Latina Comedian Who Grew Up in Poverty Films TV Pilot for Show Based on Her Life

This post originally appeared on Follow Cristela at @cristela9 on Twitter.

As a kid, my mom told me not to dream because our family couldn’t afford to have an imagination.  She said dreams were for the rich and survival was for the poor.

I knew why she did that.  My mom thought that by teaching her kids to not expect much out of life, they would be spared the heartbreak if things didn’t work out.

While I understood what my mom was trying to do, I didn’t agree with her.  I thought the opposite. Dreams are one of the few things poor people can afford to do because dreaming is free. I was more along the lines of thinking that chasing my dream of acting, performing was necessary. I started my life being really poor so what was the worst that could happen? I’d fail and end up right where I started?

It hasn’t been easy. In fact, I’ve failed more times that I’ve succeeded. And I had to be willing to do anything, including breaking my mom’s heart. When I left home at 18, my mom cried and begged me not to go. She told me I was killing her. She cried. So much. She got on her knees and begged me not to go. I remember looking at her face and seeing her hurt. I knew she didn’t want me leaving. I told her, “Mom, I don’t know what it is but I have this feeling inside me that is telling me that I have to go and try to do this thing. It’s bigger than me…” And I did. I left.

The next years were spent trying to go to college and dropping out because I couldn’t afford to pay for it, working in a bunch of minimum wage jobs that would allow me to audition for things and trying to survive on my own.

My life stopped for a bit in 2002 when my mom got sick and I had to go to take care of her. I cared for her until she took her last breath.  In that moment, I thought my life was over.  I blamed myself for not being there for her. I blamed myself because I remembered when she said that my leaving would kill her.  I felt so guilty.

I fell into a deep depression after that. I started drinking a lot. I got a DUI. I couldn’t handle losing my mom, especially after feeling like I had wasted years trying to chase after this dream that hadn’t gotten me anywhere; wasted years I could’ve spent with her.

I got two years probation with my DUI and that’s when I started doing stand-up. I did it because I always loved it.  I did it because it helped me deal with my mother’s passing and because I realized that I was wasting time.  What changed between this moment and when my mom was alive? Nothing really.  In fact, my mom’s passing made me want to chase my dream even more because I wanted to continue her dream. She came to this country in search of a better life and that’s what I wanted for myself too: a better life.

Last week, I had the most amazing week of my life.  I got to tape a TV pilot for a show called Cristela, based on my life. It’s a show I created with my friend Kevin Hench.

This is the first TV show I’ve ever sold and when I did, everyone kept warning me about what a miserable experience it was going to be. So many people involved, all trying to change what Kevin and I had created. I’d have succumb to terrible decisions if I wanted to have a chance of getting this show on the air.

I told them all the same answer. That wasn’t going to happen to me. I wasn’t going to change the voice of show. I had a story to tell. I couldn’t steer away from that story. People told me I was silly, naïve.

What these people didn’t realize is that I was willing to say no and walk away from it if it ever got to that point.  Luckily, it never did.  I really lucked out with the people I’m working with on this project. Our producer, Becky Clements… my partner Kevin Hench have been so great. I really couldn’t imagine working with a better group of people.

I’m the kind of person that believes in the stars aligning in an inexplicable moment that creates a moment of magic. I truly believe this happened with the pilot.

I was involved in every step of the process.  I knew I would be, considering that the name of the pilot is Cristela but it was still a weird to suddenly have all these decisions to make.

Right from the casting process, I wanted all of the actors coming in to feel welcomed. I wanted them to come into a warm room where they knew that we all wanted them to succeed, because we did. I laughed when they did something funny. I thanked them all for coming. It was sincere. I wanted them to know how much I appreciated them.

I think that’s the feel I had throughout the entire process. I was so grateful and so appreciative of everyone that worked on the pilot, I tried to let them know that as much as I could. Having people working on creating a world you created is surreal. And I know that everyone that worked on the pilot had an important role. The crew, the cast…everyone was just as important as everyone else.

We taped last Thursday. God, even writing that still seems weird. I taped a pilot called Cristela last week. Wow.

