Rick Najera’s ‘Almost White’ highlights how lack of diversity affects Hollywood and the green movement
When they found Rick Najera, he was passed out in a pool of his own blood.
“Luckily my wife was Anglo, because if she was Latino, she would have looked for a good alibi before calling the cops,” he half-jokes.
And so begins his memoir, Almost White: Forced Confessions of a Latino in Hollywood, which Najera will perform the stage version of as part of the Americas Latino Eco-Festival on Saturday, Sept. 13.
The former writer for In Living Color and MadTV had collapsed and hit his head from a case of undiagnosed pneumonia. He then lapsed into a coma.
When Najera awoke, he began some serious self-examination.
“I thought, ‘I almost died, and my children, would they know who I was?’” he says. “So I wanted to leave them something behind so they could understand me a little bit better.
Najera began writing about the experience and his life. But writing about that experience quickly turned into writing about larger experiences involving being Latino, or “almost white.” He wrote anecdotes and one-offs. He wrote about statistics showing that Latinos are consistently underrepresented or hypersexualized in film. He wrote about cultural assumptions. And he did it with so much insight and punch that some worried the book might burn professional bridges for one of Latino culture’s brightest talents.
“Luckily, people in Hollywood don’t read,” Najera says. “So no matter what I write in my book, they won’t read about it.”
But he wrote those things because he felt it needed to be made explicit that Hollywood, the world he lived in, had a long way to go, and those saying otherwise were way off.
“It’s the typical media spin when you’re not the group receiving the back end of racism, then everything is fine,” he says.
While much of Najera’s story focuses on the film industry, and its treatment and underrepresentation of Latinos, the issues those events speak to are much larger than a single industry, which is a big reason that Najera’s performance is included in an environmental festival.
“The images of Latinos is, we’re running across the border with the Ebola virus in one hand, the SARS virus on another, and a bag of marijuana on the back,” he says. “There’s a lot of stuff that’s not seen about Latinos, and one of those things is our deep love of nature, and this festival helps activate that and put a spotlight on it.”
Najera grew up catching salamanders in his backyard in San Diego, and going on long hikes in the Sierra Nevadas.
“I grew up in nature,” he says. “And in nature, I noticed a change. I go back to the same house, and there’s no salamanders; it’s too dry.”
Najera says the fish he used to catch are now fewer and farther between, signs of climate change. And he thinks the solutions are in the Latino community.
“We’re the ones working in the fields, in construc tion,” he says. “So we’re the ones that are going to make a difference.”
But how does that connect to his experiences in the film industry? Najera says the root issue is the same: A quest for diversity and representation.
“Diversity is really talking about justice and inclusion,” he says. “And inclusion is necessary for the green movement. Latinos haven’t really been involved.”
And Najera feels his book puts a spotlight on those issues.
“You see a man that in the public, especially in the Latino culture, is seen as indestructible,” he says. “I used to think that. And then all of a sudden, you end up in the ICU. And then you look at that, and ask yourself what the legacy is. Those are the issues in Almost White.”
A major component of legacy is what will be left behind environmentally, he says. If he can use the tools of his trade to encourage others to examine theirs, to ask what they are leaving behind for the next generation, then that’s work worth doing.
The stage version of Almost White is shorter, more concise, “timed to the limits of the human bladder,” as Najera says, and has been performed around the country to strong reception. Najera first worked it out on stages in East Los Angeles and then took it on tour.
“One minute you are laughing at a joke about speaking Spanish and the next, wondering how could a whole generations have been so easily and quickly stripped of their language?” wrote reviewer Zulmara Maria. “The show will make you think … about what it means to be Latino, Mexican-American, Cubano- Americano, Puerto Rican, African-American and “almost white, but not quite … in these United States today.”
After the show, Najera will be answering questions about the text and his work in general.
Get more information and tickets at www.americaslatinoecofestival.org.