When actor George Harris came to the United States, his fellow Venezuelans put the fear in him.
“I don’t think they will like your work here. You’re too Venezuelan. You have to stop using those words like chevere and cambur because no one will understand you,” he was told by people who also urged him to speak with “a neutral accent.”
What immigrant, and especially what artist, has not heard that advice? Who has not fallen short in the face of such a challenge to his or her identity?
Those who call a plantain a cambur and think that everything good is chevere are not going to change overnight.
“We’re the ones who put obstacles on our own path. We say they will not understand us. But how did we understand Cantinflas. Did he have some special gift? How did we understand El Chavo del Ocho. How did we understand Susana Giménez?” Harris asked during an interview with el Nuevo Herald.
Good thing that Harris is a comedian, because anything worth a good laugh about the changes that immigrants face winds up as material in his monologues.
“My first audience was 10 people. That’s why I always tell people when they come to this country, don’t give up,” Harris said.
He was then working at the Catarsis theater on Eighth Street, and an audience of 20 people was a good night. Today he has millions of followers on social networks and 300,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel, where he posts El Show de George Harris about what he calls “fun and reflection.”
Gone are the days when he had to hand out fliers for his shows at El Arepazo, and people recognized him from the photos on the fliers. After multiple shows in clubs and theaters around Miami, most Hispanics now know who is.
They have laughed and cried with his jokes.
“The best part of my work is connecting with people. Sometimes they tell me, ‘Ay, I want to give you a kiss, a hug, because I feel you’re part of my life,’” he said. “And it’s because my stories make them feel like they’re hearing their own stories.”
That connection comes out of his professional training as well as his personal experiences.
“I am not the same guy who left Caracas in 2011. I am another person, wiser, with more experience. You show that on stage and people recognize it,” he said.
The same Catarsis theater where he initially entertained tiny audiences has now seen lines waiting to see his show.
“One day, a woman grabbed me by the shirt and told me, ‘If I don’t get in, you don’t either,’” he recalled.
The woman was vacationing in Miami and did not want to miss the show. Her demand gave birth to the idea of posting his on the internet, Harris said. That’s how he reached the kind of “globalization” that he learned about when he studied communications in Venezuela in the 1990s.
“At that time, being global meant working on TV, on the radio. But that had its limits. Being global today is to be on YouTube. The whole world sees you, except China,” he said.
Even in the most difficult times, historically like during wars or personally like during divorce, people want to have fun, he said.
“People don’t look for drama. They want to disconnect from all that, and that’s what I try to do with my show, to laugh about what’s happening to us.” Harris said.
Winning praise for what he does, filling theaters in Miami — which he calls a very tough city — as well as in Buenos Aires, Chile or Madrid, makes him proud. And so does being recognized by fellow Venezuelans on the streets of a city that is not his, to see them become emotional when they hear his Venezuelan accent.
“It fills me with pride when people tell me that I was with them in the bad times; cancer, divorce,, being alone, all those times when humor can accompany you and make your life easier,” he said.