LOS ANGELES | Growing up in an abandoned diner, Cristela Alonzo used to watch TV to escape from a life of poverty.
“My mom worked double shifts at a Mexican restaurant for about 20 years,” she says. “We had a rule at our house that we could only speak in Spanish. So we could only watch English TV when she was at work…which was always.”
Alonzo reveled in Nick at Nite shows, waited for “Roseanne,” “The Cosby Show,” “Cheers” and “Murphy Brown.” Because television showed her there was a better life, she clung to the dream of one day being in show business. “No one ever told me as a kid that I couldn’t do anything.”
Mom insisted she be realistic. After a year at Webster University, Alonzo returned home to San Juan, Texas, to hel p her ailing mother. She didn’t give up on the entertainment dream, however.
“It would bother me if I didn’t try and had to live with the regret,” she says. So, standup comedy proved to be the door in.
Starting at local clubs, Alonzo says she found traction when she started doing comedy at colleges. Because some students had never seen a Latino, she found she had to educate them.
“To learn if Latinos even lived in the town, I’d go to the Walmart and see if they had Mexican food. If they did, I knew Latinos lived there. If they didn’t, I’d do an hour of standup and then a Q and A with students. I answered honestly and they were kind of impressed and amazed. My goal was to put a face to a culture they weren’t used to.”
That mindset served the 35-year-old well.
She landed spots in TV standup shows, then learned ABC was eager to do a show with a Latino lead. “Putting the Latina thing aside, it’s hard to get a TV show on the air,” she says. She had an idea – a series loosely based on her life – that meshed with the network’s goals.
And? This season she landed a spot on Friday nights in “Cristela.” Shot in a multi-camera format, it allows her to duplicate the experience of some of her favorite stars – it’s old school comedy -- and, she says, she loves every minute of it, particularly since she’s expanding most viewers’ impressions of Latinos.
“Modern Family’s” Sofia Vergara, she says, is a classic Latina. ‘She’s feisty, she’s gorgeous. She reminds me of my aunts and cousins. But I’m the person who never fell into that. I’m the other side….it’s like ‘The Big Bang Theory.’ You show the side of the nerds.”
The family situation reflects Alonzo’s, too. The relationships have their parallels and, frequently, Alonzo spars with her brother-in-law.
Pressure? “There should be no pressure, as long as you’re telling an honest story,” she says. “And, at the end of the day, if the show doesn’t go, I did everything I could to show who I am. As long as I tell my truth, I’ve won.”
Bright, bubbly and always armed with a laugh, Alonzo says family members trust that she won’t make fun of them through the show’s characters. “They’re very happy with what they can understand of it.”
Mom died before she could enjoy Alonzo’s success. But, the actress says, “I would like to think she’s very proud of what I’ve accomplished.”
“Cristela,” she says, is the opportunity of a lifetime.
Authenticity, producers say, is what Alonzo is selling. “Cristela is so much more than the star of the show,” says Kevin Hench. “She guides us and teaches us through every step of it. When we pitch ideas that aren’t right, she has no problem saying, ‘No, a Latino family would never do that.’ I feel like we’re in good hands with her because her truth is so powerful.”
Get Alonzo on other subjects – she’s a Dallas Cowboys’ fan, for example – and she can expound for more than an hour.
“I just fell in love with musical theater when I was about 8 years old,” she says. “I watched the Tony Awards and I always knew, ‘that’s what I want to do with my life.’”
While a Broadway musical could be the next big step, Alonzo’s not looking to write another “In The Heights.”
“I appreciated that show, but you know how certain composers don’t mesh with you? That’s how I felt. I love what it did, but I like more classic shows – ‘Into the Woods’. I like patter songs. It’s just a different genre,” she says of “Heights’” hip-hop music.
A Latina “My Fair Lady”? That might be just the ticket.