EXCLUSIVE: Bruno Mars Opens Up About the Loss of His Mother

“Remembering when he was just my little brother looking up to me, staying by my side, playing music together, throwing around a football, just doing everything together—those were great times,” says Eric “E-Panda” Hernandez of his hermano and band leader. “Now he signs my paychecks, and he is my boss. I’m beyond proud of the man he has become.”

But before he was Bruno Muhfuckin’ Mars, he was E-Panda’s lil’ bro, Peter Hernandez, born and bred in Hawaii to a beautiful Filipina and Spanish mom and Puerto Rock and Jewish papi from Brooklyn. His childhood musical career is well-documented on YouTube— at 4, he was the cutest Elvis Presley impersonator ever, performing with his family for oohing-and-ahhing tourists in Waikiki. As the years passed and his skills developed, Mars found himself dealing with racial-identity issues in the multicultural 50th state. “Growing up in Hawaii, there are not too many Puerto Ricans there,” says Mars, “so because of my hair, they thought I was black and white.”

The idea of not being easily categorized is something Mars has dealt with his entire life. When he moved to Los Angeles at 18 to make a serious go in the music industry, record label executives asked, “What are you? Are you urban? Are you Latin?”

“There are a lot of people who have this mixed background that are in this gray zone,” he says, leaning forward to make his point. “A lot of people think, ‘This is awesome. You’re in this gray zone, so you can pass for whatever the hell you want.’ But it’s not like that at all. It’s actually the exact opposite. What we’re trying to do is educate people to know what that feels like so they ’ll never make someone feel like that ever again. Which is a hard thing to do. Because no one can see what we see and no one can grow up with what we grew up with. I hope people of color can look at me, and they know that everything they’re going through, I went through. I promise you.”

All that to say that Mars is prouder than Manny Pacquiao to be Filipino, loves Hawaii more than Don Ho’s children, and, well, is as boricua as Marc Anthony eating a plate of arroz con gandules during his Todo a Su Tiempo era. Critics and those confused by his multiracial roots have insinuated that he’s ashamed of his Taino roots, truly a load of chupacabra crap, says Mars.