From Mom Jokes To Trump-Era Racism, Cristela Alonzo Aims To Skewer Latino Stereotypes

Mar 5, 2017
Originally published on March 5, 2017 9:21 pm

Like most comedians, Cristela Alonzo draws upon her own experiences for her source material. That means, as a first-generation American, Alonzo has also always tackled challenging topics in her comedy. She now lives in California, but she grew up just 9 miles from the Mexico border, in San Juan, Texas.

From her mom's aversion to Girl Scouts to living in the Trump era as a Mexican American, Alonzo spoke with NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro about how she brings elements of her hometown to life on a national stage, most recently on her Netflix special, Cristela Alonzo: Lower Classy.

"I don't like when people try to make generalizations about people they've never met," she tells Lulu.

Through the digestible form of stand-up, though, Alonzo attempts to break down stereotypes that inevitably go with straddling two cultures. For example, in her special, Alonzo touches on things she's had to explain to her Mexican-born mother.

"First time she saw Girl Scouts, she thought they were border patrol agents ... in training," Alonzo says.

"She thought border patrol had a kid unit and every time she saw the cookies she would hide from them. And I'd say 'Mom, they're not trying to deport you, they're trying to sell you cookies.' " To which her mom would respond, "Ah, that's what you think! That's how they get you, mija, ah, you're stupid!" imitates Alonzo.

But although that joke gets a lot of laughs, Alonzo says it reveals a difficult truth.

"In reality, my mom actually had a fear of people in uniforms because she didn't know who could deport her or not when she was becoming a resident alien. Therefore, anytime someone had a uniform she was scared."

To listen to the full interview, click the audio link above.


Interview Highlights

On her childhood on the Texas-Mexico border

Even during the recession my hometown area was booming because of Mexico. Without Mexicans coming to buy our products, our economy in the United States in that area would be ruined. So my grandmother lived in Mexico, she lived in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, and we would go visit her every Monday. And a lot of my life was basically crossing over the bridge, going to Mexico, coming back. ...

That's another thing that people don't understand about that area, is that it's very normal for Mexicans to come to the United States, Americans to go to Mexico, to work and then they go back to their country at the end of the day.

On how her family came to live in the U.S.

When [my mother] was a little kid, she lived in this village. She lived in a rancho called El Zancarron. It's in the middle of nowhere. And she saw this piece of cardboard, when she was 11 or 12 I think she's told me, and the cardboard said "McAllen, Texas." And to her, it just sounded so exotic. That her goal in life to was move to McAllen, Texas. Because her village didn't have running water, didn't have electricity — nothing. She just wanted to go to a place with running water and electricity.

On the long, misunderstood process of becoming a permanent legal resident

My mom was undocumented in the United States for a while because the system takes so long to get your status clear that you have to become undocumented while you wait to become a resident alien. Even though she has the paperwork, she's still technically undocumented because it takes so long to get the paperwork done. It's really frustrating. ...

On how the Girl Scout story exemplifies Alonzo's approach to her comedy

I tell this story quite often to people because a lot of people think that immigrants come here and they take advantage of our system, they use the government programs for their benefit. And my mom actually ended up passing away very young because she refused to go to the doctor; she refused to seek any medical attention that might've been provided for by the government, because A, she didn't know what programs existed, but B, she just didn't want to take advantage, and she was actually kind of scared to use the programs [although she was entitled to as a legal resident by that point], and that's the reality for a lot of people.

On whether her life has changed after the election of President Donald Trump

[On a family trip to Honolulu, Hawaii, two weeks after the election,] we are going to have dinner and there's an hour wait at the restaurant we're at. My family decides to go away, and it's my oldest brother, me and my oldest nephew who is mid-20s, he's special needs. ... And these two people come up — strangers, don't know them — and they ask my brother, "Where you from?" And my brother, sweetest man ever, I adore this guy, says, "I'm from Texas." And these two guys are like, "Liar, you're from Mexico, go back to Mexico."

