African American Studies


Angel Rodriguez (b. 1954) is a Puerto Rican musician, educator, historian, and grassroots cultural organizer. Born in Puerto Rico, he came to the Bronx twice: first at the age of 5, and then for good when he was 10 years old, along with his father, a Pentecostal minister, his mother, a day laborer, homemaker, and accomplished dancer, and several siblings. Angel always had a love for music, and he was especially inspired by the sound of traditional drums, which he first heard as a young boy. Initially Angel wanted to be a preacher like his father, but his father’s strict stance against certain types of music and dance gave him the impression that he would have to choose between a life devoted to God and a life devoted to music. Growing up on Simpson St. in the Bronx, Angel was surrounded by Latino people, culture, and music. While the community was friendly and close-knit, it was also quite dangerous—gangs frequently scuffled with the neighborhood’s limited police presence, and Angel recalls witnessing more than one shootout in the street. He was indirectly aware of the area’s pronounced heroin problem, since his father made sure that he was sheltered from street life. Angel had little trouble becoming fluent in English, as he had had some formal training in English in Puerto Rico.

Because he grew up among Puerto Rican transplants, Angel regarded African-American culture as “American” culture versus Latino culture. Inspired by both American and Latino music, he began venturing out into the city to get acquainted with street drumming culture. He would participate in rumbas in Crotona Park, Central Park, and Claremont Park. He was a natural, and he soon picked up a number of instruments and drumming styles, and made a number of friends besides. He gained respect from both white and black Latinos, as well as from some African-Americans who were involved in Latino street culture. Unfortunately, Angel’s domestic life was not as successful: his father and mother divorced, and his mother became addicted to alcohol and heroin. She began living with a man who was also a heroin addict, and two of Angel’s brothers became addicted and eventually lost their lives to drug-related violence. In addition, Angel was cutting class because of pervasive bullying, and many of his counselors told him he would never attend college. Because things seemed to be falling apart at home, Angel joined the military and went to Vietnam during the last few years of the occupation. Upon returning, he married and worked several odd jobs, including custodial work, hospital labor, and retail. He kept playing this entire time, making some money at gigs and rumbas throughout New York. Like many musicians of the era, however, he became addicted to cocaine and soon became homeless. Thanks to the kindness of a friend, he kicked his addiction and got back on his feet. Nevertheless, Rodriguez remembers the hard times in the Bronx—the dual chimeras of heroin and crack, white flight, and the decline of property values blighted the Bronx for several years. Many of his friends were not so lucky to escape. Rodriguez spends much of the interview relating anecdotes from his life as a performer, as well as how he was involved in community organizing work and in community activism. He continues to perform to this day, and makes his living as a consultant, musician, and educator.

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