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Felipe Esparza Talked To Us About Ditching Gang Life, Meeting Louis CK And His New HBO Special

Comedy saved Felipe Esparza’s life. Mexican-born, Los Angeles-bred Esparza was fascinated by comedians as a child, but a troubled adolescence threatened to put his comedy aspirations — and his life — in jeopardy.

After escaping gangs, prison and drug addiction, Esparza kicked off his standup career in the mid-‘90s and has been working steadily ever since. For years, Esparza looked like the heir apparent to Mexican-American comedians like Paul Rodriguez and George Lopez. It wasn’t until 2010, when Esparza won “Last Comic Standing” on NBC, that he appeared poised for his big breakthrough.

It didn’t quite happen, but it led to a standout Netflix special, 2012’s “They’re Not Gonna Laugh At You.” Since then, Esparza has made several guest appearances on the NBC comedy “Superstore” and launched the “What’s Up Fool?” podcast. Now, Esparza is back with another stand-up special, this time on HBO — a gig usually reserved for the best of the best in comedy.

mitú spoke with Esparza about his rough upbringing, meeting some of his comedy heroes and what it’s like for Latino comedians who are pressured to “cross over” to mainstream (read: white) audiences.

He was fascinated with comedy at a young age, but gangs got in the way.

“I got into comedy when I was a little kid. I saw a Bill Cosby album. My friend Jackie Escalera, he put in on one of those record players — the suitcase record players — and I memorized the whole bit. I was in seventh grade. Before that, I never memorized anything from a book — nothing — and I kind of knew right there that I wanted to be a comedian. But along the way, you get into trouble, you get jumped into a gang when you’re 19. I got jumped into a gang when I was 19. I was hanging around with these same kids since I was 13, but I never got jumped in. Like they would get into trouble, and I would go home. But then I turned 19 and I had nothing else to do — I had no hopes. And I already had a nickname. So they jumped me in — I felt like was jumping THEM in, ey.”

Not only did he get involved in a gang, Esparza became addicted to crack and eventually started selling it. Father Greg Boyle of Homeboy Industries helped Esparza turn his life around.

Credit: felipesworld.com

“Crack doesn’t discriminate. So I got hooked. I got into a lot of trouble after that. Like, I bit some guy’s ear off. I got into a fight with a cholo and I bit his ear off. He went straight to the hospital.

And I didn’t know it then but this guy had just come out of prison. He was about 30 and I was 21. So he had a lot of juice, he was a connected guy in the neighborhood. Like, he could just tell somebody to kill me and they’d kill me. And I didn’t know him because he was locked up when I was growing up. So when he came out, of course, I disrespected him. So we got into a fight.

My mom was scared. I was walking around with a .38 pistol. I had a gun on me and I was ready to kill somebody. And Father Greg knew. Father Greg from Homeboy Industries. Back then, when I was growing up, there was no Homeboy Industries. It was called Jobs For The Future. It was only Father Greg on a beach cruiser stopping gang violence.

He would ride by and say, ‘Felipe, what are you doing here, you’re in the wrong neighborhood.’ But I was too drunk to know. So he’d ride his bicycle, go to the church, wake up the priest there, grab the keys, ride the van and start picking up kids in the van and take them to the right neighborhood so they wouldn’t get killed.

So my mom went to go plead with him to help me. I didn’t want to stop gang banging, I didn’t want to stop using drugs, I didn’t want to stop selling drugs. But I also didn’t want to die. I had a black eye and a busted lip when I went into rehab. He put me in rehab and I did it for about a year. In the third month, I realized that I wanted to stop using drugs.

So I go back to my neighborhood, the same guy I sent to the hospital is right there, healthy. And this fool looks at me and he charges me. I had a bible, I had short hair, I was in shape. I was ready to fight. I probably would have murdered him. So I ran inside the house to pick up a baseball bat. And my dad stopped me right there.

He said, ‘Think about what you’re doing, you’re doing so well. You want to be a comedian, don’t you?’ So then I started crying and I started beating shit up in my house with a bat. And then I stopped.”

While in rehab, Esparza got the push that would eventually lead him to a stand-up career.

