On Diane Rodriguez’s Legacy of Mentorship as Reciprocity
After receiving the inaugural Diane Rodriguez Teatrista Award in 2022, I wanted to sit down with two treasured colleagues of mine, Manny Prieto and Nijeul X. My relationship with them reminds me of the relationship I had with Diane Rodriguez. Both Manny and Nijeul met me as interns at Center Theatre Group, where I worked alongside Diane for over a decade. Inspired by the Latinx Theatre Commons’ key values of legacy and leadership cultivation, we gathered to discuss mentorship in a framework that honors our dear friend and colleague, Diane.
Diane was always in conversation with me. She had this innate wisdom and great guidance, but it was never top-down leadership. I would venture to say it was horizontal leadership in the way she opened doors, welcomed my ideas, and pushed me to the next phases of my career. I ground this conversation in some of Diane’s teachings, pulled from a keynote speech she gave for Latinx Theatre Alliance/Los Angeles.
Patricia Garza: I was awarded the first Diane Rodriguez Teatrista award, which was so thrilling. The relationship Diane and I had was very reciprocal in terms of always feeding one another and challenging one another and laughing together, but there was also a lot of learning from my end. Diane was always open to receiving as well. That's what I aspire to leadership style.
So, I thought of you two because of our long relationship together. You all came into my life as more of a mentor relationship, but I think it's really blossomed. You all are teaching me so much about life, so I wanted to make sure you all know that and that I have a lot to learn from you as you move through your own careers and I continue to watch and try to support you as best as I can.
I also want to anchor this in Diane's learnings. She gave a keynote where she shared three guideposts that she uses for life. First, she talks about compromise and challenges the artists in the room: when do we give up a little to get a lot? Or when do we not? I think Diane was very much an advocate for this idea that I may not get every win, but I can see the long term vision. Next, there’s the idea of playwrights getting feedback from “Concha down the street.” And she's like, "No girl, no. Who are your collaborators?” Your family and your friends are great, but they're always going to give you the positive.” Talented artists need drive and ambition, but they also need to be realistic and business savvy. They need realistic, true collaborators who are going to give them feedback. Finally, Diane shared the idea of subverting the rules, which means Not always accepting what's right in front of you whole cloth. It’s about asking how we can open windows, open doors, leave a crack for our friends to come in, and asking how we can be strategic with subverting rules. She did this so strategically at Center Theatre Group for twenty-four years. She also talked in that speech about knowing when to physically be in a space, and when to protect herself.
Which one of these resonates with you as artists, arts administrators, and movement leaders?
Manny Prieto: For me, it’s “don't ask Concha.” Building relationships that I can have trust in has been important. Yes, it's easy to talk to your friends, but I think that mentorship and peer-to-peer mentorship, having those moments of tension and trust, are important. Some of the best collaborations happen by asking someone who will have a different opinion, but who will tell you the “why.” Don't ask someone who will have a similar opinion and not even tell you the “why.” If folks tell you the “why” behind whatever feedback you get, there's a level of comfort; and then you can then be the person telling that person the “why.” There's a lot of value in that. It’s important that we eliminate the position of power so that both parties have something to gain, something to learn from, and something to change.
Patricia: Nijeul, what came up for you?
Nijeul X: The one that I'm really vibing with is “subvert the rules.” The things that stood out about subverting something like an institution are, first, undermining its power. Then I had to look up what “undermine” means. It really is about how you lessen the power of something. As I think about Diane, I think about all the subverting she had to do to really make Center Theatre Group, or any institution she interacted with, what it is today. A lot of my work is adding onto this phrase, subverting the rules to initiate change or to grow change.
Rules are the things that keep us out. They hinder our liberation, especially if there are rules that are keep our communities away from being free.
I wish I had heard her say this. I wish she had said this to me, honestly. Having a mantra like this can align us more strategically.
Patricia: I think she was trying to say, "Yeah, I'm going to navigate within whatever you all build, but I'm not going to do it in the way that has traditionally been done."
