Shayla Rivera never thought she was funny, even when she was voted class clown in high school. And when she decided to launch a comedy career instead of a space shuttle, her father said, "What took you so long?"
After earning a degree in aerospace engineering from Texas A&M University and working for NASA in Houston, Rivera traded her dream of being the first Puerto Rican woman in space for a walk across the stage of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
Rivera returns to her alma mater Saturday in conjunction with a Symposium on Gender and Latina Discourse sponsored by the A&M English Department. Her free show will be at 8 p.m. Saturday in Rudder Forum.
"When they invited me to perform at A&M, I got down on my knees," Rivera said from her California home. "I was so excited. It's like going to Mecca."
Rivera was born and grew up in Puerto Rico. The day after her high school graduation, her family moved to Houston.
"I couldn't speak English," she said. "Oh, I knew 'table' and 'window' but not much else. I watched TV and made up my mind to learn what they were saying. In five months I could speak English pretty good, which proves that anyone can do anything."
Rivera's older sister, Annette, attended A&M and majored in electrical engineering.
"I had to pick something harder, so I majored in aerospace engineering," Rivera said. "My father was in the Air Force, and my brother was into planes, so I wanted to be an astronaut, the first Puerto Rican woman in space." (Rivera's sister also went to work for NASA and is now the liaison with the Japanese Space Agency.)
Shayla Rivera worked with the team that plotted where the shuttle's booster rocket would fall back to Earth. "We also determined when to detonate the external tank so it would fall back as debris." Another of her duties was to help develop a database that allocated resources for the space station.
From there, Rivera went to selling environmental systems to the chemical industry.
"That meant a lot of hard hats and steel-toe shoes," she said.
All salesmen, at one time or another, are forced to listen to motivational speakers, and it was one of the best-known who turned out to have a huge influence on Rivera.
"I remember watching Zig Ziglar, and I was amazed at what was going on in the room," Rivera said.
The experience led Rivera to take a job as a corporate trainer and speaker.
"In 1993, I signed up for a comedy seminar," Rivera said. "I did five minutes and fell in love with it. That's what I wanted to do. I auditioned for the Comedy Showcase in Pasadena [Texas], and they invited me to be a regular."
Asked where she gets her material, Rivera said, "My bag comes from being a Puerto Rican rocket scientist, a wife, a mother, an ex-wife and a single mother."
Rivera is the host of a new Lifetime Television show You're Not the Man I Married, which she describes as "Fear Factor for husbands."
She performed in Rocket Science and Salsa, a one-woman show directed and choreographed by Debbie Allen, who starred in the TV series Fame and directed dozens of episodes of prime-time television shows. And she has toured with Mexican comedian Paul Rodriguez.
Rivera lists Bill Cosby and George Carlin as comedians who have inspired her. "I like the classic comedians, the ones who tell stories of real life."
The free symposium runs from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Friday in the Mayo Room in the Cushing Library on campus. The public is invited. Speakers include several noted Latina scholars. A reception will be held at 3 p.m. in the Memorial Student Center Stark Galleries.
• Jim Butler's e-mail address is email@example.com.