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Mario Lopez is surprised that people are not aware of his Mexican roots

A MARTÍNEZ, BYLINE: All right. Like a lot of people, actor and television host Mario Lopez found himself on TikTok.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIKTOK)

MARIO LOPEZ: All right. Today, we're in Pacoima at Sabor a la Mexicana, and it means Mexican flavor. I got my...

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. He was out eating food, and then he started trending on X, which got him a little worried that he might have said something that he shouldn't have. But it turns out it wasn't anything that he said as much as how he said it.

LOPEZ: People don't think I'm Mexican. Is that a trip? With a name like Mario Lopez? Well, you know what? They've been thinking I'm everything from Italian to Hawaiian, but I'm not. (Laughter) It's the weirdest thing.

MARTÍNEZ: Lopez was born in Chula Vista in Southern California. That's north of the U.S. border with Mexico. His parents are both from Mexico. And while these facts are right there in his Wikipedia page, it seemed to be a revelation for lots of people when Lopez - what? - came out as Mexican. Mario, why was it important to make it clear that you, indeed, have Mexican heritage?

LOPEZ: The whole thing was so bizarre and weird. I mean, I have a Z in my last name and, like, the thing about social media is it allows you to kind of take a peek behind the curtain and it's unfiltered, and you represent yourself how you really are. At least with me, that's the case. I mean, I can't talk the way I do to, like, my buddies in my - the guys from the neighborhood when I'm hosting my radio show or "Access Hollywood." I think everyone has, like, their customer service voice...

MARTÍNEZ: (Laughter).

LOPEZ: ...They kind of slip into. But when I'm not, then I'm with my buddies and I'm a little more slang and it's a little more relaxed and probably my ethnicity comes out a little more.

MARTÍNEZ: Were you perplexed, angry, annoyed, all of the above over all this?

LOPEZ: I thought it was just funny and kind of silly. I didn't understand it, but I guess people weren't used to seeing me sort of just be myself and with my buddies. But again, that's one of the, I think, the cool things about social media you kind of put out there your real self kind of raw.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. And there's a term for that called code switching. I mean, is that something that you've consciously done over the years to kind of just stay employed in Hollywood, or is that something that kind of, like, just comes out depending on the situation when it calls for it?

LOPEZ: Yeah. I got hip to the term code switching and yeah, you try to be a little bit more buttoned up in certain scenarios, and especially when I'm on TV and representing NBC Universal and we're in the news division, and you got to be a little bit more buttoned up and polished.

MARTÍNEZ: In researching the reaction to this, Mario, I went down a TikTok rabbit hole on you, and there was one clip in particular that kind of struck me. It's where you're Latinness (ph), so to speak, was questioned. Let's hear that clip real quick.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIKTOK)

LOPEZ: This man is whitewashed, and he's literally only been doing this Mexican thing for, like, three or four years.

MARTÍNEZ: I mean, what does it make you feel when you hear something like that?

LOPEZ: It's so stupid. My parents are from Culiacan, Sinaloa, in Mexico. I was born in Chula Vista, a border town, around all Latinos. But, you know, people can think, like, what they want. What does bother me is I don't - you don't have to sound like an ignorant (speaking Spanish) or somebody that's - just crossed the border to claim your Mexican Latin card. You can sound above average intelligence and be able to hold a conversation. And you talk differently. I talk differently around my mom than I do my buddies. I talk differently at work than I do when I'm around my guys at the gym. It's - you just talk differently. And has nothing to do with my culture, which I proudly represent all the time.

MARTÍNEZ: You're one of the stars of an NBC sitcom called "Saved By The Bell." There's a whole generation of people that love that show. And on that show, your character's name was A.C. Slater, which, if I recall...

LOPEZ: Yeah.

MARTÍNEZ: ...Was not intended for a Latino to play. But you had a great audition, and you got the role. And I'm wondering, Mario, if that could have been maybe the starting point for why so many people maybe think that your Latinidad, so to speak, was somehow lost.

LOPEZ: I was fortunate enough for that role and a bunch of other roles, the casting directors sort of casted blindly. And I think the role - the guy was supposed to be Italian. And it was great. And I thought it was cool. You shouldn't be just sort of necessarily typecast just because of an ethnicity. And I'm, you know, 100% Mexican. So I thought that was cool. But going back to that guy's point, you know, again, social media, it's sort of like your own little reality show, right? So then you're not playing a character, you're not posting, it's just you. And so then that's why people are maybe tripping out a little bit.

MARTÍNEZ: If NBC, like, sat you down, Mario, and said, hey, you know what? We just want you to be you now. I mean, just be you like you are in these videos.

LOPEZ: That is me. That is me. I wouldn't feel comfortable...

MARTÍNEZ: On "Access Hollywood," though. Like...

LOPEZ: I wouldn't feel comfortable like that 'cause I wouldn't want to represent myself like that on TV.

MARTÍNEZ: Oh, OK.

LOPEZ: I wouldn't want my kids that watch - if it was my son, I'd be like, hey, keep it buttoned up.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. That's Mario Lopez, host of "Access Hollywood" and yes, a confirmed Mexican. Mario, thanks a lot for joining us.

LOPEZ: (Laughter) You got it, man. Appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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