The Puerto Rican aerospace engineer was a rocket scientist with NASA before she became a comedian. She's also a professor at Texas A&M University.

Por Alma Sacasa
Octubre 08, 2020
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Before getting into comedy, Shayla Rivera was in a different field entirely — she was a rocket scientist at NASA. Now a professor of practice with the College of Engineering at Texas A&M University, Rivera is about to launch her first HBO special. "Right after NASA, I started in sales, and then after sales, I got into stress management, corporate training, and motivational speaking, and people would tell me, 'Oh, you should be a comedian,'" she tells People CHICA. "I was really offended by the idea, but I heard it enough times that I said, 'OK, maybe I should try it,' and in 1993 was the first time I stepped on stage."

The Puerto Rican has since appeared on The Dennis Miller Show, The Roseanne Show, The Martin Short Show, and Paul Rodriguez Latin All-Stars, and on Friday, she'll debut Shayla Rivera: It's Not Rocket Science. "I've always wanted to have an HBO special," she says. "When I first started doing comedy, I wanted to be on The Tonight Show, and I wanted to do an HBO special, and that was the thing I always kept saying to myself. So it's really kind of like that whole idea of working very long years to become an overnight sensation. Of course, I'm really not a sensation, but it feels really special."

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The special comes after a lot of hard work, but also a fair amount of tragedy. "I lost my son two and a half years ago, and on the anniversary of his death I woke up hearing him in my heart saying, 'Mom, you gotta dream again,'" she shares."So I sat down and I wrote it down. ... It just feels organically fabulous to me to be able to do this because it comes from my heart."

Despite the stark differences between her past and present careers, Rivera notes one similarity — they're both historically populated by men. "These are male-dominated environments," she says. "That's changing, I'm glad to say. There's always people that will get in your way if they can, but the biggest challenge is to keep on keeping on. I have a good friend who once said, 'Comedy is not a short race, it's a marathon.' It's something you just have to put in the time, you got to put in your effort. The challenge really was for me to stay the course. Stay inspired, and stay dreaming. I'm sure I heard my son say that to me again. … You got to just keep trying no matter how many times you get pushed down."

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Rivera wants viewers to grow and learn from her special and to never stop dreaming even when times get tough. "The most important thing, especially now, is to continue to dream, to never lose hope," she says. "If there's one thing I learned from losing my precious son, it's that I would have done anything for my son. What I know is that we can't do it for somebody else — we have to do it for ourselves first. The best thing that we have is that we become a great example for those people. We have to listen to each other and share our stories and not be embarrassed about slips and falls and failures. If you're not slipping, falling, and failing, you're not growing."

Shayla Rivera: It's Not Rocket Science premieres October 9 at 9:30 p.m. ET on HBO Latino and will also be available to stream via HBO Max.