Following that thread of horizontal mentorship in your own leadership style, the way we relate to one another as mentor and mentee… even this vocabulary really limits how our relationships grow over time. How has that mentorship either been integrated into your leadership style, or how has that challenged you or helped you throughout your all's path?
Horizontal mentorship is essential, and we don't know what we don't know.
Nijeul: This is the first time I've heard the terms together, “horizontal mentorship.” Issa Rae talks about “networking across,” and I feel like it's in this same vein. I wasn't taught to look to my right and my left for folks who can pour into me can help to grow resources. As I've grown in my career, I'm at a place where it's like, “Who are the people who are doing the same shit as me who I can tap in or call on?” So it is an arrival point. I do feel the power of looking horizontally at folks to help support, grow, ask questions, or bounce ideas off of. It's essential. Horizontal mentorship is essential, and we don't know what we don't know.
There is also a level of comfort talking with colleagues who are on the same path as you. Manny, when you and I were at Center Theatre Group, we may have not had the insights about where we would grow to be, but now I feel like, damn, I need to be calling Manny more.
Patricia: Yeah. Manny, what did that bring up for you?
Manny: It's about learning behaviors. Traditional education was about following role models. There's always someone in charge. Our brains were trained to believe that’s how mentorship worked, right?
As I go through my career, I've called upon all the people who were on my same path in different times and at different places, mostly because there was a vision and a mission alignment. I still get, "Oh, can I pick your brain?" from people who I maybe know, but, I always tell them, "Well, let's start a relationship." Yes, I can give you advice, but you also need to learn from your mistakes. You also need to have courage to make your own decisions. Diane always said, "I don't look back. That's in the past." That's something that we always connected about: learn in the moment, put it in your pocket, and move forward.
Patricia: I know if I call either of you in to talk through some situation, when the trust is there, you're not going to be spreading the news. You'll give me honest feedback and say, "Have you thought about this? Have you thought about that?" That's really something that, Manny, to your point about relationships, is only really built over time and investment.
Power to Diane for leaving the room to protect her heart and then for coming back into the room.
Nijeul: I also think, Patricia, you model not using your power to demoralize or overpower. Although you were my boss and mentor, I feel like you still approach our conversations in a way that we both can learn from each other, which is an example of horizontal mentorship and an approach I try to take myself.
Patricia: Yeah, absolutely. I know what I know, but there's also this whole other wealth of experience I don't know.
I love that both of you really resonated with subverting the rules. When Diane was talking about subverting the rules, she said that she never stays in rooms where her heart can be broken. That really stayed with me because I think I stayed in rooms past my heart being broken. It was a lesson I didn't learn.
As we navigate in our field as Black and Brown, queer bodies, I want to see if you all have offerings to our colleagues about your own tactics for protecting your heart or subverting the rules, because it's very real. Diane's career was built in predominantly white institutions, even though her work early on was grounded in a culturally specific way with El Teatro Campesino and with Latins Anonymous. Do you have tactics or strategies that you practice in your own career to protect that heart or subvert the rules?
Manny: I think that walking out doesn't always need to be combative. It's to protect yourself. A lot of times, you have the opportunity to control the tone. My approach is to do it quietly because then it's not about the action. It's about standing for my values.
You have to look for the future. You have to know when to be aggressive about it and when to be passive about it, when to be kind and when to be firm. I use levels of pitch or tone to get my point across. Sometimes people are surprised, and sometimes people tune out a certain behavior. This way, people don't get accustomed to tuning me out or tuning my work out. That is a way that I try to push and change the rules. Seeing the opportunity and calculating your response so that it enacts long-term change prevents me from getting easily angry and actually being able to change.
Nijeul: Power to Diane for leaving the room to protect her heart and then for coming back into the room.
Patricia: Over and over.
Nijeul: One thing that's resonating with me is that I left the field—the white field, the white institution. I decided that I can no longer put myself, my heart, in those spaces where I'm not wanted. I refocused my energy to think about our communities, either Black, Indigenous, person of color (BIPOC), or even where I am now specifically serving Black folks through art. Now I'm the youngest person on the leadership team in a Black-led organization.
