Author of “Almost White,” award-winning multi-taskmaster (writer, actor, director, comedian, playwright and producer) opens up about challenges of almost dying four times and how his comedic psyche and love of family keep miracles coming
By Elia Esparza
Almost White: Confessions of a Latino In Hollywood, is a memoir authored by Hollywood funny man Rick Najera in September 2013.
I read it then. I loved it. I read it again this June and loved it even more!
Timing is everything. Given the heat of the political rhetoric, I revisited Almost White; and with the presidential campaigns and escalated rhetoric against Latinos, and other people, it was the perfect book to kick off the summer.
Najera wrote his fourth book after recuperating from a near-death health crisis. I caught up with him recently and he shared his health challenges of the past 12 months. But first, the book.
Almost White is a timeless memoir with much more packed in its 261 pages. Najera reminds us of who we are and how not to lose focus when others are trying to define us. I often refer to Almost White’s last few chapters as a reminder that Latinos still have many hurdles to overcome not just in Hollywood but across our nation. Rick Najera hits it out of the ballpark with laying it out so concisely and he backs his words with stats and facts.
Educators across the board have recommended Almost White as a must-read to their students, as one educator stated, “Najera’s tale affirms every student’s journey toward self-acceptance and self-discovery… It challenges them to be proactive and to be ‘soldiers’ in their own communities and campuses where equality and justice might need to be addressed.”
On a personal level, I connected with Almost White because I am also San Diego born and literally grew up with one foot on the Mexican side of the border and the other on U.S. side. Being “Latino” in this border city is an entirely different experience than say growing up in East L.A. or the suburbs of Chicago, etc. While most of our experiences as Latinos in America have many similarities, most definitely where we were raised makes us that much more unique and with varied perspectives. That’s why there is no one message or labeling that captures the true essence of who we of Latin culture are as Americans. And, this is where Hollywood has failed in its attempts to capture us in our true reality. Almost White spells it out so simply that even the Hollywood dummies can finally understand why so many past diversity programs, films and TV programming have failed.
Najera shares his difficulties and triumphs of breaking into mainstream Hollywood, while challenging the industry with his dogged determination to keep us properly typecast. He also has worked hard to “challenge the pessimistic narrative that Latinos can only be disenfranchised victims in America.” His signature satirical sense of humor continues to fire his passion as he tries to convince Latinos to “confront the limits we place on our imaginations… to the need to take ownership of our stories,” instead of being mere performers in Hollywood’s distorted vision.
“In the end,” said Najera, “perhaps it will be the power of the people and art, not politicians and politics, that will redefine the Latino American dream.”
Reading Almost White, was music to my eyes. His memoir attempts to be nothing more than an honest and sometimes very funny assessment of his life as a Latino and the challenges of taking center stage in Hollywood—it is as NPR review said, “a book full of warmth, humor, pain, triumph, and humility of the Latino experience.”
Najera’s book opens up with him in the ICU Head Trauma Unit at Northridge Hospital, with a bleeding deep wound on his forehead. Apparently, he had been suffering with pneumonia and a high fever, which led to hallucinating and thus losing consciousness. It was a Friday, when wife Susie Alban Najera and kids had driven to San Diego and Rick was to join them the next day for the weekend. Susie called him on Saturday around noon when she hadn’t heard from him. “He was disoriented, breathing heavy and sick,” she recalled. “He told me he thought he might have the 24-hour flu.” Hours later when she couldn’t reach him, she trusted her instinct and fled back to L.A. with the kids. “I found him unconscious on our bed soaked in blood,” Susie shared. “Apparently he contracted walking pneumonia, had a high fever or a seizure, fell and slashed his forehead open. If I hadn’t rushed back to L.A. from San Diego, Rick would have died.”
Almost White is not at all what any of us expected. In fact, Najera is such a chameleon; it was anyone’s guess what the heck he’d write. Most of us knew it would be humorous, and it is, but how he weaves in his life and intertwines them with important issues: History, philosophy, politics, and religion, is brilliant and in the end, he has given us a book that is far more than just a memoir.
