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Puerto Rican Rocket Scientist Dumps NASA for Comedy

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Shayla Rivera leaves her career working for NASA to become comedian.  Photo: Improv comedy club Shayla Rivera leaves her career working for NASA to become comedian. Photo: Improv comedy club

For Shayla Rivera, it was rocket science.

As an engineer with NASA's space-shuttle and space-station programs, colleagues always told her she was funny. She'd get the same humorous reactions as a motivational speaker.

"I was just trying to be enlightening," she said.

So, Rivera stopped helping McDonnell-Douglas technicians calculate the trajectories of jettisoned booster rockets falling from outer space, took her friends' advice and became a comedian.

"Yeah," she said with a laugh. "I needed a hook. I was the 'Puerto Rican Rocket Scientist.' I went from being a wanna-be astronaut to a wanna-be stand-up comedian. I was a jack of all trades and master of very few."

After 20 years, there's no more wishful thinking. Rivera lifts off tonight at Stockton's Bob Hope Theatre as part of The Latin Comedy Jam -- joining Los Angeles' Luke Torres, Dillon Garcia of Whittier and Huntington Park's Jerry Garcia (no relation, though his dad did name him after the late Grateful Dead guitarist on a $100 dare).

Coincidentally, one of Rivera's colleagues in Houston -- and now a fellow motivational speaker who encourages Latino families to pursue education -- was Jose Hernandez, a Franklin High School and University of the Pacific graduate who became a space-shuttle astronaut.

"Having joked around with him, he's fun," Rivera said. "A funny guy. Very down-to-earth. What you see is what he is."

That description suits Rivera, too. She's managed to fuse her comical and analytical brain waves.

"That's been the greatest gift and the biggest curse," said Rivera, 51, a single mother of two daughters who splits time between Burbank and Austin, Texas. "Having both sides work at the same time makes it miserable sometimes. You know, wondering why some people can't pull their heads all the way out of their asses."

That sentiment also relates to her status as a Latina comedian.

"I never thought it would be an issue," she said. "I thought I was just another comedian. It's always an issue. Whatever you look for, you're gonna find.

"I'm a female comedian. I'm a Latino comedian. More than that, I'm a female Latino comedian. For just being funny, you're still not rewarded as much in Hollywood. You have to be super-sexy, super-ugly. They still kind of label you and put you in a pigeon hole. I don't fit anywhere."

One of Rivera's initial concepts, a sitcom based on her life story, was rejected by a Hollywood TV executive who said, "A Puerto Rican working for NASA? Not believable."

Born in Santurce, Rivera grew up with two sisters, spending summers in a Puerto Rican "paradise." Her dad, Justo, worked at IBM and was the "big, crazy one everybody loved." Her mom, Sofia, was an Eastern Airlines employee. They moved to Houston when Rivera was 17.

"Education always was a huge part of our family," she said. " 'You're all going to college.' I always loved oceanography and space."

Humor got good grades, too: "Our family laughed a lot. For me, it's the best way to learn. When you laugh, you're lightened up and see things better."

Rivera did some serious learning while gaining an aerospace-engineering degree from Texas A&M University. She joined McDonnell-Douglas at Houston's Johnson Space Center in 1982. Rivera helped "blow all up" external rocket fuel tanks: "That was fun."

Comedy is "something harder to do," she said. "To talk about truths -- the truth -- no matter what your color, gender, race, religion, creed or sexual preference."

Curious about psychology and the human condition, she became a motivational speaker.

"Comedians are pathetic individuals in need of attention," Rivera said. "I probably never thought of myself as funny until I did motivational speaking. People said, 'You should be a comedian.' I was trying to be enlightening. I have a natural propensity for being absurd. I've never said that before, but I guess I do."

In 1993, she attended a stand-up comedy seminar in Houston. Rivera's five-minute final-exam routine earned her some job offers: "That was kind of cool. It wasn't long before I got my first $25 gig. That's when I knew I was a pro.

"I dove in head first. Since that day, I've done everything in my life to pretty much pursue what I want to do. Twenty years later, I'm ready to be an overnight sensation."

That's after appearing with Paul Rodriguez, Roseanne Barr, Martin Short and others, doing TV and club work and recording. Rivera also devotes herself to entertaining and supporting members of the U.S. military.

She's writing a book -- Rivera hasn't read Hernandez's "Reaching for the Stars" memoir yet -- voicing an animated series ("Life of Mikey," a " 'Little Rascals'-type cartoon. All diverse") and "having meetings with ABC (TV producers)" about a "new sitcom based on my life. In Hollywood, it's never an easy thing. Really. They copycat everything. If this happens, then everybody will be doing 'the Latina working for NASA.' "

No rocket science required there.

Contact reporter Tony Sauro at (209) 546-8267 or tsauro@recordnet.com.

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(c)2013 The Record (Stockton, Calif.)
Distributed by MCT Information Services

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