Cristela Alonzo Opened The Door For Latinx Comics, But More Diverse "Gatekeepers" Are Essential

Cristela Alonzo insists that she's an average person who has lived an extraordinary life.
Cristela Alonzo insists that she's an average person who has lived an extraordinary life. Photo by Koury Angelo

The story of how Cristela Alonzo got into stand-up comedy is one-of-a-kind, truly. “I had been living in LA,” she recounts. “and I moved to Texas to take care of my mom, who was sick. She passed away and I needed a job. So I responded to this help wanted ad, that had no name of the business on it. When I showed up, it was a comedy club! I loved stand-up comedy, so I wanted to work there! But I didn’t want to be a comic. I just wanted to be near the comedy.

"I got the job and the more I started meeting people, they told me I was funny. And at that time, I was actually struggling with grief, you know, over losing my mom. So I started using stand-up as therapy, to talk about her. And I always kept telling myself: ‘I’m going to stop doing stand-up when it stops being fun.’ Cut to years later, I’m still doing it!”

Born in San Juan, Texas and growing up in McAllen, Alonzo is a Texas-bred comic through and through. After playing theaters around the world, the comic expresses her job to have a gig in her home state, where she’ll be performing My Affordable Care Act at the Wortham Center on October 19.  “You know, it’s always weird when you land in Texas. At the airport, you already feel a different vibe. I feel like people don’t understand if they’re not from Texas, it’s really hard to explain. Especially being Latina from Texas, it’s a different thing. For me, it always feels like home. I look for the Texas landmarks: I look for a Buc-ee’s, I look for an H-E-B, I look for the Whataburgers, I look for Taco Cabanas! I get excited. I feel at home in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, El Paso, you know what I mean? It just feels like you bump into family everywhere you go.”

Despite hitting the top of her craft, it may be true that Alonzo was too ahead of the curve for some to catch on. In 2014, she created, produced and starred in her own ABC multi-cam comedy. Sadly, it didn’t last a year. Flash forward to now, and it’s clear from the successes of celebrated programming like Once Day At A Time, Carmichael Show and The Neighborhood that there’s a room at the table for diverse shows with big laughs.

Does Cristela think about this? “All the time,” she deadpans. “I’d like to think that my show made it OK to actually seek that content out. You know what I mean? It was that thing where, I really feel like my show opened the door for other shows to get a chance, you know? During the production of the show, I would actually tell my friend: I don’t know if this show is gonna go, but at least I hope that it sets it up for the next show to have a chance. So I would hope that my show served its purpose, you know? Hopefully the next idea I come back with will serve a different purpose.”

For Alonzo, a big issue becomes bigger when you look at the startling stats, as The New York Times reported in August that "Latino actors represented only 3 percent of lead or co-lead roles in top-performing movies during the past 12 years." Alonzo says: "In the Latino community we already strive so hard to get that diversity, that representation on TV.  We have so much work ahead of us, and there’s still so much work to be done. And look — it’s the gatekeepers! We talk about representation, but we don’t do a good job. We always see the same tired stats - we talk about on-screen.

"But what about people behind-the-scenes? My show was a perfect example. My show started the same year as Fresh Off The Boat, and Blackish. After my show got canceled, I did a panel at the Ford Foundation with my friend Jeff Yang, whose son Hudson plays the child in Fresh Off The Boat.  So we were both asked the same question, which was: what was your experience at the network? And he gave this really glowing report about the network, you know? And it was completely different from my experience. Then he got to the part that was so interesting, which was, the head of casting and the head of comedy development at the network at that time were both Asian women who understood the story. So they understood the story Fresh Off The Boat was telling. I didn’t have a Latino executive, I didn’t have anyone who really resonated with the story. So with me, I had to constantly justify my existence – and have people tell me my existence was wrong!”

For the next Cristela to have a chance of more than seven months to find its wings, Alonzo believes there will have to be more Latinx representation among showrunners. "You understand there is no set way to do it. You kind of have to figure it out on your own. You try to figure it out, make sense of it. But at the same time, because it's so foreign to people, there’s a lot of people that only focus on the onscreen. That’s visual. That’s a visual result of what we see. We can see that we need more representation. It takes someone like me who goes through it constantly to tell you: this is why the people on screen, aren’t getting the onscreen. It’s a domino effect. Executives, the tastemakers, the writers, the producers, the directors – we need more visibility in that world, because they understand the story being told.”

Nevertheless, she persisted. Alonzo’s stand-up calendar remains booked, she dropped a Netflix special Lower Classy in 2017 and now, she can add published author to her resume, with her raw dossier Music to My Years: A Mixtape Memoir of Growing Up and Standing Up hitting shelves on October 8th

Reflecting on the fresh process of writing thoughts to paper, Alonzo differentiates the book from how she crafts her stand-up material. “In stand-up, you have to be funny,” she says. “In a book, you can tell the truth wholeheartedly. It can be sad, and that’s OK. So for me, I didn’t know what I wanted to write – except that I wanted to write my truth. But I actually realized that my story is actually seen as a very extraordinary story by a lot of people that aren’t familiar with people like me. Like, I grew up with people like me. For me, my story is very average. Because everyone like me had a very similar upbringing. But to other people that aren’t related, haven’t had that exposure, they think its so extraordinary.

"My whole point in the book, my goal is to write how these extraordinary things happened to this very average girl. I want people to understand that it was something I can’t explain, but that I can say there are millions of people like me out there. I think those stories need to be told as well. We need to have a focus of a real depiction of a person. So when I was writing the book, I was just telling the story of growing up in a border town, being first generation, but also trying to understand what being quote-unquote American is. You really don’t know, being American is what you are. There’s no set definition. For me, I just hope the story resonates with people that maybe had those same questions as I did.”

In America, there’s likely no better standard for making it than to star in a PIXAR movie. So when Alonzo discovered she’d be lending her voice to Cruz Ramirez, the yellow co-lead of the rubber burning 2018 summer hit Cars 3,  she was — no-pun-intended — floored. “It’s so crazy, because I literally don’t even understand how it happened! I have toys with my character on it. It’s stupid, I don’t understand, like what happened!? For me, I thought it was especially important for like, little kids, and especially girls, that the Cars
franchise, that they felt represented too! Look at that, we’re talking about representation – it’s important to be represented in animation as well! All mediums. Let's face it, it is pretty dope, I’m not gonna lie. Pretty dope.”

Cristela Alonzo's performance is scheduled for 7 p.m. Saturday, October 19 at the Wortham Center, 500 Texas. For information, call 832-487-7000 or visit $32.

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Vic covers the comedy scene, in Houston and beyond. When not writing articles, he's working on his scripts, editing a podcast, doing some funny make-em-ups or preaching the good word of supporting education in the arts.
Contact: Vic Shuttee