Thought Catalog: Aida, can you tell us a little bit about yourself? How did you first get into comedy? What are you most known for? And what has been your greatest accomplishment so far?
Aida Rodriguez: I grew up in Miami, Florida. I am of Puerto Rican and Dominican Heritage, and my step father is Cuban. So I single-handedly represent the entire Spanish-speaking Caribbean. My mother’s family first migrated to the Northeast from Puerto Rico during the ’50s – my grandmother landed in America in the midst of segregation.
I have always enjoyed making others laugh, I have always wanted to be a comedian, since I was a little girl. I used to sneak and listen to Richard Pryor albums and Alvarez Guedes in Spanish. My mother recalls that I when I was little that I would walk around with a broomstick as as my microphone of choice, entertaining her during her harsh pregnancy.
I am most known for my real and no-nonsense approach to life within my brand of humor. Keenan Ivory Wayans once referred to me as being “like a dose of truth serum” I discuss issues of race, motherhood, womanhood and humanness from my most personal place, pointing out the things that many of us think, and are afraid to say.
Though many may believe that my greatest accomplishment is being on a nationally televised show that broadcasts before millions of people, I have to admit that the thing I am most proud of in life is raising two self-aware, evolved, intelligent and compassionate humans. My children are two people that I would want to be friends with if they weren’t my children. Together, I dare not undermine their role in this, we have broken many generational cycles that have been destructive and hurtful for family.
TC: What is your experience firstly, of being a woman in comedy? What are the challenges that you have faced? And in terms of your identity as a black, Latina woman in the comedic scene, how have those identities been represented or been received in the space that you work?
AR: Being a woman in comedy is like being a woman in any other male dominated field: You have to work twice as hard, have to be twice as good, to get 70% of the pay. (LOL) But seriously, we aren’t afforded the opportunity to be mediocre. Not that I would want to be, but that just isn’t there for a woman. Though we are making strides because of women like Roseanne Barr, Sarah Silverman, Amy Schumer, and Wanda Sykes, we still have a ways to go. Being a woman in comedy is a different reality – we are bit more vulnerable on the road in terms of safety, and are subject to immediate discrimination. I can’t tell you how many people will say to me after a show, “I normally don’t like female comedians because they just aren’t funny, but you were funny.” It’s so offensive to hear but I guess you’re supposed to take that as a compliment.
Being a woman of color has always been my reality, pointed out early on by my stepfather’s Cuban family. I have always operated from the knowledge that people are aware of my color. Colorism exists in a different capacity in the Latino community, and to yet another degree to the white Cubans in Miami. Being told things like my skin color was a stain, and that I had scabies because I wasn’t white, forced me to learn about myself and my history for my own emotional survival. The distinction that Puerto Ricans and Dominicans leaned more towards black – as if it were a negative – was made aware, and that just didn’t sit well with my intelligence or humanity.
In terms of the comedy scene, you can feel the segregation at times and you have to make the decision of who you want to be, and I decided some time ago that I was going to be a comedian that happened to be a woman of color, not the other way around. In comedy people tend to challenge everything. It is in the realm of humorous philosophy, and people remain in constant thought.
I have been questioned by some of my Mexican colleagues about my identity while at the same time they have pointed out my blackness. I learned a long time ago that I write my own story and by knowing my history, I operate from the best place. So nothing can disturb that. I have no problems doing the “b`lack” rooms, “Latino” rooms and mainstream rooms. It is my job!
TC: Can you talk a little bit more about that – Blackness in the Latino/a identity? It is something that rarely gets into mainstream conversation. In the first place, the identity of “black Latino/as,” and then secondly, the experience. I am specifically referring to notions of anti-blackness within the Latino community, that you have also mentioned. How do you deconstruct it or discuss it in your comedy or what is the specific role, if any, in your politics and your work?
AR: I actually delve into issues of Blackness within the Latino community aggressively. I believe that comedy is a safe place to discuss all of the things that make us tick within our society. I have a joke that takes on the African Diaspora as an attempt to bring forth awareness, and I dared to do it on NBC’s Last Comic Standing. I believe that race can be our greatest distraction and division, but we cannot ignore that the Latino community is affected by this. There is a big group of Latinos that are not represented in the media. Have you ever seen a black Dominican family TV show? The stigma of being black can be painted so negatively that many immigrants don’t want to identify with it, not just Latinos. One of my childhood Haitian friends refused to identify as Black. It was baffling to me a young kid, as I grew up I began to understand that what he perceived to be black was also negative. That exists throughout Latin America – the issues of being a black Latino is not on the agenda of many Latino discussions.
