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Image: Marco Torres

Last January, your Mexican uncle appeared onstage at The Heights Theater. His name, of course, was Tío Juventino, and he immediately felt the need to brag about his “big pepino.” You cringed at his ghastly orange cowboy boots and powder-blue leisure suit, his Joe Dirt mullet bobbing back and forth as he jerked to an irregular cumbia beat and ripped imaginary lines of cocaine. And this was all before he offered up tips on wooing the ladies with his colorful dance moves, such as the “pinche beef hammer.”

“That was almost a little bit of my dad, a few of my uncles,” says comedian Chingo Bling, the man beneath the mullet. He thinks in terms of characters, and Tío Juventino captures that lovable creep we all know, who’s “just one of those dudes.” Tío is just one gem from his recent stand-up/sketch-comedy Netflix special, which features footage from the Heights Theater show.

Seeing Chingo in a Netflix queue is somewhat disorienting. For one, he’s that rapper, right? The Tamale Kingpin? And the title—They Can’t Deport Us All—wasn’t that one of his old albums? But then again, this is the Trump era, and an entertainer making a bold career change is by no means unprecedented. Really, Chingo thinks nothing of it.

“What if I told you that all this was according to plan? That I sacrificed years in the music business so that it could be a nicer, smoother transition to having an audience?” he says with a sly look. “It may have happened like that, subconsciously.”

To understand his long game, one must know that before there was Chingo Bling or the Masa Messiah or any of the other pun-tacular stage names, there was only Pedro Herrera III, the son of Mexican immigrants growing up in Houston during the ’80s. He loved to listen to hip-hop legends like Boogie Down Productions and Public Enemy and eavesdrop on his sister watching Eddie Murphy’s 1987 special, Raw. “It was almost like getting your first rap album with cuss words,” he says. It wasn’t long before he memorized every joke.

In the late ’90s, Herrera headed to Trinity University in San Antonio, where he majored in marketing. It was there that his Chingo Bling persona was born in earnest, during a Sunday-night radio show called Hip Hop Chop Shop, for which he spun tracks and hosted artists like Big Moe.

Herrera mostly credits his early exposure to working flea markets in San Antonio and, later, back in Houston. It was there he would hawk “Mextapes” from the trunk of a lowrider, sprinkling tracks from a no-name artist called Chingo Bling throughout the mix. When people started to ask about this Chingo guy, he couldn’t believe it. “There’s a couple new songs from the radio, the hot sh*t in the club, some street sh*t, some freestyle, some exclusive drops, but you’re going for this crazy sh*t I did on the side?” he remembers 20 years, two dozen albums, and 1.3 million Facebook fans later.

But if fans signed on for the rap, it’s clear a comedian was always hiding in the mix. The name “Chingo” roughly translates to “f*ckload”—a tongue-in-cheek nod to a rapper’s requisite grills and chains. During those early days, some called him the “Mexican Weird Al,” citing tracks like “Taco Shop,” a raunchy 50 Cent parody. He wasn’t a fan of that comparison, which reduced him to something of a sideshow copycat; Herrera says he always wanted to “carve out his own lane.” As he puts it, “I could have been the Taco Kingpin. But I’m tamales.”

At the same time, that Eddie Murphy influence never left him. He began to venture into standup with an uncharacteristically low profile. Pedro Herrera, not Chingo Bling, was the name of the man who bombed his first open mic. “I needed space to be free,” he says. “I need to be allowed to suck, basically.” And suck he did.

The experience spooked him so much, he left comedy alone for a long time, until three years ago, when some friends persuaded him to try again. That’s when he figured out that the difference between being funny and being a comedian is structure. “You’re a scientist tinkering,” he says about writing jokes, explaining how he now pores over everything from Southwest: The Magazine articles to Drake songs to break down how they’re constructed.

The Netflix special represents the culmination of those lessons, and it’s an inevitable merger of the rapper Chingo Bling with his comedic persona. His material retains the same Tex-Mex, Spanglish-filled sensibility, featuring bits such as Quiere Llorar?—a “your momma” roast session in which the first man to cry gets deported. It makes sense that the Netflix special shares the title They Can’t Deport Us All with the 2007 album that rocketed the then-obscure artist into regional fame. By all accounts, the 2017 program will do the same for the fledgling comedian.

Today, not only does Herrera no longer “borrow” his sister-in-law’s streaming Netflix account, he’s unloaded the last portion of his student loans—a huge relief for the 38-year-old, who is now a father. But there’s still a grueling road forward as he continues to tour the country, passing through both comedy meccas like Chicago and more obscure places, like Huntsville, Alabama, where “they make you work for it a little more.”

As for what else is ahead, Herrera says there could be a sitcom—maybe some sort of variety series. It makes us think of Donald Glover, another rapper-cum-comedian, who became his city’s de facto cultural ambassador with his recent hit TV show Atlanta. We say: Why not a Houston? Why not Chingo Bling?

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