Chicanos and the Man
|Photos by Gregory Bojorquez|
On a post-card L.A. day, Paul Rodriguez looks out from his hillside patio toward Universal City. Rodriguez is wearing shorts, a white T-shirt that reads Old dudes rule and what look like chanclas (sandals). He puffs on a Marlboro Light and takes in the view. Next door is Lucy Lawless, better known as Xena: The Warrior Princess. We walk around the Rodriguez estate and check out the new landscaping in progress. Frank Poncherello, a.k.a. Erik Estrada, now Mr. California Pines pitchman, drives by in what looks like an older-model white Mercedes. Rodriguez waves, explaining, He lives up the street.
Trying to stop Latinos from becoming prominent, certainly in the Southwest and certainly in America, is akin to trying to stop a tsunami. We are a tsunami, Rodriguez exclaims exuberantly.
Paul Rodriguez has it good, and nowhere in his Studio City home, on a quiet, green-ringed street, is the good life more on display than in his rec room, which is adorned with shrines to his father and son and where munchies like popcorn, chocolate and pistachios are available for guests. Here, Rodriguez can grab a beer from a bar that features saddles for stools and is stocked with vintage tequila, select an Art Laboe oldie compilation from his jukebox, and shoot a game of pool while looking out over the surrounding hills and canyons.
Rodriguez walks over to the bar and busts out a Tecate, then taps the top. I talk better, he says.
After a while, Paul Rodriguez III Paulie, as his dad calls him shows up, and father and son give each other a great big hug. Twenty-year-old Paulie, also nicknamed P-Rod, wears a blue cap slightly tilted to the side, a blue shirt that reads Silver Trucks, baggy jeans and blue Nikes. A Nike chain hangs from his neck. On his right forearm he sports a Jesus tat and a Rolex watch.
Never wear something thats worth more than your arm, the elder Rodriguez gibes his son.
Rodriguez, it seems, never misses an opportunity for a joke, even if it comes in the form of paternal advice. His quick wits have guided him on his long journey from son of an immigrant farm worker to groundbreaking Chicano comedian/actor.
If you can find a Chicano before me, Id like to know who that is, he says. Remember, Freddie Prinze was Puerto Rican and didnt speak Spanish. Cheech Marin was part of a team and talked about smoking pot. I invented myself; I wish I had someone before me. The young Latinos can look at my work and see what to do and what not to do. When I came up, there was no one to look at.
Rodriguez was voted one of the most influential Hispanics in America by the National Council of La Raza and given its highest honor, the Ruben Salazar award, which sits proudly next to his fathers altar.
But lately, its his son, Paulie, whos been grabbing the headlines and breaking down barriers, as one of the brightest up-and-coming stars in skateboarding. Young, good-looking (no scars or, knock on wood, broken bones), stylish and smooth, Paulie has the whole package. Media and sponsors have noticed. He graced the cover of Thrasher magazine, was featured in the debut of ESPNs action-sports magazine, EXPN, and made an appearance in Warner Bros. 2003 film Grind. Hes also the first Mexican-American pro skater to be sponsored by Nike, which has a line of skateboarding shoes called P-Rods. Silver Trucks, Mountain Dew, Hubba Wheels and Boost Mobile also sponsor Paulie. Being a professional skater has been good to him he drives a black Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen (recently featured in Dub magazine) and owns a Mercedes CLK, which his girlfriend drives. Oh yeah, he has his own house in the west Valley.
Hes a blinger. Im very jealous, says the elder Rodriguez. Theres no nepotism, cause I know nothing about skating.
Growing up in the San Fernando Valley, Paulie hung out at a local skate shop cause all the kids were skating. When he was 12, he bought a Powell board with his Christmas money. He practiced skating with other kids at Holmes Junior High and Birmingham High School in the Northridge area. When they got kicked off the grounds, he would practice at a local Albertsons' loading dock until he perfected his moves. At age 14, while at Birmingham High, he got his first taste of what skateboarding could bring when Valley Skate & Surf, and after that the 118 Skate Shop, put him on their team.
Then my friend Nigel [now his roommate] filmed me and told me about sponsorship. Nigel made a videotape and sent it out, says Paulie. DNA Skateboards signed him up, which led to other big, national sponsors. He now rides for Plan B Skateboards.
The younger Rodriguez was anointed for the big time with an invitation to the 2003 X-Games, where he won a bronze medal in street competition, following that with a gold medal and $50,000 at the 2004 X-Games.
Im so glad I didnt use protection, jokes Paul Rodriguez, about the fact that Paulie was born out of wedlock.
He has my fathers eye, the deer eye. Paulie runs and jumps like a deer, hes Rarámuri, he says. Paulie got some of his athletic skills from my dad. I was a good athlete. I used to run cross-country in school but was nowhere near as talented as Paulie. I was a talker.