“In rehab, I was losing it in there, and this guy named Tim, he was a Catholic brother, he said, ‘Write down five things you want to do with your life.’ So I wrote down ‘comedian.’ And for number two, I love Olive Garden, so [I wrote] ‘I want to go to Italy.’ And three, I wanted to be sober and happy. Notice how I wrote I wanted to be a comedian before ‘sober and happy.’ Number four and five I forgot.

I thought he was gonna judge us on our notes and read it in front of everybody, so I just put [the list] in my pocket. When I came out of rehab, I started thinking about things I wanted to do.

Back then, there was no social media, no places to find information. So I had to go to the Los Angeles County Library. And I had this lady come up to me and ask, ‘Can I help you?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m trying to find information on writing comedy.’ So she took me to the section and I learned comedy writing from old school people like Steve Allen, Gene Perret and people who wrote for television, like the ‘Tonight Show.’ So I learned how to write their way. I checked out a bunch of comedy from George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, Steven Wright, Paul Rodriguez and I applied what I learned to do my jokes.”

From there, Esparza began doing open mics in the mid-’90s. Fast forward to 2017: Esparza got a call from Louis CK, who asked him to hang out.

Just had an awesome meeting with Louis CK – hopefully there'll be more. I love this job. #Comedy #comedians

A post shared by Felipe Esparza (@felipeesparzacomedian) on

“[He called me] out of the blue. I was chillin’ at home and my wife got a call from his manager Dave Becky. He said Louis CK was trying to get a hold of me. So finally I got his phone number — I was nervous to call — and I called him. He said, ‘I saw your special, I thought it was hilarious. I don’t know if anyone’s ever told you this but you’re like a Mexican Mitch Hedberg.’

I thought that was a very good compliment coming from a legend like that. So then he wanted to go hang out with me, so I hung out with him and we talked. I met Albert Brooks and Greg Daniels from ‘King of the Hill.’ We talked about a cartoon. They’re thinking about using me one day.

I felt good that I’m accepted by the older comics, like, I can walk proud knowing that Louis CK likes me.”

Esparza says Latinos put him on the map and he’s loyal to his audience.

“Comedians that came in after Paul Rodriguez, George Lopez and Carlos Mencia were very worried about crossing over, like, they wanted to please white people. They wanted white people to get them. So when I spoke to Paul Rodriguez about that, he said, ‘Listen, man, don’t worry about any of that stuff. If you’re funny enough, they’re going to cross over to you.’ So that’s been my main focus: be funny first and let them cross over to me. If I start worrying about crossing over I’m gonna lose my audience. I don’t wanna lose my audience. My audience is my bread and butter. I’m not going to forget who put me in the limelight. It wasn’t white people. It was Latinos.”

Esparza says the HBO gig hasn’t changed his subject matter.

Credit: HBO

“I didn’t change anything [about my set]. It was very Latino-focused. I talk about growing up in a family where no one spoke English but me and my brothers. My mom learned English after I graduated high school, but my dad never learned. So I was always translating for them. I have jokes where I talk about how I couldn’t even do my homework because I was filling out immigration forms. I was always translating for my mom. I made that funny. I was worried that joke wouldn’t go over with white people, so when I did it in front of white people, I didn’t change anything, to see if they’d get it. And they got it.”

Now, like many popular comedians, Esparza hosts a podcast. He says he doesn’t focus on inviting Latino guests, but it organically happens.

“Even though I’m getting more popular, I’m a real underground comedian. Like if you know me, it’s because you’re cool. For reals, if you know me, it’s because you know what’s up. Like, if you like Felipe Esparza, you probably like Vice, too. If you like Felipe Esparza, you probably shared that mitú rainbow unicorn corn video. Bro, I’m not lying. That’s how I know my audience. Cause I shared that video — shit, I want likes too!

So, I pick people for the podcast if they interest me, if there’s something about them.

2Mex, I picked him because I already followed him on Instagram. I saw that 2Mex lost his leg. And I left him a message because everyone was leaving him messages. I go, ‘I don’t know who you are, bro, but I hope you get better because I feel that you’re loved by everybody here. You seem to be a great talent. He goes, ‘Ah, Felipe, I’m a big fan, thank you for your message.’ See, I get goosebumps talking about it.

