Question: Where are you from and how has that shaped you?
Peter Rojas: Well I was born in Detroit, Michigan, but moved to California with my parents when I was about two years old. And I grew up in a small town . . . or a small city, I guess, in the San Joaquin Valley, which is the central part of California. And it wasn’t a suburb. It’s actually just like a small town. It was about 30,000 or 40,000 people when I lived there. And primarily an agricultural town – sort of the hub of the . . . San Joaquin is very much sort of like the breadbasket of California.
And so where I grew up was basically kind of almost like a farm town. And there’s also like an Air Force Base nearby which has since been closed down. So it was very much, like, military people and people in the agricultural industries. My father was a physician, and he was originally from South America. And he met my mother in Detroit, and then they decided to move to Detroit to Merced, which is where I lived until I was 14. And I ended up going to boarding school in Europe when I was 14.
When I was growing up I always wanted to live in a bigger city. I always wished that I lived someplace a little more exciting. But I think there was something important about; I mean everyone sort of, you know, values in some way or another where they grew up because I guess it is an integral part of who you become. So I mean I think for me it was; it was nice to live someplace that was sort of manageable, I guess. And to have someplace that was very comfortable, but yet you always had a sense that if you wanted that you needed to strive to work hard to sort of, you know, transcend that place to work hard, I mean, to get out of it; which was not necessarily like a great thing to say; but when I grew up; I always knew that, like, I needed to get out of this town and live somewhere else. And to do that I needed to work hard and do something, you know, interesting with my life, I guess.
Question: Who was your greatest influence when you were young?
Peter Rojas: Well I mean without a doubt my father was a huge, huge influence on me. You know he was a . . . Like I said he was a physician; but he was also someone who had just like a wide-ranging interest in a lot of things. He wasn’t just a doctor. He was also an accomplished photographer who actually, towards the end of his life, had moved into becoming a professional photographer and selling a lot of his work. And also someone that knew, you know, an incredible amount about literature and music – especially classical music.
Incredibly well-read, and someone who didn’t even learn English until his mid-20s, and yet could beat me, a Harvard graduate, in Scrabble. And he just was someone that . . . that had this wide-ranging intellect and was just so curious about so many different things. And I remember growing up, it seemed almost like . . . almost like a shame that he was in this small town, which is, where he decided to live because he was a doctor, and it was . . . He had a good practice there and a good business, and was able to, you know, have a very comfortable life there.
But I think that he also always sort of . . . He seemed so much more cosmopolitan than . . . than the place that we were . . . that we lived. And he grew up in South America. And so there was sort of this . . . this . . . You know when I was growing up, there was always this sense of the world is bigger than this place where you grew up. And I think not everyone has that. And especially if your parents are from the same place where you grew up, you don’t necessarily have that . . . that sort of perspective of the wider world automatically from day one. And so my father, like, inspired me to be someone who tried to know a lot about a lot of different things, and who really followed their passions; and who realized that the world was a huge place, and that if you were lucky you would get to see, you know, a small percentage of it before you died.
Question: What is the best advice you ever received?
Peter Rojas: You know my father wasn’t necessarily very big on the . . . on the advice. You know he wasn’t . . . But I remember the . . . the thing that he always sort of conveyed, I guess, was that you know you should never do things that close doors . . . that close off doors. You should always work hard to keep you know to open up opportunities and to keep your options open, rather than making poor decisions which end up limiting your choices or limiting your options in life. And I think that was something that was really important to him. Like he grew up basically, you know, in a . . . He grew up in an impoverished country, and he worked really hard to . . . to transcend that and to get out of that. And I think it was really important for him . . . for him that I understand that if I worked really hard, I could, you know, get out of Merced and do something, you know, great as well. And that was sort of like his. That was one of the things that he always wanted for me and .for my brother was that we, you know, do something that we’re passionate about, and that we do something great in life if we can.
Question: What did you think you would be doing professionally when you were growing up?
Peter Rojas: So you know I thought I never had a really good sense until I got into college. And I thought actually I would become an academic or become a professor. And I had . . . Basically up until I was about 23 . . . until I finished graduate school that I thought ,“Well I’ll be, like, some sort of professor of critical theory or literary criticism,” or something like that.
And that will be what I do with myself. And I’ll be, you know, writing books, and you know, trying to get tenure somewhere, and have that sort of, you know . . . live in some university town and that would be my life. And I was actually pretty happy about that until I went to graduate school and realized that there was no way I could spend the rest of my life around, you know, other like English or literature Ph.D. students, or Ph.D. candidates. And it’s not that I didn’t like them.
It was more that if felt so detached from everything else, and it became very ____________ where you have all these people who were so focused on this incredibly narrow discipline that it was almost like they couldn’t communicate that, or express that, or share that with anyone else. And I kind of saw myself going down that same path where writing my . . . my Masters dissertation where it was so complicated that I couldn’t . . . I couldn’t explain it to anyone.
And certainly no one who didn’t also have an advanced degree in critical theory could even begin to understand what it was I was working on. And you start to realize that . . . I mean as much as I loved that, and as much as I enjoyed doing that work, that you . . . there was sort of something very cloistered and separated about that that was unsatisfying. And you know having the desire to do something that made . . . something that had a wider impact on the world. And I wasn’t sure what that would be. And after I . . . I finished grad school, I kind of bounced from thing to thing not necessarily in terms of jobs, because I didn’t have a lot of trouble finding work, but that in terms of what I wanted to do.
It was do I want to do something in music? Or do I want to do something with film? Or do I wanna see something maybe in the Urban Planning/Architecture zone? Or design? I mean I had a very . . . Like my father, I had a lot of different interests and a lot of different passions. And it was difficult to sort of narrow it down and figure out what exactly it was that I wanted. The one overriding thing that I was interested in was I have to do something . . . I want to do something that . . . that is . . . I wanted to do something that, like, has a positive impact on the world.
October 2, 2007