We go upstairs to Rodriguezs bedroom and watch a tape of Paulie skating on Fuel TVs First Hand. A bottle of Don Julio tequila sits within arms reach, but Paul is still sipping on the Tecate. The episode follows Paulie on a European skating tour. A kid from Holland asks Paulie to autograph his leg, which later becomes a permanent souvenir in the form of a tattoo. As we watch Paul ride, the street-skating tricks he does crooked nose grind, inward heel look effortless.
We sit down for carne asada tacos with handmade tortillas from Poquito Más restaurant. These tacos are good, put in all the stuff, cebolla, limón, y toda la chingada, dále, dále, Paul tells me. Unlike his father, who has a gift for gab, Paulie is an introvert. He doesnt speak much and lets his skating do all his talking. Despite his precocious success and wealth, Paulie understands the struggles that his father and grandfather have gone through. Contrary to the well-marketed image of the cocky, rebellious skateboarder, Paulie is humble and knows how blessed he really is.
I thank God, he tells me. You might, too, if you were a this-generation Rodriguez, because the easy life didnt come easily.
Everyone in my family were either drug dudes, comedians or dead! Paul Rodriguez jokes. But hes not kidding.
You were born in Culiacán, Sinaloa? I ask.
Like comedian Robin Williams, Rodriguez always seems to be on.
First of all, wherever youre born, you pretty much have to take your moms word for it, cause, you know, youre not conscious of it. She says I was born in Culiacán, says Rodriguez. The center of culture.
On January 19, 1955, Pablo Rodriguez Jr. was born to Maria Teresa in Culiacán, Sinaloa, the heart of the Mexican drug trade. Stretching down the Pacific Coast, and nestled between the Gulf of California and the Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexicos Northwest, Sinaloa is Mexicos Medellín. Virtually all the Mexican cartel capos of the last 30 years have been Sinaloan. On many of the ranchos that were once fertile with soybeans and sesame seeds, drugs now flourish. Rodriguez's mothers brother had one of these types of ranchos.
My uncle Federico [half brother of Joaquin El Chapo Guzmán, one of the most powerful drug lords and now in a Mexican prison] had a big ol ranch, Acapulco Ranch. When I would go there, they [the taxi drivers] would say, Where are you going? And Id say, Acapulco, and theyd say, Oh no, I cant take you there. I didnt know why. Id go to his ranch, which was supposed to be a pig farm, only there were very few pigs. There were always big trucks of federales, the police. There was a bunch of avionetas, crashed all over the place. It was like Disneyland for Chicanos. Planes crashed everywhere; I would hop in the pilot seat. Every plane there was a crop-duster Ese para las plantas . You dont have to be too smart to realize, why would anyone be shooting at a crop-duster? My uncle would be like, Oh, we practice there, and pull out a gun, and PLAM! PLAM! PLAM! Later, as I became older, I realized what business they were in. Of course, I didnt get into that. I stopped going there, it got too dangerous.
But thats only half of the story. My dad was totally different. My dad was a full-on Tarahumara indio , he says, and then shows off a shrine dedicated to his father, including old photos and a bow and arrow his father hand-made to hunt. My dad would literally go to the mountains and subsist. He tried to teach us all. He knew all the plants, their medicinal qualities. My father would make arina de piñon; he would kill deer and make wild turkey. The influence of the American Indian is a big part of my life, I have loved everything indio, he says.
The Tarahumara, or Rarámuri, inhabit the Sierra Tarahumara (Copper Canyon) in the northwest state of Chihuahua, Mexico. The actual name, Tarahumara, was what the first Spanish called these Indians. The Tarahumara are known as a quiet and considerate people who are expert farmers and runners. Rarámuri means runners in their native language. And, according to Paul, run is what the Rodriguez family did.
Rodriguezs father, Pablo, came from the Sierras with his brothers and sisters to Sinaloa for work and to seek medical treatment for Pablos brother Jose, who was suffering from undiagnosed leukemia. The condition would never be properly diagnosed and treated, and Jose ended up taking his own life with a gun. If that wasnt bad enough, Pablo the indio married Maria, who was puro cacique, fair-skinned. Her family disapproved and tried to kill Pablo.
My uncle Camilo was paid by the family to kill my dad. My uncle loved my father, so he couldnt kill him; he gave him the gun and the money and told him, Véte, Pablo, Rodriguez says.
