Esteban del Rio is a teacher; a storyteller, avid reader, and bicycle camper. A third generation San Diego native, he’s a professor of communications and cultural studies at USD. He’s also a husband and father of two kids.
We first learned about Esteban through our friend and oft-collaborator Justin Chung, for whom Esteban was a professor and advisor in college. But clearly Esteban had an impact, as Justin brings him up regularly in conversation, and included him in the second volume of Faculty Department, his exploration into the lives and homes of creative folks (which we were also honored to be included in!). We had been excited to connect with Esteban and learn more about him, and we finally scheduled a day to visit him at his home.
We really enjoyed our visit and conversation with Esteban, and have been excited to share it with you. We hope you enjoy!
I’m a third generation San Diego kid. I grew up in the same house where my mom was raised; the same neighborhood where both my parents grew up.
Growing up, I thought everyone in the world was Catholic. My neighborhood was Mexican-American and Filipino… so I just didn’t know there were non-Catholics, or other forms of Christianity. It was a really content, small neighborhood. There were dozens of us kids, we’d go to big family parties and we’d know all each other’s grandparents. It felt very rooted.
I went to a local college, USD — where I now teach. I met my wife the second year, and meeting her started to open up my world. She was from the Bay Area. A nineteen year old feminist, very strong in her ideas. She opened up my thinking to lots of things I hadn’t thought about before. I was pretty shy kid until college. That’s when I started to say some things, use my voice — and ultimately go for this girl.
After school I got a job, but she went out to Massachusetts. I applied to a PhD program at the same school she was — basically to follow her — and was accepted! Then I found myself in a PhD program, and I knew what I wanted to study. I thought… I guess I’ll be a professor, if I’m lucky.
There are a lot of teachers in my family. My parents were both teachers. So I knew what it meant to teach. And growing up, I did see myself becoming maybe a high school teacher.
In high school, though I would have never dreamed I’d become an academic. But following my interests… next thing you know… I had completed my PhD, came back to San Diego, got tenure, bought a house, had kids… Twenty years later, I’ve been department chair, and done all the academic things.
At my university, we write, but we really value teaching. PhD programs don’t teach you how to teach. I learned to teach as a track coach at a local high school — a side hustle during college.
Teaching for me is about telling stories. For academics, teaching isn’t often the center of your training. For a lot of people with academic appointments, teaching is a means to the end, it’s what you do when you’re not doing your own stuff (research, papers, other work). I’m lucky to be at a university that really values teaching.
The students I have, even this semester… I’m just surrounded by good and curious people; generally young. If they’re in a good place, they’ve shaken off their anxiety about performance and grades, and are more interested in Becoming. And I get to tell stories with them, about ideas! Ideas that are sometimes complex, sometimes obscure, or even cryptic… but as a teacher, I try to build community around ideas. Tell stories. About my own life, or about the writer of an essay we read.
Every once in a while I’ll hear from a student who says I keep going off on tangents… to me, that’s the point! Tell a story, build some infrastructure around an idea that helps you grapple with it! To me, that’s what teaching is. An invitation to a collective story-telling about the things we hope to learn.
My family is full of teachers, mostly at the elementary and secondary levels. I love teaching at the college level, because you really get to run with it! People are coming in with mature understandings of themselves, and of ideas.
Teaching is also about relationships. When some professors start, when they’re new, they’re concerned about the content. For some fields, like math or chemistry, it’s more important… but really, for me, it’s the relationships that are more important. Creating an invitational space to think about things together.
I love my job. I despise grading.
Some of us get paid to teach, but we’re all teachers. If you’re a storyteller, if you’re a critic — you’re a teacher. If we think about that, it might change our relationship to things. The different rabbit holes we might go down.. audio, architecture, playing music, puzzles… we have all these moments in life where we end up teaching people abut the things that we’re interested in.
If we’re aware of that, we might do less… mansplaining!… and be more invitational to the things we’re interested in. There are classic stories of people going into a record store or bike shop, and not entering a teaching relationship but being belittled.
’ll tell you the thing that upsets me about teaching. If you want to get to me: demonstrate disinterest. It just kills me! A lack of intellectual curiosity… I think our culture has kind of turned everyone into a functionalist thinker… “What am I getting out of this?” “What’s my return on investment?” And not everything’s as simple as that.
Probably the most delightful thing about teaching is when you see and share moments with people… I sometimes call them Moments of Reveal… watching people find their feet with a complicated idea. A classic moment teachers refer to is when you ‘see people’s light come on.’ When you see someone learning.
Teaching communications and cultural studies, the real delight is when you see someone become confident in what they know — when they express a real confidence about how they understand something. Sometimes they do it in writing, in a test, or in a paper… but sometimes it’s when someone speaks, and you can hear it in their voice. Those are the greatest moments.
Yes, for sure. I’m an early riser — my wife and I are almost in competition for who can get up first. She likes to get up and do yoga before I’m up, but sometimes I’ll be up with a light on at 5am.
I make coffee first thing, and then I sit on our sofa that looks northeast to the mountains, and I read.
I have a neighbor who began talking to me about meditation. He told me how every morning he gets up, gets some quiet, and spends some time in nature. After talking to him about this for three days in a row, I woke up, made my coffee, went out on our terrace, looked at the trees…
And then I never did it again! Haha…
The truth is, I like to read! I read the New York Times. I get the Friday, Saturday and Sunday print edition, and every morning I sit and enjoy reading the news. It’s how I check in. I teach about journalism and information culture, so that’s the greatest excuse I have to sit and read the paper for an hour.
