Three years ago, Mexican-American comedian Cristela Alonzo became a trailblazer: the first Latina to create, produce, write, and star in her own TV show, a multi-cam ABC sitcom inspired by her life as a feminist Tejana from an immigrant working-class family. Critics and fans celebrated her groundbreaking claim in the world of broadcast TV—but as Alonzo learned, to be “first” is often fraught.
Cristela, saddled from the start with a tough-sell Friday night timeslot, was tasked with being both nuanced and broad in its humor—incisive enough to skewer Latino stereotypes, universal enough to appeal to mainstream American audiences, and specific enough to authentically reflect the experience of being Mexican-American. It was family-friendly, warm, and sometimes transgressively bold.
It was cancelled after one season.
“It did feel like my life had been canceled,” says Alonzo, 38, two years after the fact. She calls the loss “devastating,” but hindsight has helped her understand what went wrong. “You know, it was my first TV show, I had no idea what was happening,” she says. “I didn't know the process at all. So what I learned is I need to have more control over what is being done and how my story is being told.”
Her frustrations, she explains, came two-fold: first, in the network’s reluctance to let Cristela stray too far from laugh-track-safe territory. “When you see my stand-up, there are serious moments that I try to make funny because I feel like that’s real life,” she says. “In a sitcom, a lot of people are scared to have those serious moments.”
Second, a chunk of the show’s marketing, maddeningly to her, materialized in Spanish. “I fought them very hard on that,” she says, “because my show wasn’t in Spanish. When they found out I speak Spanish, they were like, ‘Oh, we’re gonna get Latinos by having her speak in Spanish.’ No! Like, the show isn't in Spanish!”
It felt like cheap bait, she says, like bouncing a ball in front of Harlem Globetrotter fans and expecting them to buy tickets. Suddenly, the heatedness of her tone and the quick-draw analogy break her into laughter—throaty, infectious, loud. The sound is signature to her stand-up and bubbles throughout the new Netflix special she says worked as therapy post-cancellation.
Lower Classy, Alonzo’s first solo stand-up hour now streaming on Netflix, distills themes Cristela once explored: growing up poor, racism, lessons from her tough-love immigrant mom. “I am Santa Claus,” she says at one point, imitating her mother’s Christmas morning surprise. “I did not bust my ass to get this shit so some white guy could get credit for it.”
The special also hints at what Cristela might have tackled next, in particular anti-immigrant sentiment and the 2016 election. Onstage, her raucous laugh turns defiant while skewering Trump’s voting fraud conspiracies and the $21 billion border wall: “Does he know if he builds a wall all he’s gonna do is make us amazing athletes?” she asks an appreciative San Antonio crowd. “He’s building an immigration triathlon.”
Laughter is catharsis, she explains, though little has felt funny in the weeks since the inauguration. With the Women’s March fresh in her mind, she recalls what she recently told a group of friends: “You guys are all marching and protesting and that’s great, but I don’t remember anybody sticking up for us when Trump called my people rapists,” she says. “I don’t remember anybody doing that.”
Alonzo talked to The Daily Beast about life under Trump, recovering from loss, and the post-election advice she got from civil rights leader Dolores Huerta, which put the chaos of our current political reality in perspective.
How have you been dealing with the weeks since the inauguration?
You know, it’s so weird. I was in New York [last month] and I took the Amtrak down to the Women’s March, and I was thinking: it’s insane to think that we as a country feel it necessary to march. I remember seeing footage of marches as a kid for the Civil Rights Movement. And really, that’s exactly what we were marching for again. It’s so crazy. How am I doing right now? To tell you the truth, it has been hard to write stand-up. I’m still at that moment where I don’t think anything’s funny. On social media, so many people are making jokes about it and I get it, we’re making jokes to try and make ourselves feel better. I just want people to also take a moment to realize this isn't funny.
For a lot of Latinos it never really was, right? This all felt dead serious from Trump’s first stump speech back in 2015, when he called Mexican immigrants “rapists” and “criminals.”
Exactly. I actually went on a rant this weekend in front of some of my friends where I was like, look, you guys are all marching and protesting and that’s great, but I don’t remember anybody sticking up for us when Trump called my people rapists. I don’t remember anybody doing that. That’s how he launched! I remember when that happened I was like, wait a minute, this is how this guy’s starting? Like, can you imagine Taylor Swift dropping an album with that? (Laughs.) You know what I mean? Where do you go from there? It’s insane. That is what was infuriating to me. I understand right now, I’m like, hey, any help that we can get to resist, I’m all for it. But let me remind you that I don't remember any of you guys defending me or my people. I know this is new for you, but I’ve been living with this for years.