Recently, I caught up with Rick to ask how he was doing and to let him know I was once again reading his book. He brought me up to date on his health and the challenges of this past year—revealing that he was still dealing with his head injury and has endured two more brain surgeries, this time at Cedars-Sinai in Beverly Hills!
Elia Esparza: I’m stunned—two brain surgeries within 12 months! After our phone conversation, I looked up ‘head trauma, empirical CSF leak in cranium,’ and shocked as to how serious it is. What happened?
Rick Najera: When I first injured my head back in 2013, I was in a coma, a level 3 on the Glasgow scale. That’s as bad a coma as one can get and doctors weren’t really sure how severe the damage was until I woke up. Anyway, when one suffers a severe head trauma, there is no getting over it completely ever. When I fell, I hit my head hard and reason for my falling had been a complete mystery to my doctors. When I first fell I was delirious with a super high fever. My wife found me nearly dead. Even after I survived and left the hospital, my doctors just could never tell me the cause of fall. After I was released from hospital, I thought I knew it would be a slow process to fully recover but as time progressed, I started losing my hearing at an alarming rate. I was told I might have a tumor—an MRI confirmed no tumor but they did find a gray area. I had already jumped back into my work at full speed with a book tour, speaking gigs, work at CBS, but I just kept feeling worse.
I developed sinus-like symptoms and saw a specialist. Allergy medicine did not help to ease my constant and on-going nasal draining. My doctors kept thinking that it couldn’t be a brain leak because how would I survive that? How would I still be able to work the way I was? And, how was I able to withstand the pain that comes with a CSF brain leakage? Meanwhile, I did my best to just keep working, thinking of what was next on my list—always pointing toward the future. I finally went to an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist. They put a scope up my nose and what the doctors saw shocked them.
He said, “Oh my god I can see your brain.’ I had a encephalocele tear in my cranium and my brain was herniating through my sinus cavity. Of course (jokingly) I was little concerned.
Eia Esparza: Oh my God! How did you cope throughout this new ordeal?
Rick Najera: As always, my coping mechanism is being funny… humor and the joy it brings.
EE: I would have fallen apart had I’d been told they were going to cut off the dead part of my brain out’—
RN: Well, it was dead already, they said. You know, you just have to have faith. My doctor said he was going in and plug and seal the leak… just like a radiator. It was surreal, much like my comedy.
EE: That must have been so frightening for Susie and the children.
RN: Yeah, reality hit me when almost immediately I found myself in the hospital again. This is brain surgery and during this time, I’m very busy at CBS, directing the CBS Diversity Sketch Comedy showcase and writing for East Los High and my other projects. I only let a few people know… Eddie Olmos, he shows up at 6AM with my family to wish me luck and stay with my family. When the doctor asked him who he was, he said, “I’m his brother.” He was there the whole time for my second surgery about eight weeks ago too. That meant so much to me. He is family.
EE: This is all just so surprising. Most of us thought that when you walked out of the hospital in 2013, you had recovered, survived your crisis.
RN: Yeah, lots of people thought this. ‘Hey, you’re all cured—surgery worked!’ Life goes on. After the second brain surgery in June of 2015, it was the same. Everyone thought the problem had been taken care of. I was happy, relieved as I did another season of East Los High, and CBS called—they wanted to give me a 3-year contract. Dang, I was so happy! And, then in May of this year, almost one year later to the date, it happened again.
EE: Another brain leakage?!
RN: Yes! Doctors said that sometimes with this operation, they seal it up and, with the pressure, another tear can happen in another part of the brain. So I was rushed back into surgery, and I’m now recuperating. Again.
EE: How difficult has recovery been this time around?
