February 20, 2014

Rowland: Another Modestan’s star rises; city’s slapped again

They say you can’t go home again, but what if you don’t really want to, anyway?

They say you can’t go home again, but what if you don’t really want to, anyway?

Folks always love a local-boy-or-girl-who-goes-off-and-does-good story (newspapers like us, especially). But when hometown pride only goes one way, how are we, the ones left behind, supposed to feel?

It’s something Modestans grapple with on a regular basis. We’ve unfortunately grown accustomed to the massive brain drain that sends many of our best and brightest running to the brighter lights of the Bay Area or the bright star power of Los Angeles for opportunities.

And then, once they make it, sometimes they look back to us with something quite the opposite of fondness. The latest example is Modesto native and actress Ginger Gonzaga. The Beyer High grad is poised to possibly break out in a big way with the Wednesday premiere of her new ABC comedy “Mixology,” in the highly sought time slot after mega-hit “Modern Family.”

Finally, right? I’ve been waiting for Modesto to have its own high-profile female star to join the likes of our marquee native sons like Jeremy Renner, Timothy Olyphant and, the big guy himself, director George Lucas. Gonzaga was a Beyer High speech and debate standout who competed in state and national tournaments. She toyed with becoming a lawyer, but then the acting bug bit hard and she graduated early from the University of California, Santa Barbara, to enter The Groundlings, an improvisational and sketch comedy troupe and school based in Los Angeles. Now, she has a chance to shine on the high-profile Ryan Seacrest-produced series.

But then an online podcast Gonzaga recently did with Dr. Drew, Hollywood’s go-to M.D., came to light in which she shared some unflattering memories about her hometown. To put it simply, she calls Modesto “the worst.” Some of her criticism, while hard to hear, is fair. Yes, we were named the nation’s No. 5 “Most Miserable” city by Forbes last year. And, yes, we are consistently one of the auto theft capitals of the country. We know, we know – no need to send flowers.

Gonzaga’s experiences are her own and she is certainly entitled to an opinion. But the comments also highlight our region’s enduring self-esteem problem. Let’s face it, it’s cool to bag on Modesto.

When you meet people from parts of California outside the Central Valley and are asked where you are from, the answer “Modesto” usually elicits one of two reactions: “Where?” or “Why?”

So to deflect such attention, our natural retort is often self-deprecating. You know, a Modestan coined our unofficial underground city slogan: “Murder, Meth & Car Theft.” This reaction is a defense mechanism of sorts: They’re not laughing at us, they’re laughing with us.

Still, when our now-famous (or trying to get there) say unflattering things about us, it’s always hard to take. Two-time Oscar nominee Renner once called us a cow town and said he “hated it.” He later clarified to The Bee that he thought the city was an amazing place to grow up, “but for me as an actor, it was a great place to leave.” He has also come back and done community events and fundraisers in town.

Our most famous favorite son Lucas has at times somewhat begrudgingly acknowledged Modesto as well. He graciously left his Marin home last spring to return for his first hometown public event in decades to smile and wave as the grand marshal of the city’s annual Graffiti Summer parade. But his reason for coming back was clear.

“My sister ... grabbed my arm and put it behind my back and nearly broke my arm and I said, ‘OK, OK, I’ll do it.’ ” he told The Bee. “So here I am.”

I reached out to Gonzaga earlier this week to see if she had any comment on her negative remarks about her hometown. I haven’t heard back.

So the question remains, should we be proud of someone who isn’t necessarily proud of us?

The easy answer is no. Why should we celebrate someone who hasn’t had anything nice to say about us? But the more complicated reality is that a lack of pride in our community and hurt feelings don’t negate actual accomplishment.

And what those who have left us behind think about us isn’t really what matters. It’s what people here are doing to make this a better, more vibrant, more interesting, more exciting city. And the fact that we are a city that – despite all our flaws – can produce talent that lands on a hot new TV show or gets nominated for two Academy Awards or creates one of the biggest movie franchises in the galaxy that should make us most proud.

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