I also love bicycle riding. So on my best mornings, after everyone else is taken care of, I’ll get on one of my bicycles and ride for an hour or two.
But mostly, I love being at home in the mornings.
I love that it’s very much a handmade place. (That’s why the roof leaks! Haha…) Built in the 1940s, by hand, by an artist. It’s an absolute retreat. Probably functions more as a cabin than a house. It’s maybe 75% glass, in terms of the walls. And then stone, and redwood.
One time a friend came in and said “This place has a lot of potential!” And I thought, “Uh, well — you’re looking at it!”
The artist who built it, John Dirks, was a sculptor and a professor at San Diego State College (now SDSU). He actually built the house for his MFA thesis. I have his artist statement about it.
It was built to be functional for a family of four. You end up with this 1940s post-war, post-and-beam, indoor-outdoor home… what we all have come to understand as a Mid-Century Modern. But in his time, it was new; authentically from his vision.
I think that’s one of the most beautiful things about living here. The desire to live authentically fits into this house; into living here. We can make a “home” with any kind of “house” authentic to the way we live… with the things we surround ourselves with, the way we participate in consumer society. We come into the space with our own values and our own truths. The house kind of fits into that… it isn’t the end-all be-all… But we feel lucky we got it.
When you go into a synagogue or mosque or cathedral, you’re drawn to look up. I think in terms of, what was going on after WWII in California, coming out of such a dark time… people were manifesting a sense of awe and wonder. San Diego became a center for the craft arts movement. You had wood-workers, ceramicists, artists… making every day objects, trying to build beauty into the every day. Of course you have the Mexican influence here, and we’re on the Pacific Rim…
I’m a big believer in California. Mike Davis, who wrote City of Quartz, taught with me at USD. He gave great diagnoses of the problems in California, in particular… there’s this idea that we’re always on the edge of disaster — be they natural or human-made. I think that’s what makes us such a dynamic place. The ground is not so solid. You kind of have to be flexible and creative.
I don’t know if you’ve ever taken the train from LA’s Union Station to Oakland. It’s like 12 hours. I’ve done it a few times to go bicycle camping up in the Bay Area.
If California was a church, then that train would be a sacrament. The train doesn’t lie. You have beautiful beaches, hard-scrabble farm towns hard on their luck in the central coast, then coming into the big cities, you’re not coming in through the most beautiful vistas, you’re coming in where they decided to put the train tracks! If you can get an observation car, do it. It’s a wonderful way to see California.
Growing up… I was a cartoonist. I loved drawing. As a child in the early 80s, a friend of mine told his mom I was a really good drawer, and it sunk in. It just goes to show: when you encourage people, you never know when it’ll be taken to heart and ignite a flame.
I followed that path for awhile, but ended the pursuit after an encounter with a prominent cartoonist. And I’ve felt satisfied telling my stories as a teacher and a writer.
As for what’s next… As Faculty Department developed and I was a part of it, Justin helped me see what people were doing with their design, their projects, and businesses. It made me wonder if I’ve thwarted my own creativity — you can only channel so much creativity into scholarship and teaching. So after becoming a part of Faculty Department, I became real curious… “What else might I do?”
That’s still an open question for me. And coming up on 50… it’s nice to have open questions. Who knows what else I might come up with? And not that I need to… I don’t feel like my back’s against the wall. I feel fulfilled in my career.
But it’s exciting to think about what creative outlet might show up later on.
There are things that I really enjoy… like music, and bicycle-riding, and writing… But I haven’t given myself the time or space to think that out, and begin to work towards something.
Something I maybe didn’t understand as a 20 year old who wanted to be a cartoonist — telling stories takes a lot of work. You have to really practice it. Some of us are better than others, but you really have to hone that.
At this age, I think I have a lot of capacity to be able to start something… to write about the culture, contributing to conversations around human-centered design, things that work for people, the ethics of it. It’s not like I have to start from scratch on something, as I have 30 years of work… but I haven’t given myself the time to think and work towards what my creative outlet may become.
Right now I’m taking care of my work and my family, and then taking care of myself — which, for me, is bike camping. Loading up my bike, going out in nature and camping. Between the life of work, family, and all that that asks… I try to preserve some time and space for taking care of myself.
And you don’t need much to do that. A couple of weeks ago, one of my friends hopped on his bicycle, took the the train to Irvine, rode up to Crystal Cove, and came back down the coast. I left work at 4pm, rode my bike to meet him. We camped, and I got home the next day at 1pm. It’s a sub-24 hour trip.
If you want to get out into nature, you don’t have to drive six hours to some destination like Mammoth or the Eastern Sierra. You don’t need to go for a whole week. We’re lucky here in Southern California — we have the ocean. When you jump in the ocean, you are in wilderness. Even just jumping in the water, let the swells lift you up and down can be really wonderful. If folks don’t have too much nature near them… even sitting under a tree and watching the birds… I’d imagine an hour of doing that could maybe be just as good as dipping in the water or doing an overnight camping trip.
For me, though, I love a sub-24 hour overnight trip. If you use bicycle, bus or train…. You can get kind of far. You can get into nature — a nearby county park, BLM land — find a campground, bring a flask, coffee grinder and camp stove, sleep there, make your coffee in the morning, and then come home! You can leave after work and get back after breakfast.
For me, that’s my reset. So… however I figure out my next creative outlet, it’s going to have to fit between myself, my family and riding bikes.
I guess the word now is self-care. For me, it’s about taking care of yourself so that you’re okay, so that you can take care of others and give of yourself.
Savoring life’s details through the coffee we drink daily.