People kept asking me if I was nervous…and honestly, I wasn’t. That kind of worried me. This was the biggest night of my life and I wasn’t nervous? What was wrong with me? I think I wasn’t nervous because I had complete faith and trust in everyone working with me that I knew everything would go great. Part of succeeding is having faith. And I had a lot of faith.

My family flew in from Texas for the taping. Aside from my brother Eloy, no one had ever been to Los Angeles before.  Before the taping, I had to go out into the audience to welcome them. When I walked out and saw my family sitting in the front row, I just about lost it. I was trying so hard not to cry. I was so emotional. Thinking about that moment, looking back to where we started, it really makes no sense that we were there. We were so poor. We were the kids of an immigrant mother that worked as a cook at a restaurant. We didn’t have the opportunities that most people get.  My entire life has been dedicated to getting to that precise moment I was living and I couldn’t believe it.

I thanked everyone for coming. I had to tell the audience how grateful I was that they were there. I did some stand-up. And most importantly, before I finished my little speech, I dedicated that taping to my mom who I was hoping was looking over me that night, proud.

I couldn’t have asked for a better night. The cast of the show was absolutely perfect. I even got my friend Gabriel Iglesias to be in the show! The crew was amazing. The audience laughed. A lot. It was crazy to hear the laughter. The taping went great. In fact, it went so great that when we finished the taping (or what I thought was the end of the taping), the producer came up to me and suggested we do something we hadn’t worked on at all. She suggested we do an entire scene in Spanish to show that the show could be done in both English and Spanish.

Wow. I had never heard of that. The cast playing my family were all fluent in Spanish and I asked them if they were up to trying it. EVERYONE SAID YES. They all thought it was a brilliant idea and they were so excited. We rehearsed the scene a couple times and shot it. It was amazing. The jokes translated. I have to say that was probably one of my favorite parts of the night. To have a show that could be shot in BOTH English and Spanish simultaneously was pretty historic. I think a lot of people watching it felt the same way too.

I had been trying to write a blog describing my experience for about a week but it’s been hard. I’ve been kind of speechless.  I started this blog a number of times and then deleted it because I didn’t think I was capturing everything I was feeling. Today, I woke up in Toronto, looked out into the gray sky and thought: this is the perfect writing weather.

Whatever the outcome of this show is, I can honestly say that I’m so proud of what we created. If the network decides to pick it up, great. If it doesn’t, well, they must have their reasons and I’ll accept that as well.

I am proud of what we created. We created a show about a girl that lives with her average, American family and works in a world that is out of her comfort zone. It’s a true family show that kids can see with their parents. There isn’t a raunchy joke in it and it’s genuinely funny. I think it’s a show that the Latino community would be proud of. I’ve tried to honor the culture and give us a voice.

When I was a little girl living in San Juan, TX, I watched shows like The Cosby Show and Roseanne and they inspired me to dream about one day following in their footsteps. I wanted to create a show that other little kids like me, could watch and be inspired by.

If you had seen the way I grew up, if you had seen the struggles, you would understand what a long-shot this dream seemed to feel like. As a little girl, I would sit in the abandoned diner we lived in and dreamed about performing in front of people and making them laugh.  Throughout my journey, I’ve been bullied, ridiculed and told that I was stupid for trying. But that didn’t stop me. My dream was always bigger than that.

It’s been a long road and I am just so grateful to have had this opportunity. I’d like to thank my agency WME that has believed and supported me from the day we met, 20th Century Fox, 21 Laps, Becky Clements, Kevin Hench, my family, my friends that came out to support me at the taping…and my mom. All of them made the most amazing night of my life happen. Thank you.

As a kid, my mom told me not to dream because our family couldn’t afford to have an imagination.  She said dreams were for the rich and survival was for the poor.

Years later, I hope she’s somewhere, looking over me.  I hope she’s not mad that I proved her wrong: Dreams aren’t for the rich. They’re for ANYONE that’s willing to work hard and chase after them.

Si se puede.

My TV family (from left to right): Gabriel Iglesias, Terri Hoyos, Carlos Ponce and Maria Canals-Barrera.
Alonzo’s TV family (from left to right): Gabriel Iglesias, Terri Hoyos, Carlos Ponce and Maria Canals-Barrera.


[Photo via]

(Visited 38 times, 1 visits today)