Why you should care

Because “Mario Lopez can’t be everywhere.”

In the first week of summer in 1990, 8-year-old Erik Rivera arrived in a country he didn’t know. He was scared and hungry and afraid to say anything, and the predicament was all his mother’s fault: She’d ripped him away from the predominantly white suburb of New Rochelle, New York, where they lived, and taken him to her hometown village in Guatemala. The reason? A crash course in Latino culture.

Because despite the fact that his parents were immigrants (his dad is Puerto Rican), little Erik just wanted to fit in back home. The experience would end up changing his outlook and, later, inform his work as one of America’s rising comedians. “I didn’t want to be different. I whitened myself in school because I was the only Latino. I changed my name to Rivers and refused to speak Spanish because I didn’t want to be made fun of,” Rivera tells OZY.

His mother was hurt, but instead of getting angry, she threw Erik face-first into the deep waters of his ancestral culture. No one in the Guatemalan village spoke English, and they were staying for three months. “By day three of hunger,” Rivera says, “I started to speak Spanish. All right, lady! Quiero frijoles …

Rivera’s struggle with his identity mirrors challenges faced by other comedians from underrepresented communities: They want to be true to their experience but also seek mainstream appeal. “My job is to find that relatable thread,” he says. “I’ve done shows where Italian people say, ‘Oh my god, my mother does the same crazy thing.’”

One way he has bridged the gap is by talking about millennials’ struggle with their parents’ tech confusion. Like his mom’s newfound love for texting, Rivera says: “She sends me texts like a 13-year-old girl. She’ll say, ‘Hi MIJO,’ and then like five different emojis that make no sense. I’ll be like, ‘What are YOU DOING?’ and she’ll say, ‘I like them.’” When he took her to get a new phone, she asked the attendant whether her phone got “free Tex-Mex.” “The guy looked at her blankly — no clue. I go to be the service translator: ‘She needs text messaging.’ ‘That’s what I said.’ ‘Not at all what you said.’”

Rivera has already played top clubs, aired an hourlong special last year on NuvoTV and is now developing a sitcom on NBC with Eva Longoria. When it’s ready, he wants it to “genuinely” bring forward his life experience. He thinks people are ready for a new Latino face on TV: “Look, Mario Lopez can’t be everywhere.”

Follow Rivera on Twitter and find his latest tour dates on his website.

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