Cristela, the little show that could, just ended its first season. However, it is not certain if the recent season finale will in fact be a series finale, and I was inspired to write this article after reading creator and star Cristela Alonzo’s heartbreaking, thoughtful and important blog post about her show and what it has meant to her. Below are some highlights where Alonzo addresses criticisms that have been made about her show, and then I will elaborate on her fantastic message about the minority experience in pop culture:
“NOT ALL LATINO FAMILIES ARE LIKE THAT! You’re right. They’re not. That’s why the show is called “Cristela” and not “Every Latino Family,” even though it has a better ring to it. What maybe some people don’t get is that this show isn’t based on something I’m making up but rather on things that happened from my real life.”
“Not all Latinos are like that but think about it this way. Let’s look at Big Bang Theory and Modern Family, two successful shows that feature a predominantly white cast. White people don’t say, “HEY BIG BANG THEORY! NOT ALL WHITE PEOPLE ARE LIKE THAT! MODERN FAMILY! NOT ALL WHITE PEOPLE ARE LIKE THAT!””
“THE MOM ON YOUR SHOW IS SO STEREOTYPICAL. I LOVE this one. LOVE this criticism so much because it’s super easy for me to explain how wrong they are in saying this and I can do that by asking one question: Which mom are you talking about? Because on the show, there are TWO mothers: my mother Natalia and my sister Daniela. So which one is stereotypical? They always mean Natalia but that’s my point exactly. There are TWO mothers on the show and the reason Natalia is so rough and mean is because that’s how my mom was in real life. I can’t write her any other way because that wouldn’t be honoring the person my mom really was.”
“In order to see how far we’ve come, we need to see the point from which we started and if the characters aren’t flawed, then how do they become better people?”
There is a heavy burden placed on minority run shows, and the burden does not come from White America but rather from the communities being depicted. Sometimes the concerns voiced have merit, especially on shows that degrade a certain community for no redeemable reason (I actually think The Big Bang Theory does this with the character of Raj, since it promotes a caricature of Indian culture and Indian men as being sexually and emotionally stunted, which is incredible since there are over 1 billion Indians in the world.) However, whenever minority artists draw from their own lives and tell stories that may not be flattering, suddenly they are the enemies. I beg to differ, the enemies are those in the community who wish to white wash our culture in order to fit in, otherwise known as “assimilationists.” The assimilationists is the people who embrace their culture only when it is convenient, but who otherwise embrace all things white, and is mortified whenever someone from their group does something that they find embarrassing (i.e., something a white person would disapprove of).
Alonzo demonstrates here how ridiculous and cruel this logic is since white people don’t apply it to themselves. If what we really want is ethnic progress, don’t we need to take the attitude that whites take when subsets of their culture are portrayed on television? As in, a Latino gangster on a cop show does not represent every Latino, just as a redneck serial-killing cannibal does not reflect upon all white people. Has it ever occurred to these critics, many of them amongst the invisible hordes of cowards that hide behind the anonymity of the internet to spew hateful language at others and act holier-than-thou, that whenever a white person commits mass murder or keeps his daughter in a basement and rapes her for twenty years, that no white person feels the need to get on TV or write a blog urgently assuring the world that not all white people commit heinous crimes? Maybe progress comes when we recognize the good and bad in us as people and as a people, and be honest about it.
In its first season, Cristela addressed body perception, classism, racism, the conflicts between generations, the tension between one’s career and one’s family, and much more, which is pretty remarkable for a traditional two-camera sitcom. Alonzo was able to show that this format, which lacks the manic energy of one-camera shows like Modern Family or Fresh Off the Boat (another ABC comedy that is breaking the mold of minorities on television), still has bite. She has made, in my opinion, an updated Latina Roseanne or All in the Family—shows that transcend the theatrical, staid format they were given by creating characters who provide all the edge and nuance that sitcom conventions lack.
The basic structure of Alonzo’s setup allows her characters to stand out, rather than the style over substance that many television sitcoms have embraced in recent years. She takes full advantage of the medium, and this triumph should be applauded rather than derided. Instead of presenting stereotypes and leaving them in their superficial mold, like Sofia Vergara’s character in Modern Family, Cristela brings out the humanity in every one of the characters. These blue-collar Latinos do exist, many are in me and my wife’s family, and the mom on the show reminds us both of our abuelas, and it seems to me that those who are offended that such people are depicted on a Latino-run show, feel that way because they are ashamed of that segment of their society. Not all Latinos are carpenters, but not all of them are doctors and politicians either. The show depicts people of varying socio-economic types, and more importantly, it shows how no matter what class you are in, you are still human, and that is a message we need more of in this increasingly jaded, whiny age.
Alonzo also makes the point that her show employs Latinos both in front of and behind the camera. This cannot be ignored. Losing a show like Cristela relegates many of the actors, technicians, directors, set designers, costume designer and producers to do what far too many minorities in the business must: work on shows that do not represent them as people. Keeping Cristela on the air is a chance to avoid that fate, and if it is renewed for another season, perhaps like the similarly multi-ethnic Brooklyn Nine-Nine, it will find its audience and thrive.
Jonathan Marcantoni is a Puerto Rican novelist and co-owner of Aignos Publishing. His books Traveler’s Rest and The Feast of San Sebastian deal with issues of identity and corruption in both the Puerto Rican diaspora and on the island. He is co-founder (with Chris Campanioni) of the YouNiversity Project, which mentors new writers. He holds a BA in Spanish Studies from the University of Tampa and a MH in Creative Writing from Tiffin University. He lives in Colorado Springs and can be reached at [email protected].