By Steve Flores
"There is no shame in being poor. Poor doesn't mean dirty. Poor doesn't mean stupid. And poor does not mean being mean," said recording artist Sixto Rodriguez.
Dignity in poverty. Although he had never been to our home near Watts Drive and Cottonwood Road, Rodriguez was perfectly describing growing up in my Southeast Bakersfield neighborhood.
Rodriguez is the subject of the Oscar-winning documentary "Searching for Sugar Man." Imagine growing up poor your whole life only to find out you were a thought-dead musical icon halfway across the world.
This unbelievable yet true story explains how in his teens, Rodriguez recorded two albums. His first album, "Cold Fact," recorded in 1970, sold an estimated 50 copies in the United States. His second album, recorded in 1971 and called "Coming from Reality," suffered a similar fate and quietly sent Rodriguez back to a state of near poverty and pickup construction job. His Bob Dylan-style approach to words and music described the dingy street life, political oppression and discrimination of growing up in 1960s Detroit's inner city.
Unbeknownst to Rodriguez, his album "Cold Fact" somehow made it to South Africa. In the opinion of many, his politically charged lyrics and music literally transformed a country. Many claim his songs served as the anthem to the anti-apartheid movement and influenced many South African musicians with similar political beliefs.
Still working demolition jobs, neither word of his popularity in isolated South Africa nor royalties from his thousands of albums sold made it back to Rodriguez in the U.S. In fact, urban legend had that Rodriguez committed suicide in the early 1970s by lighting himself on fire while performing on stage.
South Africa in the '70s had harsh censorship enacted by the apartheid regime. Coupled with international sanctions made any communication with the outside world on the subject of banned artists virtually impossible. No Internet, just turntables.
Rodriguez had no idea that he had become as popular as the Beatles and Dylan in South Africa. The Cinderella story of how he was found in 1998 as a day laborer in Detroit by fans and his return to South Africa makes for an incredible, endearing obscurity to international stardom movie.
Now on world tours, how has this new access to fame and fortune affected 70-year-old Rodriguez? He still lives in the same wood stove-burning home he has for more than 40 years. His daughter Regan jokingly laments, "My father is most happy when he is able to give money to those he feels are less fortunate than him."
How did Rodriguez feel about "Searching for Sugar Man" winning an Oscar this year? He didn't even go to the Academy Awards Show. The film's producer, Simon Chinn explains: "Because he didn't want to take any of the credit himself, and that just about says everything about that man and his story that you'd want to know."
Rodriguez's appeal for me is how relatable facets of his life are to mine. Instead of Detroit, it's Bakersfield. We both grew up in poverty-stricken neighborhoods rich in pride, dignity and work ethic.
"Searching for Sugar Man" winning an Oscar this year was like my southeast Bakersfield neighborhood wining an award. Sometimes you think you toil, create and craft in obscurity, but somewhere along the line, someone notices and hopefully you influence positive change. And you do it not for the recognition but for the change you hope you can affect.
And that is where Rodriguez and many people I know in Kern County share life's mission and meaning, Oscar or not.
Steve Flores is a contributing columnist for The Californian. These are his opinions, not necessarily those of The Californian. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.