The second set of memories is darker, and more personal. I met José Rodriguez in high school, where he was my first theater teacher and drama coach. He became mentor, guide and friend—Ophelia’s ideal of a gentleman and scholar. He studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London in order to pursue a career as a professional actor. In New York he played the great roles of Spanish drama in René Buch’s Spanish Repertory Theatre, including Don Juan Tenorio in Zorrilla’s play, and Segismundo in Calderón de la Barca’s Life is a Dream.
José left New York to found the bilingual La compañía de teatro de Alburquerque in New Mexico. He invited me to work at his theater, where we performed his adaptation of Cervantes’ Don Quijote (he played Quijote, I played Sancho Panza). It was to be his last performance. Soon after he left his theater company behind to study for the priesthood at a Catholic seminary. After his ordination he served as parish priest in Abiquiu, Northern New Mexico. He was diagnosed with AIDS, left the active priesthood, and spent his last days at his mother’s house in Puerto Rico, offering mass for his neighbors in his garage. He was dead at 50.
José was only one of an entire generation of American artists—friends, colleagues, companions—who succumbed to the AIDS virus in the eighties and nineties. We are a lesser people today because they perished then.
These are my memories of the Reagan era. I never cursed the president who is so often blamed for the government’s lack of action during the plague years. Reagan was only one of many, among the US dynasty of clown politicians, who ignored the demise of so many of their fellow Americans. But I remain unmoved by his legacy, and unaffected by its passing.