by Steven Sanchez
As America’s celebration for Hispanic Heritage Month ends, for comedian and actress Cristela Alonzo, every day is a celebration of her Mexican identity. It’s not just a celebration for her, it’s a statement, a crusade, a purpose, and she takes it seriously. She’s best known for her self-titled ABC sitcom, Cristela, back in 2014. Because of that breakthrough, she is the first Latina woman to create, produce, write, and star in her own US primetime comedy in television history.
Before the show and after its cancelation, the Texas born and raised funny woman has honed her craft for years going from opening for Carlos Mencia, performing for mostly colleges, and going from primetime network television to her own stand-up special on Netflix. But since the election in 2016, she put her comedy career on hold for two years and sought the need to become more politically active, with a focus on immigration and healthcare.
For most comedians that I’ve had the chance to interview, most would give a thousand reasons till Sunday on why no matter what times we go through – politically, socially, economically – any time is a good time for comedy. For Cristela, it was a no-brainer answer that being Hispanic in this country during this administration is no laughing matter. In her own words, she said that “Hispanics who came to my shows were afraid of even being caught at my shows.” As if facing adversity during this political climate isn’t enough, she’s also had to confront the adversity of Hollywood. The woman has gone from television to the big screen and online, and still sees the progression of Hispanic representation still taking place at a very slow rate. For these reasons, it’s why she’s come back to the stage.
She came to Fresno on October 26 at the Tower Theatre for her My Affordable Care Act tour not only as a comic, but as a published author. She just recently published her memoir Music to My Years: A Mixtape-Memoir of Growing Up and Standing Up where chapters are titled with song titles and why those songs provided a soundtrack to certain pivotal moments in her life. During our interview before the show, we got to talking about Hispanic representation in film and television, her favorite comic book heroes being Batman and Spider-Man, and the creative process it took to bring her comedy to the small screen. Kings River Life Magazine is proud to spotlight Cristela Alonzo.
KRL: You were born and raised in Texas but live in California. How do you compare performing in California to other states in the country?
Cristela: I’m excited to perform in Fresno. The Mexican population in California is actually different than those in Texas, and the other states have their differences as well. It was an adjustment for me to learn that. Performing in Texas is like a homecoming, performing in California feels comfortable with support that equals that feeling as if I grew up with them. Surprisingly, I’ve only performed in Fresno once before, but as a Latina comic, I couldn’t get booked in clubs, so I performed at colleges because being Latina was an asset to where I appealed to that diverse crowd.
KRL: From what I hear that now since that cancel culture has grown comedians now are saying that students are more sensitive to jokes than they’ve ever been before that performing at colleges aren’t what it used to be. Do you still tour at colleges and for you is that true?
Cristela: Yes, I still do colleges, and I love it. It’s interesting, I personally don’t have a problem with it. The problem is that people can’t handle that language evolves. Meaning a TV show you grew up with back then the jokes wouldn’t fly today, but it was acceptable back then. Now times have changed, so with me I have no problem with it. Stand-up is about having the freedom to say what you want but you should workshop your stuff around to see if it’s funny or not.
KRL: You are the first Latina woman to create, produce, write, and star in her own US primetime comedy in the television history. What was the process like to get it on the small screen?
Cristela: Getting on television was a miracle because I never thought that it’d happen to me. There was so few women that looked like me on the screen. My stand-up was what gave me the opportunity. I would just pitch my life story and that’s the pitch that got people in the industry interested in me. I developed a pilot, and it was passed over at first. Then the producer of the show saw potential in it, and called me and said there’s something here and would you like to shoot a pilot episode, non-paid, but film something to show the network what the show is about. They got it and got it on air because it was relatable to people. Once we got to air that’s when problems started happening. More people got involved telling me how to tell my story. People telling me that’s not real, and I’m like I wrote it because it did happen. Even a writer thought he could write my story better than me. We struggled at the end of the season to where I had to tell people that the show is based on my comedy, my name is on it, and we’re going to do it my way.
KRL: I was a fan of the show, so if you don’t mind me asking what led to its cancellation?
Cristela: From the get go, we didn’t get that much support. I never got a billboard advertising my show. All the network did was do park bench advertising, and I’d go to these Hispanic neighborhoods to tell them to watch my show. It was an English-speaking show, so to tell Spanish speaking people to watch my show wasn’t going to work. I got credit for writing the Christmas episode, but had every episode been like that, it would’ve worked, that’s what the show should’ve been.
KRL: It was shown on ABC, previously the home of The George Lopez Show where he was the first Hispanic to star in his own show and who helped create it, did you learn anything from him personally in regards to the process of creating your own show?