And these guys start getting very aggressive with us. They look at my nephew, and I don't think they realize he's special needs — he's on his Nintendo. And one of the guys thinks that the Nintendo DS is a phone. And he thinks that my nephew is recording what's happening. So they come and they lunge at my nephew and try to take the Nintendo away from him, and I have to push the guy. And I tell them that they can't ever touch my nephew again. And these guys are so aggressive that I start yelling, my brother starts yelling, nobody's helping us, they're just letting everything happen and finally, the guys just decide to run away. The power that these two people felt that they had was something I never felt that I had in my life.

On how she turns these tough stories into comedic material

If I wanted to tell that story in my stand-up I actually tell the truth about it. But I start to break it down into certain, specific levels, like why are they like that?

What kind of life do they have that they're in paradise and they can't even have fun, they can't swim with the dolphins because they look at my brother and they're like, "That guy looks like he belongs in Mexico." And that's an interesting way to mock them. But you tell people what happened, so that at the end of the joke, that was the truth — that was her truth — and she made it funny.

NPR's Emma Bowman contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Lulu Garcia-Navarro spent this past week along the border in southeast Texas, reporting stories that you will hear on next week's show. Before she left, she spoke with a comedian who grew up there and has brought elements of her hometown to life on a national stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "CRISTELA ALONZO: LOWER CLASSY")

CRISTELA ALONZO: I grew up in the '80s. In my neighborhood, everyone was poor. Back then, the only way you could tell someone had cash, you'd walk into their living room and they would have a set of encyclopedias.

(LAUGHTER)

ALONZO: I knew Juan (ph) was doing good.

(LAUGHTER)

ALONZO: I didn't know he was doing encyclopedia good.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: That's Cristela Alonzo in her Netflix comedy special. She now lives in California, but she grew up in San Juan, Texas. It's a town just nine miles from the Mexico border, and she says, where she grew up, the economies and cultures of the two places are deeply connected.

ALONZO: Even during the recession, our area, my hometown area, was booming because of Mexico. Without Mexicans coming to buy our products, our economy in the United States in that area would be ruined. You know, so like my grandmother lived in Mexico. She lived in Reynosa, Tamaulipas. And we would go visit her every Monday, and a lot of my life was just, you know, basically crossing over the bridge, going to Mexico, coming back, you know, blah, blah, blah. And I always kind of thought that Reynosa was kind of like a sister city to McAllen in a way.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How did your family come to live in the U.S.?

ALONZO: You know, my mom, when she was a little kid, she lived in this village. She lived in a rancho called El Zancarron, and it's in the middle of nowhere. And she saw this piece of cardboard when she was, like, 11 or 12, I think, she's told me. And the cardboard said McAllen, Texas. And to her, it just sounded so exotic that her goal in life was to move to McAllen, Texas, because her village didn't have running water, didn't have electricity, didn't have - nothing. And she just wanted to go to a place that had running water and electricity. And I've always told everybody I don't have pictures of my mom that is just her living her real life, like normal, everyday life. All the pictures I have of her are passport photos from when she was constantly trying to become - to get a visa to come here to become a resident alien here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And that was hard to do. Cristela's mother came to the U.S. on a series of temporary visas and work permits.

ALONZO: That's another thing that people don't understand about that area is that it's very normal for Mexicans to come to the United States, you know, Americans to go to Mexico on a daily basis to work and then they go back to their country at the end of the day.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The process to become a permanent, legal resident took Cristela's mother a long time.

ALONZO: My mom was undocumented in the United States for a while because the system takes so long to get your status clear that you have to become undocumented while you wait to become a resident alien. So it's like even though she has the paperwork, she's still technically undocumented because it takes so long to get the paperwork done. It's really frustrating.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to talk a little bit about your comedy.

ALONZO: Sure.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You had a comedy special on Netflix. It's called "Lower Classy."

ALONZO: Yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A lot of your jokes draw upon, you know, border life and your identity as a first-generation American. So let's listen to a clip from that stand-up set. You're talking here about how there were things that you had to explain about American life to your Mexican-born mother.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "CRISTELA ALONZO: LOWER CLASSY")

ALONZO: First time she saw Girl Scouts, she thought there were Border Patrol agents...