Another guy was MC Pancho. He’s a guy from Harbor Area, ex-gang banger. I thought he was just a cholo — because he has that long pinky nail and he dressed like a pimp. But no, he’s a blue collar guy, a longshoreman for 30 years. But he spends all his money on the way he dresses, his appearance. All the money, all the gold, all the jewelry, he got it the right way: working nine to five. I had to have him.

And Miklo from ‘Blood In Blood Out.’ I know people who love me love ‘Blood In Blood Out.’ So I had to have him on the show.

It’s just people that I like, it doesn’t have to be Latinos. I look around at all the other podcasts and I see that they don’t have the guests that I have. I want to put guests that are loved by Latinos… and white hipsters. And Chipsters. I want to be the Marc Maron of the underground Latino community.”

Esparza’s HBO special, “Translate This” airs on Saturday, September 30

Credit: HBO

HBO Released The Trailer For Felipe Esparza’s Stand Up Comedy Special, “Translate This,” And We’re Already Cracking Up

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This Artist Has Been Breaking Barriers As A Non-Traditional Mariachi

Entertainment

This Artist Has Been Breaking Barriers As A Non-Traditional Mariachi

On a recent episode of ABC’s game show To Tell The Truth, three celebrity panelists were tasked to uncover the identity of a real mariachi singer.

Each contender embodied “non-traditional” attributes of mariachi culture either through physical appearance or language barriers, leaving the panelists stumped.

When it came time for the big reveal, with a humble smile 53-year-old Timoteo “El Charro Negro” stood up wowing everyone. Marveled by his talents, Timoteo was asked to perform unveiling his smooth baritone voice.

While not a household name in the U.S., his career spans over 25 years thriving on the catharsis of music.

Timoteo “El Charro Negro” performing “Chiquilla Linda” on Dante Night Show in 2017.

Originally from Dallas, Texas, Timoteo, born Timothy Pollard, moved to Long Beach, California with his family when he was eight years old. The move to California exposed Pollard to Latin culture, as the only Black family in a Mexican neighborhood.

As a child, he recalled watching Cantinflas because he reminded him of comedian Jerry Lewis, but musically he “got exposed to the legends by chance.”

“I was bombarded by all the 1960s, ’70s, and ’50s ranchera music,” Timoteo recalls to mitú.

The unequivocal passion mariachi artists like Javier Solis and Vicente Fernandez possessed heavily resonated with him.

“[The neighbors] always played nostalgic music, oldies but goodies, and that’s one thing I noticed about Mexicans,” Timoteo says. “They can be in their 20s but because they’ve grown up listening to the oldies it’s still very dear to them. That’s how they party.”

For as long as he can remember, Pollard “was born with the genetic disposition to love music,” knowing that his future would align with the arts.

After hearing Vicente Fernandez sing “Lástima Que Seas Ajena,” an awakening occurred in Pollard. While genres like hip-hop and rap were on the rise, Pollard’s passion for ranchera music grew. It was a moment when he realized that this genre best suited his big voice.

Enamored, Pollard began to pursue a career as a Spanish-language vocalist.

El Charro Negro
Photo courtesy of Timothy Pollard.

At 28, Timoteo began learning Spanish by listening and singing along to those artists he adored in his youth.

“When I decided that I wanted to be a mariachi, I didn’t think it was fair to exploit the culture and not understand the language,” he says. “If I’m going to sing, I need to be able to communicate with my audience and engage with them. I need to understand what I’m saying because it was about honor and respect.”

Pollard began performing local gigs after picking up the language in a matter of months. He soon attracted the attention of “Big Boy” Radio that adorned him the name Timoteo “El Charro Negro.”

Embellishing his sound to highlight his Black heritage, Pollard included African instruments like congas and bongos in his orchestra. Faintly putting his own spin on a niche genre, Pollard avoided over-saturating the genre’s sound early in his career.

Embraced by his community as a beloved mariachi, “El Charro Negro” still encountered race-related obstacles as a Black man in the genre.

“There are those [in the industry] who are not in the least bit thrilled to this day. They won’t answer my phone calls, my emails, my text messages I’ve sent,” he says. “The public at large hasn’t a problem with it, but a lot of the time it’s those at the helm of decision making who want to keep [the genre] exclusively Mexican.”

“El Charro Negro” persisted, slowly attracting fans worldwide while promoting a message of harmony through his music.

In 2007, 12 years into his career, Pollard received a golden ticket opportunity.

