“Tapatío.” “Spicy.” “Tacos.” Whenever Raiza Licea – who is of Cuban descent – asked the crowd for one-word suggestions during her improv shows in Los Angeles, they shouted stereotypical terms. It was a frustrating moment like this that eventually inspired her to start Spanish Aqui Presents (SAP), Upright Citizens Brigade’s (UCB) first Latinx-only improv team – now also in podcast form. Alongside Oscar Montoya, Carlos Santos and Tony Rodriguez, the quartet is redefining what it means to be a Latinx comedian on stage.
“Everybody thinks that you’re going to go on stage and put an accent and be a cholo, the same stereotypes that you think about for TV and film, 100% are carried down,” Raiza tells me when describing the challenges of being Latinx in comedy.
After UCB’s Harold Team cut her, Raiza realized that the most upsetting thing about being let go wasn’t being let go. Instead, she realized, she would no longer be able to fill the void alongside an influential comedy troupe. After any show with the Harold Team, people would regularly reach out and express how much they related to her stories and humor.
“I can’t help it. I’m very Spanglish how I speak,” she says. “I think that comes from being from Miami. I would say stuff all the time in Spanglish and get a DM on Instagram, ‘Oh my God! When you did that abuela character’ or ‘When you said that story about your dad, I really related to it!’…It was such a good feeling, so then I did feel way more comfortable being myself.”
Like so many pillars in the entertainment industry, the comedy and improv scene is straight, white and male-dominated, even in a city like Los Angeles, where close to 50% of its population is Latino.
But being cut from Harold lit a fire within Raiza, who took it upon herself to wrangle the rest of SAP and submit to be an official team at UCB. It wasn’t easy, but the team was persistent. After countless follow-ups, they booked a meeting with UCB leads, who agreed that Latinx representation in LA’s improv scene was necessary. Apparently, so did Los Angeles: SAP’s first show at UCB in January 2018 was completely sold out.
Despite others constantly defining Latino audiences through a narrow lens, Raiza and her team have a deep understanding of our community’s multitudes. Yes, we listen to Bad Bunny and watch One Day at a Time, but we’re also passionate about Da Baby and The Mandalorian. Raiza knows that because it’s true for her, too. Couple that with a team that has a lot of chemistry and you have a recipe for success.
“Performing with an all-Latinx bilingual team is like performing with your familia. We get each other’s references no matter what. It’s so nice to be able to switch from English to Spanish and Spanglish and be able to translate comedy in different languages and styles,” she adds. “When performing with non-Latino teams a lot of times you are the Latino in the scene and that’s not the case with SAP… Our comedy isn’t just funny to Latinos; it’s relatable to everyone because we don’t just try to be Latino or funny to cater to one audience. We are for everyone, but we are Latino and proud.”
Aside from being on stage at UCB, SAP is also now a podcast. The team met with podcasting network Earwolf, recorded a pilot and got an offer a year later. At UCB, the team has a strict Latinx-only rule for the guests they welcome on stage, but they wanted to take a different approach for the podcast and implement an “allies only” rule.
“For the podcast…,” she says “as long as you’re somebody that is doing something good for the community and for some type of minority [or] POC, [we’re] down for you.”
The show covers all types of topics from sex with your ex to political issues. After the interview, they move on to an improv sketch based on what they just discussed. They’ve had guests like Isabelle Gomez from One Day at a Time, Julian Castro, and Rachel Bloom (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend co-creator and former UCB alum).
As for what’s to come for the SAP team, hosting its once a month improv show at UCB and continuing to grow its podcast audience is still part of the plan, but Raiza also added that they’re thinking big.
“We’re working on stuff that we obviously can’t talk about, but I will say we definitely are reaching people all over the world now with the podcast and with the live show locally,” she adds. “And hopefully, you know, touring eventually, but I would like to be on people’s screen in their home, where they can get to watch sketch improv, interviews, whatever it is, whatever we’re doing. I want that.”