Rose Aguilar has a solution for anyone forced to work twenty-hour days at a job that requires huge reserves of brain power: The raw food diet. Spinach smoothies; nothing processed or packaged; no meat, eggs, or dairy products. That's how she subsisted while writing her new book Red Highways: A Liberal's Journey into the Heartland — about a six-month investigative journey through America's so-called "red states" — and hosting the daily KALW radio show Your Call. It's also the reason that 35-year-old Aguilar can stay out until 3 a.m. celebrating Obama's victory in her Mission District neighborhood, then stay up another hour reading the newspaper headlines online, and still look bright-eyed for an interview the following day. Showing no signs of sleep deprivation, Aguilar sat by the front window of San Francisco's Ritual Café on that now-historical Wednesday. She was eating yellow vegan cake — a rare splurge — and perused that day's San Francisco Chronicle. Aguilar is, by all appearances, an iconic San Francisco tree-hugger: She wears fleece jackets, has an illustrious public radio career, and uses progressive blogs like CommonDreams.org as her primary source of information. How she withstood six months in the Bible Belt and came away with renewed faith in humanity is anybody's guess.
Aguilar took the red state highway by choice. She got the idea in 2005, two years into her job producing Your Call — which, at that time, was hosted by Laura Flanders and Farai Chideya. "After the last few elections I felt completely disconnected from the rest of the country," Aguilar said. "I was tired of stereotypes in the media about red-state voters, blue-state voters, you know, Christian voters. I got tired of preaching to the choir, frankly, and I got tired of listening to the left only talk to each other and judge everybody else." She took a six-month leave from the radio station, bought a 1984 Toyota van, took off on a Margaret Mead-style exploration through Texas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, Utah, and Montana, with no set itinerary. The idea was to talk to red-state residents about issues that mattered to them, and try to understand the logic of certain political stances that Aguilar would never share, let alone comprehend — such as opposition to gay rights or a woman's right to choose. Her intentions were honorable, if a little fuzzy, at first. "It was considered simple on paper but then when I arrived in Houston, Texas ... I woke up and I said, 'What am I doing here? Why did I take six months off my job to come to Houston, Texas?'"
It was sweltering hot that day, so Aguilar went online to figure out where people in Texas hang out when the temperature hits 95 degrees. She found a web site for the Galleria Mall — one of the biggest shopping centers in the country, it turned out — and set off to launch the project. With her hair in a ponytail and her hippie boyfriend in tow, Aguilar approached random shoppers and said she was traveling around the country interviewing people "about issues they care about." She was careful to never use the word "politics." "I'm very unassuming," she said. "A lot of people thought I was working on my college thesis. They didn't think I'm this threatening broadcast journalist." From that point on she traveled from city to city, hanging out at gun shows, mega churches, and in Wal-Mart parking lots, interviewing ten people a day for the next six months.
Having worked in radio for more than a decade, Aguilar was already a good conversationalist, and a nimble extemporaneous speaker. She started at age 22 as a technology reporter at CNET, got her own show at 25, and spent eight years interviewing powerhouse CEOs and covering national stories. "I got a lot of my interviews because these men thought I was young and dumb, basically," said Aguilar, who quickly learned to navigate through a world where women were kind of a rare, exotic species. "I took the words 'like' and 'um' completely out of my vocabulary. By the time she quit in 2003, Aguilar was well-mannered and formidable, capable of grilling a politician or jockeying for a pay raise. She knew how to disarm people and engage them in conversation. If something didn't go according to plan, she could always wing it. "I don't like notes because they just distract me, you know?"
Red Highways put Aguilar's people skills to the test. She would arrive in a new town every couple days, check into a motel, and grab a bite at the local restaurant. She'd start off by talking to the motel maids, the restaurant waitresses, and the other diners, then move on to scope out the nearby churches, big box retailers, Planned Parenthood clinics, and the Federation of Republican Women (there's one in every city, she said). "When I would call a friend of a friend of a friend, you know, I'd tell them about my project. They would immediately tell me to come over. They would never ask for a business card or a last name. They just trusted me. And that would never happen in San Francisco." (In San Francisco, she explained, whoever you were interviewing would Google you first, and then ask to meet at a cafe.) Though often Aguilar felt disenchanted by the political views of her subjects, she was always impressed by their civility. "I would go into these huge homes and they'd have lemonade and cookies waiting. And here I am driving in my van, which is screaming 'The hippies are coming!' It's a brown 1984 Toyota van, and we made curtains, and we bought fabric that was like safari animals hanging from the windows. ... My own assumptions were wrong on so many occasions."
The resulting book is a chatty nonfiction narrative compiled from interview transcripts and journal entries. In it, Aguilar describes her encounters with condom store clerks, pro-war vegans, Baptist mega-church pastors, Latino Republicans with a "Viva La Bush!" sign posted in their backyard, and even an AK-47 dealer who allowed her to hang out at his gun show booth for two hours. Her writing has the same anthropological "gee whiz" tone adopted by Barbara Ehrenreich in Nickel and Dimed, and some might find the premise a little patronizing. Still, Aguilar speaks with vivacity and self-irony, making fun of her slacker boyfriend or her difficulty surviving in a place where she couldn't eat anything but the vegetarian sandwiches at Subway. "Here I am, this San Francisco vegan who doesn't eat packaged food, doesn't shop at chains, and had never been to Wal-Mart before the trip," she said. Somehow, she lived to tell the tale.
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