El Charro Negro
Pollard (left) seen with legendary Mexican artist Vicente Fernandez (right) in 2007. Photo courtesy of Timothy Pollard.

In a by-chance encounter with a stagehand working on Fernandez’s tour, Pollard was offered the chance to perform onstage. The singer was skeptical that the offer was legit. After all, what are the chances?

The next day Pollard went to his day job at the time and said, “a voice in my head, which I believe was God said, ‘wear your blue velvet traje tonight.'”

That evening Pollard went to a sold-out Stockton Area where he met his idol. As he walked on the stage, Pollard recalls Fernandez insisting that he use his personal mic and band to perform “De Que Manera Te Olvido.”

“[Fernandez] said he did not even want to join me,” he recollects about the show. “He just was kind and generous enough to let me sing that song on his stage with his audience.”

The crowd applauded thunderously, which for Pollard was a sign of good things to come.

El Charro Negro
Timoteo “El Charro Negro” with Don Francisco on Don Francisco Presenta in 2011. Photo courtesy of Timothy Pollard.

In 2010, he released his debut album “Me Regalo Contigo.” In perfect Spanish, Pollard sings with great conviction replicating the soft tones of old-school boleros.

Unraveling the rollercoaster of relationships, heart-wrenchingly beautiful ballads like “Me Regalo Contigo” and “Celos” are his most streamed songs. One hidden gem that has caught the listener’s attention is “El Medio Morir.”

As soon as the track begins it is unlike the others. Timoteo delivers a ’90s R&B love ballad in Spanish, singing with gumption as his riffs and belts encapsulate his unique sound and story.

Having appeared on shows like Sabado Gigante, Don Francisco Presenta, and Caso Cerrado in 2011, Timoteo’s career prospered.

Timoteo hasn’t released an album since 2010 but he keeps his passion alive. The singer has continued to perform, even during the Covid pandemic. He has high hopes for future success and original releases, choosing to not slow down from his destined musical journey.

“If God is with me, who can be against me? It may not happen in a quick period of time, but God will make my enemies my footstool,” he said.

“I’ve continued to be successful and do some of the things I want to do; maybe not in a particular way or in particular events, but I live in a very happy and fulfilled existence.”

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Exclusive: Luis Fonsi Talks Working with Rauw Alejandro, Christina Aguilera, and Demi Lovato

Entertainment

Exclusive: Luis Fonsi Talks Working with Rauw Alejandro, Christina Aguilera, and Demi Lovato

Luis Fonsi is kicking off 2021 with a new single. The Puerto Rican superstar premiered the music video for “Vacío” on Feb. 18 featuring rising Boricua singer Rauw Alejandro. The guys put a new spin on the classic “A Puro Dolor” by Son By Four.

Luis Fonsi throws it back to his románticas.

“I called Omar Alfanno, the writer of ‘A Puro Dolo,’ who is a dear friend,” Fonsi tells Latido Music. “I told him what my idea was [with ‘Vacío’] and he loved it. He gave me his blessing, so I wrote a new song around a few of those lines from ‘A Puro Dolor’ to bring back that nostalgia of those old romantic tunes that have been a part of my career as well. It’s a fresh production. It sounds like today, but it has that DNA of a true, old-school ballad.”

The world got to know Luis Fonsi through his global smash hit “Despacito” with Daddy Yankee in 2017. The remix with Canadian pop star Justin Bieber took the song to new heights. That was a big moment in Fonsi’s music career that spans over 20 years.

There’s more to Fonsi than “Despacito.”

Fonsi released his first album, the fittingly-titled Comenzaré, in 1998. While he was on the come-up, he got the opportunity of a lifetime to feature on Christina Aguilera’s debut Latin album Mi Reflejo in 2000. The two collaborated on “Si No Te Hubiera Conocido.” Luis Fonsi scored multiple Billboard Hot Latin Songs No. 1s in the years that followed and one of the biggest hits was “No Me Doy Por Vencido” in 2008. That was his career-defining romantic ballad.

“Despacito” remains the second most-viewed music video on YouTube with over 7.2 billion views. The hits did not stop there. Later in 2017, he teamed up with Demi Lovato for “Échame La Culpa,” which sits impressively with over 2 billion views.

He’s also appearing on The Voice next month.

