One of the most powerful voices in the Latino world today, Najera previews his autobiography, Almost White.
Comedian-writer Rick Najera
Tavis: Latinos may be the fastest-growing ethnic group in America, but despite their numbers, many still feel marginalized or misunderstood. Rick Najera faces those challenges with insight and humor.
He’s an award-wining writer, actor, director, producer, and comedian who’s now written a memoir about his experiences in a new book called – love this title – “Almost White.” (Laughter)
“Almost White: Forced Confessions of a Latino in Hollywood.” Rick, good to have you on the program.
Rick Najera: Great to be here.
Tavis: There’s a lot of funny stuff in this book, and I promise with a comedian I’ll get to the funny, not that you could stop me – or that I could stop you, I should say, if I’m getting to the funny.
But there is a serious story that is for me the back story to this book. You had a near-death experience, and when I say “near-death,” I mean really near death. I wonder if you might tell me your story first.
Najera: Yeah, sure. I had a strange experience. I was just overworked and had pneumonia, all these different things – it was like a perfect storm of problems, and I collapsed at home by myself, and I hit my head and I nearly bled to death.
It was at a number three on the Glasgow Coma Scale, they found me. I don’t know why Glasgow is so big on comas, but they found me in –
Tavis: What’s number three mean, though?
Najera: As close to death as possible. Number 10 is I can still drink and drive. Number three is you’re about to die. Shame, but you’re going to go.
Tavis: All right.
Najera: So they said I may not come back normal. Of course my wife said, “That’s good. He never was normal. So that’s actually a good thing.” (Laughter)
But I was there for two weeks in the ICU, in and out of a coma and as close to death as anyone could ever come. It was an amazing experience. Because of it, I said I wanted to write the book.
Tavis: When were you clear about what you had just endured? How did you –
Najera: I wasn’t clear for the longest time, because in the book I say, “This is how you die. One minute you’re dinner, the next minute you wake up and tubes in your neck and throat and all that stuff.”
I came out of it a little bit – my wife told me I came out of, I’d start telling jokes. And they weren’t great jokes when I started. (Laughter) The nurse –
Tavis: Were the nurses laughing?
Najera: Yeah, the nurses were laughing.
Tavis: Okay, well, that’s not so bad. (Laughter)
Najera: This nurse came up to me and she goes – I motioned for her to come here. They had just taken the tube out of my throat so I could speak and I go, “Do you know how to get a man out of a coma?” She just looks at me. I go, “Give him Viagra. That’ll get him up.” And I went back.
Tavis: Yeah, bad jokes.
Najera: Yeah, bad. I had such brain damage my jokes weren’t sophisticated yet. (Laughter) Then later on they got sophisticated. (Laughter) But that was the first one.
Tavis: Nurses can be tough crowds, man.
Najera: Yeah, it was a tough crowd. But the word spread throughout the Hollywood – and of course that hospital, “This guy’s funny. There’s something weird about him.”
Then I had a lot of different stars and people calling up and visiting, and people were very concerned. I woke up and it was something that my wife was by my side, and she said, “You have to change your lifestyle,” which is stop working so much.
But a lot of times, for Latinos in Hollywood, we have to take many jobs. That’s why I’m a director, actor, producer, comedian, everything else.
Tavis: I’m glad you said that. I was just about to ask, how do you activate, implement your wife’s advice to not work so hard, which is what got you in this coma in the first place?
Tavis: You’re a Latino in Hollywood – it ain’t like stuff is just coming at you all day and you’re sitting back flipping scripts and making choices.
Najera: No, a lot of times I have to – you create your own work, and that’s the thing I learned early from Whoopi Goldberg and watching John Leguizamo and myself. We all started with one-person shows.
There’s a big part of it. Theater afforded us an opportunity to get in front of the public, and since we couldn’t go to the studio, we went through the back door, which was theater.
So that really helps. I think now more than anything is – like my father. My father is in the book. He went to Vietnam during the war, and I said, “When’d you go to Vietnam?” He says, “I went there for overtime.”
