Latinos in Hollywood. A topic that is not new but that has received renewed attention in the media with the recent publication of Chris Rock’s essay for The Hollywood Reporter. In his essay, the comedian critiques the entertainment industry for not being “black enough,” but also for not being “Mexican enough.” Considering that L.A. has the second largest population of Mexicans after Mexico City, Rock finds it hard to believe that there aren’t more Mexicans or Mexican Americans working in Hollywood. “You’re in L.A, you’ve got to try not to hire Mexicans,” Rock jokes.
But what has it been like for the few Mexicans or Mexican Americans that did get hired? What is it like to be brown and to work for what many consider to be a “white industry”? Award-winning actor-writer-director-producer Rick Najera is someone who has built a successful career in Hollywood as a Mexican American and in his memoir, Almost White: Forced Confessions of a Latino in Hollywood (2013), he provides us with an insider’s view of what it means to be Latino in the entertainment industry.
With Almost White, Najera delivers a compelling account of how a kid from the bordertown of La Mesa, California transformed himself into one of the most recognizable Latino comedic voices in the entertainment industry. What started off as Najera’s desire to impress his Mexican American father by memorizing Shakespeare lines turned into a passion that led him to act in films and plays, as well as write for In Living Color and Mad TV, and eventually create and star in his own Broadway play, the award-winning Latinologues.
For readers curious about the glitz and glamour of working in the entertainment industry, Almost White provides plenty of page-turning stories. Najera travels with a Shakespeare theatre company, hangs out in George Clooney’s house and meets his pet potbellied pig, has lunch on set with Sidney Poitier, lives in Mexico City while working for Televisa, joins the executive ranks at LATV, and mentors new talent as the director of the CBS Diversity Showcase. Najera has been in the belly of the beast of the culture industry and he has the experiences to prove it. This is the kind of material that belongs in a memoir.
But Almost White is more than just a fun read. Najera arrives at insights about death, the culture industry, and the ever-perplexing question of what or who is a Latino. Indeed, it is Najera’s near-death experience in 2012 (he has a seizure at home which puts him in a coma) that inspires him to write Almost White. Describing the moment when he finds himself in a hospital bed, he writes: “In every story, there is a beginning, a middle, and an end. More than anywhere else, in Hollywood, the story commences when you are defined and cast as a “type.” I was cast as the “Latino.” I always had to fight for my identity because, when you are Latino, to white America you’re not black and you’re not white. What you are is almost white. Now, lying in the hospital, I was almost dead.”
What kept me coming back to Najera’s memoir were these moments of introspection, delivered with self-awareness and light-hearted humor. The issue that inspires the most commentary for him is Hollywood’s complicity in creating stereotypical representations of Latinos. When beginning his career, for instance, Najera quickly realizes that Hollywood wanted him to play drug lords and gangsters. At one point, he has to darken his hair color and make his light-skinned complexion browner. The contradictions he encounters while trying to get his foot in the door are real and at times surreal, but Najera somehow manages to find humor in the absurdity of the situation. He writes, “I looked like a dark-skinned Mitt Romney on his famous Univision interview.”
Najera’s experience of being typecast as either a foreigner or as a criminal illuminates what he means by the term “Almost White,” which he playfully uses throughout the memoir to describe how Latinos are perceived in Hollywood. Even though Najera is a light-skinned Mexican American (which he recognizes brings its own privileges), he was never quite “white enough” to get the kinds of roles attained by other actors. “Being almost white,” he writes, “has sentenced me to a kind of dual identity as someone who walks between both worlds.” To be almost white, it seems, is to be in limbo—somewhere between being a foreigner and being a full-fledged American.
This episode marks one of the most relatable moments in Almost White since the phenomenon of being typecast happens both inside and outside the entertainment world. We all know that sometimes we have to play a role or a position we don’t like just so we can stay in the game. That’s just part of life. However, Najera’s story shows us that it is possible to eventually break out of those roles. He decides to become a writer and write his own roles after he has a fateful conversation with then up-and-coming comedian Whoopi Goldberg. “I was tired of acting in roles that reinforced stereotypes,” he confesses, “I decided to write myself free.” And he did.
With Almost White, Najera continues to write himself free by showing us his true, multi-faceted self; he can be both an “almost white” Mexican American who lives in the ‘burbs but also a self-described Latino entertainer committed to bringing more diversity to Hollywood as a mentor for new talent. By being true to who he is in his memoir, Najera in effect gives voice to other second- and third- generation Latinos who love their roots but find themselves leading very different lives from their parents’ generation. It is clear that Najera knows that we exist and that he is someone committed to getting Hollywood to notice us well.
Share your thoughts about the book if you have had a chance to read it.