It didn’t bother Steve Stiegelmeyer when he made poor grades in a high school Spanish class.
He remained on track to graduate from Ben Davis High School and then join the Marine Corps in 1997. His attitude toward barely passing Spanish: “Why do I need to learn Spanish? There’s no Latinos here; there’s no Mexicans.”
More than a decade later, he’s known as Guero Loco — a rising music star who’s tightly connected to the area’s Hispanic community, now estimated at 65,000 residents in Marion County alone.
The Stiegelmeyer-to-Guero transformation began at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas. It turns out he did have an aptitude for foreign languages, and he trained as a Spanish translator in the Marines.
Indianapolis — specifically Washington Street west of Downtown — wasn’t the same when he returned.
“I saw these businesses with Latino names,” he said. “I had a Texas flashback. It took me a second to realize I was in Indiana.”
With bilingual skills increasingly in demand in his hometown, he found work as a translator in the Hoosier Healthwise Program. He sold ads for Spanish-language radio station WEDJ-FM (107.1), and he became operations manager at Spanish-language WNTS-AM (1590).
After hearing rappers rhyme to rapid merengue beats, Guero had a new appreciation for his second language: “I wanted to learn, what makes this whole Latin thing tick?”
His music career reached a milestone in January, when he collected a trophy at the Chicago Music Awards for best entertainer in reggaeton — a stylistic “cousin of Spanish hip-hop,” in Guero’s words.
He’s traded a run-of-the-mill existence for a one-of-a-kind pursuit.
“Before, I felt like a normal guy,” he said. “When I got involved with the Latino world, it brought me into something different. It gave me something that I hadn’t felt since the Marines. You have to understand: Everybody responds.”
More often than not, the initial response is laughter.
He’s a white guy who raps in Spanish? Yeah, right.
“I can recognize the doubt in people’s eyes sometimes,” he said. “It’s cool to see their expressions change when they hear my music.”
In English, Guero Loco translates to “crazy white boy.” The title of his debut album, “Fuera de Lugar” is translated as “Out of Place.”
“That’s kind of an oxymoron,” the 31-year-old said, “because now I feel comfortable within the community.”
Guero says there’s American Indian ancestry on the paternal and maternal sides of his family tree. He credits closely cropped haircuts from Dominican barber Francisco Burgos for lending an appearance that’s authentic — yet difficult to pin down.
“I once asked my friend, ‘Why do people stare at me?’ She said, ‘They’re not staring at you because you’re white. They’re trying to figure out what kind of Latino you are. It’s the way you cut your hair. Are you Cuban or Puerto Rican or Chicano?’
“With the way I speak, Puerto Rican people assume I’m Mexican and Mexican people assume I’m Puerto Rican. People think I’m the opposite of what they are.”
Guero admits there was little doubt of his “gringo” status when he began to rap in Spanish.
“I butchered the language for awhile,” he says. “People, out of the goodness of their heart, put up with me.”
Marco Dominguez, formerly a news anchor for Univision Indianapolis and on-air personality for Butler University’s television station, interviewed Guero during the early stages of his music career.
The rapper’s struggle to master the language wasn’t seen as a flaw, according to Dominguez, a native of Venezuela who became a U.S. citizen in 2004.
“In the Hispanic community, we were happy because we saw somebody that is not from our lands or our grassroots trying to assimilate,” Dominguez said. “He was well-received. It is the same thing as when we came over here. We tried to speak the language and express ourselves.”
Victor Herrera owned a West Side record store known as the Bomb when he met Guero in the late 1990s. Herrera said Guero wisely took a modest approach when embracing an unfamiliar culture.
“He takes baby steps,” Herrera said. “He’s been growing, and a lot of people in Indianapolis have seen that. You can’t fake being involved in the community.”
While party themes dominate the lyrics of “Fuera de Lugar,” Guero has emerged as a high-profile activist on immigration issues.
Last year, he and singer Alyssa B collaborated on “The DREAM Act Song” — a plea for passage of a U.S. Senate proposal known as Development, R elief and Education for Alien Minors.
In March, Guero spoke during a Statehouse protest against Senate Bill 590. Set to become law on Friday, the legislation originally included a provision for police to investigate a person’s immigration status on the basis of “reasonable suspicion.” A revision raised the legal standard from suspicion to probable cause.
Guero joined leaders of the Latino community for a lunch meeting with SB 590 sponsor Mike Delph, R-Carmel, and the musician has been a vocal supporter of six students arrested at a May 9 rally against SB 590.
Five of the students were believed to be in danger of deportation, before Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials commented that they focus on deporting “serious criminal aliens.”
“I don’t really think the local rapper should be the person people are going to for guidance,” Guero says. “But, if there’s something going wrong, people without a voice should be defended. I want to make a difference.”
During his stint in the Marines, social activism was far from Guero’s mind.
Instead, it was a time to knock on a buddy’s door at 3 a.m.: “Hey, I have a six pack of beer. Let’s hang out.”
Amateur hip-hop sessions accompanied the drinking.
“We’d slip in a Spanish word, thinking we were cool,” Geuro recalled. “Not even the English was very comprehendible.”
Still, the partying may have had a purpose.
“I was learning rhythm, how to get my flow pattern down,” he said. “I also was learning how to think on the fly.”
Chicago-based manager Angela Star has worked with Guero since 2005.
Noting his radio play in Peru, Venezuela and Panama, Star said Guero’s outsider perspective translates into universal appeal.
“He has a very different style, because he brings a little bit of everything,” she said. “He has people who show him love in a lot of different countries.”
With more then 30,000 subscribers to his email list, Guero is building a Midwest fan base with sights on success in Texas and Colorado.
He recently shot a video for “Fuera” track “ShugaMama,” and he’ll perform Aug. 7 at the Indiana State Fair as part of Hispanic/Latino Music Day.
The lineup at the Free Stage in Celebration Park includes California-based pop band Industria del Amor and Indianapolis-based Latin jazz group Direct Contact.
Guero mentions Christian rapper Evangelico as a local peer in Spanish-language hip-hop.
“Until the past four or five years, we were mainly on the underground fringe of the Latino market,” Guero said. “Now you can walk into multiple nightclubs in Indianapolis on a Saturday night, and it’s one of the main genres being played by the DJs.”
Herrera, the former record store owner who now operates a graphics company in Texas, said Guero is developing into a role model for Latino listeners — and citizens in general.
“When people come from other countries, they hear all the bad things about being mistreated (by Americans),” Herrera said. “You wouldn’t expect to find someone like Guero. Once you actually meet him, he speaks as a humble person. People can feel him as a communicator.”