Valley native trying to change Latino perceptions with her comedy
San Juan native and comedian Cristela Alonzo was admittedly distressed when Donald Trump won the presidency. She spent a week after the election with civil rights icon Dolores Huerta, who caught her crying.
Huerta inquired as to the source of her tears, and Alonzo replied that the presidential election result left her heartbroken.
“She said, ‘oh, that’s cute. I forgot. This is probably the first time your country has ever broken your heart,’” Alonzo recalls Huerta saying, not missing a beat. “‘I’ve gone through it a lot. Trust me, you’ll be fine.’”
In 1968, Huerta stood with Robert Kennedy as he expressed support for farmworkers shortly before his assassination. And the legendary activist’s ribs were broken, and her spleen ruptured, in a 1988 beating by San Francisco police during a protest of policies of then-presidential candidate George H. W. Bush.
Hearing Huerta’s response — putting Alonzo’s disappointment in historical context — changed her perspective.
“ You realize while you’re scared, it’s something that you have to keep marching forward,” Alonzo said.
Alonzo’s shout out to Huerta was the first thing she said while guest hosting “The View” last month. She was promoting her new Netflix comedy special, “Lower Classy,” which premiered Jan. 24.
“I wore this pin for Dolores Huerta, who is actually a very famous Latina activist that everyone should know,” said Alonzo, who attended the historic Women’s March in Washington, D.C. the previous weekend. “She wanted to be there, so I wore the pin in spirit because I wanted to support her because she’s done amazing work.”
ABC’s 2014, one-season comedy, “Cristela,” made Alonzo the first Latina to create, executive produce, write and star in her own major network sitcom.
The comedy special was filmed at the Empire Theater in San Antonio. Alonzo always knew her first hour-long special would be filmed in Texas and chose the Alamo City because of its central location in the state. While her stand-up career blossomed in the Dallas area, the Valley native hasn’t forgotten her roots.
People don’t understand the nuance of life on the border, she said. In interviews, Alonzo stresses the importance of the Valley’s relationship with cities across the border calling them “sisters.”
“No one talks about the people from Mexico that come here to the United States … buy products and then they go back to Mexico,” Alonzo said.
Alonzo’s stand-up special is titled “Lower Classy” because there is a way of life for people who grew up poor, she said, and it’s not talked about enough. It’s for everyone who doesn’t know places like the Rio Grande Valley exist.
Alonzo’s comedy is politically charged, touching on race, the wall and civic participation.
“I’m Latina. We don’t vote,” she said during the special. “Not unless it’s “American Idol” or “The Voice,” right? We won’t do it.”
Alonzo — who said she isn’t a Republican or Democrat “because I want to be able to criticize both parties” — was admittedly “bitter” at the Latino turnout in the 2016 election.
The comedian reminisced about her time at John Doedyns Elementary where she learned about the Electoral College, voting and participated in a mock election. It’s a powerful lesson that stuck with Alonzo.
“When I grew up in the Valley, we didn’t really have the luxury to vote, because we were too busy trying to survive,” she said. “We need to stop doing that. We need to teach people this is part of our responsibility of living here.”
She spoke of disillusionment during her guest spot on “The View,” railing against the example set for children by the culture of negativity on social media.
“You’re teaching them the system is broken and there’s nothing they can do,” she said. “What we have to do is put in the work and realize change might not happen in our lifetime, but that doesn’t mean we don’t do the work.”
Participation goes beyond patriotism, she said.
“It’s all about: do you want to fight for what you believe is right?” she said. “Do you want to be able to protect people you feel are going to need help?”
Alonzo devotes her time to causes because she said she knows what it’s like to be without, in need or persecuted.
“I know what it’s like to be discriminated against — not have anything,” Alonzo said. “It feels terrible and I want to make sure that people don’t go through or feel what I grew up with.”
It’s easy to vilify people one doesn’t understand, or repeat things one has heard on TV, she said.
As a touring comic, Alonzo said she’s met Americans who have never met a Latino.
“That’s the thing that kind of leads to the political climate that we’re in right now. We have so many people talking about certain lives (and) ... people they’ve personally never met,” she said. “Until you put a heart and soul to these people, you can’t really criticize them because you don’t know what’s happening.
Alonzo pushes for specifics when confronting uninformed notions about Latinos.
“When someone says, ‘these people are coming over here and taking away our jobs,’ I want to tell them, ‘tell that story and about that moment when someone came to this country and took away your job,’” Alonzo said. “You can generalize all you want. If you don’t have proof, then it’s not really true.”
Alonzo said people might not agree with her, but no one can tell her it didn’t happen. She lived it.
More Latino representation in the media, aside from the occasional celebrity PSAs, is needed, she said.
Selena is described as a superhero in Alonzo’s “Lower Classy,” and an example of how desperate Latinos are to see themselves represented.
“I wanted to reference Selena because I struggled so much in fighting to try to get Latinos represented and she is one of the biggest names we have,” she said. “This woman — this icon — died over 20 years ago and that makeup line sold out in minutes. That’s how much we crave a representative of the culture — that we have to go back 20 years.”