What to Expect If You’re a Latino Improviser

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With all the recent discussion regarding diversity in improv, we wanted to shed some light on our experiences being here in Chicago pursuing careers in comedy. Here is our perspective on what to expect if you’re a Latino improviser… and it comes with some caliente spice (yeah, we went there).

“I want to pitch something to you, but I don’t want to sound racist…”

Rich: I never get tired of hearing this one. 10 times out of 10, the idea is racist. But that’s cool! I’m all for scene ideas that touch on the topic. People are always worried that their idea will hurt my feelings– and to those people I say: you won’t.

My only question to you is: What are you trying to say with the scene? Is it something poignant and smart? Or are you just trying to make a cheap Elian Gonzalez joke?

“What if you wore a Mexican wrestling mask?”

Miguel: I did a scene in a Writing 6 show back in 2010. It has since been pitched to me 3 additional times by 3 separate shows. How badly do white people want to wear luchador masks and dance to Salsa music while holding a guitar?! I love the desire to accept the culture, I really do. But if you’re honestly jonesin’ for a Latino fix, let’s go to 26th Street and buy some elote and pay a mariachi band to sing us a song or two.

To all the writers out there, let’s agree to let the “Over-Accepting Parents” scene go to sleep and never wake up. That goes for black parents accepting white kids, white parents accepting Asians and Latino parents accepting Jews. It’s all funny; it’s all great satire, but it’s ALL been done before.

Prepare for the “Who’s Got the Most Hispanic Characters?” competition.

Miguel: Let’s be honest. This super-cool, independent sketch show you’re auditioning for only needs one Hispanic. I’m usually the only Latino in a group audition, but there was one time I shared the spotlight: there were two.

I told myself, try to show them that I bring more to the table than my ethnicity, that I’m an actor, too! It wasn’t until there were two scenes back-to-back with some Latin flavor that it hit me: I’m him. He’s me. FINKLE IS EINHORN!

Wait… So are you black, or not?”

Rich: “Yes… no… kinda?” I get this one a lot. Now, I’m Dominican, but sometimes I get dismissed as “just black” and other times, I get dismissed at just being mixed. So here’s the low-down on us Dominicans hailing from La Hispaniola: During the times of Western Exploration, European conquistadors brought African slaves to the Americas and lumped them together with the natives they found in the New World (who also became slaves). The result? Me! Many Cubans, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans actually have strong African features like myself and can be as light skinned as Drake– or as dark as Wesley Snipes. So what am I? Not Wesley Snipes.

You play other ethnicities by default.

Miguel: Being a Native American was fun! Basically, any non-white ethnicity is an automatic casting opportunity for me. Even if the accent isn’t perfect, I’ve learned that sometimes all that matters are the dark features.

Do you know [some Latino actor]? You guys should do a show together!” 

Rich: Nope, I don’t know [some Latino actor]. I’m sure [some Latino actor] is great, but what’s your reasoning for us to do a show together? Now, I’ll perform with anyone*… but I’d like to know– in your opinion– what makes us so compatible? Go on. I’m listening.

*I do not consider Miguel to be just [some Latino actor]. So if you suggest that I do a show with him, I will totally agree.

You can get away with making choices that other people can’t.

Rich: Ever been to a show where somebody decided to play a stereotypical Mexican gardener? Maybe a Cuban drug dealer (which is basically a bad Scarface impression)? I did A LOT when I first started out. Looking back at it now, I realize people use these characters as just a small gag and NOT what they should be: an honest comedic choice.

A teacher at Second City once told me that being Latino, I could make character choices and play them with integrity and to the height of my intelligence. I’m fortunate that being raised in the States and raised in the country where my parents are from inspires me to make creative choices other actors can’t make. That is something powerful I never take for granted.

Stand out– like a Latino Boss.

Miguel: I’ve always been the odd one out. Among my fellow Latinos, I stand out because I was raised Lutheran, not Catholic. I grew up in the west suburbs of Chicago and not in the city. I only speak “conversational” Spanish, and I eat mild salsa over spicy because it helps me sleep better at night.

Among my fellow improvisers/comedians, I stand out because of my culture and the way I look. Not all Latino comedians are the same. Each story is different. Realizing and accepting that you’re different and using that to project your point of view is a way to get seen and heard.

 

Rich Alfonso is a graduate of The Second City Training Center and a student at The Annoyance. He performs sketch and improv with his independent team, Shanna’s Mom, who will be performing at The 2014 Chicago Sketchfest and his 2-man team ,”Light Skinned and Dangerous.” 
Miguel Lepe, Jr. is a graduate of The Conservatory Program and currently performs with Moxie: An Official House Ensemble of The Second City Training Center. Miguel will be performing in two shows at The 2014 Chicago Sketch Festival: “Hot Town Comedy” and “Talking to Myself,” his first solo sketch show. You can find out more info at www.miguellepe.com.

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