Celebrating Christien Rodriguez

Students, faculty, staff and alumni attended a program celebrating the life of former UCI student and activist, Christien Rodriguez, last Friday, March 15 in the Student Center. Rodriguez, who was well involved on campus, passed away on Friday, March 8. The event was held by the LGBT Resource Center, as well as the Women’s Studies Department and Queer Studies Program.

Rodriguez was known for his involvement in the LGBT Resource Center, Campus Assault Resources and Education (CARE) Center, Housing, Dining, student government, activism and advocacy causes, as well as many other campus departments and organizations.

The program was divided into two parts, with the first being a community space for those who knew or were touched by Rodriguez to gather and share experiences and memories of him, and the second an opportunity for family and friends to publicly express those experiences and memories through stories, song, poetry, videos and presentations with the rest of the people in attendance. Music directly from Rodriguez’s iPod was played during the first part of the celebration.

A display board was set up in the back of the room where people were able to post letters, notes, poems and quotes about Rodriguez, alongside multiple photos that portrayed various events during his life, from childhood up until his passing. Next to the divider wall was a small table that held multicolored sheets of paper, markers and tacks, encouraging those present to contribute to the wall. Everything that was posted on the wall will be included in a scrapbook dedicated to Rodriguez.

Jenny Botello, a third-year political science and chicano studies double major, met Christien only briefly, but she spoke glowingly about his character.

“The very first time that I saw Christien and got to talk to him, I was at the LGBT center, and I was going through a hard time in my life […] just to have someone there [was comforting] and he was really friendly to me,” Botello said. “I remember he even complimented the shirt I was wearing, and nobody had ever done that for me,” she said. “It was really brief but it spoke a lot about his character … when I think of UCI I think of him.”

Jonathan Collaco, a fourth-year psychology and social behavior major who was a resident in Arroyo Vista’s Social Ecology House, for which Rodriguez was a resident advisor last year, echoed Rodriguez’s friendliness.

“I transferred here last year and I didn’t know anybody, and people in my house, they were either second-years or they were transferring as well, and Chris recognized that,” Collaco said. “Rather than pointing it out, [he brought the House together through food, drinks, music and his positivity] … he was a leader, that’s why he was our RA.”

Collaco also described Rodriguez as a leader, positive role model and a positive person in general.

To begin the second part of the event, David Bishop, director of the LGBT Resource Center, stated that even though the program was held by the LGBT Resource Center, the idea for it came from the Women’s Studies Department. Bishop went on to give recognition to the students who helped assemble the event.

Following Bishop’s introduction, several videos featuring Christien speaking were shown. Prior to these videos, Bishop encouraged people to take deep breaths, step outside, and speak to UCI counselors who were present at the event if they needed to.

After the videos, assistant professor of women’s studies, Lilith Mahmud, stepped up to the podium and thanked everyone present for attending and celebrating Rodriguez’s life, and invited students to come up and speak.

Before any students spoke, Kate Shultz, Rodriguez’s mother, took the opportunity to share her memories of Christien and of special moments they shared together. Following her, several people went up to speak about Rodriguez and how he impacted their lives.

Cameron Joe, a 2012 alumnus with a major in economics and one of Rodriguez’s former roommates, is one of those who spoke. He reflected upon Rodriguez’s ability to address sensitive matters in an affable manner.

“He had a way of taking difficult conversations and talking about [them] in a way that was approachable and comfortable for people … he was so generous, he shared all the knowledge he was spreading,” Joe said.

Seeing Joe and many other students speak about Rodriguez was an emotional experience for Shultz.

“Honored, amazed, humbled, motivated, and so much love. It was amazing,” Shultz said about the impact the event had on her.

“I’ve known a lot of people from Chris’s school and community of friends, and the rest I just knew by association, but I have been getting phone calls from people who Chris touched who never met Chris, and it’s that whole six degrees of separation, and Chris had such a huge network across schools,” she continued. “Chris wasn’t just LGBT, Chris was women’s studies, and literature, and a student of life and the universe, and I just got such a profound sense of that and I feel sad that I didn’t grasp it more while Chris was still here.”

After the celebration, Bishop recounted an instance when Rodriguez’s approachability and desire to build bridges between people resulted in his unexpected conciliation with MTV talk show host, Dan Savage.

Savage, who was scheduled for a taping of his series at the UCI campus on November 9, 2011, was at the time the subject of criticism from the transgender community. Rodriguez wished to meet with Savage before the event in hope of opening a dialogue within which he could communicate the transgender community’s frustrations.

The producers of the show gave Rodriguez two minutes to speak with Savage, but the two of them ended up having a 45-minute discussion. Later during the event, Savage spoke about how he had made a friend in Rodriguez that day, and would digest their conversation over time.

In regards to Rodriguez’s legacy, Bishop said, “If we all can remember what Christien was trying to share, which is we’re all human, we all have vulnerabilities, we all have weaknesses, we all have strengths, if we’re willing to engage in dialogue then we can transcend any of the difficulties and try and find compassion as opposed to being adversarial.”

Joe also expressed his thoughts on how to honor Rodriguez’s memory.

“The thing is that it’s really easy to come to an event like this and to walk away from it and appreciate his work from,” Joe said. “What we need to do and what Christien would want us to do is to continue his work, to take responsibility for the work that he was doing … getting out there and educating yourself, and also taking action, and also organizing, and also having those kinds of conversations with people, because if we just leave his legacy and we just put it in the past and look at it from afar, it doesn’t do anything, and he wouldn’t want that. He would want his work to be continued, and he laid a lot of groundwork and he made a framework for all of us to work with, and so if we don’t use it, it would be a complete shame.”

Another celebration for Rodriguez’s life will be held at the University Club this Sunday, March 24, at 3 p.m. Shultz has encouraged anyone to attend.