NEWARK — When actress MJ Rodriguez came back to her native Newark hometown, she kept an audience of students from the city's Arts High School locked in with one word: love
"My trans-ness, my black-ness, my Latin-ness, everything about me, doesn't make me different from nobody else," said Rodriguez, whose transgender identity is part of her role on the television drama "Pose." "I show the love I have for my art and my work. And I always encouraged myself to be stronger, and I encourage every teenager here to do so."
Rodriguez's words of encouragement came at 3rd Space, a coworking center in the Ironbound neighborhood, on Thursday night to students from her Arts High alma mater. At a very young age, Rodriguez knew that she wanted to be female as well as an artist. Making the transition in both of these aspects of her life wasn't easy, but the growth that comes through change can be seen in her life.
Rodriguez, 28, built her career on the foundation of her training in Newark at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center's (NJPAC) youth program and Arts High. While studying at the Berklee College of Music, she was cast in the off-Broadway revival production of the musical "Rent." Rodriguez's performance as Angel Dumott Schunard won her the prestigious Clive Barnes Award in 2011.
Since last year, Rodriguez has played the role of Blanca Rodriguez-Evangelista in the television drama "Pose," set in New York City's African-American and Latinx LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming ballroom culture scene of the 1980s and 1990s. The Golden Globe-nominated series includes the largest cast of transgender actors to be starring as series regulars in a scripted show.
Rodriguez answered a series of questions posed by the assembled Arts High students. Xavier Jordan, visual arts major, asked her if she uses her work to advocate for social causes.
"Most people who are artistic, they call us everything in the book. But we're the ones who are making things happen, especially kids of color," said Rodriguez, noting how art creates a situation of automatic advocacy by its mere existence. "But even when I was going through the hardest times, I knew that there was a bigger picture when it came to striving for what I wanted. Keep telling yourself you can be better. You deserve it."
When dealing with issues of sexuality and gender identity, Rodriguez advocated an approach influenced by the standard of the late soul singer Sam Cooke.
"Try a little tenderness," Rodriguez said. "Try to be as understanding as they want to understand you."
At the same time, Rodriguez wants people to understand, like all people, that no one factor determines who she is.
"I don't think my gender identity makes me. I think I make myself," Rodriguez said in an interview. "I think it helps to hear from a woman like myself who is a diamond in the rough just like many of these other kids are here in Newark. I encourage them to constantly find who they are and be the person who they are."
Arts High teacher Melissa Silva noted the significance of Rodriguez's return to her hometown for her students.
"It means the world to see someone who was in their shoes that has made it," Silva said. "When she came in, I saw their faces light up."
For Princess Yeboah, Arts High class of 2020, Rodriguez's visit opened her eyes and her heart.
"She makes you wonder what else is out in there in the world. She gives us hope," Yeboah said. "The world is a scary place. But the only way that you can fight fear is with love."