Roberto Suro is Director of USC’s Tomás Rivera Policy Institute. Before taking part in a panel discussion entitled “What Does Trump Mean for Immigrant L.A.?” for a Zócalo/The California Wellness Foundation event at the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy in Little Tokyo in downtown Los Angeles, he spoke in the green room about James Joyce, picking the right stories to write about, and out-of-tune guitars.
What are you reading for pleasure right now?
I’m re-reading James Joyce’s Dubliners. I just re-read “Ivy Day in the Committee Room.” I re-read it periodically. I’m going to Dublin later this year, so it seemed appropriate to steep myself.
What kind of car do you drive?
I drive a 2015 Honda Fit. It’s great. Perfect little L.A. car.
Who’s the one person, living or dead, whom you’d most like to sit and have a beer with?
Beethoven. He’s a crazy, interesting man. It would have to be when he was relatively young. He was kind of a man-about-town, a hail-fellow-well-met, when he was young.
Is there a particular piece of his that you return to, the way you do to Dubliners?
Yeah, the Violin Concerto in D major [Op. 61].
Is there a teacher or professor who particularly influenced you?
Fred Friendly, who was a professor at my journalism school. He was a great, garrulous, fun, outgoing, very energetic, and enthusiastic professor. The most valuable lesson he taught me was that which stories you choose to do is much more important than how you do them. At the end of the day, all you’ll have to show for yourself is the stories you picked to do. And that was 44 years ago, and it turns out to be true: In a lifetime of writing, what’s most important is the topics that you pick.
Since this is a panel about immigration, where is your family or your ancestors from?
My mother was from Ecuador and my father was from Puerto Rico, and I was born in Washington, D.C. My mother was a journalist and was covering the home front during World War II here, for papers in Latin America. Her family owned a newspaper in Guayaquil and she had a syndicated column. My father was an interpreter, actually head of language services for the American delegation at the San Francisco Conference [in 1945, at which the United Nations charter was drafted and signed]. So she was working him as a source, because the interpreters were seeing all the documents and were involved in all the sessions, and she was trying to find a side door. She started hitting on this guy, and he started hitting back, and they ended up getting married.
Did she get the story, though?
I think it very quickly turned into a romance. They were married within weeks. It was a very special moment. It would’ve been a great place to have been.
What’s your profession in your next life?
Concert pianist. I have no musical talent whatsoever, hence the ambition. My career as a musician ended abruptly when, at my second guitar lesson, the instructor said, “This guitar is so amazingly out of tune. Can’t you hear it?” And I’m going, “Well, I thought it was okay!” And then he basically went to my mother and said, “You know, this is a waste of money.” My mission is to play Rhapsody in Blue at the Hollywood Bowl. I’ve dreamt it many times.