Days after Rodriguezs birth, Pablo and family got on a train and escaped to Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapas, where they lived among the Chamula Mayan Indians. We survived on zapote (a sweet, pulpy fruit), my father hunted rabbit, we lived in the jungles with the Chamulas in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapas, for five years, Rodriguez says. My father never considered himself Mexican. Mexican meant Spanish, white. He told me that the reason why Yucatán is called Yucatán is because, in Tzotzil [the Mayan language], it means 'What are you saying? What words are coming out of your mouth?' So, when the Spanish landed in the region and asked them what is the name of the place, the Maya responded, Yucatán. The Spaniards named the region Yucatán. Indians hold their language very sacred, they dont teach it. The language is the last connection they have with their ancestors!
The family decided to return to Sinaloa when Marias father, who had 22 kids, was dying and asked to see her. The family got assurance that Pablo wouldnt be killed and took a train back to Sinaloa, but her father died before they got there.
At that point there was nothing for my father to do. The brothers and sisters were fighting over the land. My father was not interested in their land, because indios didnt believe in owning land, the concept of owning land was foreign to them, says Rodriguez.
The five-strong Rodriguez family made its way to the border by train, crossed over into the U.S. and got into what else? farm working.
It fit right into my fathers life. We followed the harvest all over the Southwest, all the way up the coast, ending in Washington picking apples, Rodriguez says.
During one harvest in Holtville, El Centro, a young Rodriguez was cutting asparagus when he saw a man waving a red flag and speaking passionately to the campesinos. His father, Pablo, turned to him and said, Thats a great man. I wish I had the courage. Rodriguez says he walked up to the man and told him in Spanish, Usted es un gran hombre . That man, United Farm Workers founder César Chávez, looked at young Paul and humbly replied, No, your dad is a great man. Little did they both know that they would later become friends and that Paul Rodriguez would be a pallbearer at Chávezs funeral in 1993.
The family harvested crops until Pablo got hurt. They then moved to San Pedro, where Pablo landed a job with Bethlehem Steel. Pablo worked there until he fell from a tanker, broke his back and couldnt work anymore. Rodriguezs older brother George had to support the family, and never graduated from high school.
Bethlehem fucks my dad over on payments, and we cant afford the house. So my dad is looking through the San Pedro News Pilot, and he finds a four-bedroom house for $80! My dad thinks its a blessing from the spirits, and my mother, a sign from La Virgen. I mean, where are you going to find a house for $80? asks Rodriguez.
In Compton, thats where!
We know nothing about black people. I had never seen a black person in my life. I dont know why are they angry, but we get a house on 127th Street, Willowbrook and El Segundo, says Rodriguez.
A month after they move in, the Watts riots break out.
People are yelling, Burn, baby, burn! And were wondering, why are they rioting? But all we know is that they are not going to burn our house, says Rodriguez. I kept asking my father why were they burning and why were they angry, and all he told me was, For the same reason why we should be angry.
The Rodriguez clan made Compton their permanent home, and when Rodriguezs older sisters were starting to be of dating age, Rodriguezs mothers biggest fear, as was the case with many old-school Mexican mothers, was that her daughters might end up with a negro. So we had an aunt that lived in East Los Angeles, and we were driven to school in East L.A. each morning, he says. In 1970, Rodriguez went to Garfield High School, only to get kicked out a month after enrolling when the school found out that his aunts address was located in rival Roosevelts area, so he attended Roosevelt High.
From elementary to high school, I went to easily 15 different schools, he says.
Rodriguez ended up back in Compton, at Compton Dominguez High, where trouble started brewing.
I was subpoenaed three times for murder, because I was in one of the bloodiest gangs in Compton, Compton Varrio 70 Street. I started the 70s. I was an O.G. The blacks picked on us, and I was shot at. Remember, Compton was all black, so I organized the Mexicans and we became a gang. Years later, when I did a show at San Quentin [Live in San Quentin became one of HBOs highest-rated specials], some vatos thought I was in there for real. They were like, We wondered what happened to you. At Compton Dominguez, you were either a bigtime athlete like Dodger Kenny Landreaux or became hypes and died.
Instead, Rodriguez joined the armed forces. I was in the draft in 1973; I didnt want to go to the war. So I opted for the Air Force. I passed the test. I figured if I was in the Air Force, I wouldnt be stuck out at sea, he says.
Worse, Rodriguez got stuck in Iceland.
The land of the midnight sun, it was dark and made me pale. It fucked me up, he says. I was a teletype, a communications operator on a C-130. Id be in the air for like 20 hours. I had top-secret clearance. We would intercept Russian messages. They called it Track Bear, tracking Russians.
One day an important message came through; it read: Famous comedian Freddie Prinze, star of Chico and the Man, shoots himself.
Freddie was my hero. He was the only guy that I ever cried for without meeting him or knowing him. I just loved him, recalls Rodriguez. In the back of my head I always had the idea of being a comedian.
Rodriguez got his chance when he got out of the Air Force. After taking classes and receiving his GED, he used the GI Bill to attend Long Beach City College, where he got his A.A. degree in 1979, then transferred to Cal State Long Beach. When I got to college, I would clown around to charm the teachers into giving me good grades.
