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Photograph by Rose Aguilar
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Red State, Blue State

KUSP talk show host Rose Aguilar's quest to understand Red State America.

By Jessica Lussenhop

When Rose Aguilar, host of Your Call on San Francisco public radio and more recently on KUSP, first decided to write her book Red Highways: A Liberal's Journey Into the Heartland after the soul-crushing 2004 election, she probably didn't imagine that, come book-tour time, she'd be face-to-face with the kind of sound-bite journalism that pissed her off enough to write it in the first place. "Nobody reads the book," she says. "And the differences between the men and the women interviewers--the men always have to have the upper hand."

But shock jocks aside, the thing that really sticks out to Aguilar is the difference in her itineraries. While the book follows Aguilar on a meandering road trip through towns in Texas, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Montana in search of the "red-state voter," her book tour has left those towns far below as she crisscrosses the country on long plane rides, landing in liberal lairs like New York City before leaping back over for West Coast appearances. "I wanted to go to places in Austin and Jackson, and we don't have the budget for it," she says with some frustration. "All the authors go to the same places, they never go to the middle of the country."

It was this phenomenon--the yelling and punditry in the liberal media that either characterizes conservatives as a pack of gun-toting yokels or ignores them altogether--that sent Aguilar in search of the real people behind the conservative vote. "I just realized how disconnected I am in this bubble," she says of her leftist haven in San Francisco. "I thought, 'I can't do this anymore. I have to leave.' I got so sick of the left talking to each other."

So she loaded up a van with vegan-friendly foods and her screamingly liberal boyfriend and pointed it all toward Houston, beginning a journey that would prove both taxing and life-altering. Aguilar estimates that in those six months she interviewed about 10 people a day, everyday anybodies, in Wal-Mart parking lots, church services, at the mall, wherever she could find them. "I got so obsessed with this trip. I wondered how everyone voted all the time," she says. "Since I don't eat meat, I spent a lot time in Subway. I would look at the guy making my sandwich and wonder, how does he vote?" Though the Subway guys don't get their own chapter, there are religious figures, old Southern belles, young black men, trailer park residents, abortion doctors and field workers, among many others.

The result is a kind of oral history of politics in the South, where a good deal of the usual anti-abortion, anti-gay sentiments are cheerfully proffered, mixed in with a healthy dose of frustration from people who want more for their country but don't know quite what to do about it, cut off as they are from the major media outlets in places that sometimes don't even have a library. Though she found both Southern hospitality and Southern hostility, Aguilar hopes that the book will serve to remind people to go outside their comfort zones in order to push for change in America.

"I just feel like there are a lot of coalitions waiting to be built, but there are just too many stereotypes," she says. "If you want to know what's going on, go outside and talk to people."

Although Your Call broadening its listener base on Sept. 1 to include Santa Cruz County does not exactly envelop a great many conservatives, Aguilar says she's excited to have callers from the area to contribute to the discussion. "On a lot of our environmental shows, KUSP listeners bring so much to the show," she says. "I just think it's such a great connection that's being made between the Bay Area and Santa Cruz. It's just great to hear what's going on with our neighbors." Though she says the area has brought a different perspective to the show, she admits she hasn't heard from any of our embedded conservatives. "I don't think they're listening," she says.

ROSE AGUILAR reads from and signs copies of 'Red Highways: A Liberal's Journey Into the Heartland," on Monday, Nov. 3, at 7:30pm at Capitola Book Café, 1475 41st Ave., Capitola; 831.462.4415.

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