Cristela Alonzo is used to being the first.

She was the first Latina to create and star in her own network sitcom, Cristela. She was the first Latina to voice a lead in a Pixar film, as Cruz Ramirez in 2017’s Cars 3. That same year, she became one of the first Latinas to perform in a Netflix stand-up special, Cristela Alonzo: Lower Classy. This past October, she became one of the only Latinas to host a nationwide game show, the CW Network’s reboot of Legends of the Hidden Temple.

Alonzo is immensely proud to have broken so many barriers. And, of course, she’s grateful for the opportunities she couldn’t have imagined while growing up as the daughter of an undocumented Mexican mother in South Texas. But there’s also a downside to always being the first.  

There’s the disbelief—the feeling of Really? It seems like I shouldn’t be. And, as the 43-year-old has learned over two decades in the business, being first has meant navigating a cultural gap with an industry lacking Latino representation at the top. For example, Alonzo says, Netflix, in all its algorithmic wisdom, originally placed Lower Classy, which was recorded in English at San Antonio’s Empire Theater, in its Latin America section, alongside Colombian telenovelas and Argentinian documentaries. She also says the special didn’t receive strong promotion in the streaming giant’s U.S. stand-up category. 

For Alonzo, there’s also the persistent fear that if she fails, the door for aspiring Latino talent will slam shut. “That’s the pressure in the industry,” she said. “You want to do it right so that you’re not the last one to do it.”  

Alonzo thought she had reached the mountaintop in 2014. She had her own TV show, and the future seemed bright for Latinos in mainstream entertainment. Then Cristela was dropped after its first season, in 2015. The following year, Donald Trump was elected president after demonizing Latinos and especially Mexican immigrants. Alonzo fell into a deep depression. In 2017 she wrapped up her major acting obligations and stopped performing. Instead, she spent most of her time writing a memoir, 2019’s Music to My Years, and working on voter-mobilization efforts and with organizations serving low-income and immigrant communities. 

After four years away from the comedy scene, Alonzo has returned to stand-up. Her second Netflix special, Middle Classy, will be released in June. She has a new perspective on her life and career and all the pain she’s
experienced—and she wants to talk about what brought her back to the stage. 

The youngest of four, Alonzo spent the first seven years of her life squatting in an abandoned diner until her mother, who worked double shifts as a cook, could afford a home. “Cable TV was our babysitter,” she said. “My brothers were really into stand-up, and I loved it. I never thought it was something for me because of the environment I grew up in. I thought that jobs had to be physical or hard.” 

But when she watched the Tony Awards for the first time, in middle school, she felt a calling. “I was like, ‘Whatever this is, I want to do it,’ ” she recalled. She began taking drama classes in eighth grade and, by her count, had racked up around two hundred trophies for prose, humor, and improv competitions by the time she finished high school. She decided she wanted to be a stage actor and in 1997 went to Webster University, in St. Louis, to study theater. But after just one year, her mother told her she had to drop out. Alonzo’s older sister needed help taking care of her kids, and the family couldn’t afford to support Alonzo. She reenrolled at Webster in 1999 but was forced to drop out for good shortly afterward, when her mother’s health declined following several strokes.

Alonzo spent most of the next three years as her mother’s primary caregiver. The pair had always been close; they had slept in the same bed for most of Alonzo’s childhood. They moved in with Alonzo’s sister, in Dallas, to cut down on expenses and lived there until Alonzo’s mother died, in 2002. A 23-year-old with no clue what to do next, Alonzo responded to a posting for an office manager position that wasn’t totally clear about where it was located. It ended up being at Dallas’s Addison Improv. 

