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Radio Diaries 'Made Me Feel Important'


Switching gears now, and cracking open a diary. The Radio Diaries project started nearly two decades ago with a simple idea - that the best way to hear people's stories is to let them record them and tell them themselves. It's given public radio listeners an up close and personal look at other people's lives. That view is so intimate that teen mom Melissa Rodriguez brought her recorder to the hospital with her to document this special moment.


MELISSA RODRIGUEZ: I have a brand-new baby boy, 7 pounds. His name is Isaiah Settoh (ph). And he was born at 1:30, right? 1:30, right?


RODRIGUEZ: 1:17, exactly.

WOMAN: 1:17.

RODRIGUEZ: And we would have recorded the birth, but it happened so fast.

WOMAN: About half an hour.

RODRIGUEZ: You know, so. I'm sorry you couldn't hear all the pain, but it was easy.

MARTIN: Melissa Rodriguez's diary originally aired on NPR's All Things Considered in 1996, and that baby is now 17 years old. And Melissa recently recorded an updated radio diary. She now lives in New Jersey with her two sons, and she's with us now to tell us more. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us.

RODRIGUEZ: Thank you. It's great being here.

MARTIN: What's it like hearing that 19-year-old self?

RODRIGUEZ: Oh, if feels like it's a different person. It's not me, definitely. But it also brings back the same memories that I've had when I was at that hospital having my child.

MARTIN: What made you want to participate to begin with?

RODRIGUEZ: I felt like it was sort of, like, a good thing for me, you know, as far as, like, therapy is concerned. I don't write, you know, in no diary book. So I thought maybe recording it would be a little easier for me.

MARTIN: So what are some of the things that you went through that you talked about in your diaries? If you don't mind...

RODRIGUEZ: Well, I never really had a stable address, should I say, you know. I was born, and two years later, from my mom's arms, I ended up in a family member's arms. And a couple years later I ended up being in, you know, like, foster homes, group homes, residentials. Every kind of home a child can go to, I basically been to all of them. And didn't like living in other people's homes, being a foster child, or not in any place that you're welcomed.

MARTIN: And you became a mom yourself at 17?


MARTIN: Right.


MARTIN: How did you feel about that? It's interesting, when I was listening to your diary, you sounded actually really euphoric.

RODRIGUEZ: Yeah. I mean, I felt like I wanted to be a mother all my life, you know, as long as I remember. But at the same time, I wanted to succeed. I wanted to, you know, just be someone who people thought I would never be 'cause I didn't have the funds or the family or the support from anyone.

MARTIN: You do reveal some things that I'm not sure all of us would have had the guts to tell, particularly knowing what you know now, which is that the world is listening and paying close attention. And now you have your kids listening. And one of the things you talk about is that one of the jobs that you had to support yourself, including working at McDonald's, was it being an exotic dancer?


MARTIN: And I'm just curious about the decision to...


MARTIN: ...Put it all out?

RODRIGUEZ: It kind of just happened. You know, I worked little jobs - Friendly's, McDonald's. You know, I was a young teenager, but so many jobs that would hire you. And I think when my son was diagnosed with a rare disorder, I was losing time at work. And eventually, my jobs were like, you know, we cannot have you only work half of the hours that you're scheduled for. So I was getting fired, or, you know, I wasn't able to work like I wanted to.

And came to the point where it was so hard for me that a friend of mine actually introduced me into exotic dancing. I was a little shy at that time, so I was like, there's no way. I cannot be on top of no - you know, on a stage, you know, showing my body to men for money. I just could not see that happening. And it came to the point that one day I had no choice. It was like what else am I going to do? I have no one to call and say listen, my electricity got cut off, can you help me pay my bill? So I had to do that myself. And that one time I got on the stage, it was like living in a different world, and the acting part of it I loved, so.

MARTIN: It's almost like it was somebody else.

RODRIGUEZ: I was completely different. I had a different name, you know.

MARTIN: What was your stage name?

RODRIGUEZ: Sunshine.

MARTIN: I can see it.

RODRIGUEZ: I was named.

MARTIN: I can see Sparkle.

RODRIGUEZ: Sparkle, yeah.

MARTIN: I could go Sparkle. Powerhouse.

RODRIGUEZ: I think that was taken already.

MARTIN: Oh, well, probably.

