On Diane Rodriguez’s Legacy of Mentorship as Reciprocity

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?