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CBS Sunday Morning's Mo Rocca Reconnects to his Colombian Roots

First Posted: Nov 21, 2013 01:48 PM EST
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For decades, humorist, journalist and actor Mo Rocca has been reeling in audiences with his quirky humor, satirical commentary, Harvard-bred intelligence and quick wit.

He's left audiences in stitches as a correspondent for Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," but the clever jokester had much more to give than just his silly, satirical two cents.

Behind the lens and underneath a humorous exterior stands a multi-faceted individual and natural-born storyteller whose roots, when unearthed, run deep. Rocca is still humbled by others - a quality that can be attributed to his Colombian and Italian-American ethnicity.

Currently a correspondent for "CBS Sunday Morning," a panelist on NPR's hit weekly quiz show, "Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me!" as well as the host and creator of the Cooking Channel's "My Grandmother's Ravioli," Rocca, like his story subjects, is delving deeper into his own identity. His story, like many others, involves reassessing what it means to be Anglo and Latino in the United States.

"I am almost trying to retroactively catch up, to retroactively fill in that part of myself in a way. And I don't mean that in an airy-fairy, new-agey 'oh, I feel empty' kind of way - no, that would be too much," he told the Latin Post. "I am pretty sure of who I am, but again, let's just say it would be a really good thing right now to be able to speak Spanish and understand that part of the world more, and that part of the country more, especially if you happen to be a descendant of it."

Born to a third generation Italian-American father from Leominster, Mass. and a Colombian mother from Bogotá, Rocca grew up as the youngest of three in a loving, bilingual household in Washington, D.C.

His mother immigrated to the nation's capital in 1956, when she was 28 years old. She didn't come to the U.S. for economic reasons, Rocca points out. Instead, "she just wanted to see what the United States was like." While studying English with a cousin, she met Rocca's father, who coincidentally ran an English-language school for foreign students, though he wasn't her teacher.

"I'd like to think that there had been at least one tutorial, because it would be awfully romantic to think that he taught her English, but I am not quite sure that it turned out that way," Rocca adds.

He fondly remembers being surrounded by his mother's Colombian friends in DC, recalling one friend named Mary de la Cuatra, whose name is similar to the Spanish word, "cuadra," he points out. "Mary from the block...before there was Jenny from the block!"

While Rocca's parents spoke English, he and his two siblings also grew accustomed to Spanish flowing throughout the household. His oldest brother speaks "beautiful Spanish," and Rocca's comprehension and accent are both "pretty good," but his "speaking has never been where it should be," he admits.

"I am even embarrassed to say that I actually took Spanish in high school and even in college and it's the kind of thing that just never stuck. I have survival Spanish, but not much more than that," he said. "I bet there are other people that feel the way I do...you almost feel like you have kind of squandered something living in the United States right now, which is increasingly Latino, if you grew up in a household like I did and don't speak Spanish."

While outward appearance often dictates expectations, Rocca didn't have to face that pressure.

"For me it wasn't much of a conflict at all because no one expected me to speak Spanish because I really don't look Latin, or really what people think a Latino should look like I should say...I don't really need to be so PC about it, I don't look Latin, so there you go!"

Rocca reiterates that he doesn't think there was "this conscientious decision to assimilate."

"I don't think that was the case. To look at me no one would ever say that I was Latino," he said. "Whenever I would tell people that my mother is Colombian, they would say 'Wow, you don't look it. You look like a WASP, you look British or something.'" Rocca is unsure what factor that played in his identity, but he says he didn't think all that much about actually being half-Latin - he just lived it and loved it.

He also looked forward to his visits from his "hilarious grandmother" who would stay with his family for months at a time.

"I was aware and interested in the Colombian side of my family," he said. "I knew all my aunts and uncles and cousins on that side, growing up with them visiting, but I didn't self-identify as half-Colombian."

Ethnicity aside, Rocca publically came out as gay later in life, at age 42, but like his ethnicity, his sexuality wasn't something that dictated his life - he's always just been Mo. His family members, especially his mother, have been his biggest supporters.

"It wasn't particularly hard," Rocca says of coming out to his family. "Everyone assumes (including my Anglo friends) that it's hard to be gay if you have a parent who is a religious Catholic, and especially a Latin American Catholic - all I can tell you that wasn't the case with me. My parents were great."

Armed with a diverse background and a platform as a television and radio personality, Rocca tries to speak up for Latinos, though it's an obligation he feels should be shared.

"I think that it's everyone's responsibility in this country with this sleeping giant...the not so sleeping giant that is the Latino population in the United States. I mean it's huge," he said.

"And as a journalist, as somebody who is half-Colombian and as a human being - those are three scores in which I feel like it's a responsibility."

Check out a compilation of classic Mo Rocca interviews. You'll be sure to laugh!

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