I saw you tweet that you were with Dolores Huerta on the day after the election. What was that like?
She and I spent about four days together after the election, and it was probably the best place I could have been and the most perfect person I could have been with. We met because Dolores actually became a fan of my TV show. I did a stand-up show in Bakersfield where she lives and she came out. She didn’t tell me she was coming and like, literally after the show I was meeting people and I saw her and was like, wait a minute, is that Dolores Huerta?
“Am I hallucinating?”
“Why am I hallucinating a civil rights leader at my show?” (Laughs) Like, it’s not the guy I liked in high school that never paid attention to me, it’s Dolores Huerta. It would be like Martin Luther King Jr., if he was still around, going to see Chris Rock. “Wait, aren’t you the guy that had a dream? You look familiar!” So I moderated a panel with her and Sonia Sanchez, another civil rights leader, and we had expected a different outcome [with the election]. We thought Clinton was going to win. When she lost, I had to change the format of the panel to having Dolores and Sonia speak to me like I’m their younger self. I asked them how they would advise me to live my life in this era.
What did they say?
The day after the election I went in and met with Dolores and Sonia. I’d been crying and crying, and Dolores asked me, “Why are you so sad?” I told her, well, the election. And Dolores said, “Oh, this is the first time your country has broken your heart.” She told me, “I’ve been through this before. You’ll be fine.” Now, a lot of us felt that sadness, but when she put it in perspective like that, I realized, my god, she’s lived through this. She’s been an advocate for over 60 years. This is her life. And she started telling me amazing stories. She was standing next to Bobby Kennedy when he was assassinated. She was like, “He was supposed to be our president. I was there. In the photo, I’m there.” She said, “Trust me, you’ll be fine. You know what you do now? You cry for a minute and then you wake up and you organize people and you fight it. That’s what you do.” That moment changed my life forever. That moment made me realize I have to do the work. If you think you’ve been doing the work, you haven’t been doing it enough because it didn’t do anything. You need to change your format, change your thinking, and you need to go to work. To hear those words from someone who is a part of history, how can you not be inspired to do something?
You talk a lot in the special about your mom and how Cristela was your way of showing people who she was. Did she ever see the show?
No actually, she passed away in 2002, which is why I started doing stand-up. I couldn’t afford therapy and I was really depressed. I grew up poor and come from a family where we don’t talk about our feelings, so after my mom passed away, I didn’t know how to handle it. It was like the first real devastating thing that had happened to me. So I started drinking. I was young and I had just started drinking and I got a DUI. And because of that DUI I actually found myself really restricted in terms of what I could do. So I started doing stand-up to kind of cope with everything. That’s kind of how it all spun out. I never wanted a TV show. I never looked for it. They approached me because they thought that my life story sounded like a TV show, but I always thought I was just talking about my family, to connect with people who grew up like me. Most TV shows are like, single chick, looking for love. Or like, skinny friends in a coffee shop. You don't see stories like mine on TV very often.
The early part of your story that you retell in Lower Classy, about when you moved from Texas to L.A. and lived in a car, touches on something a lot of first-generation American kids experience: this pressure to do something or become something that proves your parents’ sacrifices were worth it.
Yes! I mean, can you imagine? I felt so bad! Part of me felt so bad that I wanted to go to college to major in theater. My mom suffered and worked double shifts at a restaurant for next to no money, and I’m like, “Mom, do you know A Chorus Line? Let me sing a little bit about it.” (Laughs) “Mom, I know you sacrificed everything and we starved for a long time, but let me sing ‘La Vie Boheme’ from Rent for you.” You feel like, am I honoring her enough? I thought to myself, Cristela, I don’t know how you’re gonna do it, but you gotta make it to pay off every bill that you made your family pay, just to give it back to them. Like here, I’m paying you back for that suit you bought me to audition for NYU. Take all my money!
You also talk about how hard it is to eat healthy when you're poor because healthier food costs so much more, which reflects a lot of people’s realities.
