In Hollywood, as in Broadway, if you can do it all you’re called a “triple threat.” Rick Najera, on the other hand, is a ‘multiple threat.’ He’s an award-winning comedian, speaker, screenwriter, actor, director, author, businessman, activist and Latino Rebels advisory board member. His nationally acclaimed stage play Latinologues made him one of only three Latinos to ever write and star in their own play on Broadway.
Currently he is a writer and guest star on Hulu’s hit show East Los High and also directs the CBS Diversity Sketch Comedy Showcase (in his 11th consecutive year). Najera is the force behind Color Correct News, addressing current news and issues with a satirical twist. Najera also developed and hosts the new Latino Thought Makers Series for the Oxnard College Performing Arts Center, interviewing top professionals in the industry such as Edward James Olmos, Esai Morales and the cast of East Los High.
Najera’s fourth book Almost White: Forced Confessions of a Latino in Hollywood has garnered critical acclaim and won “Most Inspirational Non-Fiction Book” at International Latino Book Awards in 2014.
Agreeing to an interview on his free will, establishing so for the record, Rick Najera sat down between rehearsals to speak to me about the man behind all of the success.
Marlena Fitzpatrick: It was a matter of time before this interviewed happened. You’re an actor, writer, director, activist, loudmouth and “almost white.” What do you mean by “almost white”?
Rick Najera: Almost White came about because that’s how media views Latinos. They go, “They’re not black,” because they see black as a minority, “and they’re not really white, so they’re almost white.” They hope we become assimilated and enjoy the things regular white people get, or we stay in the Spanish-language area, almost apartheid. Latinos become a cultural character for advertisers and media because they don’t know how to deal with us. For example, 38 percent of Latinas in media are naked or partially clothed. So we’re either underrepresented, or “underclothed.” This is ironic given we have the same amount of buying power as the entire country of Canada.
MF: Interesting. The first word that comes to mind is the “multicultural” label, as if we were appetizers, a sampler of cultures.
RN: Exactly. We have this powerful group of people living in the United States that are American. In many respects, this is our native land. I’m in California.
MF: We’ve known each other for a long time and you know I’m intensely passionate about our portrayals in media. We’re either hystericals, we’re beggars, we’re the help, we’re gangsters, we’re prostitutes, and so on. Nothing wrong with being the help, by the way, but my point is there are rarely any leaders. Who’s responsible for this?
RN: The importance of having Latinos telling our own stories from our perspective is paramount to our success. I would say we need more Latino publicists working for us. That said, there’s two things: capital and vision. If you have a vision, the true portrayal of America is a multicultural landscape. We’re growing, so you can’t keep us out of that picture. Trying to do so, it’s either deliberate omission or they just don’t know any better. Many times they believe Latinos aren’t really watching television, which means they don’t know any better.
MF: Well, here’s the issue I have with that argument: As a business executive, not just as a writer, if I “don’t know any better,” it is my responsibility to do research. If not, I’ll lose my job because technically I’m not doing my job. Should we encourage others to research us, in this case, to create characters true to us?
RN: Well, that falls into capital. We don’t have the funding to do our own independent shows, TV, etc. — different from the Tyler Perrys who have the funding. In many ways we have a war between two medias fighting for Hispanics’ dollars. One producer says, “I need to reach Latinos. We need to spend in Spanish-language Univision.” And the another producer says, “I need to reach Latinos. Let me spend on Univision and then create English programming for those who doesn’t speak Spanish, with shows they don’t even see themselves in.” You look at that and notice they’ve created a system that it’s almost an apartheid. It’s evil. If you work in Spanish-language television, you’re paid less than someone that works in English-language television.
MF: In fact, most companies would do their English projects with the union but non-union for the Spanish.