I said, “When was it?” “It was during that holiday.” I said, “What holiday?” “The Tet.” I go, “You went there during the Tet Offensive for overtime?” He goes, “Yeah, a lot of overtime.” So that was the odd thing about it.
Mexicans have an extreme, hard work ethic, and so when a job does come for us, we tend to take it. I’m just learning to take a few jobs and being more strategic about it.
Tavis: How would – This is the obvious question that you knew I was going to ask, and I suspect every interviewer who talks to you about this book will ask this question, and that is your own assessment over the course of your career of how things are changing.
I ask that against the backdrop of the fact that there are two or three networks now, beyond the big ones – Telemundo, Univision. But these networks for Hispanic audiences are coming on strong. NUVOtv.
Najera: NUVOtv, Robert Rodriguez has his own channel.
Tavis: MundoFOX, all –
Najera: Yeah. Yeah, it’s all coming up. You know what’s happening is it’s the millennials. It’s also the Latinos are – advertisers lied to you for a lot of years. They said if you want to reach Latinos, only reach them in Spanish.
So there is a large group of Spanish, of course, but there are a lot of Latinos like myself that are in both worlds, and really, if you want to reach Latinos, you have to reach them in both languages, per se, and also understand it’s a very hard market to understand.
But it’s a huge market. There’s 53 million Latinos; $2 trillion in buying power. That’s amazing. So they’re recognizing it, and that’s what’s changing it so quickly.
Tavis: Does “Latino humor” cross over?
Tavis: – or is there no such thing as Latino humor, it’s either funny or not.
Najera: No, I worked; I first started working on “In Living Color,” which people said is Black humor. Did Black humor cross over? Yeah, of course.
Tavis: Absolutely. (Laughter)
Najera: Yeah, of course. So the same thing. Whenever you’re – I was in Broadway, with my show on Broadway, and I remember they said, “Oh my god, it’s Latinos on Broadway.” I was the first show that was ever successful on Broadway.
I said, “It crosses over.” The people that came were the New Yorkers. I was in a nightclub one time, I hear a guy go, “Hey, you funny man, you very funny man. I like you. Buford Gomez, you funny man.” It was one of the characters in the play. A Russian guy surrounded at a nightclub.
He goes, “I saw your show. Hilarious. Funny man, funny man.” I realized it crossed over to other New Yorkers. That’s what made it successful. So it’s not so much that is Latino humor different. Latino humor is based on humor. Funny is funny. But it’s just particular.
If you get specific, you always end up being general. You reach a bigger audience. That’s the great part about it.
Tavis: When will we just be this familiar, rapid-fire familiar, with Latino comedians. You could do this all day with Black comedians. You get the Hispanic list, you got (unintelligible) –
Najera: George Lopez –
Tavis: You got George Lopez, you got –
Najera: Gabriel – Fluffy. I call him Fluffy. We’re all working very hard in all our worlds. I look at George Lopez; I’m working on a project with him, an animated project we’re getting out and pitching right now.
Gabriel Iglesias, an incredible – Gabriel, I gave him his first job. I put him in my show “Latinologues.” He’d never flown first class, and they had an opportunity to fly first class, and I said, “Let Gabriel fly first class.” He was just a brand new comic starting out.
So I told the stewardess, I said, “Listen, Gabriel, his last name’s Iglesias, as you can see.” She says, “Oh, yes.” I go, “He’s Julio Iglesias’ son, but he’s not good-looking. He gets a lot of problems. Enrique’s so good-looking.” (Laughter)
If you could, just make his time in first class so special. I work for him here in economy.” (Laughter) So she came there, so Gabriel gets on the plane, never been in first class is “Oh my God, first class is amazing.” (Laughter)
“They were good to me, Rick, so good,” and I go, “That’s first class, Gabriel. It’s a good time.” (Laughter)
Tavis: I should mention on that list I’ve always loved, I was going to say Paul Rodriguez, but I don’t want to leave him off that list. But these days I know him better – everybody (unintelligible) P-Rod (unintelligible).