Not only is Fonsi working on his new album, but also he’s giving advice to music hopefuls for the new season of The Voice that’s premiering on March 1. Kelly Clarkson tapped him as her Battle Advisor. In an exclusive interview, Fonsi talked with us about “Vacío,” The Voice, and a few of his greatest hits.

What was the experience like to work with Rauw Alejandro for “Vacío”?

Rauw is cool. He’s got that fresh sound. Great artist. Very talented. Amazing onstage. He’s got that great tone and delivery. I thought he had the perfect voice to fit with my voice in this song. We had talked about working together for awhile and I thought that this was the perfect song. He really is such a star. What he’s done in the last couple of years has been amazing. I love what he brought to the table on this song.

Now I want to go through some of your greatest hits. Do you remember working with Christina Aguilera for her Spanish album?

How could you not remember working with her? She’s amazing. That was awhile back. That was like 1999 or something like that. We were both starting out and she was putting out her first Spanish album. I got to sing a beautiful ballad called “Si No Te Hubiera Conocido.” I got to work with her in the studio and see her sing in front of the mic, which was awesome. She’s great. One of the best voices out there still to this day.

What’s one of your favorite memories of “No Me Doy Por Vencido”?

“No Me Doy Por Vencido” is one of the biggest songs in my career. I think it’s tough to narrow it down just to one memory. I think in general the message of the song is what sticks with me. The song started out as a love song, but it turned into an anthem of hope. We’ve used the song for different important events and campaigns. To me, that song has such a powerful message. It’s bigger than just a love song. It’s bringing hope to people. It’s about not giving up. To be able to kind of give [people] hope through a song is a lot more powerful than I would’ve ever imagined. It’s a very special song.

I feel the message is very relevant to the COVID-19 pandemic we’re living through.

Oh yeah! I wrote that song a long time ago with Claudia Brant, and during the first or second month of the lockdown when we were all stuck at home, we did a virtual writing session and we rewrote “No Me Doy Por Vencido.” Changing the lyrics, kind of adjusting them to this situation that we’re living now. I haven’t recorded it. I’ll do something with it eventually. It’s really cool. It still talks about love. It talks about reuniting. Like the light at the end of the tunnel. It has the hope and love backbone, but it has to do a lot with what we’re going through now.

What do you think of the impact “Despacito” made on the industry?

It’s a blessing to be a part of something so big. Again, it’s just another song. We write these songs and the moment you write them, you don’t really know what’s going to happen with them. Or sometimes you run into these surprises like “Despacito” where it becomes a global phenomenon. It goes No. 1 in places where Spanish songs had never been played. I’m proud. I’m blessed. I’m grateful to have worked with amazing people like Daddy Yankee. Like Justin Bieber for the remix and everyone else involved in the song. My co-writer Erika Ender. The producers Mauricio Rengifo and Andrés Torres. It was really a team effort and it’s a song that obviously changed my career forever.

What was the experience like to work with Demi Lovato on “Echáme La Culpa”?

She’s awesome! One of the coolest recording sessions I’ve ever been a part of. She really wanted to sing in Spanish and she was so excited. We did the song in Spanish and English, but it was like she was more excited about the Spanish version. And she nailed it! She nailed it from the beginning. There was really not much for me to say to her. I probably corrected her once or twice in the pronunciation, but she came prepared and she brought it. She’s an amazing, amazing, amazing vocalist.

You’re going to be a battle advisor on The Voice. What was the experience like to work with Kelly Clarkson?

She’s awesome. What you see is what you get. She’s honest. She’s funny. She’s talented. She’s humble and she’s been very supportive of my career. She invited me to her show and it speaks a lot that she wanted me to be a part of her team as a Battle Advisor for the new season. She supports Latin music and I’m grateful for that. She’s everything you hope she would be. She’s the real deal, a true star, and just one of the coolest people on this planet.

What can we expect from you in 2021?

A lot of new music. Obviously, everything starts today with “Vacío.” This is literally the beginning of what this new album will be. I’ve done nothing but write and record during the last 10 months, so I have a bunch of songs. Great collaborations coming up. I really think the album will be out probably [in the] third or fourth quarter this year. The songs are there and I’m really eager for everybody to hear them.

Read: We Finally Have A Spanish-Language Song As The Most Streamed Song Of All Time

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