Playwright/Director Rene Rodríguez Leaves Rich Cultural Legacy

From left: Rene Rodríguez, Tomás Benitez and Rosemary Rodríguez
By Guillermo de la Luna

Rene Rodríguez, director of Teatro Urbano, a Los Angeles Chicano Theater group, passed away on December 16, 2018.  The beloved Chicano theater leader, community arts advocate and family man leaves a behind a creative and artistic legacy reaffirming his life-long pride in and love for a significant and specific Latino heritage in the United States.

Playwright and director, he authored and was responsible for staging perhaps the only nationally prominent theatrical production in the history of American theater to directly address and commemorate the slaying of legendary journalist Rubén Salazar and the National Chicano Moratorium of 1970 in his play, The Silver Dollar. Rodríguez was born in El Paso, Texas. He attended Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, enlisted in the army and did a hardcore tour of duty in Viet Nam. He never talked about it. 

He was the recipient of many awards for his activism in the Mexican American community. He began doing plays at Garfield High School while a student there alongside life-long friend, creative collaborator and partner in crime Hank Fernández. Hank’s sister Evelina Fernández, is a co-founder and integral part of the directing body of the Los Angeles Latino Company, the resident troupe at the world-renowned Los Angeles Theater Center (LATC). Although not often mentioned in academic studies or media stories on Chicano theater, Teatro Urbano—as a performing theater company—was a prominent member of TENAZ, Teatros Nacionales de Aztlan, and a principal organizer of the 7th National Chicano Theater Festival held at East Los Angeles College in 1976.

Under Rene’s guidance, Teatro Urbano was also a member of the cultural commission of the national organization, CASA Hermandad General de Trabajadores where he participated in the national movement against the Rodino Bill and the development of the Chicano theater companies in the Los Angeles area.  Rodríguez’ collaboration with C. Bernard Jackson of the Inner City Cultural Center (ICCC), a major urban Black theater space which was also dedicated to the development and promotion of Black and Latino theater, arts and culture is another little know aspect of his career which deserves to be noted.

C. Bernard Jackson, once a professor of theater at UCLA, established the Inner City Cultural Center because of what he described as the lack of Latinos and Blacks on both the faculty and among the students pursuing theater studies at the UCLA theater department. The ICCC offered classes, financial support, props, lighting, and costumes to all of the Los Angeles Chicano theaters.

Funeral services for Rodríguez were held at Rose Hills Cemetery.  The farewell burial proceedings were attended by over 300 people, among them pioneer Chicano Movement leaders, members of CASA, his cousin representing the members of his church, several former Brown Berets leaders, La Raza Unida party stalwarts, family, friends and members of TENAZ. A U.S. Army Honor Guard was on hand to salute the U.S. Army veteran and present the flag of the United States to his greatest collaborator, fellow actor, co-director, co-producer and wife, Rosemary Rodríguez.

The celebration afterward, held at the LATC, featured Mexican cuisine by acclaimed Latino chef Ricardo Rodríguez, as well as song and dance numbers taken from works written, produced and directed by Rene Rodríguez such as “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” performed by the gifted actor/vocalist  Nina Cortés. The song was featured in the original production Detective Sánchez, the Ortiz Case. The memorial service musical program also featured “Tacos” (from the film, Carne: The Taco Maker, delivered by Teatro Urbano actor/guitarist/song writer, Timothy Skyy.

The performances offered in tribute to Rodríguez also included “Three Fingered Jack,” (a rendition of Bertol Brecht’s “Mack the Knife”) from the musical, Joaquin Murrieta, sung by Teatro Urbano member Mario Juárez. Songs of the Chicano Movement era performed by ex-CASA/Teatro Primavera member and highly regarded singer/guitarist/composer Jesús Chuy Pérez, who is also the founder and director of Conjunto Mi Barrio.

Hank Fernández and Irma García, actors of CASA/ Teatro Primavera also performed an A La Brava Chicano theater sketch from their days with Rene at Garfield High entitled “La Cucaracha,” inspiring reflection on the spontaneous and combustible energy that most characterized Chicano Theater.

Last but not least, what can be one of Rene’s greatest legacies was the sassy, full of attitude hip-hop dance number performed by the Rodríguez third generation of actress/dancers (perfectly choreographed), a trio of dancers not more than seven-years old featuring his precocious granddaughter Ynocencia Buggy Pérez with her friends Makyla Leos and Mia Maciel.

The Bacchanal memorial tribute to Rodríguez ended in an exhilarating conga line that is sure to linger in the undying archives of Chicano history.

Editor’s Note: Guillermo “Chino” Loo, who wrote as Guillermo de la Luna penned this farewell tribute to long-time friend Rene Rodríguez for our Jan./Feb. 2019 print edition.  A life-long percussion player, professional conguero who performed and recorded with famed Sonora Santanera, and founder of Teatro Primavera, Loo attended UCLA and was active with Casa Carnalismo and other political and cultural advocacy organizations at the height of the Chicano student movement. Sadly, Loo passed away on October 1, a week before his 68th birthday. Brooklyn & Boyle is proud to publish his last article again here, but regret the circumstance which has occasioned this online post. We offer our deepest condolences to his family and friends as well as our sincere appreciation for his beautifully written editorial ofrenda in honor of fellow teatrista Rene Rodriguez. We are pleased to reprise his work here, where it will remain as his own contribution to “the undying archives of Chicano history. 


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