I feel this obligation not to leave the room, but there are so many moments where I'm like, "I don't want to do this no more. I can't take it. I can't hold it." But when I think about being in an institution of color, there is a lot more compassion because I know the historical, systemic, structural things that cause the tension, that cause disruption. I actually push myself to stay in it.
It is a different approach to subverting the rules because I feel responsible for institution building. I feel responsible for shifting how we lead, particularly as people of color. It forces me to stay in the room and protect my heart at the same time. And maybe heartbreak is a part of our pathway to freedom.
A concept that Leslie Ishii uses and introduced me to is that I'm not just thinking about me; I'm thinking about the next seven generations and how staying in the room now will have an impact beyond my wildest understanding. I admire Diane for subverting the rules, knowing when to leave, and showing back up. As I translate how she worked into how I want to work, particularly for our institutions, I want to stay in. I know that this is a part of our growth.
Patricia: When I did end up ultimately leaving Center Theatre Group, it was with Diane's legacy cloud surrounding me. I was doing exactly what you just said, Nijeul.
It's really about the field and what I can do elsewhere because, for lots of reasons, that wasn't the place where I wanted to invest my time any longer. So I did my time. What did I learn? What can I walk away with? Then, how can I carry the work forward so that it’s not about me being in my feelings about whatever reason I was leaving. That was something I had to come to terms with for a good two months. I went through a processing space where I was like, "What was that? Why was I there so long? Why did I stay? Did I even matter at all?"
So then you have to come to terms with the fact that there's not going to necessarily be a validation day. There's just the work, and it's long term. You have to be able to go to a new place and ask how you could then put in your time here. What does that mean, and what does that look like?"
Also, how do we sustain ourselves as workers in this field as folks of color, as global majority folks? How are we taking care of ourselves? Some of it is these lessons that Diane leaves us with, but also some of it is loving ourselves enough to say, “I don't need to keep my list of accomplishments because it's inherent in who I am. It's inherent in my work. It's the joy of being in community and lifting each other up.”
Nijeul: I also feel like it is a choice. I'm making the choice to be in some of the spaces, but I know that that's not for everybody. That feels like my calling. I'm always like, “Why do people stay in these places that are so toxic? They don’t want us there.” And I have to realize, that's some people's work. My work is on the inside of our spaces.
I'm generous in the sense that, sometimes when I build a relationship with someone and I want to give feedback, I also have to hold back.
Patricia: I'm always curious how we can be more generous with one another as colleagues, as peers, as horizontal mentors. I have a personal philosophy. My wife, Grace, is always like, "You give too much away." And I think she means time, advice, resources. It’s like, “Why are you meeting with this stranger for two hours over coffee?” And I'm like, "Well, I would hope somebody would do that for me."
At least that's always how I approach it. How do you two approach generosity? How can we be more generous with one another?
Manny: I love seeing all my friends’ work. If I get an invitation, I try my best to make it. I love that Diane always saw everything, and that is my approach, too. I love seeing the work and connecting to folks and actually getting to know them.
I'm generous in the sense that, sometimes when I build a relationship with someone and I want to give feedback, I also have to hold back. Sometimes I have to listen to what they're asking for. If it's enjoy and support or give notes and advice. Also, I don't like to approach it like I have the answers because I don't.
I tie generosity to thinking cooperatively. I've been trying to push myself to think about the collective. How do we have a cooperative model across all we do? How do we recognize when we have too much need to open it up? How do we redistribute into community?
For me, that feels generous. It also feels that you're not taking away from you. You've taken care of yourself, and now you have an opportunity to take care of others.
Patricia: Yeah. I love that. I think they're all interconnected. It's supporting one another by showing up.
I also think what you're saying, Nijeul, about the redistribution of resources—or at least being aware and mindful of resources. It is really helpful.
Manny: The scarcity mentality is really, really dangerous. So doing away with scarcity mentality helps you be more generous.
Patricia: I think as humans, and also professionally, let's show up for one another. It means a lot to me to have the time today with both of you. To talk about Diane with both of you is really heart affirming.