Vanessa Gonzalez has used comedy as a coping mechanism since she was a kid growing up in Laredo. “I’m the only girl in a Mexican family, and I’m also the middle child, so it was just like the most . . . neglect,” she jokes. “I learned quickly that the way I got attention was by being funny. My parents’ generation, they don’t want to talk about feelings, so if I cried, it was like, ‘Stop that. Go to your room.’ What got me attention was being funny at school and at home. So I learned quickly that I like this, I like how this feels.”

Her material borrows heavily from her experiences growing up on the border. In the tradition of Margaret Cho and others, her mother, Esther, figures prominently in her routines. Her mom regularly attends Mass at their hometown Catholic church, while Gonzalez says she prays to Selena. Together, they can belt out an enthusiastic (if off-key) rendition of the late Tejano singer’s No Me Queda Más.

“VANESSA! VANESSA MARIE GONZALEZ! ONE X or TWO X?” she screams in the voice of her mom in one of her bits, recounting a typical mother-daughter shopping trip at Ross Dress for Less, where they would comb the clothing racks for Gonzalez’s size. “And I’m right here. I’m like, (whispering) ‘Mom! Ya. Stop yelling! One . . . one X.’ And every time she looks at me and says, ‘No, mijita’ (shaking her head vigorously and smirking) . . . ‘I don’t think so.’ ”

In 2024, Gonzalez will open for comedian Chelsea Handler for the third year in a row on the comedian’s international “Little Big Bitch” tour; in February, she will headline five shows in Austin at Cap City Comedy Club. She’s also landed some television work, including a new feature on the Netflix special Verified Stand-Up. As her star rises, Gonzalez wants to bring more awareness to her hometown through her own unique perspective, using comedy as a way of talking about politically fraught and complex topics, including immigration. “The people in Laredo in general just love laughing. Everybody has a great sense of humor. We would party a lot across the border, me and my friends,” she says, sipping a latte at Thunderbird Coffee in Austin on break from her current tour. “Everybody’s Mexican there, whether [or not] you were born across the border. And in my bubble, everyone’s Catholic.” 

Gonzalez’s parents worked for the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, which initially felt like territory she didn’t want to broach in stand-up. She’s changing her mind, though. “I do want to talk about it, because I’m acknowledging the comedy, the absurdity in it. I’m trying to be honest, and trying to be mindful—I want to say certain things, but also, some people don’t want to hear that. They don’t want to hear that at the border it is Mexicans telling Mexicans not to come in,” she says. “One of my best friends was undocumented, and I didn’t see anything wrong with that. That’s just how it was—a lot of kids in my school were undocumented, a lot of our parents worked for Customs and Border Patrol. And we just coexisted together.”

Comedy can be a vehicle for accessing the nuance that is missing in a lot of the national dialogue, Gonzalez says. “I feel like being Mexican, and being Texas-Mexican, specifically, it’s not a one-layer thing. It’s multidimensional; we’re full of contradictions. It doesn’t make sense. And I have yet to see us portrayed that way,” she says, noting that, for the most part, Mexican families portrayed in popular culture still tend to follow several worn-out stereotypes, or are limited to cheesy or tragic storylines. “It’s hard when people outside of Texas, outside the border, see us as this one thing. When I’m on tour with Chelsea and I’m like, ‘I’m from Texas!’ there’s no cheers. But also, I’m here, and there’s other people like me here.”

Gonzalez started out feeling doubtful that telling her life stories would resonate with larger audiences. After graduating with her theater degree from Texas State University, she explored improv and sketch comedy with the Latino Comedy Project, bravely stepping out for the first time with her own material one night when comedian friend Lisa Friedrich handed her the mic. “ ‘You’ve got five minutes, you’re going up,’ she told me. And I was like, ‘What am I going to say?’ And she’s just like, ‘Make up a story—you have so many stories about your family and about your mom.’ So that’s what I did. My first joke as a stand-up was just talking about my mom. And that took off from there.”