(LAUGHTER)

ALONZO: ...In training.

(LAUGHTER)

ALONZO: She thought Border Patrol had a kid unit. And every time she saw the cookies, she would hide from them.

(LAUGHTER)

ALONZO: And I'd say, Mom, they're not trying to deport you. They're trying to sell you cookies. That's what you think, no.

(LAUGHTER)

ALONZO: That's how they get you, mija. God, you're stupid.

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you always talk about this stuff in your comedy? Is this where your comedy springs from?

ALONZO: Yes. And I actually do it intentionally because I don't like when people try to make generalizations about people they've never met. So I actually use...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Meaning.

ALONZO: You know, I use my comedy - you know, like, here's a perfect example - the thing with the Girl Scouts. That's a true story. What - the bigger picture that I'm trying to explain with that joke in reality is that my mom actually had a fear of people that wore uniforms because she didn't know - she didn't know who could deport her or not when she was becoming a resident alien.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right.

ALONZO: Therefore, any time somebody had a uniform, she was scared. And I tell this story quite often to people because a lot of people think that immigrants come here and they take advantage of our system, and they - you know, they use the government programs and blah, blah, blah, for their benefit. And my mom actually ended up passing away very young because she refused to go to the doctor. She refused to seek any medical attention that might have been provided for by the government because, A, she didn't know what programs existed, but, B, she just didn't - she didn't want to take advantage. And she was actually kind of scared to use the programs.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Even though she was entitled at the end of her life because she was a legal resident.

ALONZO: Absolutely, yup, and that's a lot - the reality for a lot of people.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Cristela has always tackled challenging topics in her comedy, and a family trip to Hawaii two weeks after this election gave her more tough material to work with.

ALONZO: We landed in Honolulu. We checked into the hotel. We are going to have dinner, and there is an hour wait at the restaurant that we're at. My family decides to go away, and it's my oldest brother, me and my oldest nephew, who is mid-20s. He's special needs. He - his birthday had just happened, and I bought him a Nintendo DS. And he's playing with his Nintendo, and these two people come up, strangers, don't know them. And they asked my brother, where are you from? And my brother - sweetest man ever, I adore this guy - he's like, I'm from Texas. And these two guys are like, liar, you're from Mexico. Go back to Mexico. And these guys start getting very aggressive with us.

They look at my nephew, who is special needs, and I don't think they realize that he's special needs. He's on his Nintendo. And one of the guys thinks that the Nintendo DS is a phone, and he thinks that my nephew is recording what's happening. So they come, and they lunge at my nephew, and they try to take the Nintendo away from him. And I have to push the guy. And I tell them that they can't ever touch my nephew again. And these guys are so aggressive, I start yelling, my brother starts yelling. Nobody's helping us. They're just letting everything happen. And finally, the guys just decide to run away. The power that these two people felt that they had was something I had never felt before in my life.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So how do you make that into comedy? I mean, how do you translate that into what you do?

ALONZO: Well, see, if I wanted to tell that story in my stand-up, I actually tell the truth about it. But I start to break it down into certain specific levels, like why are they like that? What kind of life do they have that they're in paradise and they can't even have fun? They can't swim with the dolphins because they look at my brother and they're like, that guy looks like he belongs in Mexico. And that's an interesting way to mock them. But you tell people what happened so that at the end of the joke they know that was the truth. That was her truth, and she made it funny.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Cristela Alonzo - comedian from San Juan, Texas. Her new special is called "Lower Classy." Thanks so much for being with us.

ALONZO: Awesome, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF YO-YO MA'S "LESS IS MOI")

KELLY: Next Sunday, you can hear Lulu's reporting. And in the meantime, check out some of her pictures from the border on NPR's On The Road Tumblr. That's nprontheroad.tumblr.com.

(SOUNDBITE OF YO-YO MA'S "LESS IS MOI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.