Across the United States, in all fields of endeavor, Latinos are working to uphold their place in American society. Fox News Latino is proud to present "Our American Dream" – a series of snapshots and profiles of Latino success stories.
For stand-up comedian Ernie G., nightly crude punch lines and cheap laughs stopped being funny somewhere along the line.
"I felt inauthentic on stage because I was making people laugh, but I knew it wasn't me," he said. "Doing all of those sex jokes and cursing."
Instead, today this Mexican-American, whose real name is Ernie Gritzewsky, is using his clean and inspiring comedy to deliver a simple message to Latino students: Go to college.
"If it is to be," he says, "it is up to me."
In auditoriums and classrooms alike, hundreds of hopeful voices repeat these words loudly – a message he hopes resonates with every student.
One such student is Maria Ramirez, 16, from Annapolis, Maryland, who took time to write to Ernie G. after a talk at her high school.
"Before I met you, I didn't believe in myself," she writes. "No one can change a person, but someone can be a reason for that person to change...and you are my reason.
"I look up to you," it continued. "Thank you."
For Ernie G., messages like this fuel his passion to continue his talks to youngsters around the country.
"No one is going to hand you anything," he says. "If you are going to get yourself into college, it is because you say so."
Don't let the clean comedy fool you – Ernie G. knows how to do all comedy. Inspired after seeing Eddie Murphy's Live Raw comedy tour, he's been on Comedy Central's "Make Me Laugh," Galavision, MTV, HBO's "Habla Again," and countless other appearances.
Now, he is also the spokesman for the Hispanic College Fund. The position gives him the opportunity to tell his life story as a way to connect to young people.
"If you are a fake or phony they don't want to hear it from you," he explained. "Kids and animals love me, but it's adults I need to worry about."
For nearly a decade, he continued his path to success by doing everything he could for the sake of the laugh.
"I would try inspirational comedy as a young man and comedians used to tell me that no one wants to hear it," he remembers. "'Tell a flippin' joke, dude,' they would say.
"'They want you to be funny, not inspirational,'" he continued.
Except that Ernie G. is funny, too. And he probably inherited the funny gene from his mother.
"My mom is waiting for me to grow up, mature, and move back in with her," Ernie G. joked. "She says: 'Mi hijo, we should buy a house together. That way, when you get married your wife can move in with us.'"
In his early years, Ernie G.'s mom, who was single, moved with her boy to California from Mexico. From the very beginning, she emphasized the importance of school, and led by example.In fact, she graduated from an American high school without even being able to read.
"My whole life, her thing was to get me an education," he said.
Initially an aspiring social worker, Ernie G. graduated from Loyola Marymount University with B.A. in psychology and a minor in Chicano studies, but it wasn't exactly his ideal path to success. At one point, he was even kicked out of college after falling in with the wrong crowd.
"I went from being the first person to go to college to becoming another Latino statistic," he said. "A dropout."
It wasn't until the death of his aunt that Ernie G. re-dedicated himself to his education. It was at that time – during a speech he gave at his aunt's funeral, ironically, in front of his entire family – that he tapped into the power of his words.
"I discovered the gift [of] speaking and moving people with my words," he said. "I promised to everyone I was going back to college."
Armed with the newfound gift of gab, Ernie G. and his mother, despite economic hardships, spent much of their time giving back to the community. From the March of Dimes to the Special Olympics to the Big Brothers of Los Angeles, the mother-and-comedian team made volunteering a way of life.
Throughout it all, giving back seemed to soften the hardships that came with poverty.
"All I wore as a kid were T-shirts from these organizations," he said. "I never knew how broke we were. You don't realize you're broke when you're helping out other kids all of the time."
The influences Ernie G.'s mother had on his life are immeasurable, he says. And he hopes the authenticity of his story continues to resonate.
"I'm way more committed to celebrating Latino excellence than I am trying to prove to people we are not all of these stereotypes," he explained. "We have forgotten that we are a beautiful and powerful people."
All jokes aside, Ernie G. knows the power of having someone take the time to tell their story. As a student in college, one motivational speaker's words still stick with him to this day.
"If you know in your heart you are a performer, and you're not performing," he recalled. "You are robbing the world of who you are."
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Bryan Llenas currently serves as a New York-based correspondent for Fox News Channel (FNC) and a reporter for Fox News Latino (FNL). Click here for more information on Bryan Llenas. Follow him on Twitter @BryanLlenas.