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Prolific writer on Chicano life, Roberto Rodriguez, dies at 69

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

In 1979, reporter Roberto Rodriguez witnessed police brutality in Los Angeles. And while trying to document it, he was attacked by LA County sheriff's deputies, ending up hospitalized for days. His seven-year quest for justice that followed the incident led him to write "Justice: A Question Of Race." Over the years, he also wrote poems and articles and became one of the most prominent Chicano writers. Roberto Rodriguez died Monday of heart failure in Mexico. He was 69 years old.

Anna Ochoa O'Leary heads the Mexican American studies department at the University of Arizona, where Rodriguez was an associate professor emeritus. She joins us now from Tucson. What drove him to be a champion for Chicanos, as some Mexican Americans identify?

ANNA OCHOA O'LEARY: Well, many of the people who are in a subject area like Mexican American studies are inspired by their desire to help other people who have similar experiences. If you grew up Mexican, Mexican American, and experienced certain hardships, violence or disrespect, hostilities, well, one of the purposes of Mexican American studies is to communicate those experiences within the history of America, within the history of the United States, and share those experiences so that we might learn from them. And indeed, our scholarship is built from those experiences and that history.

MARTÍNEZ: And he was a leader in that?

O'LEARY: He was very much a leader. He was dedicated to that type of scholarship. I think that one of the things that he did was to foment and to strengthen the relationship between traditional academic scholarship and this community outreach and service. That's pretty fundamentally consistent with the nature of our discipline and the nature of how it is that we learn from each other and how knowledge is produced.

MARTÍNEZ: That beating, that brutal beating at the hands of LA County sheriff's deputies that he took in 1979, what kind of emotional and physical toll did it have on him?

O'LEARY: If one suffers that kind of violence - the emotional, the physical - one carries it with them as you move on and you develop in the world just like other populations that experience it. So there's a piece of you that relates to other people who have been fighting for social justice, other people who have experienced the same type of experience simply for the fact that you are of a different color, a different language group, a different ethnicity. And he was a great communicator of that type of violence and that type of physical hardship. And we begin to see, once you start to communicate something like that, is that many other people have suffered. I mean, one of the biggest examples we have is the recent police violence that other people of color have experienced. And so once you know that, you can work towards a solution. We become woke, so to speak.

MARTÍNEZ: Roberto Rodriguez was such a fierce warrior who really wanted to take up for his gente, his people. What do you think gave him hope about the people he fought so hard for?

O'LEARY: Well, I think for activists such as himself, because he was a scholar and an activist, the hope that people like him cling on to is really energized by some progress. So, you know, if we look at it in a historical context, we see that there, you know, we have evolved to a more tolerant society. Surely there's work to be done. But any thread of progress really invigorates any struggle to make our environment better and our society more equitable and tolerant. And once the activists see that, then that hope really energizes others.

MARTÍNEZ: Anna Ochoa O'Leary heads the Mexican American studies department at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Anna, thank you for your memories.

O'LEARY: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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