Richard T. Rodriguez
For this music and media expert, punk’s not dead.
By Jessica Weber
The first thing you’ll notice walking into Richard Rodriguez’s office — perhaps other than the life-size cutout of Humphrey Bogart in the corner — is the sheer amount of stuff crammed inside.
Knickknacks — including pop culture figurines, bobbleheads, and painted skulls — share space with shelves overflowing with books. So many books that the eclectic library Rodriguez has amassed extends to piles stacked high on his desk and office floor.
The 48-year-old associate professor of media and cultural studies, who also goes by “Ricky,” has been adding to his book collection since his first year as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley in 1989, where he received a bachelor’s degree in English. Rodriguez later earned a doctorate from UC Santa Cruz’s prestigious interdisciplinary program History of Consciousness, then taught at Cal State Los Angeles for three years, followed by a 12-year stint at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He joined UCR in 2016 — with books in tow — for what he refers to as his “dream job,” noting UCR’s diverse student demographics and robust interdisciplinary work.
“It’s hard for me to part with books,” he said, laughing. “I’m finally learning how to do that.”
Rodriguez’s love affair with books grew from an unlikely source — one that forms the crux of his current research — music inspired by and emerging from punk. Growing up in Santa Ana, Rodriguez was drawn to British pop music, listening to bands like Depeche Mode and Public Image Ltd. on the radio station KROQ as a teen, and frequenting independent record shops with friends to scour for imports.
“It was my favorite kind of music, and it was actually the motivating force that inspired me to go on to college, because of all the literary references from groups like The Smiths, for instance,” he said. “My decision to become an English major was because I was reading a lot of those books that I was finding out about through the music.”
As a media and cultural studies professor, Rodriguez primarily studies Latino/a literary and cultural studies, film and visual culture, and gender and sexuality studies. He keeps his love of punk alive, centering his research on what he dubs the “post-punk” era, and examining the genre’s experimentation with gender identity, racial dynamics, and the cross-cultural influences that stem from both the U.K. and Latino/a music trends.
“I thought that I was one of the few people who was inspired by this music, but it turns out, when I would go to concerts, I would see people of color — Latinos and Chicanos, in particular — who were also listening to this music,” he said. “It didn’t occur to me until much later that there was an interesting cultural exchange that was taking place between British musicians and Latino communities in the U.S.”
Rodriguez notes the influence of Latin freestyle music on bands like the Pet Shop Boys, Siouxsie and the Banshees’ friendship with Chicano musician Kid Congo Powers, and The Smiths’ former lead singer Morrissey’s songs in Spanish as evidence of this trans-Atlantic cultural exchange. Rodriguez even took a group of students to Scotland last summer to study this phenomenon.
“Music isn’t just backdrop noise,” he said. “People often say, ‘This song saved my life,’ or ‘This band means the world to me,’ and I think that is absolutely essential for understanding its significance, and it reflects the politics of the day in really interesting and profound ways.”
Photo portrait by Harry Gamboa Jr.
Rodriguez was asked by photographer Harry Gamboa Jr. to participate in his photo series, “Chicano Male Unbonded.” Gamboa got the idea for the series after hearing a radio announcement asking listeners to be on the lookout for a Chicano male who was armed and dangerous, and realizing the description could apply to almost anyone he knew. “As a way to counter this huge generalization, he decided to use the photograph as a way to contest what exactly a Chicano male was by showing the variation of Chicano men,” Rodriguez said. The series debuted at the Autry Museum of the American West in September 2017.
Fernando Valenzuela bobblehead
A loyal Dodgers fan, Rodriguez recalls the “Fernandomania” of the 1980s surrounding the Mexican baseball player. He noted that even though Dodger Stadium has a checkered history mired by the displacement of poor minority communities, Valenzuela inspired a huge level of pride in Latinos, who rallied around the pitcher. “I remember when he was popular in the ’80s, people were just very proud that there was a Mexican playing on the Dodgers, and was playing so well,” Rodriguez said. “It was someone they could relate to or see themselves reflected by, so I think it points to the importance of representation.”
Humphrey Bogart cutout
In addition to punk, Rodriguez loves classical Hollywood cinema. This figure of Humphrey Bogart, a gift from a friend, serves as a reminder. Rodriguez inherited his interest in classic films from his father and said they still watch an old movie together whenever he goes home to visit. “When you go back and watch some of these early films, you’re kind of surprised at the politics that are part of the narrative that people don’t always think about, or consider, or have completely forgotten. But also there’s an element of entertainment that I think is worth celebrating and holding on to, which is why they are considered the classics,” he said.
“… y no se lo tragó la tierra” by Tomás Rivera
Rodriguez found this copy of “… y no se lo tragó la tierra,” or “And the Earth Did Not Devour Him,” by Tomás Rivera, a Chicano author and former UCR chancellor, in a used book store in Berkeley. This first-edition novel, which Rodriguez refers to as one of his prized possessions, was the first piece of literature by a Mexican American author he had ever read. The story, first published in 1971 and loosely based on Rivera’s life, is told from the perspective of a young boy who witnesses the racial and economic inequalities of his parents and their struggles as migrant farm workers. Rodriguez said reading this book was one of the things that inspired him to study Chicano/a literature.
Rodriguez was encouraged to apply for a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Illinois by one of his colleagues in 2004. The year-long program turned into a 12-year stay in the Midwest. Rodriguez spent much of that time in Chicago, which he considers his second home. “Anyone you talk to who knows me will tell you I am in love with Chicago,” he said. “I’ve also written about Latinos in Chicago and LGBT history in Chicago, because those two communities were really important to me.” These items were all given to Rodriguez as going-away presents from students, colleagues, and friends before his move to UCR.