"These kids are really rich AND they get to fly": Cristela Alonzo on "Peter Pan," her immigrant upbringing, and being a Latina in the TV biz

The woman behind "Cristela" talks to Salon about the current TV landscape and creating a breakout hit

Published December 11, 2014 11:59PM (EST)

Cristela Alonzo in "Cristela"     (ABC/Adam Taylor)
Cristela Alonzo in "Cristela" (ABC/Adam Taylor)

ABC’s “Cristela,” which debuted this fall, has quickly become one of my favorite shows on television. It’s funny and moving and smart, all at the same time, which is no easy accomplishment, in the 22-minute installments it gets as a network comedy. In its format and timing, it feels like a throwback, but in every other way, it’s novel: A show about a Latino family in Dallas, created, written by, starring and named after Cristela Alonzo. “Cristela” the show is a lot like Cristela the person: undeniably influenced both by Latino and American culture, able to laugh about pretty much anything, enthusiastic about the Dallas Cowboys. This Friday, “Cristela” is airing its Christmas episode, “It’s Not About the Tamales,” fresh off the news that ABC has ordered a full season of the show. I talked with Alonzo about her family’s influence on “Cristela,” how her dream to make a show became real, and as a former musical theater kid, what she thought of “Peter Pan Live!”

I've found “Cristela” to be such a fascinating and unique phenomenon. It's rare enough to have a female showrunner in this industry; you're a female showrunner who has a show about her own life. How did that happen?

I wanted to do it for a while when I was younger, but it was such an impossibility because I was a Latino. We don't have enough Latinos on TV just getting cast in supporting roles; the idea of having your own show named after you seemed like such a long shot. When I was in college, everybody told me that if I wanted to do theater I could only do “A Chorus Line” and “West Side Story.”

That's why I started doing stand-up — I wanted to write my own material and have control over what I said and did. My stand-up has a lot of performance in it, and I loved doing it so much that after years I put the idea of having a show on the back burner. Then I switched agencies and my new agent told me my stand-up could be a TV show. I thought, "Oh, that's ridiculous," and they were like, "No, no, I think you'd be great! This woman has been looking for a project that sounds just like your life, you should meet with her!" 

And literally the day after I signed with my agency I was in her office and we just hit it off. She [“Cristela” executive producer Becky Clements] just got everything. She was the one that said, "I think we can do this. Your life is so interesting." I never think my life is interesting. I don't think anyone thinks their life is interesting, you know what I mean? Someone tells you that and you're like, “Are you sure?”

I just decided to trust Becky. What's the worst that could happen? It doesn't get picked up and then I keep doing stand-up. But that didn't happen. Becky made such a champion of me. She wanted to do this project and give me complete power, because with a project that features a Latino family she wanted to have full control to make it as authentic as possible to my family, which I thought was so refreshing.

That's fantastic. As outsiders to the television business we know the producers have so much power, but it's interesting to hear that this producer wanted to take a chance on you.

It's never happened! But it happened to me my first time, you know? 

So the characters are based on your family?

Yes. Everybody in the show is based off of someone from my real life. 

How do they feel about that?

Actually, they think I've captured them perfectly — including my mom! Everything we do in the show is very honest. I wanted to show the people, the characters, what they're really like in real life. Everybody from my family thinks I captured everybody perfectly. They love it.

How big is your family?

Two brothers and a sister, my niece, my nephew ... we're a very small group. We're very close, very tight-knit. We spend every holiday weekend together. We didn't have a lot of family here in the United States when my mom came here so we really only had each other and we've kind of just stayed with it. I have two brothers and a sister but I feel like I have 50 people in my life.

One of the things I've liked so much about the show is that no one's ever really the bad guy, even though people are wrong a lot. I was especially thinking that about the character Felix, because I think he's often in opposition to your character. 

He's based on my brother-in-law in real life. My sister and my brother-in-law have been married for about 25 years, and in 25 years we have never hugged. The closest we get is shaking hands, like a business connection. It's always this weird thing, like (formal voice), "Hello, Cristela," "HELLO." It's so weird. We love each other as best we can. But he's such a traditional guy that he always saw me as the crazy black sheep in the family. He thought my ideas were so modern, you know? That's totally what he's like on the show and in real life.

I've always told people that I understand not everyone will love my character— because it's impossible to be liked by everyone. What we do is make every character in the show as real and as likable as possible, so that someone who watches the show will connect with not necessarily me but with somebody. The point is not to make them seem like terrible people — it's just that they're rooted in their own reality and they believe in what they're doing. That's what makes them not bad people. 

Is this based on your family at some point in the past? Are you telling stories from something that happened a little while ago?

Yes. The show is based on a time in my life when I had to move back home to take care of my sister's kids and my mom, when my mom got sick. I was trying to think of a time that would describe the struggle I wanted to show, which is that I'm the person in my family who's the most evolved — like, I’m connected to my traditional Mexican roots, but I'm very Americanized. My family doesn't understand trying to chase your dreams, because they were all about survival.