“I lied and said I could do all of this stuff, and I got the job,” she said. “I got to see comics every week, and I was so in love with it. That’s when I realized that [comedy] was a job.” Still grappling with the loss of her mother, Alonzo started writing jokes about their relationship. She took a stand-up course with Dallas comedian Dean Lewis. The final assignment was performing a set at Addison. “I remember going up there, and everyone in the audience was a friend or family member of the people in the class, so it was very nurturing,” she said. “I got so many laughs in that set that I was like, ‘Oh my god, I love this. Why have I held off on doing this?’ ”

Lewis advised Alonzo to make her jokes as specific as possible—the more she wrote about her own experiences, the more universal they would be to the audience. “I started writing about my mom because I missed her so much,” she said. “I thought about what I remembered about her. She was very Catholic, and she would judge everybody, which was so not Catholic. I started writing down specific examples of that, and one of my first jokes was about how, when she would give directions, she would tell you the people she hated in the neighborhood. Like ‘You’re gonna go past Maria’s house. You know Maria? The whore?’ ” Comedy felt like a natural way for Alonzo to express herself. “I always said I would try it out until it stopped being fun,” she said.

Alonzo’s approach to the entertainment world has shifted since she finished writing her memoir. For so long, she avoided talking about her behind-the-scenes experiences at Cristela, afraid she might seem ungrateful or dramatic. . . . No longer.

After touring the country on the stand-up circuit for a few years, Alonzo settled down in Los Angeles, where, in 2013, she got the chance to turn her material into the pilot for her own show, Cristela. She considered it a love letter to her late mother and a chance for viewers to embrace a Mexican American family on TV. It had been six years since George Lopez ended, and Ugly Betty had been canceled in 2010. Latino families didn’t have many options to see themselves on television. 

ABC picked up the pilot for the 2014–2015 season, ordering a total of 22 episodes after receiving an overwhelmingly positive response from test audiences. Alonzo is still proud of the show, but certain memories of that time continue to gnaw at her: Alonzo says Cristela never got a promotional billboard, that she was asked to do more promotions in Spanish than in English, that she had to fight for an executive producer credit, and that the show was slated for Fridays—a TV-ratings dead zone.

Still, the show premiered to good numbers, with Alonzo in particular earning praise. In the Atlantic, critic David Sims noted that Cristela was “twice as good as any other multi-camera sitcom on the air,” in part because the show wove classic sitcom one-liners together with emotional storytelling that challenged viewers rather than spoon-feeding them life lessons. “The show does such a tremendous job being about Latin culture, and the difficulties of scaling the class ladder as an immigrant, without ever feeling polemical,” Sims wrote. But viewership gradually declined. 

Alonzo was performing in Fort Lauderdale a few months after the first season finale and had just walked offstage when she got a call from a producer letting her know Cristela had been canceled. She was crushed. She wrote in her memoir, “Having a sitcom on TV was the peak of my dream at that point. I had been the underdog and had won. I knew that this might never happen again.” 

She was waiting for something different to come along when Pixar offered her the role of Cruz Ramirez, in 2015. Originally a small part, Cruz became a colead as many of Alonzo’s own stories and struggles were incorporated into the character. Lower Classy, filmed just months before the 2016 election, should have been another major milestone, but what Alonzo saw as its bungled promotion left a bad taste in her mouth. “No one could find it,” she said. “I had fans asking me where it was.” 

Then came the presidential results. Hoping to get her mind off things, she organized a family vacation for her siblings, nieces, and nephews in Honolulu, but an encounter with a few racist tourists there—they harassed her brother and nephew, insisting that they weren’t American—made her rethink everything. “When I got back from that trip, I was determined to take action,” she would later recall. “I told my agents that I didn’t want to tour with my stand-up. I wanted to take time off from work and focus on trying to help people.” She also needed time to reflect, to unpack the twists and turns of her life and career, so she began writing it all down. 

Television Cristela Alonzo
Alonzo in Los Angeles on April 23, 2022.Photograph by Yuri Hasegawa

I caught up with Alonzo last August in San Antonio, where she was performing at Laugh Out Loud comedy club. It was the third stop on her tour ahead of filming Middle Classy, which would be recorded six months later in Beverly Hills.

“My roommate my freshman year—she was from Tennessee,” she told the crowd. “She had never met a Latina before in her life . . . [Her family] had to clean their own house, obviously. That’s how some of them know us.” She explained through the laughter that while they were setting up their dorm room, her roommate’s mother invited her out to dinner at Olive Garden. “We’re eating the never-ending bread sticks and salads,” she said. “You know how the salads come with peperoncini? They kind of look like jalapeños if you’ve never seen a f—ing jalapeño before. My roommate’s mom sees one, gets so excited, grabs a fork, stabs one, looks at me and says, ‘Mhmm . . . I know who wants this!’ ” 

Watching her, you wouldn’t know she’d taken four years off. The venue felt especially intimate; there were only about seventy people, in part because of COVID-19 protocols, and most attendees were Latino. There was a bit of pandemic humor sprinkled in over the hour. 

