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Giving Back / RAUL RODRIGUEZ : He’s Living Proof for East L.A. Youth That ‘Dreams Are Possible’

Raul Rodriguez won his first Tournament of Roses Parade trophy at age 15 in the 1960s. Since then, he has taken home awards for many of the more than 350 floats he’s designed, including the first-place sweepstakes prize in this year’s parade. When not working on floats--a process that can take seven months--Rodriguez designs artwork and facades for such clients as Caesars Palace and the Tropicana in Las Vegas, Harley-Davidson Inc. and New York’s Radio City Music Hall. He also works with several Southern California charities, most devoted to helping children. He talked with SIMON LOCKWOOD. I grew up in East Los Angeles. The Variety Boys Club was very important to me. It taught me values. Later, my family moved to Whittier, where I entered the chamber of commerce contest to design the city’s entry in the Rose Parade and won. The name of my float was “Snow Bound,” from a poem of that title. It depicted an immense Spirit of Winter blowing snow over a beautiful landscape. I won the same contest two more times. Then I went into the service and was stationed in Taipei. When I got out, I studied art at Cal State Long Beach. After graduating, I chose float building as my profession.

I’m a big believer in giving back where you can. I work with the East Los Angeles YMCA. I speak to the kids and during the holidays I pass out gifts. I did that this year with Casa Mexicano in East Los Angeles, which provides food to the grown-ups and toys to the kids.

I’m also on the board for the Vikki Carr Scholarship Foundation. For 28 years, Vikki (a singer and actress whose real name is Florencia Bisenta de Casillas Martinez Cardona) has given scholarships to Hispanic students. I do a lot of the artistic work for them.

And I’m on the board of the Windsor Square / Hancock Park Historical Society. Hancock Park has been my home for the past 18 years. I love the architecture and the community.

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When I was 15, I got a scholarship to the old Arts Center School here. My bus went right past the house I now own. I would daydream, “Maybe someday I could live here.”

Those causes that are closest to my heart usually involve youth, guiding them. I remember the adults who supported me along the way. They made me dig deeper into myself and not just get by on the talent I was given.

Last year I spoke to my old grammar school, Malabar Street School, in Boyle Heights. I was able to say, “I was sitting right in that very spot you’re in. I was the same age you are, thinking the same dreams. And dreams are possible.”

A month and a half later, I was riding in the Rose Parade. About midway I heard a little scream to my right. I looked and there were some of the Malabar instructors with these kids. It was cold and they had their parkas on. They opened them up and in big letters on their T-shirts it said, “College Begins at Malabar.” How great! Maybe by sharing this I can inspire them and help them with their dreams.

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