In his latest role, actor Pepe Serna will inspire students at Nebraska Cultural Unity Conference

UNK Communications

KEARNEY – Pepe Serna calls the exercise “emotional symphony.”

When he meets with high school and college students, he likes to use the improv activity as an icebreaker.

Audience members are asked to stand, then they’re assigned an emotion – happy, angry, sad, etc. Serving as the conductor, Serna picks people who must express their emotion at a specific intensity level.

Naturally, most students are shy at first, not wanting to embarrass themselves in front of a crowd. But once Serna joins in, they become more comfortable.

“There is no right or wrong way to do it,” the longtime Hollywood actor says. “It’s just commitment. Make your voice heard.”

That’s a key part of the message he’ll share Friday during the 20th annual Nebraska Cultural Unity Conference, a University of Nebraska at Kearney event that brings hundreds of students from underrepresented backgrounds together to learn about leadership and higher education.

Work hard. Utilize your talents. Don’t be afraid of failure.

“You need to become the very best you can be, no matter what profession you’re going to be in,” Serna said. “You have to be able to connect, communicate and collaborate.”

The 78-year-old found his passion at a young age and he’s still “excited as I’ve ever been.”

“I knew that I was an actor at 3 years old,” Serna said, recalling the time he jumped up on his godfather’s boxing ring and pretended to knock himself out, delighting the spectators.

“I always knew I was coming to Hollywood. I knew I was going to make movies. And it wasn’t about stardom, fame, money, none of that. It meant that I was going to be doing what I loved to do.”

Born and raised in Corpus Christi, Texas, where his mother was a hairdresser and his father served as a naval base interpreter for Latin American pilots, Serna was active in speech, debate and theater during high school. He graduated from Del Mar College in Corpus Christi and attended the University of the Americas in Mexico City. As a college student, Serna would often show up to parties, turn off the music and act out a scene such as the transformation from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde – his own version of “guerrilla theater.”

“I was always performing,” he said.

That never changed.

Serna arrived in Hollywood in 1969 and developed a reputation as an energetic and versatile character actor who would take on any role.

“I didn’t care how much money it paid or what the billing was going to be. I wanted to work,” he said. “And that’s why I’ve been in over 100 movies and more than 300 television shows.”

In one of his most memorable roles, Serna portrayed Angel, Tony Montana’s ill-fated associate, in the 1983 film “Scarface.” He also appeared in “Car Wash” with Richard Pryor and George Carlin, “The Rookie” starring Clint Eastwood and Charlie Sheen and “American Me” alongside Edward James Olmos. More recently, he had parts in “The Black Dahlia,” “Downsizing,” “Road to Juarez” and “Man from Reno,” where he landed a lead role as small-town sheriff Paul Del Moral.

Serna is featured in Eva Longoria’s upcoming film “Flamin’ Hot” and he has a regular role in the Amazon series “With Love.” He currently lives in Rancho Mirage, California, with his wife Diane.

Attendees of the Nebraska Cultural Unity Conference will view a trailer for “Pepe Serna: Life Is Art,” a documentary about the Mexican American actor and his decades-long work in film, and they might even meet a character from his one-man show, “El Ruco Chuco Cholo Pachuco.”

Serna transforms himself into these characters – ranging from a humble farmworker to a poetic pachuco to a rootin’-tootin’ straight-shootin’ son of a gun – to tell the history of Latinos in the United States and inspire the next generation.

“America is a place everybody in the world wants to come to because the best things happen here,” he said. “You can do anything here if you have a goal and you challenge yourself to be where it is you want to be.”

Pepe Serna is pictured with Eva Longoria. He’s featured in her upcoming film “Flamin’ Hot.”
Pepe Serna is pictured with Eva Longoria. He’s featured in her upcoming film “Flamin’ Hot.”