Story compiled by Mary Ann Cooper
Mario Lopez is Chula Vista, California’s, favorite son. Born and raised in this American city bordering Mexico, he began to pursue an entertainment career as a young teen, landing his first acting role in the television series “AKA Pablo.” However, it was his role as high school athlete and heartthrob A.C. Slater on the NBC sitcom “Saved by the Bell” that gave him his first taste of fame. Since then as an actor and a producer, he’s been attached to film projects such as “Outta Time” and “The Courier.” Lopez has also hosted several television shows, including “Pet Star,” “America’s Most Talented Kid” and the talk show “The Other Half.” He’s currently a host for the award-winning entertainment news TV magazine “Extra.” Concurrently, Lopez is the host of the nationwide iHeartMedia radio shows “On with Mario Lopez” and “iHeartRadio Countdown with Mario Lopez.” In 2014, Courtney Lopez joined her husband Mario as co-host of his Premiere Networks’ syndicated radio show “ON with Mario Lopez.”
However, before making a name for himself in entertainment, Mario Lopez was a wrestler at the Chula Vista chapter of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America (BGCA), earning Club-wide and state championships. In fact, if truth be told, despite all the success he has had and continues to have, his BGCA experience seems to have had the greatest impact on his daily life, and it drives him to be a positive Hispanic role model.
Lopez does not shy away from being an advocate for the Latino community. As he told FOX News Latino, “I embrace it because I am proud of my community and my culture, and I want to represent it the best way I can and provide some motivation for other young people out there like me. So it’s something I am proud of. I encourage them to find what they love and are passionate about, work hard and stay focused. Do the right thing, and the right thing will happen for you.”
Growing up in Chula Vista, a border town maintaining both American and Mexican cultural identities, enhanced Lopez’s appreciation of Hispanic culture, as he details in his memoir, “Just Between Us,” published in 2014. “Chula vista was my home, the world that raised me and a part of my DNA. I loved it all – and still do. We were little more than three miles from the border with Mexico, just across from Tijuana. People would call my hometown ‘Chula Juana,’ because it’s practically in Mexico. We didn’t cross the border; the border crossed us. As a result, living in Chula Vista – a predominantly Hispanic community – was a lot like living in Mexico. Even the signs were written in Spanish. There were taco stands and mariscos and bodegas on every block. Car radios driving through the center of Chula pumped mariachi music and the latest love songs sung by Mexican pop stars. And everybody spoke Spanish.”
Lopez says he was a good student, but his mother, Elvia, wanted to take extra steps to make sure her outgoing and affable son didn’t get himself in trouble while she and her husband Mario Alberto were off to work. In “Just Between Us” he explains, “Mom had a master plan for keeping me busy and out of trouble, such as when she signed me up to spend my afternoons at the local Boys Club. Though I had no choice in this matter, I understood that it was a plan to keep me safe and off the streets. It wouldn’t take long for me to throw myself in all they had to offer, especially wrestling. Today, the organization is called the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Back then it was the Boys Club of America. No girls allowed. Wrestling was a godsend; just what Mom had been hoping to find for me, and so too was the Boys Club.
“The first time I stepped foot in our local Boys Club I felt at home, the sense of belonging was almost instantaneous, even at seven years old I could see that the Boys Club was not just a place where busy parents sent their kids (like me) to keep them off the streets, but it was also a haven for children who had no parents to speak of. The adults leading the program were former inner-city kids who knew all too well of the pitfalls for anyone growing up in the barrio.”
The experience has a lasting impact on him, and years later, he found himself working with BGCA on a regular basis and becoming one of their ambassadors. He told FOX News Latino, “I grew up going to a Boys & Girls Club in my hometown of Chula Vista. It’s a wonderful organization that I am happy to be a part of. I am one of the spokespeople and the fitness ambassador for all the clubs, and I am trying to keep kids healthy and living a more fit life style.”
At age 10, Lopez’s life in the barrio changed dramatically when talent agent Christine Guerrero saw his high school dance recital and took him on as a client. That’s when he began to see how the outside world – particularly the entertainment industry – viewed diversity.
As he explains in “Just Between Us,” “Most of the calls I went on at this point in LA were for commercials. I didn’t go on a ton of auditions, though, because in this period the sponsors were trying to be more specific about the type and look they wanted, and somehow I fell through the cracks. Either I wasn’t ethnic enough, or I wasn’t American enough. And I didn’t get a lot of the jobs that I auditioned for – more than I could count. ‘Mario, have you considered changing your name? Perhaps to something less ethnic’ was a suggestion I started hearing during this time. Agents and manager types wanted me to make the change to widen my appeal. My dad wouldn’t even consider it. He said, ‘Mario Lopez is your name. That’s what I named you. You should be proud of it.’ Arguments for the name change continued from others. After all, they argued, the respected Mexican actor Anthony Quinn had changed his name from Antonio Rodolfo Quinn Oaxaca. I had a friend Miquel Gil De Montes who changed his name to Mark Roberts. The list went on and on. But dad was right: Mario Lopez was my name.” It was a decision he never came to regret.
Over the ensuing years, Lopez amassed an impressive resume, but he never left Chula Vista in the rear view mirror. In 2013, the National Hispanic Media Coalitions Impact Awards honored Mario Lopez who received their Media Entrepreneur Award. He talked about not just his own work, but the place of Latinos in the Hollywood society, urging the community to tell “universal stories with Latino faces.” He also referenced Chula Vista and addressed his role as someone who strives to impact young Latinos.
“The important thing I realized is you have to have an impact on someone to make a difference,” he told the audience at the awards gala. “When I started working with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, I realized that’s what it’s all about; giving back and really having an impact on young lives, so other Latinos can say, ‘hey, man, he came from a neighborhood like mine. If he can do it, why not me.’ And that’s what I really want to do.” •