This was transcribed from our “Branches Of Struggle” Podcast

Emilio Rivera is well known for portraying Marcus Alvarez in Sons of Anarchy, the spin-off Mayans M.C., as well as many other film roles. People are often surprised to learn that he’s also a stand-up comedian and a ridiculously funny guy.

Emilio shares his struggle with addiction and recovery in the hope that it will help others. He grew up in a rough neighborhood in Los Angeles where domestic violence and gang wars were the norm. Teens in the neighborhood modeled the behaviors they saw, and then self-medicated to get away from the harsh reality of their lives. Drugs made Emilio feel indestructible, and also helped him deal with what we now call ADHD. It was not widely understood when he was young, but it had a big impact on his life.

Emilio managed to get through high school because he had a deal with the principal. He could stay in school in spite of his grades, if he would mediate the gang conflicts. This often meant he fought the gang leaders himself. Emilio describes himself as a functional addict. He worked and held a job because that was his family tradition, but he spent his money on drugs and fancy clothes. His health declined, as did his relationships.

A turning point came one evening when a friend showed up at his home. This friend, who had been sober for five years, insisted that Emilio join him at a group meeting. Emilio was focused only on scoring his next high, and kept trying to get around the guy so he could leave. But the friend stayed for hours. Finally, Emilio gave in and agreed to attend the meeting. It was in a rough part of east Los Angeles, and when they entered the room, Emilio said it looked like a gang convention. He thought they were planning to kill him. 

Soon the meeting began, and Emilio stood stiffly against the back wall listening. One by one the guys shared their stories. The details of each were different, but they were telling his story as well. It changed his life, and he quit drugs cold turkey.

Support meetings became a lifeline for him. Because he worked at night, Emilio attended meetings during the daytime, sometimes going to several in a single day. At one point, a psychiatrist asked him to identify a time when he had been happy. He thought back over his life and initially could not pinpoint anything. Then he remembered being cast as Rumpelstiltskin in a play when he was a child, just eight years old. Though he was an awkward boy with a stutter, when he was on stage, he recited his lines flawlessly. He knew what to say and he could say it. 

Building on this new realization, Emilio signed up for a class at the community college, and credits acting with saving his life. Growing up in a culture where ‘men don’t cry,’ Emilio had learned to ‘cry’ with his fists. Understandably, he intimidated most people, but his teacher was not afraid of him. His mentor explained that “before you can become an actor you need to become a human”. This man spent time with Emilio each week, asking thoughtful questions that unlocked the emotions in his heart. He learned to cry, he learned to be a human, and he definitely learned how to act. Emilio performed in 20 stage productions before he landed his first TV role. And the rest is history.

On May 15, 2021, Emilio marked an impressive 31 years of sobriety. He will tell you that sobriety takes work, but it also makes you less selfish. You’re not just thinking about your next high, instead you want to live for your family and friends. You step up and take responsibility, you give back to your community, and you make a difference in the world. Each day is an amazing gift to be celebrated.

This was transcribed by: Sage River Group