RODRIGUEZ: So, yeah. So I did what I was supposed to do for a few years. It wasn't like I was just dancing just to be dancing. I actually did put myself through college. I purchased a car. I was renting apartments with two bedrooms so that my son can have his own room. I had my own room. Then finally, once I finished school, I was like, OK, now I can go ahead and get me a better job, better than, you know, would you like some fries with that?

MARTIN: You know, now that your boys are old enough to hear it and know what it's about, was it hard? Did you tell them first, or...

RODRIGUEZ: I did not tell them first. I did keep them away from my teenage diary for a long time. And then it came to the point where my son turned 16, and I guess the curiosity was there. You know, he's more nonchalant. He's kind of like, oh well, you had to do what you had to do, you know, ma. No big deal. You know, he's not so into, you know, worrying about what people are going to say or what people are going to do, so.

MARTIN: Well, then maybe better you tell it than anybody else tell it.

RODRIGUEZ: Correct. I'm not ashamed of it.

MARTIN: You also mention that - you alluded to this earlier - that one of the other challenges for you was your son was diagnosed with a brain disorder, kind of a rare one, if I...


MARTIN: ...Recall, when he was younger. This is - I just want to play this clip. It's kind of an emotional clip, so just...

RODRIGUEZ: OK. I'll try not to cry.

MARTIN: Try not - well, no. I'll try not to cry.


MARTIN: Here it is.


RODRIGUEZ: I was told that he was going to live maybe three to four years from the time he was diagnosed. That was it. So enjoy your life with him while he's here, you know. I think I just lost my cool when she told me that. I was just - I was upset. I was upset with myself. I was upset with the world. I was upset with God. You know, I just felt like, you know, I was born with so much bad luck, and I just thought that, you know, this was going to be different. You know, you're going to have a child. And I may not have been loved the way that I was supposed to be loved, but at least I could love someone else, you know?

RODRIGUEZ: She was wrong.

MARTIN: She was wrong.

RODRIGUEZ: She was definitely wrong.

MARTIN: She was wrong.

RODRIGUEZ: She was definitely wrong.

MARTIN: 'Cause your son is 17.

RODRIGUEZ: He's 17, you know. I mean, we still have...

MARTIN: Walking around eating a lot of food.

RODRIGUEZ: Oh, yeah, and liking girls. So he's normal.

MARTIN: And with really big and expensive sneakers, I bet.

RODRIGUEZ: Oh, those sneakers are $160. They're expensive.

MARTIN: Right.

RODRIGUEZ: I did shower him. You know, I'm not perfect. I showered him with, you know, so many things because I just felt like, you know, it wasn't his fault, you know? It's a child brought into this world, and to have something like that, you know, in our lives, it was difficult for me. I couldn't imagine how it was for him. But I did everything in my power to keep that boy going and pushing himself and not using that disability as an excuse or a crutch for any reason.

MARTIN: So thank you for telling your story and...

RODRIGUEZ: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: I know you've heard from people over the years of what hearing your story meant to them. Can you talk a little bit about that?

RODRIGUEZ: Well, most people, they say to me, you know, you're a very strong woman. You're very soulful. You're very caring and a wonderful mother. And, you know, I don't feel any special than the next mother. No one's perfect. We all have our issues, just some of us have more than others, that's all.

MARTIN: I want to leave with a last clip from your new diary where you're talking about taking a swim test at camp one summer. Here it is.


RODRIGUEZ: You just treaded water until you just couldn't tread water no more. I treaded for almost an hour and a half that day. And I would've kept treading, but they told me to stop. That was probably one of the happiest days of my life. I never thought about it before, but my whole life is treading water, you know. You have no support under your feet. You have no support over your head. You can't hold onto nothing. You're just out there, keeping moving.

MARTIN: Well, I hope you'll keep moving.

RODRIGUEZ: I keep moving.

MARTIN: Melissa Rodriguez recorded her story for Radio Diaries. It's a public radio project. She recorded her story 17 years ago and once again this year. And she's now mom of two. She lives in New Jersey now, but she was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studios. Melissa Rodriguez, thank you so much for joining us.

RODRIGUEZ: No, thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: Continued good luck to you.

RODRIGUEZ: It's a pleasure. Thank you so much.

MARTIN: Thank you.

RODRIGUEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.