Absolutely. It’s funny, I have this thing where I crave cheap frozen pizza a lot because that’s what I grew up with. It’s a dollar. My family grew up on food stamps. My friend Emilia Serrano, she worked on the show and is one of my best friends, will FaceTime me and I’m eating the pizza and she’s like, “Oh, you’re eating your food stamp pizza again?” (Laughs) It’s comfort food! I grew up eating it. Especially living in Los Angeles, I didn't realize how expensive things were. Like the pressed juice? Oh my god. What does it do? Does it come with magical powers? It’s so weird, you go to Whole Foods and it’s like three dollars a pound for tomatoes, and then you go to the Latino market and it’s like five pounds for a dollar. And you’re like, what the hell is different about these tomatoes? For me, even though I had a show on TV and I’m not broke, I still live the way I did when I was a kid. My favorite thing is to go to Target and just go up and down the aisles and buy cheap things just because I can. Still, when I do those jokes, some people are like, “What are you even talking about?”
Was pitching a second season of Cristela to a streaming service out of the question?
You know, we actually tried. Netflix had shown some interest but we couldn't make it work between Netflix and the studio. It’s not up to me; I would love to do the show. But it’s business. I always respond to people who ask about it on Twitter because there are so many shows that get canceled that people forget about. My show, I don't understand it, but it keeps living. When we were on the air, we didn’t get a lot of marketing, we didn’t get a lot of attention. So I figured when the show was cancelled, we would move on. Then Netflix decided to air the season we already had and that created a whole new life for it with people discovering it. Now people are watching my show because of the special. Every now and again someone will be like, “move on already,” and I’m like, I wish I could! It won’t let me!
What helped you pick up again after the show was cancelled? I know it was very personal to you.
After the show was cancelled, I decided to do the special to show people what I had wanted the show to be, if I hadn’t had so much interference from people who wanted to tell their version of my life. When you see my stand-up, there are serious moments that I try to make funny because I feel like that’s real life. In a sitcom, a lot of people are scared to have those serious moments. So after the show was cancelled, I went on a thank-you tour. After every show I would do a meet-and-greet and I would tell people, “I’m really grateful that you watched my show, I want you to know how important it is that you watched it. I never thought anybody would watch it. And I never thought that it would mean something to people.” Meeting those people really helped me get over the cancellation. Because it did feel like my life had been cancelled. Working on the Netflix special was very therapeutic for me too. It’s kind of weird, I started doing stand-up because of the devastating loss of my mom, and then I went back to stand-up because of the devastating loss of my show. Through sadness, I always find myself going back to stand-up.
Looking back, are there missteps you see now with regards to how the network handled your show?
Oh, absolutely. You know, it was my first TV show; I had no idea what was happening. I didn’t know the process at all. So what I learned is I need to have more control over what is being done and how my story is being told. A lot of the marketing was predominantly in Spanish. And I fought them very hard on that because my show wasn’t in Spanish. When they found out I speak Spanish, they were like, “Oh, we’re gonna get Latinos by having her speak in Spanish.” No! Like, the show isn’t in Spanish! It’s like if you’re trying to cater to Harlem Globetrotter fans, you’re not just gonna bounce a ball in front of them. (Laughs) Why would you do that? So for me, I would like to have more power and more voice in the marketing. You can say no to me, you can say “this is why we’re doing this.” I just want to ask questions and get answers. Really, I just want to be listened to more. You have to listen to me if this show is about my life.
Even though it only lasted a season, Cristela did help pave the way for Latina-led shows we have now, like Netflix’s One Day at a Time. Is that a bittersweet thing to acknowledge?
Absolutely. It’s completely awesome and bittersweet. I’ve said this before, but I wish my show existed at the same time as One Day at a Time, ’cause that’s what we need more of. We need more Latino shows so no one has to represent the whole culture. If we had One Day at a Time and Cristela on at the same time, you would see the differences and similarities between a Cuban and Mexican family. You would understand that we’re actually just real people. I love that networks and streaming services didn’t wait another five years to give another Latino show a shot, because that was my fear. So I’m glad about that.
What are your plans now? You're writing more material?
Yeah, actually I’m gonna be in the new Cars movie, which is coming out this summer from Pixar and I have a pretty sizable role, so I’m excited about that. There’s gonna be toys available of my character, which is kind of mind-blowing. And right now I’m slowly working on my next hour. As long as it takes, that’s how long it’ll take. And who knows, maybe I’ll develop a new TV show for next fall.