RN: Exactly — the Spanish language non-union sweatshop in America. Our brothers and sisters are paid for programming with less budget, so they’re making less money than their English-speaking counterparts. I talk about this in my book. I’ve had to do a lot more work to survive. I’m overworked. Latinos in this industry have to work so many jobs to make ends meet. That’s something people don’t talk about. In some instances they point out to our highest-paid Latino artists such as Sofia Vergara. That’s like saying “Barack Obama is president, therefore there’s no racism towards black people.” That’s insane. Or pointing out that someone won the lottery for $115 million and saying “there’s chance for people to become millionaires.” It’s the perception. When we have a presidential candidate, like Trump, who wants to get into the White House by pointing out the illegal immigrants coming over. What happens is he’s painting with the same paint brush the legal Latinos here in America. We believe there aren’t legal or illegal people, period. The truth is that not demonizing people for migrating to look for a better job, a better life, is the core of the American belief. That’s why we have the Lady of Liberty in New York.
MF: I’m glad you bring that up because there’s a belief that the race and color struggles are exclusive to the United States, but we’re doing it to ourselves in Latin America, too.
RN: When I criticize in my writings and comedy, I talk about facts. I’m not saying that in our ancestral countries those problems do not exist. That’s why they want to come to America. Because the problem is less here, yet the problem is still here. Having said this, we should be the leaders in showing a solution.
MF: You brought up something I’ve also been very critical about: comedy. I don’t know what’s wrong with our comedic voice and our comedic bone in media, especially in Univision (there I said it). If I hear another misogynistic joke or mocking at the expense of our LGBTTQ community at the Latin Grammys, I’ll throw my TV out the window. How much do we have to evolve and grow out of that? My faith was restored when Sábado Gigante was canceled, but now there’s Sabadazo.
RN: There’s a long way to go and a tall way to grow. What happens is we have a culture that in some ways is a machismo culture. When the Spaniards came, they raped our women. So when biologically a man looks at a woman as someone they can control, or as property, you have a faulty system. This is a global issue. I have two daughters; I worry about how they’re treated. It’s about having compassion. When I walk in a dark parking lot to go to my car, I never worry about being raped. So I have to have compassion to walk in my sister’s shoes and understand that’s an issue. Her safety is an issue. It’s wrong. We should have compassion to put ourselves in the immigrants’ shoes. The person that’s coming here to work hard. We need to be compassionate and stop the rhetoric — the color and racism discourse — people like Ann Coulter, who’s terrified of the browning of America.
MF: Interesting. In an era with mass murders, war, children abused and sold as child brides, they’re terrified of America becoming brown. Who in their right mind would be scared of the “brownization” of America?
RN: The values of Latinos are the same core values of the United States of America. We’re about family. Latinos try to desperately keep their family together, and yet more have been deported than they’ve ever been. Our families are being torn apart. We’re losing an entire generation of English-speaking Latinos because their parents were deported. When there’s no justice, there’s no peace.
MF: You’re hosting an educational program called the Latino Thought Makers Series. I hear you so eloquent, well-versed and passionate about us as a united people. What makes a Latino thought maker, and how do you choose the people you’re interviewing?
RN: I choose people that have made profound changes for Latinos. The idea is to have a dialogue and also a spotlight for Latinos. Media concentrates on the Latinos they imagine and they forget the ones like us: the congressmen, the journalists, the activists. I think my calling in media is to tell those stories. I’ve interviewed Edward James Olmos, Esaí Morales, Judy Reyes. I had a bracero and the César Chávez family. On November 12 we’ll have Latino Rebels founder Julio Ricardo Varela, who’s doing amazing work in journalism. People love hearing these stories. The program is about celebrating our culture and success.
MF: What is your definition of a Latino Rebel? You know I have to ask.
RN: It’s someone who has a vision and sees the world how it’s supposed to be — not necessarily how it is, but how it’s supposed to be. That is a rebel, someone that has that vision and sees a better world for Latinos. Imagine if you were an adopted child and you grow with your family and you take Christmas and Easter pictures, and one day you look at the family albums and notice that you’ve been cut out of every single one of those pictures. How would that make you feel?
MF: Latino Rebels is taking all of those individuals that have been cut out, all of those pictures, and creating our own family and saying “Now, speak out.”
RN: We’re giving a platform for people to talk and have a way to build a community. Sometimes we’re painted as the problem. Latinos are part of the solution.
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