Early on in Lower Classy, comedian Cristela Alonzo’s first-ever stand-up special, she seems amused by the policies being put forth by then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, particularly his pledge to build a wall between us and Mexico. All he’s doing, she says, is making folks trying to cross the border “amazing athletes. We’ve gotta run. We’ve gotta climb. We’ve gotta swim. He’s making an immigrant triathlon. And the first prize is freedom.”
Her special was, of course, recorded when it seemed to many of us like there was little chance that Trump was going to actually win the election. Now that he’s in office and his administration is wreaking havoc on our democracy, Alonzo’s amusement has been replaced by fear.
“It’s heartbreaking,” she says, speaking from her home in L.A. “After the election, when I realized how many people didn’t vote, I was very bitter for a while. But you have to move past that. That’s the reason I speak about politics in my stand-up—because I want people to be informed about how these policies affect people like me. With the special, I wanted to educate people, but I wanted to make people laugh while doing it.”
That’s been the key to Alonzo’s success over the past decade. Lower Classy is filled with poignant and telling moments meshed with her self-deprecating wit. In the special, she talks about her pre-teen obsession with New Kids On The Block and her fantasy of being their maid, so that once they saw how clean their tour bus was, they’d fall in love with her. She tempers that anecdote with the darker truth that she could only ever see herself as a cleaning woman in her imaginary world—those were the only jobs that her female family members and neighbors could get. Or there’s the fantastic bit where she expresses her delight at making a Bloomingdale’s employee elaborately gift-wrap an expensive handbag because they assumed she couldn’t afford it. It’s ridiculous, but it’s also reflective of a world where even President Obama, while he was in office, was occasionally mistaken for the waitstaff when he attended political fundraisers.
Alonzo’s greatest strength is in her ability to maintain a measure of hope and humor even in the darkest of times. And knowing that having a platform like a readily available stand-up special on Netflix, the streaming service that also opened the doors for comics like Gabriel Iglesias and Carlos Ballarta—as well as bankrolling a remake of One Day At A Time with an all-Latino cast—means the world.
“They want you to tell your own narrative,” Alonzo says. “They trust that if you’re telling your own story, there will be an audience that will want to go along with you. It’s very liberating.”
Alonzo knows better than anyone what it’s like on the other side of the TV aisle and trying to appease the executives at major network. In 2014, she co-created and starred in her own sitcom for ABC, the first time Latina to do so. But in spite of getting warm critical notices and maintaining some fine ratings numbers throughout the show’s 22 episodes, the network canceled the series the next year.
“It’s weird,” Alonzo remembers. “The first show I had was the first pitch I ever did so I don’t know a lot about the business. You don’t have a lot of people to ask for advice. I was learning along the way, like Showrunning For Dummies. I think I learned a lot from the first show and would take those lessons to the next show that I develop.”
That day is some ways off, however. Right now, Alonzo is busy enough. She is wrapping up her work voicing a character in the forthcoming Cars 3 and will devote more time to stand-up as she develops a new hour-long set. There’s also a certain resident of the White House that she’s spending some time protesting against.
“I went to the Women’s March in D.C.,” Alonzo says. “I took the train from New York and everyone on my car was a woman. We all realized that we were all going to the same place and started cheering. It was so empowering. The march started a great opportunity for a movement that’s more inclusive and that will help people be more aware. It’s exciting to see people so invigorated. I just hope we don’t grow complacent. The day after the march, I said on Twitter that we need to remember how we felt when we marched and remember that feeling when we vote.”
Robert Ham is an arts and culture journalist based in Portland, OR. Read more of his work here and follow him on Twitter.