Here's a secret trailblazers don't often share: Breaking barriers usually requires bending a few rules. Just ask 35-year-old stand-up comic Cristela Alonzo, who scored her own eponymous sitcom on ABC even after the network initially declined to shoot the script it had commissioned based on her life as a first-generation Mexican-American. Alonzo took the kill fee they paid her and proceeded anyway, shooting a bare-bones episode on the set of Tim Allen's ABC sitcom Last Man Standing, executive-produced by Becky Clements, who's also a big fan of Alonzo. "I was an unknown name; I knew the odds were against me," Alonzo recalls. "We went a little rogue."
Alonzo and Clements presented the video about a Mexican-American law student and her traditional family to ABC brass, who were so impressed that they reversed course and green-lit the series. Clements, now an executive producer of Cristela, compares the program to The Cosby Show and Roseanne. "Those shows had very specific winning people at the center of them. And I just recognized that in her," she says of Alonzo.
Alonzo's star turn on a prime-time network sitcom is a very big deal. Except for Ugly Betty's America Ferrera and The CW's recently debuted Jane The Virgin, adapted from a Venezuelan telenovela, Latinas—even superstars like Sofia Vergara and Eva Longoria—have largely been relegated to ensemble roles. Alonzo is keenly aware of what that means. "I always feel like I give a face to a group that [audiences] are not familiar with. And when they get that face and they like me, it's easier for them to get everything, get the culture a little bit better," she says.
The youngest of four children—her mother left an abusive husband while pregnant with Cristela—Alonzo grew up in the Texas-border town of San Juan. "My mother ended up finding this abandoned diner where she moved and had me. The first seven, eight years of my life, my family lived as squatters in that diner," says Alonzo. "As a kid, I really wanted to have my own show. But when you grow up in poverty, people tell you nothing is possible. So I kind of gave up on that dream."
Alonzo eventually answered a want ad for an office manager at a Dallas comedy club. Brassy and quick with a joke, she soon found herself onstage, where the laughs came easily. She'd found her calling. A little over a year later, at age 24, she moved to Los Angeles, where she scraped by touring and honing her material. But the longer she spent on the road, the more profane her material became. By 2008, she realized she'd strayed far outside her comfort zone. "I grew up in a very Catholic household," she explains. "We were pretty conservative. I found myself doing raunchier jokes than I wanted to do."
For a year and a half, she cleaned up her act. Her more mainstream material helped land her a spot on Conan, and development deals soon followed. While early reviews for Cristela have been mixed, critics have praised Alonzo. ("Could not be more lovable," gushed a reviewer for E! Entertainment.) And though current trend favors edgier, single-camera shows these days—like Veep and The Mindy Project, for example—Alonzo is adamant that a traditional network multi-camera sitcom, with its studio audiences and laugh tracks, is the ideal way to capture her message. "I want this show to be seen by everybody," she says of Cristela. "I can't tell a story about a working-class family on a premium channel that you have to pay to get."
She learned the hard way that authenticity is a prerequisite for success: "Regardless of whether [the show] fails or succeeds, I have to do it my way."
Image by Dan Monick