‘Don Quixote’ is his Dulcinea

Times Staff Writer

UCLA Spanish professor Enrique Rodriguez-Cepeda’s obsession lines his yard in a series of intricate tattoos -- more than 30 framed and painted tile-scapes hanging on the house, the vine-covered side wall along the driveway and both his and his neighbor’s garages. Blue, the color of Delft china, is the dominant color, and the pieces depict more or less the same thing: scenes from Miguel de Cervantes’ novel, “The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha.”

There are images of Don Quixote on Rocinante, his loyal if sagging steed, and with Sancho Panza, his servant and tenuous connection with reality. In other scenes, Don Quixote glimpses his beloved if distant Dulcinea, and cropping up everywhere is the famous windmill, the giant at which Quixote so famously tilted his lance and barely escaped with his life -- one of literature’s first pratfalls.

The tile-scapes are only part of Rodriguez-Cepeda’s collection of more than 1,000 Don Quixote items, a collection that he argues does not constitute an obsession despite costing him more than $200,000 to build. He has packets of unused Cuban cigar wrappers depicting Don Quixote, sheets of postage stamps and decks of tobacco cards, inserts from chocolate boxes, some 300 first-edition 17th and 18th century translations, scores of statues, a stack of vintage Spanish, Italian and French comic books and who knows what else, all kept in ramshackle chaos in West Los Angeles and in a second home outside Madrid.


Obsession or infatuation, the cream of Rodriquez-Cepeda’s crop goes on display Monday through April 30 in UCLA’s Powell Library and the Charles E. Young Research Library as part of the 400th anniversary celebration of “Don Quixote” -- considered by many scholars to be the first modern novel and the book that moved reading from the provenance of the rich and privileged to the masses.

Most of UCLA’s Month of La Mancha events will be in April, including a symposium of more than two dozen Cervantes scholars from around the world. Also planned are a student-run marathon reading of Part I of “Don Quixote” and a Renaissance Ball of period music and dances. The Rodriguez-Cepeda exhibit will be augmented by more than 80 items from UCLA’s own collection. (For a complete schedule of events see /lamancha.)

Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” represents the soul of Spain perhaps in a way no other novel has achieved, says Rodriguez-Cepeda, 65. He first read it as a 12-year-old schoolboy in Madrid. He found in it a magic he has trouble expressing and a passion he has pursued ever since.

“He is our symbol, our emblematic name,” Rodriguez-Cepeda says. “Cervantes is a very clever writer. He tried to [describe] events in a very different tradition. And he was a writer who worked to defend people.”

The book has been subject to wide interpretations, from an exploration of the conflict between idealism and pragmatic realism to a satiric attack on the Catholic Church or Spanish politics to a tragic portrayal of a world that diminishes the dreamer. That the work can read in so many different lights testifies to its complexity, and its continued popularity is a marker of Cervantes’ ability to create a character who has resonated through the ages.

Don Quixote himself is a bit of a clown, a nobleman who overdoses on tales of chivalry and undertakes his own deluded quest to fight injustice, which he acknowledges on his deathbed was a fool’s errand. The underlying theme of a romantically hopeless pursuit -- the original quixotic quest -- crosses languages and cultures.


But at its heart, the story is Spain’s. “All of Spanish culture is represented by that book,” Rodriguez-Cepeda says. “It is the book that made my life -- I am here [teaching at UCLA] because Cervantes wrote that book.”

Rodriguez-Cepeda studied Spanish literature, especially Cervantes, at the University of Madrid in the mid-1950s, earned a master’s degree in 1965 and explored “The Theater of Cervantes” in his 1967 doctoral thesis before joining UCLA’s Spanish faculty in 1969.

By then he had been collecting “Don Quixote” items for nearly a decade, an interest he developed after his father, a civil lawyer in Franco’s Spain, bought two tile-scapes in 1952 and 1953. One of the pieces now hangs in Rodriguez-Cepeda’s kitchen.

“In 1952, to buy a piece of art was very expensive for a family with three boys in university,” Rodriguez-Cepeda says, standing in his art-lined driveway, sweet jasmine wafting in the air. He bought his own tile-scape in 1960, and the collection has grown steadily since, most bought from dealers in Talavera, Spain’s famous ceramics center.

Rodriguez-Cepeda travels to Madrid two or three times a year and cruises the same few antiquarian bookstores and art dealers specializing in Talavera ceramics. He tries to visit Talavera at least once a year to spot new artists to add to his tile collection. His prized piece is a $25,000, 100-year-old portrait of Don Quixote done by the Sant’Anna Tile Factory in Portugal.

He buys the tile-scapes in a set of individual pieces, about 4-inches square or larger, and most comprise 30 or more individual tiles. He mounts them himself on a backing of cement, each tile sealed in with grout and the entire scene framed by heavy blue-painted steel beams. The larger tile-scapes, bigger than travel posters, take two people to move easily, so none of Rodriguez-Cepeda’s are part of the UCLA exhibit.

His house, a moderate walk from UCLA, is part of a neighborhood of modest bungalows and small ranch houses north of the traffic snarl where the San Diego and Santa Monica freeways cross. Children’s toys dot some of his neighbors’ yards, and graceful trees cast the street in half-shade. Inside, the house has the overstuffed feel of a personal museum, which, in effect, it is.

Rodriguez-Cepeda’s wife, Margarita Lezcano, lives in St. Petersburg, Fla., where she teaches in Eckerd College’s Spanish department, so they see each other only sporadically. Rodriguez-Cepeda lives here mostly alone, and the house has an intellectual bachelor’s ambience, a bit musty with books stacked in improbable places. A four-volume set of 1757 Spanish pocketbooks -- Rodriguez-Cepeda believes they are the first pocket versions of “Don Quixote” ever printed -- is stacked in a wicker basket, and mounted prints of wood-cut illustrations are heaped unordered on a folding table in his study lined with shelves of old leather- and cardboard-bound books.

Besides finding enough display space, the problem with a collection this size is finding new pieces to add. As interest in Don Quixote has grown leading up to the 400th anniversary, so too has the pursuit of memorabilia, particularly, for some reason, by British collectors.

“You are always late,” once an interesting piece surfaces, laments Rodriguez-Cepeda. “To find the theme of ‘Don Quixote’ is not easy. I don’t buy everything. It has to be interesting.”

And then there’s the curse of forgetfulness. Sometimes Rodriguez-Cepeda will spot a first edition of an obscure version of the novel in one of the Madrid shops, negotiate the price with the shopkeeper and then pack it away for the trip home, where he adds it to the shelf -- only to find he already has a copy.

“It happens sometimes,” Rodriguez-Cepeda says, riffling through illustrations culled from 19th century editions of “Don Quixote.” “I’m losing track.”