While much of Lower Classy revolved around her South Texas childhood, Middle Classy is about Alonzo’s life after fame: “You know that phrase ‘money can’t buy you happiness’?” she asked the crowd. “When I got health insurance, I found out I had anxiety and depression. All this time, I just thought I was poor. Of course I’m sad—I’m hungry! Money bought me happiness, and it’s called Prozac.”

Whether she’s talking about something goofy or something heavy, such as her 2019 diabetes diagnosis, Alonzo’s delivery is always conversational. To her, comedy isn’t about exaggerations or stereotypes; it’s about finding humor in her everyday life. “Anyone can exaggerate,” she told me. “But for me, I think it’s always funny to be true.” 

Alonzo’s approach to the entertainment world has shifted since she finished writing her memoir. For so long, she avoided talking about her behind-the-scenes experiences at Cristela, afraid she might seem ungrateful or dramatic. And as pleased as she was about what she’d been able to accomplish, she wasn’t always comfortable staking her claim as a trailblazer. 

No longer. Last year the Los Angeles Times published a report on Hollywood’s “Latino culture gap,” featuring conversations with Latino leaders in the industry. Alonzo wasn’t interviewed, but she made her opinion known in a June 13 tweet reading, “Apparently in these times when people are writing articles and talking to Latino writers and creators about shows, mine never existed.” It seemed to work: Alonzo was invited for an interview on The Times, the newspaper’s flagship podcast, a few days later to discuss the report.

When I brought up those tweets to her a few months later, she doubled down. “Can we talk about me?” she asked. “Can we talk about how I was the first? Can I get some recognition for that?” 

It could read as bitter, but talking to Alonzo in person, it seems to be coming from somewhere else: a long-overdue confidence. For the first time, Alonzo is determined to return to the industry on her terms. She’s started working with collaborators she trusts and saying yes only to projects that excite her in the way comedy first did. The months between her gig in San Antonio and the recording of Middle Classy were especially fruitful. She received her first writing credit for a feature-length film, Holiday in Santa Fe, a Lifetime Christmas movie starring Mario Lopez. And the first season of Legends of the Hidden Temple premiered on the CW. It garnered decent ratings, with reviewers noting Alonzo’s enthusiasm and natural banter with contestants, though with the network facing a potential acquisition, the show’s future is unclear. 

Getting back into stand-up seems to have brought Alonzo the most satisfaction. While filming Middle Classy didn’t quite go according to plan (Alonzo had to postpone for a few weeks after testing positive for COVID the day before she was set to record), finishing it has been a reinvigorating reminder of how much she loves the process. Still, she’s not taking any chances. 

Near the end of her set in San Antonio, she addressed the crowd earnestly about her upcoming special. “I ask for your support because I have learned that being one of the first Latinas to do s— is very f—ing hard,” she said. She mentioned Netflix’s blunder with her first special. “They think we’ll find it, like we don’t need promotion. So I’m telling everybody: I need the support because they don’t know what to do with it.”

To Alonzo, everything in her life has happened for a reason. Every mistake or hardship is an opportunity for her to learn. It’s an outlook that comes naturally to her because of her upbringing, but it’s also a rule of life that she needs to be true. If she can cobble together meaning from the cancellation of her show or a rejected script, then she can move on, build something new, or create something better. She’s eager to get back out in the world and push past whatever new barriers she encounters. 

“I realized that I’m never going to have that moment where I feel like I’m ready, especially after going through something so heavy. This time around, I’m ready to trust in myself,” she said. “I think I needed this journey to actually have proof that it could be different. I’m willing to give it another try.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Don’t Mess With Cristela.” Subscribe today.

Additional credits: Hair and makeup: Troy Jensen; wardrobe: Gaëlle Paul.