Oral Histories

Rick Rodriguez

Interview Segments on Topic: Journalism Career Choices

Rick Rodriguez Biography

Rick Rodriguez is the former executive editor and senior vice president of The Sacramento Bee, who joined the Cronkite School at Arizona State University as the Carnegie professor, Southwest Borderlands Initiative. His staff, while at The Bee, won many of the country’s most prestigious journalism awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography, the George Polk award for investigative reporting, the Robert F. Kennedy Award, National Headliner’s award, Sigma Delta Chi, Overseas Press Club, American Society of Newspaper Editors diversity writing award, and many others. He was the first Latino to serve as president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and is a graduate of Stanford University.

Transcript

INTERVIEWER: I thought we might go chronologically maybe, even though it’s not an ethics question per se but just in terms of background like, how you got started in journalism and why you wanted to be a reporter and how you got your job and that kind of stuff.

RODRIGUEZ: I grew up in Salinas, California. I grew up in kind of an interesting family background. On my mom’s side we’re a military family and she was from South Dakota where here parents were Russian and French immigrants. My dad’s side were immigrants from Mexico, my grandparents originally came across the country illegally, they got their green cards, moved from El Paso to Salinas to work in the fields and we’re one of the first really, Latino families to settle there back in the 1930s and so we have long roots in Salinas originally working in the fields as many Mexican laborers find out. My mom met my dad on a blind date, he was a high school dropout; she was a high school honor student. And it was very controversial, white woman - Mexican at that time and they actually threw my mother out when she told my grandparents that she was going to be the wife of a Mexican. And so she actually got placed with a Mexican family, my grandparents on my dad’s side lived in the United States for 50 years and never learned how to speak English so all of their circle were Spanish speakers so, in those days there were long courtships so she placed in with a Mexican family. And she lived with that Mexican family for 2-2 ½ years and learned totally—fully acculturated and so even though my mom is—we’ve made her an honorary Latina and so she’s been a real stickler for education. Her mother was a teacher so she got me reading at a very early age. My dad, as I said, was a high school dropout and when I was growing up he was a garbage man and kind of carried the cans on your back, they didn’t have the lifts then, he had to go in the back and empty it. And so, we came from a very working class family but my mom stressed the education. My dad was a great leader, actually ended up moving up in city government to a midlevel position, he did very well. So I had that kind of influence from my mother saying I need to study, you need to do education. And so she’d play games with me, and being a reporter, the first game that I played was, being a sports reporter listening to radio broadcast of the San Francisco Giants and writing down box scores. And so every morning I would go and see if my box scores were accurate and so that’s actually what first got me interested in journalism…like 1962 I was 8 years old and so as Mays McCovey, their first run at a World Series, my mom would listen to the games with me and she would write up my little stories and she’d correct the stories. I used to read a lot, we used to have book report challenges in my elementary school, and I was fortunate. In those days they would actually track students and most of the students who were Latino got tracked in the slow class. I got tracked—because of my mother’s influence—I got tracked in the high class so I would read more and they would push me to read. Through reading I really like journalism. So, I get to 8th grade, was made editor of the paper there —The Roundup it was called. I was really attracted; still, to sports writing, that was kind of my passion. Went to high school, didn’t take journalism for my first two years and my junior year I decided to take journalism and after the first edition I was named editor of the paper. They didn’t have an editor that year so the next two years I was editor of the paper, did really well. But something that was happening in Salinas at that time was that Cesar Chavez was starting to organize the United Farm Workers and I was in this really unique position and that position was, I’m the grandson of farm workers, my cousins were members of the United Farm workers, and those I was throwing passes to on the football field, were the sons of the growers and the girls that I was dating were the daughters of the growers. So I was going through this very unique perspective—at the same time, we were writing about some of these issues in the Salinas High School newspaper, The Flashlight. So I did very well, won some statewide awards in journalism but still was undecided of my profession and my senior year in the spring I was sitting at home one day and I got a call from the editor at the local paper, he said how would you like to come work as a copyboy at the Salinas California. At the time I was working at El Charrito Market which was a Mexicatessen / tortilla factory, everything. It was really bad on the tortilla line if you ever saw I Love Lucy where she had the chocolates and they were all over the place, that was me on the tortilla line, they’d hit the ground, I’d pick them up see if anybody was looking and I’d stick them in the plastic bag and try to seal it. So, I didn’t think I had much promise there but they asked me if I would come to work at the Salinas Californian.

INTERVIEWER: They knew you worked for the high school paper.

RODRIGUEZ: Yeah they knew I worked for the high school paper and, this is the other connection, the editor was the son of the presiding judge of the Superior Court, a man named Eric Rosell who’s a lifelong friend, still see him regularly. My dad’s sister had been Eric’s nanny and family maid growing up and he really loved my aunt and he said, how can I repay Maria. So he called me up took me under his wing and it turned out to be magic. I’m 18 years old, there’s nobody on staff other than Eric who could speak Spanish. So I’m taken to translate on this world important story of Cesar Chavez and the civil rights movement of Latinos—it’s breaking right there in the Salinas Valley. So I started stringing, doing side stories, even though I’m totally untrained other than high school newspaper, and I had a great high school teacher who inspired me and really taught me some basics but I’m covering stories, I’m stringing for, assistant stringing for the Washington Post, Associated Press, writing for when people didn’t have time and I’m totally getting into the journalism profession. And so, instead of going to a four year school I was so hooked by journalism I decided to go to community college here locally, work 35 hours a week at the paper, continue covering the story and then I transferred to Stanford at the end of two years. Would come home on weekends to work on the story, I was just bitten by the bug and when I graduated from Stanford I went back and covered some more. There’s a lot more story but that’s how I got into journalism – so people—reading was really important, my mom’s pushing was really important, my experiences were phenomenally important and I think the perspective I’ve brought was different.