One of the classes he would disrupt was professor Anita Canos Spanish class. My teacher, Anita Cano, was a Rhodes scholar who taught Spanish and got tired of me interrupting her class. Youre really good, you should quit wasting your time and go make some money, she told me, and took me to the Comedy Store, a little hole-in-the-wall in Westwood thats now an Italian restaurant, says Rodriguez.
He went onstage wearing a bandanna and tried out a joke: When I travel, I carry the Mexican Express card, he said, and then pulled out a tortilla. He got lots of laughs, but later replaced the tortilla with a knife. That was the first time I got onstage, and I won $50, he says.
That night I realized what I was born to do.
Rodriguezs parents, still living in Compton, didnt exactly embrace their sons calling. They wanted him to be an attorney. But his passion was comedy and he hit the road. A year of living in my car. For a minute, comedian Andrew Dice Clay and Rodriguez were roommates, living above the Comedy Store. Mitzi Shore, owner of the Comedy Store, gave Rodriguez a job not in comedy, but baby-sitting her son, Pauly The Weas Shore.
Mitzi Shore would repay Rodriguez by giving him the opportunity to get onstage. Without telling him, she invited a casting director from Universal Pictures who was looking for a Puerto Rican character for Joel Schumachers directorial debut, D.C. Cab (1983), a follow-up to Car Wash, which Schumacher wrote.
I remember going to Universal and reading for Joel Schumacher. I remember the day I got the movie, my life changed, says Rodriguez. I bought my father a Cadillac. He thought I was selling drugs; everyone in Compton driving a Cadillac was slanging drugs. No, Dad, Im a comedian, I told him. And he replies, I barely heard of you, and youre my son.
After making his film debut in D.C. Cab, Rodriguez was the first Mexican comedian to appear on Johnny Carsons Tonight Show, where he got reprimanded for using Spanish slang like vato, oralé and que onda? Johnny was an asshole, he says, voicing a widely shared, but seldom spoken, sentiment among comedians.
Soon, Rodriguez became the first Mexican-American to host his own prime-time TV sitcom, the 1984 Norman Lear ( All in the Family , Sanford and Son, Good Times, The Jeffersons) produced A.K.A. Pablo. The show was later recognized by the Smithsonian Institution as the first television show about a Mexican-American family to be broadcast on mainstream American television. In 1987, Rodriguez went on to work with Cheech Marin in the classic Born in East L.A. In 1988, he was the first and only Mexican to host The Newlywed Game, pissing off Charles Barkley when he called him out for claiming to be a real black man but being married to a white woman.
He became the first Mexican to host his own talk show, with El Paul Rodriguez Show, which ran from 1989 to 1994 and introduced America to many familiar Latino faces such as Selena, Oscar De La Hoya and Salma Hayek. The show was canceled after he twice brought on his friend Cesar Chávez, who was boycotting many of the shows supermarket sponsors. In the early 90s, Rodriguez became the first Mexican-American to be on L.A. radio with a morning show on 92.3 The Beat. In 2003, Rodriguez was executive producer of and, along with Cheech Marin and George Lopez, starred in the comedy concert, The Original Latin Kings of Comedy, which sold more than 1 million copies. In May 2005, as part of a Fox special, he became the first-ever standup comedian to perform at the Alamo. Guess what side he represented?
Im so raza that when I bleed, its red, white and green, he jokes. I was Mexican before it was cool!
One the highlights of Rodriguezs career came when he met Nobel Peace Prize winner and exANC President Nelson Mandela (a picture of the two hangs on Rodriguezs wall) after directing and starring in 1994s A Million to Juan.
Mandela looks at me and says, Youre Juan, and begins to talk to me in Spanish, he says, laughing.
Rodriguezs Vietnamese landscaper shows us the work being done on his large yard. Grass is being dug up, and a stone path is being laid from the back patio to the front. Father and son Rodriguez are doing some digging of their own they will soon break ground on a large skate park outside a shopping mall near the 40-acre farm in Fresno Rodriguez bought for his parents.
Paulie is going to design it Paulie Boy Park. We want to allow all the poor kids to skate for free, give back to the community, says Rodriguez as we continue the tour.
Like their Rarámuri ancestors, neither of the Rodriguezes shows any signs of slowing down. Paul recently shot his 33rd film, The Worlds Fastest Indian (about the motorcycle), with Anthony Hopkins. Meanwhile, Paulie is about to embark on the Dew (Mountain Dew) Action Sports Tour, a summer tour with other heroes from the worlds of skateboarding, BMX and motocross, which will be featured on NBC.
If youre happy, Im happy, Paul tells his son. Thats all you could wish for your children.
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