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Comedienne Cristela Alonzo Hits the Small Screen With ABC's 'Cristela'

Photograph by ABC

(Pictured above: "Cristela" cast members Carlos Ponce, Terri Hoyos, Maria Canals-Barrera and Cristela Alonzo talk on set about the groundbreaking show. Photo: ABC/Adam Taylor)

Being represented in mainstream Hollywood has always been a struggle for Latinos. From the days when Latinos in the public eye had to change their names — such as Raquel Welsh, Martin Sheen and sports legend Ted Williams just to name a few — until today when roles for Latinos are still very limited to criminals or maids and janitors, the battle to be represented equally with real, authentic stories is ongoing and fierce. After many years of asking for more roles that represent who Latinos are today, comes ABC’s newest addition to it’s fall roster, “Cristela.”

“Cristela” is about a Mexican-American law school graduate who tries to balance her unpaid internship at a law firm with her quirky-but-loving family at home. That’s right, the Latina main character is an aspiring lawyer! That’s not the only thing that’s groundbreaking about the show: Stand up comedienne Cristela Alonzo is not only the lead character, but also the co-creator, co-executive producer and one of the co-writers of the show that is based on her own life. We got a chance to chat with Cristela while on the set of the show recently where we talked about her story, her life and being on a groundbreaking show.

Photograph by ABC

(Pictured above: ABC's "Cristela" stars Terri Hoyos as Natalia, Cristela Alonzo as Cristela, Isabella Day as Isabella, Maria Canals-Barrera as Daniela, Jacob Guenther as Henry and Carlos Ponce as Felix. Photo: ABC/Bob D'Amico)

Q&A WITH CRISTELA ALONZO

Q: How does it feel to be heading a show that is part of such a diverse, groundbreaking line up?

Cristela Alonzo: ABC has such a great TV line up this year that I’m so happy to be a part of because it's so diverse. You have a show about an African American family, an Asian family, a Latino family… It's weird because, they’re being fearless without being edgy. Like, they are being edgy without actually being edgy. They’re showing an accurate representation of the country, and just life in general, but it's groundbreaking. It's weird that in 2014, it's considered groundbreaking. It should have happened long ago, but I'm so honored to be part of the year that has it happen. Not only am I the first Latina to do a show like this on this level, on a network TV show, but I'm part of this very different line up that could have a positive reaction [from] everybody.

Q: What should do you want people to know about Cristela, besides that it’s about a Latino American family?

Cristela: I want to make it clear from the top that's it's not like I'm trying to represent a culture. When you aim to do that, you're going to disappoint somebody. The best thing I can do is be myself, tell my story from my point of view, with the people I've surrounded myself with. Every character on the show is based on someone real. So that's one thing I wanted to make sure of because I wanted to make sure that this show is authentic because that way if anyone has a criticism about anything, I can defend it because it's based on reality.

Q: So it’s autobiographical?

Cristela: The whole story takes place on something that happened to me about 10 years ago. I had to drop of college and move back home to help my sister take care of the kids and to help take care of my mom, who was sick. I wanted to tell that story because a lot of people put in that position would quit trying to chase what they really wanted to do. In my case, it was stand up. I really like doing comedy, I wanted to perform, I wanted to act and that was a hard thing for my family to understand [because] my mom was from Mexico, we're first generation Americans, so the concept of going to college was already a little hard because we couldn't afford it. So in order to chase a dream that seemed a little ridiculous because no one believed in me.

Q: Do you have a fear that you might fail? I mean, this is brand new territory.

Cristela: My family always had a saying, 'If it's not a long shot, it's Alonzo,’ you know? We always say that we have to try harder than everyone else because we started with nothing. But I also feel like I started with nothing; it's really kind of made me fearless in trying to do things because I have nothing to lose. I mean, at the end of the day, what happens? If I fail, I'm never [going to] go back to being as a poor as I was when I was a kid. So for me, it's like, why not try? It's always going to be better at the end. I will never be as poor as I was when I was born. So for me, it's like take every opportunity because at the end of the day, the only thing you can have is regret — and I don't want to have regret.

Q: What do you hope that people relate to while watching Cristela?

Cristela: When I was a kid, I was a latchkey kid and I loved TV. I watched sitcoms like “The Cosby Show,” “Roseanne,” “The Golden Girls,” and they didn't have a Latino cast but I related to them. That was what I learned — that as different as we may look, we are all very much alike. We all have the same story, the struggle, same dreams. I liked having those shows I could watch with my family, and those shows made me dream. I feel like now, we don't have a lot of those shows that tell those stories that kids can sit with their families and watch as a family and talk about things that they see on TV.

Q: What was it like trying to work in Hollywood as a struggling actress and stand up comic?

Cristela: When I moved to Los Angeles, I can't tell you how many auditions I had to turn down because they were all maids. There is nothing wrong with being a maid, it's that I would go in and they would make me do an accent, that I never did; I didn't have an accent. But, for the maid roles, I had to do an accent. Not only that, but they would tell you how authentic your accent was. I mean, really? If I'm more Mexican, I'm a piñata.

Q: Were you involved with designing of the set? I see little influences of Latin culture here, but it doesn’t beat you over the head; they’re subtle.

Cristela: Yes, I got to pick things that were around the set, in case I thought something was overboard or whatever. Really, they did such a great job of picking things that I didn’t have to do much. I wanted touches that made it feel like my family. My family is Americanized but we are still connected to the culture. Like, at Christmas we do posadas, we make tamales, you know. We are a Catholic family that has religious candles. You know, it’s like, we don’t have money to go to the doctor all the time, so we use Vicks and Sprite, and the Bible, and hope for the best. I wanted it to feel like a real family lived here.

Q: Besides the set input, how much are you really overseeing and contributing with the executive producer title? Sometimes you see these big names as “executive producers” but they aren’t really doing anything.

Cristela: Well the big names, that’s why they get that title because they are big names. I’m not. One of the most important things for me in this deal is that I wanted to be in the writers room and write. I didn't want to give up the power or control over the story or the voice because the name of the show is “Cristela,” and you only get one shot to get a show named after you.

"Cristela" premieres October 10th on ABC and will air on Fridays at 8:30 pm/7:30 pm CT. The show stars Terri Hoyos as Natalia, Cristela Alonzo as Cristela, Isabella Day as Isabella, Maria Canals-Barrera as Daniela, Jacob Guenther as Henry and Carlos Ponce as Felix.

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