Cristela: I had some support from Latinos in Hollywood, not a lot. George Lopez was one of the only people to contact me before my show started, during the show, and when it was cancelled. He supported me, and kept in touch with me throughout the whole process because he went through it himself. My family and I used to watch the show. George is a great Latino comic, and he shows that you can be yourself and make a product that people could watch.
KRL: I saw that growing up you listened to heavy metal and were into comic books. As somebody who likes all those things, who were favorite bands and favorite heroes?
Cristela: With heavy metal my favorite was Iron Maiden. Having Eddie being the mascot on their albums and in their shows I thought it was awesome. My other favorite during the 80s was Motley Crue. I thought they were amazing, and the song “Looks That Kill” I still think it still hold up.
With comic books, I always respected Batman because he’s a regular guy. But he’s kind of funny since he’s the epitome of privilege, the James Bond of comics. His origin story was interesting because it explains why he does what he does.
I also liked the issue Wolverine vs Spider-Man. I liked Wolverine’s origin story, and I did like Spider-Man, but sometimes the flood of all these movies can be too much at times.
KRL: Something I noticed is, that with all these comic book heroes adapted into films, there’re no Hispanic actors portraying these characters.
Cristela: In comics it’s a thing, there’re Hispanic characters so why are we not featured on the big screen? It’s crazy.
KRL: It’s unfortunate that only 3% of Hispanic actors were in front of the camera in Hollywood studio pictures and that number is lower behind the scenes. And numbers are even lower for women. You don’t see Hispanic characters that are into rock or comic books. Do you think it’s imperative for you to get involved with the film world and to be seen on the big screen to make our people more visible with the platforms you have?
Cristela: Yes, I’ve been writing a sci-fi themed story for years because of that. I’m not only talking about brown-skinned people, but people who represent me. I was at a Comic Con and Hispanics were there to support me and were excited about it. We’re not represented in sci-fi, in horror, and all the genres. Why is it so hard? I mean Metallica can sell out in Mexico, so we do like that stuff, we do exist. With these Hispanic characters, most Latinos have to talk about immigration and poverty, but there’s so much more to us, why do we always have to struggle on screen? Me and my brother went to go see a Motley Crue concert, and why not do an episode about that?
KRL: Obviously when it comes to comedy, talk about what you know, so growing up Mexican is all you knew even if that story may have been familiar to most people. Was there ever a concern in the beginning when you got into stand-up comedy that you had to do something different because people expected you to talk about Mexican stuff or was it like this is who I am so you might as well own it and make it unique?
Cristela: Yes, you either get it or you don’t. I’m not bothered by it. My whole stand-up has been about my life, it’s what I do. It’s a way to fail, doing things for people to like you, and now you’re just guessing.
KRL: I saw that in your memoir Music to My Years: A Mixtape-Memoir of Growing Up and Standing Up you featured Boston’s “More Than a Feeling” in there. Me and my sister love that song, and it has sentimental value to us like the way you described it in your book. I just wanted to say thank you for showing people that we Hispanics do listen to that music. You had a chapter dedicated to your memories of songs from your past. You’ve written comedy for the stage and screen, and now as an author. Was the writing process easy or was it different writing about your life in a different format?
Cristela: It was both. It was great that I didn’t have to be funny or have to make it be a joke. I could write a story the way it happened. It was a challenge in a sense that you realize there’s a lot of stuff that I haven’t dealt with yet. The book showed that I was just like everybody else. I was like other people, and they’re like me. That relatability was a good thing.
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It was because of this interview I got invited by Cristela herself to come backstage before the show and meet her. What I thought would be a casual meet and greet turned out to be a full, thought-provoking conversation that pretty much was an extension of our interview. Basically, what we talked about were topics of her set. Speaking about the Hispanic experience, and always has and will talk about her mother, and also had a few choice words for our president.
Luckily for me, talking to her felt like she was putting on a stand-up set for me for forty minutes before her actual start time. No lie, talking to her is like talking to someone who you’ve known forever. The exchange was about what we discussed about previously. She got more in-depth on how she voiced the character Cruz Ramirez in Disney/Pixar’s Cars 3, and that when you see an actor voicing an animated character you assume that was their only contribution was lending their voice. Not for her, she had input on what the character looked like, and as the story progressed, the character resembled her and the filmmakers utilized her back story for the character.
This woman has done things her way, and isn’t in it for the fame, she loves what she does and her way has worked out for her. I can’t wait to see what the next chapter in her life will have in store for her.