That stuck in my mind. But, as a police officer I continued to work with immigrants in Austin because the violence against them hadn’t stopped.
In around 2001 we at the police department had an epiphany as to why immigrants were being victimized. At the time immigrants couldn’t open bank accounts, which was one reason why they were getting robbed. So, we started a program with the Wells Fargo Bank in Austin to allow Mexicans to open bank accounts with their Mexican identification cards. If criminals knew the immigrants were putting their money in banks, not keeping it at home or carrying it on them, then hopefully the crimes would go down. Because of our efforts Austin was the first city in the United States to allow immigrants to open bank accounts using their Matricula Consular. Within a year they’d open hundreds of thousands of accounts and Wells Fargo began the program in other states.
In 2005 I went to the International Association of Chiefs of Police Conference in Miami, which was attended by over 20,000 police officers from around the world. I was recruited there to work for the UN. What I think got me that job was the work I had done with immigrants.
LB: Sounds like a very interesting career! Is there a reason you chose nonfiction over fiction?
RL: I really wanted to write my story to show people that one can overcome abuse, poverty, and the resulting insecurity and the lack of confidence, and succeed—even a poor kid from Montopolis.
LB: You’ve mentioned the problems you faced as a child are the same problems many children in Austin face today. Can you tell me what those problems look like for kids?
RL: Easy. Many kids grow up poor and in an abusive family where the parents really don’t care about their children’s education. A lot of these kids fail in school because they don’t have support from their families and they’re dealing with violence at home. Many times to them school is the farthest thing on their mind when they're wondering where their next meal is coming from, or, “am I going to have electricity tonight?” or “is my father going to be drunk?” When you’re worried about food and clothes and what it’s going to be like at home—it affects how well you perform in school. They’re dealing with things that make school secondary. That becomes a vicious cycle. After 25 years on patrol, I saw children of kids who I’d seen drop out, drop out, and children of abusive parents became abusive parents.
LB: Did you have trouble getting through school?
RL: Absolutely. My grades were terrible because, once again, I was dealing with all of those other things. Your clothes and shoes aren’t as nice as other kids’? You become conscious of that. When you’re hungry and your stomach is growling, it’s hard to concentrate in class. And when your parents are arguing at home at night and your dad is assaulting your mom, it’s difficult to study. I went through that. But, I was very fortunate to have friends who took me under their wings and helped me study. I made a decision—because of those friends—to go to college. I got accepted and graduated college, but it was because of those friends that I changed my attitude about myself. They showed me I could do it. A child of an abusive parent can lose a lot of self esteem. That affects you in school. Those friends built up my self-esteem.
LB: How often do you write?
RL: When I decided to start writing I made it a point to write, every day. I started real slow, one hour a day, to an hour and half, to two, then finally I was writing about 8-10 hours a day. It was pretty cool how writing for a longer period of time becomes a habit. Secondly I made up my mind to treat writing my memoir as a job, to work at it like a job after retiring from the United Nations. I scheduled my writing where I would work from 11:00 in the morning until 5:00 PM. Then I’d write again starting about 8:00 PM. I started writing in March of 2014 and 16 months later I had the first 300-page draft. After I finished the first draft,Tatiana Ryckman, my creative writing instructor, recommended I set my story aside for at least eight weeks and that’s what I’m doing now. A book that I have found very useful in my writing is the book, “On Writing,” by Stephen King. Have you read it?
LB: Yes! I love that book.
RL: I love it, too. It’s fantastic. Stephen King says the same thing: don’t look at it for eight weeks. It’s hard. But when I begin again here in January, I will cut ten percent and tighten up the draft. For now, I’m taking a break and re-doing a house with my wife.
LB: Good luck on your break and house project. When you’re writing, where do you write?
RL: I’ve taken a spare bedroom and turned in into my writing office. I hung pictures from Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, and pictures from old year books on the walls. That takes me back to those times. Especially when I write about my family, photos help take me back to write. When you have something physical to look at it can transport you back to those times in your life.
LB: What are you reading?
RL: The best one I just finished was 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi. It’s about to be released as a movie. It’s written by the guys who were defending the consulate where the ambassador was killed. It’s a fantastic book. I also like to read books about people who are successful leaders, like Coach K of the Duke University basketball team. I’ve also read several books about Ernest Shackleton, who went to Antartica on an expedition that got stuck for over a year. Their ship was destroyed by the ice, but not one person died. I like reading about proven successful leaders like that.
LB: Can you speak about the importance of community to your writing?
RL: When I took the class with Tatiana, it was a small class, maybe twelve people. Since the end of that class, six of us have continued meeting every month. We meet at someone’s house and workshop each other’s writing. This group has critiqued a lot of my memoir’s chapters. We trust each other to be honest, and to not feel offended. For any writer, a small group of people whom you can confide in and whom constructively criticize you is the thing to have.
I’m not religious, but I think that God or the Great Spirit or whoever has watched over me, directed me, and put me in contact with the right people throughout my life. They've helped me survive. You have to have faith in yourself and whoever you believe in.
Check out Rudy's essay, Wars of Their Own.