The time when this takes place was actually the worst time in my life. In the show I chose to be a lawyer, but in real life the show takes place right before I started doing stand-up, and my family couldn't understand stand-up. I had to stop everything I was doing to become basically my sister's kids' nanny and the caretaker for my mom. In real life, my mom ended up passing away about a year after I moved in. Through tragedy you can come up with the best stories, so I thought that time in my life would be so rich for the show. You have a family that can't make ends meet unless they all live together under one roof, you have family members that stop their lives to help out with family — I mean, I think that's where you find the funniest moments.

That’s the other thing about the “Cristela”: Things are intense and people have conversations about ideas, but then there's a joke sprinkled in every sentence or so. You almost don't realize how heavy it is because it's so funny.

That's really the goal. For my family, we make jokes when we fight, we make jokes when we're talking about something bad; that's just what we use as a defense mechanism. So I thought, how cool would it be to have a family that's just like that? Because I know we're not the only ones who do that. 

I know being a Latina artist is a big part of your identity and your mission with this show. How long did it take for your family to get it? Were they always supportive and understanding? 

(Laughs.) I'll let you know when that happens. They still don't get it. It's hard for them, you know? It's such a weird thing for my family to understand; it's so hard for them to get that I wanted to do this. It seems so trivial to them. I don't think they've ever gotten that wanting to make people laugh and entertain people was something that is really in me. They didn't understand that that was the most important thing to me. As my career happened they've been as supportive as they can be, but they're not fully 100 percent supportive because they're incapable of understanding what's going on.

Being an artist is so at odds with the immigrant mind-set. 

Exactly. My mom told my family that chasing dreams was something only rich people did because they were the only ones who were allowed to go do something with their lives. My mom was always about being safe. She never wanted us to be disappointed or have our hearts broken. Her dream job for me was to cut hair; she'd always say that people's hair still grows in a recession. Anything that was very chancy, she didn't understand. She'd say, “Why are you doing this? You come from a family that's in poverty, why would you do this where you might end up in poverty again?” I've always told my family that I can't describe it to them, but they have to trust me. If this takes off, they will be taken care of. 

How are people outside of your family responding to the show?

It’s kind of surprising. I can't tell you how much support I get from the Latino community. Latinos who contact me on social media are so supportive of me that they treat me like I'm religion to them. They're part of my family. I was telling my brother back home over Thanksgiving that I've realized how important this show is to people who feel like they don't have a voice, and that is probably the best thing that's happened to me with the show. What we're doing with the show has mattered so much to certain people out there. And not only Latinos; I really like that this show appeals to families, that there's parents and kids out there all watching the show together as a family like we used to.

You've been talking about being in a space where you can give a voice to an experience where you previously didn't have a voice. Now, your show is making it. How do you stay connected to that mission?

I don't really have anything that's changed. I think the person kind of chooses how much they let it affect them. My favorite thing to do is go to Target and spend hours there looking for random stuff; I love going to the clearance racks and finding things on clearance because I feel like I win. You know? (Laughs.)  I think the person you are, you always end up staying true to that person, and I think my family does a great job of keeping me grounded. They always help me to remember where I come from. 

I know you really, really like musicals. What did you think of “Peter Pan”?

I'll be honest, I went in with a negative feeling about it because I don't like the show. Watching Peter Pan as a poor kid, you're like, "What the hell am I watching?" These kids are really rich and they get to fly ... as a poor kid you're like, “Can't Peter Pan just bring me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? I'm hungry! I don't need to fly, I'm just hungry!”

What musical do you want to see next? 

I think we need to show musicals that can get kids interested in the arts. “Grease” would be fun, because kids love “Grease.” It's a lot of dancing, a lot of cool songs. I think “Mary Poppins” should be the next one, actually. That's a great one. Why not? She's a flying nanny! I'll sign up.

So many of these musicals that are standards are really white. I can understand why NBC didn’t necessarily want to do colorblind casting with a classic. But I feel like there should be some middle ground between avant-garde theater and century-old musicals ...

When I was in high school, one of our plays was an all-Mexican production of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” For a group of Mexicans to try to re-create WWII is ridiculous! I was surprised they didn't have mariachis instead of Nazis.

I would watch that, though.

I think we do a disservice if we don't do blind casting. You might find the most talented person who isn't what you expected for a role. Someone who's multi-talented, naturally gifted, shouldn't be passed over just because their skin might not be the color a character is supposed to have.

What other TV shows are you enjoying right now?

Oooooh, let me see, let me see. I like “Mad Men” when it's on, just for the design of it. I mean, come on. Not a single person in the office is Latino? But OK, I'll get on board. I like watching “Modern Family”; I like watching [“The Big Bang Theory”], actually. I like fun shows. I watch a lot of iD channel, forensics and stuff. I met up with Roseanne Barr about a month ago and we did nothing but talk about that channel. People walk by and we're talking about murders — "Did you see that guy that got killed?" "Yes I did, that was a good one!" It sounded like we were plotting a crime. 

I feel like the audience for that channel is primarily women.

You know why? I have a theory that it's Lifetime movies that set us up for that. Right? Lifetime movies were always about women getting murdered, beat up, everything, and now we're like kind of crazy good murderers.

“Cristela” airs at 8:30 p.m. on Fridays on ABC. It’s also available on Hulu.

By Sonia Saraiya

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