The genius of Rex Navarrete

Funnyman meets Pacman. Facebook photo

Funnyman meets Pacman. Facebook photo

By Cecile Caguingin Ochoa

I told my friend that Rex Navarrete is my bridge to my three sons of varying ages, from X to Y to the millennial generation. In a house-filled with the distractions of electronic gadgets — iPads, iPhones, and one working big TV– one gets full attention when I mention “Rex Navarrete!” It’s almost akin to the 42-year old comedian’s favorite hook to his mother: “Jesus.”

“You know, I now live in Portland, but my mom, who lives in South San Francisco calls me with no fail every Monday morning to ask, ‘Rix, did yu go to chirts, yestirdey?’ Rex faked a hard Filipino accent to the amusement of his predominantly Pinoy audience at the Festival of Philippine Arts and Culture (FPAC) last Sunday.

His mother insists: “Jesus doesn’t like it if you don’t go to chirts on Sunday, Rix.” This line doesn’t fail to bring the house down, especially when Navarrete spells “c-h-i-r-t-s” referring to “church.” How many Filipino household does not still have a doting Catholic mom with the same nagging question to their kids?

The comedian has a knack of connecting with the intimate mores of the Filipino American household shared over time by generations. It’s like coming to a family dinner and laughing at the familiar jokes: the big wooden spoon and fork, the Last Supper, the piano that is almost never played. And balut.
On the balut, he quipped: “Can we extol a Filipino food that does not only appear on ‘Fear Factor?’”

We packed these memories with us when we left the homeland. Rex digs deep in his “baul” (treasure chest) and brings it all out as comedy material.

Navarrete was the main headliner in Sunday’s Philippine cultural celebration at Pt. Fermin Beach in San Pedro. Attended by thousands of students, parents, grandparents, workers and leaders – all patrons and lovers of Southern California’s diversity — the event has been sponsored for more than 20 years by FPAC. Rex Navarrete shows up at this event every year excited to re-establish ties with his Southern Cali connections, according to perennial host, TV anchor Denise Dador.

Continuing on with his mom’s phone reminders: “So last Monday I didn’t pick up my mom’s morning call, I let it go to voice mail. On Tuesday, she texted. (Who taught her how to text?). I hate those Best Buy geeks; they sold her an iPhone and now she’s texting. I texted her back: You got the wrong number. She texted back: Oh, I’m sorry. Did you go to church yesterday?” The Fil-Am crowd owned it and loved it.

A crowd favorite this year was his commentary on Filipino spaghetti. “Filipinos don’t know how to cook spaghetti. Our version probably came about when in 1952 one of our uncles saw a picture of spaghetti and said to himself: I know how to cook that! So he got hold of Jufran (a sweet banana-tomato-based ketchup) and mixed it with hot dogs (“not the regular kosher, ball franks but those small-size orange color kind from the Philippines”). So we now have in every Filipino party those hotdogs with sweet spaghetti sauce! And a pasty pasta – because Filipinos do not know how to boil spaghetti. They cook it down to a paste.”

That’s his genius. He takes on the dichotomy of the Filipino American experience and laughs at it.

The author with Rex Navarrete at Pt. Fermin

The author with Rex Navarrete at Pt. Fermin

When I spoke with him at Pt. Fermin, Rex said he immigrated to this country when he was 2. His parents are from Batangas; jokingly he first said he’s a Spanish immigrant from Hawaii. “ Don’t I look like one?” he teased.

He derives his materials from everyday occurrence; his observations as a Filipino American growing up. It’s no surprise that the focus of his stand-ups are his mother, his ESL teacher, his Uncle Boy (“why is every man called ‘Boy’ in the Philippines?”). He likes to poke fun at religion, frequently simulating a slapstick tug-of-war between Jesus and Satan and his mother caught in between the battle.

He once wrote that his parents never expected him to become a comedian. “My parents think I would go on to become an architect.” He said like many immigrants he led a dual life; playing the role of a Filipino at home and at school, being American with his classmates. He bought his first Eddie Murphy album in middle school and memorized ‘Comedian,’ his early real introduction to stand-up comedy and the art of storytelling.

He came to Pt. Fermin fresh from his England tour, impeccably imitating the British accent; and Arnold Schwarzenegger; Stallone and Jet Li. Somehow he got permission from his crowd even though he walked the thin line between xenophobia and hilarity.

Manny Pacquiao has been his favorite material since 1999, imitating his smiley face and singing “sometimes when we tats…” “It’s been years,” Navarrete said of Pacquiao. “I do the whole genesis of the man. How he started as a fighter. With a name like that, you have to fight everybody.”

Finally, fresh from his summer England Barrio fiesta tour he observed: “In England, I met 10,000 Pinoy Brits celebrating their fiesta. Filipinos are everywhere – we run other countries’ hospitals; we run their restaurants; we sing better than their nationals. Americans even outsourced the lead singer in Journey to a Filipino. Everywhere, we work very hard. Did you notice, everyone has a sideline? That’s right, everyone sells insurance.” Once more, he hit a home run. High five; the audience roared.

Rex performs at the Improv Comedy Club in San Jose, Calif. from September 12 to 15; at the Madrid Theatre in Canoga Park on September 28; and American Comedy Co. in San Diego from October 24 to 27.

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