Cristela Alonzo, the Latina comedian, actress, writer, and producer, prides herself on honesty and intimacy, even when it makes people uncomfortable.
In 2014, she was the first Latina women to create, produce, write, and act in her own network sitcom. The eponymous series told the story of a multigenerational Mexican-American family whose experiences dealing with things like income disparity and workplace aggravation were inspired by Alonzo’s real life.
The show was canceled after one season, but in 2017 she achieved another first: She was the first Latina lead in a Disney Pixar film, voicing Cruz Ramirez in Cars 3. She also stepped on stage for Netflix in Lower Classy, where she continued to discuss personal issues, such as being first-generation American.
Now, on a combined stand-up and book tour for her memoir Music to My Years: A Mixtape Memoir of Growing Up and Standing Up, Alonzo intends to keep being honest.
Why did you decide to merge a stand-up and book tour together?
I know when people write books, they’ll do the book signing, but it’s a different environment than what I do for a living, which is stand-up. I wanted to find a way to combine both because they’re all an extension of me. My stand-up is very personal, my book is very personal.
I like to do personal, in stand-up comedy, I realized years ago, when it’s more personal, nobody can [steal] your jokes. And then I realized that the more specific you were, the more universal it was for people, because they can see that they had so many things in common with you.
My family felt very seen when we watched your show and your stand-up, but that was one of the only things making us feel that way at the time. Now, “One Day at a Time” comes to mind. Do you think we’re moving toward more representation for our community?
I think that right now, we’re doing better than we have, which I think we should acknowledge, but I think there’s so much work left to do. My show was a family sitcom. One Day at a Time [which will move from Netflix to CBS-owned Pop TV for its fourth season] is a family sitcom. I would like to see us grow, where it doesn’t have to be family-based. We can actually have a workplace series show that we are actual people that have dreams and have things that we want to accomplish. Now we need to work on evolving the narrative to where we actually don’t show the same thing over and over again, and we actually show other facets of our personalities.
Because of the current political climate, do you think it’s more difficult now for people to feel comfortable putting themselves out there to increase representation?
I can tell you that it’s a double-edged sword, because now people are more open to paying attention, and giving us opportunities because we’re so involved in showing our culture politically, socially. But because we get depicted in certain narratives, I think that the stories will be seen as redundant.
The Latino community, we won the lottery for immigration, we are the face of immigration. There are many countries across the world that have immigrants that live in this country, but for some reason we’re the ones that tell the immigrant story. When you do that you’re actually erasing immigrants from other countries. We all have our own story. It’s like, thank you for realizing that we exist. I love that. Now, can you let me have a life where I can laugh, have friends, date, and not feel like I have to tell a teacher a lesson about my culture in every episode?
Outside of teaching lessons, what’s your truth now?
I’m at the point where I want to talk about the challenges that I dealt with. Within the business, the tricky thing is that when you’re one of the few or the first ones to do something, you have no one to base it off of. You’re really guessing, and it’s hard. It’s important for me to talk about my journey and my struggles and my challenges, so that the next generation can see what I went through, and they can know that they don’t have to go through all of that.
What’s your advice to that younger generation?
The best chance you have at being successful is being honest about your story. I always tell people, if you’re in the business because you think you’re going to be famous or rich, don’t do it. You’re already setting yourself up for failure. When someone says that they want to be rich, or famous, how much fame is enough and how much money is enough?
Also know that we don’t have a lot of power in this world, but one of the powers we have is the power to say no. Don’t do something because you think you want to be busy. Do something because it’s important to you.
I grew up where you grew up in Texas and hearing you talk about it is really awesome. Do you go back home a lot?
Yeah, it’s funny — my brothers live in Edinburg and still teach where we grew up. And also, there’s actually a nonprofit organization named Lupus, that I’m on the board of. They help with a lot of the lower-income communities in the Rio Grande Valley. They’re based in San Juan, which is my hometown, so I go down and do events. In the past couple years, I’ve been going down there to help with things like DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] renewals and to protest the family separation. I did a hunger strike last year to bring awareness to the families being separated at the border.
My home is hard to explain to people. My home was made out of a lot of great people with good hearts that really tried their best to give their families something they couldn’t have. And I want to tell that story to people. I think we need to show more of that narrative and those stories, so that people know that we exist. All we hear is negativity about the community, but where are the stories of positivity? The Rio Grande Valley will always be my home. I always say I get to live in L.A. But when I go home, I visit my like taco places like they’re relatives.
I totally relate to that. I feel like people think it looks like what they see on the news. As you know, it doesn’t.
Right! There has been a great job done by the media that shows, “Oh, I wake up and everyone in my family’s in the cartel, at the playground we just have drive-bys everywhere.” Because that’s what you see in the news. It’s what I call agenda porn, because it gives you that salacious story. But I always tell people, “You like me, right? You think I’m a good person? Well that place made me, so maybe there’s more to it than what you’re seeing.” People think that violence and the negativity is sexy, that gets ratings. People don’t want to focus on the good because the positive stories aren’t as hot as the scandals. When you think of Texas you think of cattle everywhere, everybody’s wearing cowboy hats — and that part of Texas exists, but it’s not mine. It’s not all of Texas.
8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 10, Punch Line Philly, 33 E. Laurel St., $20-$30, punchlinephilly.com