TC: Who would you say are your heroes? Both in your life and in the comedic scene? Who are the people that you think really affected and/or continue to affect your style?
AR: No one has influenced my comedy more than my family. Had there been cameras on us growing up, we would be a hit television show. I can tell you that I love the greats in comedy like every other comedian but the people who really made me laugh were the real ones in my life. Watching my grandmother and mother, both single moms at one time, deal with poverty, racism, and hardship through humor, really shaped who I am as a comedian and as a woman. We would find the humor in any and every thing for our survival.
Listening to my stepfather’s crazy point of view on life was funnier than any comedy show, but my brother is probably the funniest person in my family without trying to be. The funny has always been around. I chose to focus on it instead of the drama, which was also abundant in my life. Now that we’re clear on that, I will say that I love the guys that really pushed it, pushed it far and in your face like Richard Pryor, George Carlin and I continue to be inspired by people like Kathleen Madigan, Louis CK, Bill Burr, Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock. These are the people who grant me permission to play in that space that isn’t afraid of “going there,’ which is code for fucking being real.
Now, I am a lady (Ha!) and I love dressing up, wearing make up, and being dolled up on stage so then there are also a list of women that have also granted me a permission of another kind. I can’t give you a list of influences without saying Joan Rivers, Rita Rudner, Carol Burnett, Sommore and Lucille Ball.
TC: Can you give examples of what have been the most challenging experiences in your work with regard to your performance as comedian with those identities? Has there been backlash in terms of some of the political statements that you’ve made or things along those lines?
AR: There is always backlash, even more so now with this internet thing. I have been accused of being harsh, mean, aggressive (as if it’s a bad thing) and most of all, racist. I have received death threats and wishes because of my stand on the glorification of celebrity in this country. My jokes have really been a heavy, disturbing thing to some people. I always warn people at my shows that I talk about “everyone” so that no one feels special, and give them the option to leave.
There are places and bookers that won’t hire me because they don’t like my brand of humor. To some of these bookers, “I’m offensive” and not funny. I choose to go where “I’m celebrated, not tolerated”. Because there are many people that enjoy my style and come see me and they are who I work for. My job is to make people laugh and still be a voice.
I think it’s the racism and sexism that resides within these individuals that drives them to discriminate against me and people like me – I know it is. “The audacity of this woman of color to say some of these things is just unbelievable and downright outrageous.” They are unaware of their shit. It’s not my job to reinforce stereotypes about women and people of color to provide comfort for ignorance. Listen: I stand for something, I am a believer of values and fight for them in an unorthodox manner. If that is offensive to you, go watch someone else.
TC: Can you tell me a little more about your activism and what your goals are? As well as your sociopolitical attitudes that tie in with your work as a comedian and writer?
AR: I am very interested in constantly being involved in the community and working with the youth. (But not interested in drawing media attention to these things.) I was homeless once and it didn’t feel very good so the thought of posting, telling, announcing that I am helping other humans makes it feel cheap to me. I don’t want to further humiliate someone while they’re down – I know the feeling. I do the basic stuff like feeding and clothing the homeless but I don’t really like to talk about that, it’s weird, so I won’t.
I speak at schools about self-esteem and self-programming, I make sure that when I am performing at colleges that I have a message for those impressionable, hungry minds that are seeking knowledge and awareness.
I believe it is important to go out and speak to young women about image, the media, and the many factors which affect our self-esteem. Specifically young women of color who are not equally represented in mainstream media.
I also suffered from many destructive eating habits which were formed during my stint with the modeling scene, and so I also speak about and incorporate in my comedy the many harmful messages that are constantly being sent to women about weight and appearance.
I believe that my show “Truth Serum” is a form of activism, as it is not another comedic show for the sake of comedy, and I wanted it that way. I use it as a platform to discuss those topics and issues that affect us all from a very honest and thoughtful place. I bring in activists, celebrities, personalities to discuss these things as opposed to the typical “I am awesome, my life is great and I have a lot of things” interviews that are so commonplace.
TC: What does the future have in store for you as far as your work in comedy, writing, and as an activist?
AR: I look forward to having a fruitful career in truth, being a voice of the people, and remaining there with them. My writing will continue to be a tool to create opportunities for myself and others – this is not just about me. I will tell the stories through writing jokes, movies, and stories that will bring forth awareness and solutions to mend and bridge. We gotta be here, so why not make it a better place? There will be a space for me and my story on a more visible level, and I look forward to taking that as a duty and responsibility to exalt all of the work and sacrifices made by that little Puerto Rican family that raised me! Agape.