On Saturday night, more than 30 students stopped a university-sponsored talent show to let a classmate read her poem, which they believe the Office of Residence Life had tried to censor.
Apollo Night, co-sponsored by Fairfield United, Office of Residence Life and Office of Student Diversity, started four years ago at Fairfield. The concept was inspired by the Apollo Theater in Harlem, N.Y., which was known for giving a platform for talented minority artists during an oppressive time period.
Senior Crystal Rodriguez was scheduled to perform her poem, “Virgen Maria.” During the audition process, according to Kate Bouzan, an area coordinator who sat on the event committee, Rodriguez performed a different poem than what was performed at Saturday afternoon’s dress rehearsal. Rodriguez explained that her poem had evolved since the auditions. Bouzan heard about the piece at the Saturday rehearsal when a staff member raised concerns that one of the lines could be deemed inappropriate to the audience, which consisted of not only students and their families, but also children.
In one section of her poem, after describing the pressure that religion puts on Hispanic women, Rodriguez wrote, “I stuck the Virgen Maria statue so far up my c–ch, just to keep the demons in.”
The language led to ResLife’s decision to talk to Rodriguez. Ophelie Rowe-Allen and Meredith Smith, director and assistant director of ResLife, respectively, offered Rodriguez the option to rephrase the line or find another venue to perform the poem. “It was a civility issue; it was a matter of language. We didn’t want it to be offensive to others and we were mindful of that,” said Rowe-Allen.
However, the line in her poem was a personal expression, Rodriguez said. “I’ve always had this image of Virgin Mary, always wanting to be her,” Rodriguez said. “By placing Virgen Maria inside of me, I was protecting my virginity. I thought that she was completing me.”
When she wrote “just to keep the demons in … I was afraid of who I was, the parts of me that needed to be released. But then I realized [by keeping the demons in] I was hurting myself,” she said.
“The content is very specific to me, the religious shame that I was brought up. The fact that [Rowe-Allen] said, ‘Well, can you just change the lines?’ I felt like if I compromise, I’m comprising my identity. I’m compromising my voice. I said to her, ‘You just used your power dynamic to silence me.’”
After talking with ResLife, Rodriguez decided she would do a student-sponsored event after Apollo Night, to “absolve [ResLife] of their responsibility,” she said. The announcement was made shortly, and Rowe-Allen and Smith added that it would have been a “great compromise.”
“But in terms of our audience [at Apollo Night], parents who were there, students and children who were there – connected to the community – it just didn’t make sense to utilize that type of language,” said Smith.
Rodriguez didn’t expect to see her classmates stop the show. Before the last act of Apollo Night, members of Omega Phi Kappa, Remixx and Weeepa! sat on the edge of the Gonzaga stage and surrounded Rodriguez. In keeping with the “inclusive spirit” of Fairfield, fellow performer Maritza Morinvil ‘16 said to the audience that Rodriguez should have the opportunity to read her poem.
Rodriguez said: “They wanted to create a space for me within Apollo; they were embracing me, creating a wall around me … they created hallowed ground, and anything I said I’d be protected.”
While students say Rodriguez was being censored, Smith said, “It wasn’t our intention to censor, or disenfranchise or disempower her. We wanted her to speak her voice, but do it in a way that was appropriate for the audience on hand at that particular event.”
But Rodriguez said, “I don’t want to be silenced.” She feels that ResLife staff “twisted” her words, misunderstanding the intent of her line.
Smith acknowledged that ResLife should have known about Rodriguez’s poem sooner and not the night of the performance, so that they could discuss more. “We should have addressed [the language] sooner, but we addressed it once we found out about [it].”
“Just because we found out about it late, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be addressed,” she added, referencing the fact that Apollo Night was a university-sponsored event, so ResLife had the decision-making authority.
“We made a judgement call,” Smith said. “And we stand by it.”
Even so, that Saturday night, Rodriguez, speaking on behalf of other performers, believes that the Office of Residence Life was “owning our talent, telling us how we can use our voice.”
“We have events here like Performing for Change, Poetry for Peace, Take Back the Night,” places for freedom of expression, Rodriguez said, and they are events attended by friends and family, too. Yet, said Rodriguez, they’re allowed more freedom of expression.
Rowe-Allen and Smith countered that performers must still keep their audience in mind. A performer and also an intern for ResLife, Hakim Hill said, “As a writer, this can be a learning experience to get the point across but not offend someone at the same time.”
Senior Shaquille Ricketts, who sat on stage during Rodriguez’s performance, noted that there were songs with sexual references and expletives in previous performances that could have offended audience members, but were not stopped. For this reason, he called ResLife’s explanation “invalid.”
“That was not rehearsed that way,” Bouzan explained, so when those performances before Rodriguez’s occurred, “there was not much we can do about that part,” said Rowe-Allen.
Students who stopped the show for Rodriguez also believe that the department had been “hypocritical.” Junior Janice Herbert raised the point that ResLife has Safe Space training and supports other programs that teach inclusivity, but that “flew over their heads,” on Saturday night, she said.
“Everything about [Apollo Night] is about expressing yourself and for them to cut that off, I don’t think they realize what problem they created and what lines were drawn,” Rodriguez said of ResLife. “They united us.”
Speaking from a minority standpoint, saying that there are already limited events for minority voices, students who supported Rodriguez said they feel “traumatized.”
Occupying the stage had been their reaction to ResLife. “We’re gonna make a difference, we’re going to let you know that you can’t bully us into the decisions that only you want to have. It’s not fair; we should have our voice that you claim we should have,” Morinvil said.
“I don’t think [ResLife] knew that we had it in us – to do what we did,” added Jessica Rodriguez ‘14.
While Meredith wished the audience was given a choice to stay or to go when students went on stage, she said members of ResLife “applaud the students for standing up for each other.”
“That’s awesome,” she added. “We need more of that on campus.”
Senior Jesús Núñez said: “All they do is talk about empowering people, and especially as an RA, I have been taught that. For them to shut down Crystal, one of the most powerful people on this campus, I was so angry about it. I’m just interested to seeing how [ResLife] acts after this.”
ResLife and Diversity Programs have met and Rowe-Allen said they’d want to reach out to people involved in Apollo Night and discuss the incident.
Herbert and others similarly said there should be an opportunity for conversation, for everyone who was there and who saw the YouTube video of Rodriguez’s performance – which, as of press time, had more than 280 views.