Nearly 10 years ago, two little-known but up-and-coming San Diego comics were asked to participate in a Second City comedy special.
Their names were Whoopi Goldberg and Rick Najera.
What happened to Whoopi Goldberg--thanks to starring roles in a variety of projects, including 1985's "The Color Purple"--is well known. What happened to Rick Najera isn't as well known.
But now, the San Diego native has never been closer to breaking through to the big time.
He opened in "Latins Anonymous" on Wednesday at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, just days after his first major motion picture, "Red Surf," opened at Mann's Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles to positive reviews.
"Latins Anonymous," which he wrote with fellow performers Luisa Leschin, Armando Molina and Diane Rodriguez, is under option at Warner Brothers, and Najera's film script, "Long Boys," is under option at Seabrook Entertainment.
Not bad for an actor who co-wrote "Latins Anonymous" out of his frustration with the lack of casting for a Latino actor in Hollywood.
The idea of "Latins Anonymous" came about after Najera, Leschin, Molina and Rodriguez got tired of being offered stereotypical Latino roles such as maids, gardeners, prostitutes and drug lords.
Using the loose format of a support group called Latins Anonymous, modeled on the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous, each one wrote skits, some of which were based on personal experiences.
Ironically for Najera, the project reminds him of a request that the Second City team made to him and Goldberg back in 1981. They wanted the two to write a piece about prejudice.
"Whoopi and I just looked at each other, and we said we were going to write about this later," Najera recalled at the San Diego Rep.
But the "later" for Goldberg came much later in her career, when she was doing her one-woman show in San Francisco and later in New York.
Najera's "later" is "Latins Anonymous."
One of the skits Najera wrote for "Latins Anonymous" is called "Separate Turf." He said he based it on his experience of being told by his agent that the role of a gang leader named Juan was available on "Falcon Crest."
"I said, 'No more gangs,' " Najera remembered. "Then he said, 'No, it's a gang of nice guys.' So I put on a Georgio Armani suit and showed up to the audition only to see everyone wearing bandannas and torn jeans and out-ganging each other. The casting director lets me read five lines and says, 'Thank you very much.'
"Two weeks later, they couldn't find anyone. I'm starting to run low on my money, which affects my moral stance. They don't remember that they auditioned me and didn't like me. I put on Clown Brown number 3 (make-up) to darken my face. I put on my rattiest jeans, a gang-style jacket and gave the meanest audition they have ever seen. The casting agent gives me the part and says, 'Why haven't I met you before?' "
Another skit, about a man having an Anglo-Latino identity crisis, which ends with him trying to strangle himself,
comes from more subtle childhood recollections.
Najera remembers the culture shock every time he and his siblings and parents--who had scrimped and saved to move to a tiny house in upper-middle-class La Mesa--would go to visit his grandparents, who lived in the barrio in Logan Heights.
"All my friends were doctors' sons, and the girls I dated were Buffy and Biffy. And then I would go to the barrio, where there were chickens in the back yard and rooster feet in the soup."
Much of what Najera, a San Diego Junior Theatre alumnus, wants to do comes from the inspiration of his family.
He dates his desire to act back to the time he was 8 and his father took him to see the movie "Cromwell." He remembers his father saying to him, "I would be so proud of you if you could do that."
Najera said he traces his ambition to succeed to his desire "to give my family the things they never had." A similar motivation that made his brother become head of banqueting at the Hotel del Coronado, the same place that had employed his grandfather, a first generation Mexican-American, as a dishwasher.
Najera also wants to give something back to Latinos in America.
Two of his most painful memories about prejudice date back to the time he was rehearsing a part at the Old Globe Theatre and an old Mexican-American janitor was scrubbing the stage. He recalls one of the actors saying to him, 'There's one of your people on stage.' "That really seared into my mind."
Then there was the time three years ago when he was cast in a McDonald's commercial for a product called "McPizza" that was since canceled.
The producer asked him at one point during the shooting, "'Are you Italian?' And I said, 'No, I'm Mexican.' And he said, 'I've got enough film on the Spanish gentleman; let's film the others.' And they didn't film me any more that day. I felt pretty stupid waiting around on the sidelines."
Najera, a graduate of the American Conservatory Theatre, had credits at the Old Globe Theatre, the South Coast Repertory Theatre, the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, the San Diego Repertory Theatre a lead role in the La Jolla Playhouse production of "Figaro Gets a Divorce" and a variety of episodic television roles on shows such as General Hospital, China Beach and Falcon Crest.
But it's been several years since his last San Diego play, and Najera said he promised himself that "I will not come back to San Diego unless it's as a working actor. If I left Los Angeles not successful, I'd always feel that L.A. had beat me."
When "Latins Anonymous" became the longest-running show in the Los Angeles Theatre Center history, running from October of 1989 to April 1, he was convinced that he was successful. He maintains residences in both Los Angeles and San Diego, and has bought a cabin in Julian.
And he feels that whatever happens next, the production of "Latins Anonymous" as the season opener at the San Diego Rep, satisfies his old vow to write that skit about prejudice.
"I think it's the fulfillment of an old promise to a lot of people--from the janitor on the stage of the Old Globe to the San Diego Junior Theatre, where I was cast in everything (regardless of color). It's fulfilling a lot of promises to a lot of people who believed in me. And it's my way of explaining who I am and what I'm about."