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Laughter, Tears in El Centro

Latinos stir debate by proposing to name a street after adoptive son Paul Rodriguez, who draws humor, and anger, from his ties there.

June 29, 2002|LISA RICHARDSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Comedian Paul Rodriguez's lightning wit is paralyzed. He sips a margarita at Lucy's El Adobe and ponders the quandary he's in.

Not in his most farfetched stand-up routine could he have invented a tale in which a city would seize on him as a symbol of equality. Yet in the desert town of El Centro, a group of residents wants to name a street for him. The idea was meant as a gesture of gratitude for Rodriguez's years of free shows and donations. Then it became much more: It turned out that no street in El Centro, which is 80% Latino, bore a Spanish surname.

Political forces have lined up. The local Spanish-language newspaper endorses Paul Rodriguez Boulevard. The English-language paper opposes it. A thousand people have signed petitions supporting the proposal. ("We don't exist," an organizer complains. "We're the majority but we don't exist.") The mayor and chamber of commerce are cool to the idea.

Sometimes a seat at the back of a bus is more than just a seat. In El Centro a street sign is more than just a street sign. And so Paul Rodriguez, one of America's best-known Latino entertainers, has become a sort of Rosa Parks of the Imperial Valley.

Which is why he is torn. He's no hero, he says. He's not Cesar Chavez. The Play-Doh face scrunches. Shouldn't I be dead for something like a street? Why me, anyway? I'm just a guy who made folks there laugh once or twice.

He knows this is a vast oversimplification. For the last four years, the onetime migrant farm kid and the scrappy rural outpost have had an ongoing love affair. They are mirror images--of barrios, of lettuce and alfalfa, of poverty and possibilities.

"I love El Centro because it's just like me," he says. "El Centro is a place that nobody ever thought about or had any expectations for. If I were a city I'd be El Centro."

His first gig there was for the Police Athletic League. He figured he'd drive the 220 miles, tell a few jokes, collect his paycheck and leave. But he kept coming back, and with each visit, El Centro dug in a little deeper, bringing back memories of a childhood in the fields where his parents had harvested crops before moving to San Pedro, East L.A., Fresno and Compton.

"I'm crying, and my mother has me on her back," Rodriguez recalled. "I remember my mother ripping open a beautiful, perfect head of lettuce and pulling out its heart. I remember her long black hair and how she sang me a little song and gave me the tender leaves from the inside of that lettuce. Then she threw the rest away, afraid to get caught."

Up and down the state his parents picked cotton, tomatoes, lettuce and oranges to support five girls and two boys. In a good year, Paul's father, Pablo, made $8,000.

"One day ... I could hear the sound of a plane coming toward us. My mother grabs me screaming: 'No respires! No respires!' and shoves me inside her rebozo (a traditional Mexican shawl). I'm struggling because I couldn't breathe, and I'm so afraid. I'm thinking that my mother is going to kill me." His voice trembles. "But the planes were dropping poison--pesticide--on the workers and she was trying to save me."

When his father died in 1996, an autopsy showed that his aorta had gradually disintegrated, a legacy of his years in the fields, Rodriguez said.

"Those bastards wouldn't allow migrant farm workers an hour's warning back then. God only knows how many miscarriages, how many people were disabled, how many lives, were lost--all brown lives--because of that. They'd have the audacity to say these chemicals are harmless. Tell that to my father when his aorta busted. People say, 'Paul, there's so much anger in your comedy.' Well, it didn't just come out of thin air."

Today, the man who can pull $100,000 in Las Vegas plays El Centro for free. Rodriguez tells jokes atop hay trailers to an adoring crowd in the Police Athletic League youth center parking lot--now paved with money raised at his local shows. On his dime, the league has taken kids to Disneyland and to Sacramento to meet their local legislators, sent a team to a national boxing tournament and built the 6,000-square-foot multipurpose room called Rodriguez Hall.

The street-renaming effort is a thank-you from the folks in the league, who are spearheading the campaign.

If Rodriguez appears simultaneously grateful and wary of the honor, it is because he's already carrying La Raza on his back. True, he has nobody but himself to blame; it is his own choice to be the self-appointed standard-bearer for all Latino causes, and to see life through the eyes of the maids and the cooks and the carwash attendants. He rages lovingly against his people's political apathy and naivete. La Raza is a buried emotional treasure Rodriguez discovered, but it also weighs him down, and if the street proposal goes through, El Centro will be on his back as well.

"See, the problem is, I just don't want to ever disappoint anybody," he says. "Even worse, a whole city!"

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