Cristela Alonzo created Cristela based on her life, making television history by being the first Latina to co-create a show, co-executive produce, write it and star in the title role for an English-language broadcast TV network show. The show takes place at a point in time when the real-life Cristela dropped out of college to take care of her mother the last year of her life. She had put her education and aspirations of a career in entertainment aside to go live with her mother, her sister and her husband, and their two children. In the show, Cristela the character is a law student, having to explain to her traditional family why working for free in an internship at a big law firm is a step forward in her career. Alonzo’s mother had sacrificed to come to the U.S. from Mexico to give her family a better life. They were so poor they squatted in an abandoned diner for a year, but to her mother, they had made it, they were in America. “I always think of my mom as a person whose story is never told,” Alonzo explained. “It’s a story that is never appreciated or recognized [on TV] — it’s a heroic story.”
A first generation Latina, Alonzo grew up in a bilingual world watching her favorite shows like the Golden Girls, The Cosby Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show while speaking Spanish to her mom. She learned how to sing and dance watching videos of Broadway musicals and dreamt that someday she too could attain the American dream. Her love for sitcoms dictated the show’s format, just like her life dictated the content. “I wanted to tell the story of people like me so that people like me can be inspired and know that they have a shot.[My show is] based on a time that was really sad for me, but I never let go of the dream. I started doing stand up as therapy to get over my mom’s death,” Alonzo recounted. It was also a way to write her own material, and doing stand up actually prepared her for producing her own TV show. “With stand up you have all the creative control,” and for Alonzo it was very important she have that control, which she was given, something almost unheard of for an “unproven” talent and producer.
“When you start life off being so poor that you don’t have enough to eat, to get a call from a network like ABC that would give you a chance of a lifetime, you can’t even put it into words,” said Alonzo as she began to choke up. She explained that that is why she worked so hard prior to the show’s premiere. Between her on-camera duties, her writing/producing work, and her time promoting the show, Alonzo was getting only 5 hours of sleep a day, which she gladly did because as she said, “I don’t want to wait another five years for someone like me to have a shot.”
Alonzo is constantly amazed her show actually made it on the air, because it almost didn’t. She teamed with writer Kevin Hench (Last Man Standing, Jimmy Kimmel Live) to write the pilot script which they sold to ABC. Executive producer Becky Clements (Last Man Standing) came on board as the showrunner based on falling in love with Alonzo and her life story. However, ABC did not give them a pilot order and that could have been the end of that. But the producers decided to use the “penalty” (a small amount of money given to them by the network for not moving forward with the pilot) to shoot an episode and show the network their vision. ABC, in turn, screened it to audiences and the show tested through the roof. That is how Cristela came to be known in Hollywood as the “little show that could,” and what started the buzz.
Here to Stay
As for Latinos behind the camera, there are over a dozen new and existing executive producers besides Alonzo, including Sergio Aguero (Red Band Society), Norberto Barba for NBC’s Grimm, Guillermo del Toro (The Strain) and Roberto Orci, who is both creator and executive producer of three shows on air this season, Hawaii 5-0, Sleepy Hollowand El Rey’s Matador. However, according to “The Latino Media Gap,” the 2013 study conducted by Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race at Columbia University, “a comparison between Latino media employment today and in earlier periods reveals very modest gains alongside stagnation and decline.”
What this tells is us is that in comparison to the number of U.S. Latinos (53 million and counting) there is a need for more Latino roles to be written and more Latino show runners and executives to tell those stories authentically. There is no one show that will do that, whether Cristela orJane the Virgin. With more Latino-themed shows that succeed, or Latinos as leads in show that are hits, Hollywood will follow the money. Because if there is one undeniable truth, it’s that Latinos have arrived in Hollywood and are here to stay.
For Alonzo, if there is one thing that no one can take away from her, is that with her show she has created jobs for Latinos in front and behind the camera. She was responsible for hiring four Latino writers, casting five Latino TV regulars, and even had time to mentor and then hire a production assistant on the show. And if there is one thing Alonzo is certain of, it’s that, “In order for us to break that glass ceiling instead of cleaning it, we’ve got to actually get more people into the business.”
As she continues her mission in Hollywood, Alonzo is sure of her path. “My job is to create work so that we can all work, and even if the show goes away, I’m not going anywhere.”
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