UCLA Medal to John Rechy

Speech

Today we gather to award the UCLA Medal, our university’s highest honor, to John Rechy.

Throughout his career, Rechy’s poetic prose, sharp observations and courageous voice have made him one of this city’s most influential writers and among its most significant public intellectuals.

John Rechy was born Juan Francisco Flores Rechy on March 10, 1931 in El Paso, after his parents migrated there from Mexico following the Mexican Revolution. He grew up in poverty in a segregated neighborhood just across the Rio Grande from Ciudad Juárez.

Even at a young age, he showed a keen interest in the arts and began painting, acting and drawing comic books. But writing would become his most potent form of expression.

His influences ranged from the poetry of Alexander Pope and the novels of John Dos Passos to Flash Gordon movie serials.

By 14, his writing ambitions increasingly took center stage and he began writing a book about Marie Antoinette. He was only 18 when he finished writing his first novel, Pablo.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in English from what is now the University of Texas at El Paso in 1952, Rechy enlisted in the U.S. Army and was stationed in Dachau, Germany, where he walked through the concentration camp there and later called it an experience that politicized him against all prejudice.

He later to moved to New York City, to hone his craft as a writer. In the years that followed, Rechy’s work would produce insights about many cities, including New York and New Orleans, Chicago and El Paso.

However, Los Angeles is the city he would come to call home —the city that would help define him and that he would help define for all of us through his writing.

His first published book, City of Night, the groundbreaking novel he wrote about life in Los Angeles, was both revelatory and influential. The Washington Post hailed it as “a first novel that must be considered one of the major books to be published since World War II.” But City of Night — the title of which became part of the lyrics for the famous song by The Doors, “L.A. Woman” — was only the beginning.

In the years since, he has excelled as an essayist, novelist, playwright, teacher and more, opening readers’ eyes to realities ranging from poverty to the abuse of minority children in detention centers, to the lives of sex workers and the persistence of loneliness.

On these topics and others, so vivid were his observations, so astute were his insights, so alive were his characters, that the great James Baldwin proclaimed that Rechy’s writing “rings absolutely true, is absolutely his own, and he has the kind of discipline which allows him a rare and beautiful recklessness. He tells the truth, and tells it with such passion that we are forced to share in the life he conveys. It is the most humbling and liberating experience.”

Baldwin was not Rechy’s only famous fan: David Bowie, Lou Reed, visual artist David Hockney and filmmaker Gus Van Sant all cite him as an influence.

Of both Mexican and Scottish descent, Rechy has been fearless in confronting the struggles of immigrants, the pain of prejudice and the problem of police brutality and other vital issues that for far too long went unaddressed in our nation. 

Equally important have been the ways he chronicled gay life in Los Angeles, shattering stereotypes and shining a light on the truth of gay men’s lived experience.

His former student and fellow writer Michael Cunningham notes that Rechy “was one of the first people to write serious… books about gay people. They were literature… they weren’t silly romances, they weren’t anything like the few books by and about gay people I had read. …John’s books gave a lot of us… permission to write about our actual lives.”

Just as he did with his novels and commentary, as a teacher of the craft of writing at numerous schools including UCLA, USC and Occidental, he has boldly challenged the limitations of conventional wisdom.

In response to the oft-repeated mantra to “write what you know” he replies, ”Nonsense! That ’rule’ would decimate literature, from Homer to Nabokov, and myriad others. The only rule I uphold is: there are no rules — write about whatever you want to write about.”

He urges artists to transcend the limits of what they know through the power of imagination pointing out that “sometimes it is necessary to invent what isn’t there in order to clarify what is.”

Another falsehood he likes to shatter is the claim that books must have characters that are likable or relatable. More important to him is that they be interesting. He implores writers to “write about characters, good or evil, who fascinate.”

A craftsman attentive to the details of word choice and theme, tone and plot, Rechy rejects stale conventions that stifle, rather than enhance, the artists’ voice. His approach is both more liberated and, as Baldwin pointed out, liberating.

At UCLA, we celebrate literature as way of revealing truth and marveling in the beauty of the written word. We recognize its power to make marginalized groups feel heard and seen, verifying and validating their humanity and worth. We value literature as a way of broadening our worlds, exposing us to lives and realities otherwise ignored, and, at best, replacing mythologies that imprison with insights that liberate.

John Rechy is one the great practitioners of this craft. Our culture is richer and more whole because of his contributions and influence.

Therefore, I am proud to read the following citation for the UCLA medal:

JOHN RECHY

Through seven decades, your voice and vision, intellect and imagination have enriched American letters. As a novelist, playwright and essayist, you have courageously explored themes such as race, gender, sexuality, violence, longing and belonging. You have borne witness to the lives and experiences that others too often overlook or look away from, and, by example, you have encouraged your audiences to be equally fearless.  You have proven to be a shrewd observer of America, and Los Angeles especially, delving beneath comforting myths to explore more complicated realities. Your keen and empathetic vision has embraced Mexican immigrants, domestic workers, AIDS patients, sex-workers and those who suffer discrimination and struggle with assimilation into American life. A major figure in Mexican, LGBTQ and Los Angeles literary communities, you have been a model for other intellectuals. The rhythms of your prose and the liveliness of your characters have inspired popular musicians and visual artists who cite you as an influence. You have been a teacher and mentor to other artists, including UCLA students, sharing your insights and seeking to elicit theirs. The intellectual courage, artistic vitality and concern for community that have distinguished your career are all values that UCLA shares and seeks to encourage. For these reasons and more, we proudly bestow upon you the UCLA Medal. Given at UCLA this twenty-fourth day of October, two thousand and nineteen.