The occasional stand-up slot wasn’t enough to pay the bills, however, and after six years working as a preschool teacher (a gold mine for material) and a brief stint at a well-paying tech company job while fitting in comedy shows on weekends, she faced a crossroads. In 2017, she was invited to the prestigious cohort of New Faces of Comedy in the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal—where comics such as Kumail Nanjiani and Michelle Wolf got their start—and on the flight home she knew she had to leave Texas to pursue her dreams in Los Angeles. Her family and friends all supported the move.

“Everyone has always supported me and believed in me even before I could see it in myself,” she says. “My mom has always been a huge cheerleader of mine. Even though I make fun of her, she’s like, ‘Go, you’ve got it. If you didn’t have it, I would tell you.’ ” Those early years in L.A., she nabbed a debut appearance on Lilly Singh’s late-night talk show, an appearance on HBO Latino’s Entre Nos, and a thirty-minute Comedy Central Stand-Up Presents special. Then COVID-19 hit in 2020 and the live comedy scene ground to a halt. Shortly afterwards, Gonzalez’s mom was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Gonzalez moved back to Laredo to help support her mom during her treatment and did a few cringey, silent-audience Zoom stand-up shows, all the while mulling over whether she would eventually have to return to daycare work to make ends meet. But she still managed to have some fun during that bleak era: she joined her Austin-based comic friends at Master Pancake Theater, who had moved their live theatrical watch-along riffs from Alamo Drafthouse to Twitch, roasting cheesy movies as well as old episodes of Murder, She Wrote, Wheel of Fortune, Walker, Texas Ranger, and 9-1-1: Lone Star.

On most Thursday nights then (and occasionally even nowadays when her tour schedule permits), Gonzalez joined O.G. Pancaker John Erler and Austin comedian Ralphie Hardesty in virtual mocks in front of hundreds of diehard keyboard warriors, known as “Fancakes,” who chimed in on Twitch chat with jokes of their own. Out of all the major venues and large cities where Gonzalez has performed, Austin crowds are still the most intimidating, she says—she feels a huge responsibility to the loyal fans and friends she’s made here. She’s even developed a trademark move that drives the Fancakes wild: she has a singular way of crunching chips to break the tension during emotionally wrought scenes in all those cheesy TV dramas.

In the midst of her own not-so-crunchworthy drama back home, Gonzalez got a message from Chelsea Handler’s team asking her if she’d like to open for Handler’s 2021 “Vaccinated and Horny” tour in Santa Barbara. Gonzalez jokes that she wasn’t even following Handler on Instagram at the time (not a flex so much as a reflection of their different orbits) and scrambled to do so before what she thought was a one-time gig. 

“Depending on what the headliner wants, my experience as an opener is I’m in my green room, you’re in your green room; I do my set, you handshake at the end, and then you’re on your way. It’s very transactional, so I wasn’t expecting much, especially since she’s the most famous person I’ve opened for,” says Gonzalez. “But as soon as I met her, she ran up to me, hugged me, and was so warm and welcoming.” Handler invited Gonzalez to her green room where fans had left gifts of weed and alcohol and invited her to partake (“I have to perform,” Gonzalez remembers protesting. Handler quipped back that she did, too—that wasn’t stopping her).

The two comics have formed a bond while on the road, with Handler, 48, sometimes jokingly referring to Gonzalez, 38, as her daughter. “I know her whole family. I never feel like the odd one out. We’re like a close little tight unit, we all laugh a lot,” says Gonzalez. Handler has inspired Gonzalez to uplift other comedians, too. “When you go to comedy shows, it’s mostly dudes and one girl—rarely a queer person,” she says. “So anytime I get to choose my openers, I like to stack the show with female and queer voices.” 

But it’s another woman who is really behind Gonzalez’s success: Esther Gonzalez, who has since beaten cancer and takes full credit for her daughter’s trajectory (if not her hand-selected wardrobe). Gonzalez says: “Every time I get something, she’s like, ‘See, I told you.’ ”