Edgar Rodriguez, a 23-year-old New York City father arrested after allegedly threatening a fellow subway rider who challenged the way Rodriguez disciplined his two-year-old son, is a victim.
Before making that case, let’s make a few things crystal clear: a video of the incident in June clearly shows the man believed to be Rodriguez behaving in a criminal manner by brandishing a knife and menacing the man who called him out for striking his son on the arm. His language, angry demeanor and spitting was inappropriate under any circumstance, but particularly in front of a subway car full of passengers, including his own toddler and the young daughter of the couple who questioned Rodriguez’s parenting style and recorded what transpired on their cell phone. The out-of-control young man was wrong and wholly responsible for his actions and any punishment he receives. His behavior was reprehensible and inexcusable, and calling him a victim is not an effort to exonerate him in any way. With that said, it’s important that we look deeper into the story, based on what we know publicly about the case.
At his initial court hearing, Rodriguez broke down in tears after the judge ordered him to stay away from his son (“spewing saliva to weeping tears” and “subway bully” were just two of the phrases used by local media covering the proceeding). A photo of the suspect’s tear-stained face will, understandably, more likely generate reactions of “too little, too late” or “he’s crying because he got caught” than “wow, poor guy.” Defense attorney George Vomvolakis informed the court that “the most important thing to him [Rodriguez] is his child. My client is currently the sole caregiver for that child…The mother was and still is a stripper.” Vomvolakis alleged that the baby’s mother used the child to obtain welfare benefits and called Rodriguez two weeks prior asking for young Adrian back so she could renew her Section 8 affordable housing.
Whether any of the claims are true will be addressed in a court of law. And while we’ve only heard one side of the story when it comes to the fitness of either parent to care for this child, we can safely assume that the young boy was born into dysfunction not of his doing. But what about the dysfunction of his father? Who is responsible for that? At age 23, Rodriguez is well beyond the age that society expects our men to start being accountable and responsible. If he is old enough to create a child, then he is old enough to raise one, right? If only that were true. The awful reality is that all of Rodriguez’s alleged actions on the subway have their roots in circumstances not caught on camera—ways of learned manhood that are toxic to himself and everyone around him.
It’s easy to dismiss the radical transformation from angry spitter to crying defendant as Rodriguez’s way to gain sympathy. However, we do more justice to him—and other men like him—by considering the other possible sources of those Jekyll and Hyde personalities. Mental illness and a predisposition to violence are often (and sometimes appropriately) cited in cases like this, and when all is said and done, both could be factors in what happened aboard that E train on June 24. Rodriguez could have just as easily told the man who questioned his child-rearing methods to mind his own business and then leave the train without incident. Instead, he allegedly chose to threaten to kill a man in front of his wife and five-year-old daughter.
This type of behavior doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Somewhere along the line, Rodriguez was consciously or unconsciously taught to fight fire with fire—to resort to rage and violence and express his masculinity in a way that he is able to retain the upper hand and exert his power over others. Whether or not you agree that hitting a child on the arm is an acceptable form of discipline, it’s likely that it wasn’t the first time Rodriguez resorted to physical punishment, and it’s even more likely that he was on the receiving end of similar discipline growing up. Add to that the pressure of being a young, unprepared father of color with seemingly little support, and it’s not surprising things came to a head the way they did.
When Rodriguez released his pent-up sadness as the judge separated him from his son, it’s entirely possible it was the first time Rodriguez ever showed vulnerability or shed a tear in such a public way. The fact that we keep grooming our boys to grow up into damaged, emotionless men is not helped by social media and the press jumping to labels such as “thug,” “brute” and “bully” with little to no regard for due process or how those stereotypes negatively impact society at large. We’re quick to take on the role of dime store psychologist or social critic, but the real work comes in peeling way the layers of the onion and challenging ourselves and one another to foster an environment of authenticity and vulnerability in our boys and men.
The Rodriguez case and a recent spate of five teenaged boys murdered at the hands of other men in New York City over the course of a month won’t—and shouldn’t—allow us to forget the elephant in the room: toxic manhood can be dangerous and deadly. In communities where it is coupled with persistent poverty, racism and few opportunities, it takes an even greater toll. So when we consider Rodriguez a victim, we do so in a way that projects empathy—not excuses for his behavior. Ultimately, all of us are responsible for the way we conduct ourselves, whatever our backgrounds and experiences. But we are also responsible to be proactive in the way we nurture healthy manhood, whether as parents, partners or friends.
High profile stories like the Rodriguez incident grab our attention but every minute of every day countless boys and men are suffering in silence. They continue to don masks that allow them to navigate the spaces in their lives without having to confront the ugly truth: toxic masculinity is killing us from the inside out. And while those in orbits around us can play a significant role in helping us to break the cycle, redefining manhood is ultimately a personal journey. Becoming vulnerable, authentic, feeling and visible is a necessary albeit difficult proposition. But until we all begin the really hard work of creating healthier men and boys, tortured souls like Edgar Rodriguez would just as soon die than cry.
(Photo: New York Post)