RN: Well, I’m not 23 and with me constantly working, I have to press on because this business is fickle… part of me wants to tell people and part of me does not because it’s my livelihood—it’s how I support my family. You realize that you’re at your lowest point but then you’re also realizing that there are many points that can be your lowest—many chapters and this is a new chapter for me. I just rewrote a script, I just signed another contract with CBS and I continue to do amazing things all within a month and had brain surgery!
EE: You talk about your lowest points, how hard was it to fight the depression … I mean we’re human, you’re a husband and a dad—
RN: There are times that I have felt depressed, but I can’t say it out loud. And, there are many times you’re so tough on yourself in this business. Especially me. I’m tough on myself. I’m a father and a lot of people look up to me to mentor them. But I’m human and what this has taught me is that I’m a lot more compassionate. You have to think that you’re giving something because you can handle it. You have to just truly count your blessings. I have learned compassion from this.
EE: It’s hard not to get depressed working in Hollywood.
RN: We’re in a business where we fail more than we win… for every hit play, I can name off shows that didn’t work even if they were good. It’s a tough one but in the end, we’re only here for a short time and what you leave behind, the love and joy, that’s how you can leave the world a better place. We need more people who can leave better and not hate and fear like Trump rhetoric… media only constantly drums all that is wrong in the world and not the good, which is more than the evil out there. We have that ability to look at life in a positive way but most creatures don’t, we’re the one being that don’t question why. As a writer, it’s our duty to make it better with philosophical truth.
EE: How has four near-death experiences changed you?
RN: So many things, but in a nutshell, the lesson here is to remember how much of life is really a gift… I’m humbled that my story has surprisingly been a gift for other people.
EE: Why have you chosen to publicly talk about your health during this past year?
RN: Well, one of the parts of being an artist is to be open and speak your truth. I’m thinking if my story helps give someone hope, then tell your story. I hear from people who read my book and they say how much my story inspired them. But I wanted to tell the whole story.
Yes, I had some serious health issues. What I had I can’t even pronounce. I have come as close to death as anyone. But I’m on the other side of it and if I’m not, well, I have truly had a wonderful life. We all have an expiration date the minute we are born we are dying at the same time. It’s the irony of life. So live that life to the fullest and leave nothing behind.
Most people would look at me and never know this has even happened to me. But I truly believe God only gives you what you can handle and I’m grateful for everything I have been given. I don’t think I even have told my mother this happened to me. I didn’t want her to worry. But I know my story is not over yet. This is just another chapter in it. I guess I’ll have to write another book.
Thank you, Rick for sharing your remarkable journey. I loved Almost White, and now understand more why your memoir resonated with the millions of readers your story has touched.
Always White: Forced Confessions Of A Latino In Hollywood
Available at Amazon, Click Here.
About Rick Najera
California-born Najera is an award-winning writer (film and TV), director, comedian, playwright, and producer. He explores what it means to be a Latino against the ever-changing backdrop of his life as a Hollywood creative.” He has credits in film, television, theater, and Broadway. He recently wrote, starred, and produced his second feature film, Taco Shop, and penned the holiday feature film, Nothing Like the Holidays, which won him an ALMA Award. He writes for Hulu’s Emmy nominated original series, East Los High, has been nominated for two Writers Guild of America (WGA) Awards for his writing on MADtv, and honored twice by Hispanic Business Magazine as one of its “100 Most Influential.” He made his Broadway debut (writing and starring) in his own show, Latinologues in 2005. The sketch comedy show triumphed on Broadway and continued with more than 15 years of performances, touring the nation to sold-out houses and standing ovations.
He has directed the CBS Diversity Sketch Comedy Showcase going on 12 seasons, and paved the way for thousands of Latinos in Hollywood and diverse talent that followed in his footsteps into the maddening world of entertainment. He is undeniably one of the most sought-after comedic talents in the industry with one of the most powerful voices in the Latino world today. Najera is the host of Latino Thought Makers, a live series showcasing America’s most influential Latinos. Najera resides in Los Angeles with his wife Susie and three children. His work is dedicated to his family and his community.