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There was never a struggle for Rivera to break free from anything; rather, he learned early on to deal with whatever hand was dealt to him. He is not using the humor to give shape to some lifelong disappointment. Once he learned to live with a disability, it became time to learn to live with the fact that he was gay.
"You know the last thing I wanted to do is be even more different than I already was," he explains. "But that's been my argument, if it was a choice for me between being straight or being homosexual, my life would have been so much easier. So, I mean, it's biological. If you are true to yourself, you just know that it can't be any other way.
"I get so angry about people who go on and on about 'making a choice,'" he continues. "There was one guy who was very religious, who I was doing a play with in New Mexico called Psycho Beach Party. Somehow, we got on the topic of homosexuality. He thought it all had to do with being a form of rebellion. Oh, my God. I lost it. I said, 'Do you honestly believe that I would cause this much hurt and pain to my family just to rebel?'"
Raised by his mother and stepfather, Rivera moved from Silver City, New Mexico, to San Diego, then to Puerto Rico and Albuquerque. His stepdad is a retired federal agent who, to this day, refuses to acknowledge the fact that Rivera is gay. His mom saw it as one more thing in the young man's life to deal with.
"I think my mom was really smart about it," explains Rivera. "She immediately started seeing a counselor. It was not easy for anybody, but my mom is wonderful about it. My stepfather is not happy about it. It's not something that we discuss."
Inspired by a Lily Tomlin workshop he attended in Santa Fe in the mid-1980s, Rivera went home that same night and wrote his entire standup act. A few months later, his "routine" debuted at a Chinese restaurant in Albuquerque.
In the years since, Rivera has opened for some of the bigger shows that have passed through New Mexico, from the Miami Sound Machine and Terence Trent D'Arby to Dana Carvey and Judy Tenuta. He once supported Kenny G at Albuquerque's huge Kiva Auditorium in front of thousands. He's done tour dates with Paula Poundstone and shared the stage with magician Paul Kozak. "I would rather have 20,000 people out there than just 10," he says. "When you have a room full of people, you at least know a good percentage is going to respond to what you are saying."
In 1999, he flew to Miami to participate in an hourlong comedy show that aired on Spanish TV network Galavision. Rivera had but a few minutes to do his piece. "My performance was a little disappointing on that show," he says, in typical self-effacing manner. "So I haven't been invited back."
Rivera never gave up the day jobs. A few weeks ago, he started one that he describes as a "very typical gay job," working in the display department at The Great Indoors. "I'm not used to this getting up at 4:30 thing yet," he says, sipping a beer. "Tomorrow is only my second day at work, so I can't be hung over."
Before his Great Indoors gig, Rivera did four years as a Cost Plus wine clerk. The company transferred him from Albuquerque to Phoenix in October 1999. At Cost Plus, Rivera became a kind of in-house wine connoisseur. Sometimes, while explaining the depth and complexity of a BV Cabernet or the merits of a Pinot Noir, Rivera's verbal manner would spur queer looks and furrowed brows from some of the more intolerant customers.
"It was great to watch customers react when Ray spoke," says Darin Gaily, a Cost Plus employee who had worked with Rivera for more than a year. "Most people wouldn't know what to make of him. Some would pass judgment and others sensed he was slightly disabled. The idea that he does standup comedy is hard to believe. Just the fact that he can make a routine out of three or four things that most people wouldn't even talk about is amazing."
Rivera considers himself a half-assed comic who was never attracted to the road, and never wanted to do one-nighters. The payoff for him is that he actually is able to get up and speak to audiences about himself and cerebral palsy. To get up and make people bust a gut at his expense, without being maudlin.
Onstage, Rivera possesses an innocent whimsy, yet delivers punch lines with refined command. He has the rare ability to turn a physical handicap into a funnyman persona, and upholds the honor of good comedians everywhere.
What is inspiring (and yes, the word is chosen carefully) is how Rivera has managed to overcome seemingly overwhelming odds: the motor skill problems, the schoolyard brats, the homophobic old man, etc. Rivera doesn't compare his insides to the exterior of others. He has stopped wanting to be somebody else. Whether simple denial or some version of reality, he approaches things with a kind of cockeyed optimism.