Najera: Oh, his son.
Tavis: The P-Rod, his son, is so huge on his cable (unintelligible).
Najera: Oh, he’s – I know Eddie almost as a friend of mine, because he’s developing a show with P-Rod and Paul, and I tell you, he’s a good-looking kid.
Tavis: Yeah, he is.
Najera: I think me and Paul both have good-looking children, which is – we don’t consider ourselves good-looking. We’re comics; that’s not even in our mind-set. But boy, our kids came out looking good. That kid is really handsome.
Tavis: And talented.
Najera: And talented.
Tavis: Tell me a bit more about your journey in this town and whether or not – and obviously you’re still on it, thank God. As I say, I’m really happy to see you, so I’m glad you survived that.
Najera: Thank you, thank you.
Tavis: But tell me about the journey that you’ve been on, and whether or not as you look back on it, it has been worth it to have to go through all this –
Najera: Oh, that’s such a good question. I think about that. This is the hard part, because you go yeah, if I would have called myself Rick Rivers, would my career have been different.
Because my agents wanted me to call myself that. It’s the road less traveled, but I think having a certain amount of social consciousness and caring about your culture and understanding that we’re part of a huge tribe and we choose that tribe has made my life far more interesting.
I think, looking back, I chose the right choice. My children, they’re half-Anglo, half-Mexican, so I call them Mixicans. (Laughter) But they’re in – yeah, I sent them to Spanish-language school; I call it Spanish-language waterboarding. So it’s like “Agua, agua, agua.” (Laughter) So they learned Spanish that way.
But I’ve installed in them a love for the culture, because if you love your culture, you’re able to love other cultures. It’s about being inclusive, and I think that’s the Latino I know.
Tavis: The danger – and here I am speaking out of school, but you and I are friends so I can say this to you and whoever’s watching here, but here’s where I get in trouble I think sometimes.
The danger for me on that inclusive/exclusive debate is that I fret sometimes – and who am I to fret, but I do fret – that members of the Latino community, the Hispanic community, play with this notion of assimilation. Do you know what I’m getting at?
Najera: Yeah, I know what you’re getting at.
Tavis: You don’t want to assimilate so much, you don’t want to be so inclusive that you sacrifice your own – you know what I’m getting at?
Najera: Of course. It’s like they call George Zimmerman the white Hispanic, and he looked like he was assimilated pretty well, because he was out protecting the white neighborhood, which –
Tavis: Killing Black folk. He really assimilated.
Najera: Yeah, he assimilated so well he outdid everyone. Amazing. (Laughter) But you’re always going to have that in every culture. I’m sure in the African American experience the same thing.
They were calling people Uncle Toms and we’re calling people Tio Tacos. I think at one point you have to look and say we are a culture that is very defined, but we’re also allowed to get other cultures in our world.
The guy who gave me my first job was Keenan Ivory Wayans for “In Living Color,” and Whoopi Goldberg I worked with early on in my career. So for my African Americans were my allies. I included them in my world and they included me in their world, and I think the more we’re that way – but you have to be true to who you are.
It’s not that I’m changing because I’m ashamed or in any way don’t respect and love my culture. It’s just an addition. I might have sushi at lunch and have chilaquiles in the morning, but I’m still Mexican American. It’s still part of my culture and my heritage.
So you do have to, in a strange way, as long as you’re guarding your reality and who you are, you’ll be fine. You’ll be fine.
Tavis: The new book from Rick Najera is called “Almost White: Forced Confessions of a Latino in Hollywood.” I couldn’t do justice to this book in 12, 13 minutes, and the good news is there’s a whole bunch of funny stuff in here that I didn’t get to, so you’ll want to get it – “Almost White” by Rick Najera. Rick, good to have you on, man.
Najera: Thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: And I mean that – it is good to see you.
Najera: Oh, it’s great to see you.
Tavis: All right. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
[Walmart sponsor ad.]
“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.