Latino comics use humor to highlight issues in Trump era

Cheech Marin (right) thanks the audience after performing his song “Mexican American” with Jonathan Molina, an ASU music education student. (Photo by Nicole Tyau/Cronkite News)

TEMPE — Tired of being typecast in Latino nights and Cinco de Mayo specials, comedian Nick Guerra, 34, kept his material free of any references to his Hispanic heritage early in his career, but the 2016 presidential election changed his mind.

“I talk about it [now] because I’m tired of people looking at Mexicans like they’re dense, less intelligent, more of a punch line,” Guerra said.

A kid who grew up in south Texas, Guerra went from working small comedy clubs to appearing on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon last year. He said he’s a “very specific kind of Latino.”

On the stage at Gammage Auditorium for the Loud Mouth Comedy Roadshow, Guerra opened his set by proclaiming to the audience, “Welcome to the pale Mexican part of the show!” He joked about how he cannot speak Spanish but he understands it, that his Mexican doctor waves eggs over his body as part of a “limpia” or cleansing to expel demons, and that for “a billion dollars you could hire illegals to become the wall.” The audience laughed and cheered and “illegals” for this moment connoting comedy instead of negativity.

Comedians joke about cultural and political issues as a way of starting a dialogue. For a long time, some of these young entertainers saw using race as a crutch and an alienating tactic for their audiences. But Guerra said it’s more important now than ever to talk about his race in a comedic way because of the negative rhetoric about Hispanics during the presidential election.

President Donald Trump called Mexicans crossing into the United States “murderers” and “rapists,” vowed to build a border wall to stave off illegal immigration on the nation’s southern border and blamed Mexicans for taking American jobs. But comedy as a genre allows a momentary space where audiences with different political views and backgrounds can come together and laugh at the same jokes.

“Racial comedy, when done right, exposes a lifestyle that the majority of the United States doesn’t know about,” Guerra said.

On the Gammage stage, Cheech Marin introduced the comedians while injecting his own humor into each segment. Marin, a veteran actor and comic, rose to fame in the 1970s as half of “Cheech and Chong” duo with Tommy Chong. He performed “Mexican-American,” a song from Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie, with Jonathan Molina, a third-year music education major at Arizona State University.

“Comedians see things the way they really are and tell you the truth while making you laugh,” said Marin, in an interview after his performance.

Saturday’s performance drew a diverse crowd. Before the show conversations drifted easily between English and Spanish in the hall. Two elderly white couples sat in the fourth row and a few rows back another couple decked in black fringe and cowboy hats stood and talked with the people around them. Many shared stories of watching Cheech and Paul Rodriguez as kids, saying their names like they were old friends.

While some Latino comedians are now household names, many struggled to make it. Erik Rivera got his start in stand-up comedy in New York, where comedy clubs abound and theme nights don’t exist. When he moved to Los Angeles, an agent rejected him because he “already had one,” the “one” being a Latino.

“You want to represent for your ethnicity and Latinos, but there’s racism everywhere,” he said, describing how his posters would say “Caliente!” without prompt. He said it’s important for him to make his shows welcoming to all people and not just a Latino audience.

But for Marcella Arguello, her identity as a Latina comedian is important. She grew up in Modesto, California, “in a Latino household” with a strict father and the common knowledge that “girls don’t do comedy.”

As Rivera, Guerra and Arguello discussed the comedians that inspired them, Arguello noted, “Nobody named a woman and nobody named a Latina.”

Arguello said after her shows, Latinas of all ages will approach her and express how proud they are of her. “I’m doing something everyone told me I couldn’t do,” she said.

Latinos por la Causa activist Ray “Gumbi” Salazar heaped praise at Arguellos after her set at Gammage, commenting about how funny she was. Salazar said it’s important for people to laugh at themselves.

“Our people work so hard in America to get food to eat,” he said. “It’s good to see hombres get ahead through laughter.”

Arguellos, Rivera and Guerra all talked about how iconic comedians Marin and Rodriguez are to the Latino community. As Rodriguez took the stage, row-by-row people stood, cheering, screaming and bowing to him.

“Comedians should talk about things they know of: That’s why my shows are very short,” Rodriguez said in an interview after the show.

In Rodriguez’s set, he jokes about hot-button issues like drive-bys and officer-involved shootings. But the atmosphere is loose and relaxed.

“It gives everyone time to think,” Salazar said. “When they [Latinos] look at each other it gets us together as a race.”

For Guerra, it was an easy choice to change his comedic style. After skewering interpersonal relationships in his early career, he wanted to use his comedic gift as a way to ease in conversations about race and ethnicity.

“For every one Mexican trying to sell you drugs,” Guerra said during his set, “there are five trying to sell you oranges.”

The audience erupts in laughter, perhaps just for one night forgetting the divisive and often hostile atmosphere outside Gammage’s walls.