It's tough being a comedian in the age of Trump—audiences want you to be entertaining, they want you to be topical, but they don’t necessarily want to hear you talk politics. This past weekend hundreds of attendees walked out of an Amy Schumer show in Florida because she talked about Donald Trump.
It’s even more difficult to be a comedian in the age of Trump when your entire existence—your gender, your ethnicity, your sexual identity—has become politicized. For Cristela Alonzo, the personal is very political. Alonzo was the first Mexican-American woman to have her own network show, Cristela, a semi-autobiographical ABC show about her experiences growing up in the small border town of McAllex, Texas. And you could say Alonzo encapsulates all of the things Trump opposes: she’s a woman, she’s Mexican-American, her mother was an undocumented immigrant, she grew up in poverty, and she’s really fucking opinionated. But then again, that’s what makes her funny—as she said, when you grow up in poverty, you need to have a sense of humor about it.
On Thursday, November 3rd, less than a week before the election, Alonzo is hosting a comedy night with Define American, a nonprofit dedicated to changing the perception of immigrants in entertainment and on the news. With less than three weeks before the election, we spoke to Alonzo about growing up Latina, her work with Define American, and how comedy can trick people into becoming more tolerant.
How did the show come about? Jose [Antonio Vargas, the Pulitzer-winning journalist who came out as undocumented in 2011] and I met,maybe three months ago, and we realized we have so much in common even though our backgrounds are so different. That's what we want to do with the comedy night: we want to show a diverse group of people that will probably say different things from each other, but there's a common thread throughout the show.
How did you go about choosing the lineup? We wanted to pick out comedians who were different from each other but who were all, for lack of a better word, very "woke." It's a lineup where you have people talking about struggles they went through without being too preachy—they do it in a funny way.
Negin Farsad, one of the comics on the lineup, is an Iranian-American Muslim woman. I want to hear her experience about this election, I want to hear about how she's been treated. As a Mexican, having been told people from my country are rapists, I have my own thoughts about it. I always want to find different comics. When you think of comics, you'll think of an Amy Schumer—but there's more out there, there are more people who need to be given attention to. We're all out there!
We wanted to find a diverse group of people that would each bring in a different story. At the end of the night, I want to see what kind of story we create with our set. Maybe it'll be a happy accident, like Hey, you went through that, too? I went through that!
With comedy, there’s a really difficult line between making fun of yourself and your lived experiences and giving people the ammo to do the same thing, but in a negative or racist way. Do you ever find yourself having to deal with that? All you can do is be honest about how you feel and make it funny. You can’t control how people are going to react to it. I’ve had people ask me, How do you say certain things on stage without having people turn against you? I’m not insulting anybody. I’m just being honest about my life.
One of the jokes I do is about the “good old days.” In election years, everyone talks about the good old days—but they never tell you when the good old days were. I’m a person of color. When were my good old days?!
Make America great again! But when the hell was it great for me? If the good old days are so great, why don’t you see black people doing Civil War reenactments? Because it wasn’t great for them! It was a terrible time. I’m Latina, when were my good old days? When J. Lo because Selena? We don’t get anything else, that’s all we got! When you say it like that, people in the audience have to agree.
And it’s so damaging to not give kids role models who look like them. It makes you wonder, is there something wrong with me? From day one, you have Trump saying that Mexicans are rapists and for a lot of Latino or Mexican kids, this is the first time they've heard their nationality addressed on TV. And look at the way it's being addressed.
When people vilify immigrants, they don't even bother to find out why they came here. No one wants to leave their home. If things were great, do you think they'd leave their homes? People come here because there are civil wars, there's starvation, there's poverty.
They didn't come here to take away your jobs. They're coming here for a chance to survive. For a chance to not die. And when you say it like that, it seems more necessary that we have to allow people to have a chance to live. And a lot of people don't know immigrants, they don't know anything about immigration, period. All they know is what they hear on TV.
And if you live through that, you carry the trauma of it forever. My parents and I were driving through Arizona and my dad said, out of nowhere, "In Colombia if we were driving down an empty road like this, we could be killed." When I was a kid, I remember driving across the border to visit my grandparents and we got stopped by a federal. And my cousin told us all to take off anything—necklaces, rings, anything—that made it look like we had any money. But we didn't have any money.
I remember living through that and thinking, wow, this is my family's country. My mom left because of things like this. It always stuck with me. Even if you don't live through it anymore, it stays with you forever. That's where you come from.
And for me, there's a way of making that kind of thing funny. In my mom's little village in Mexico, a lot of women used to be kidnapped by the men, and that's how you'd get married. Women didn't have a voice. I have a joke about that: my mom was the youngest of nine kids, so she was the last one to get kidnapped. My grandma would look at my mom and be like, "Mira, you're still here! Why haven't you been kidnapped? You should open up the window and make it easier. Your cousin is younger than you, she got kidnapped a week ago!"
Do you think when it's easier to educate people when they're being entertained?Absolutely. It's a hidden thing. You laugh, but you think about it and you learned something. I got you! You kind of have to trick people into learning things.
People don't understand how powerful everybody is. Each of us has an interesting story. Even if you don't think it is, it's interesting to somebody, and just sharing it makes people realize they're not alone. Understanding that other people may have gone through the same thing as you is helpful. You can find comfort in people by having that familiarity you thought no one else could understand.
We also thought it was important for the comedy night to be a week before the election to remind people what's at stake.
Right, and for immigrants especially. If you make your entire life in a country, you don’t just leave it on a whim. It’s a really hard decision for people to make. And it can be dangerous. With a coyote, you have a guide. You put your entire life into their hands, and not all of them are great people. And people don’t understand, that’s how much people want to come to this country. They’re willing to sacrifice their life just to make the journey into this country.
I think Jose represents what my mom did. He's undocumented, he's here, he gives to society, he pays his taxes, he's a good citizen. That was my mom. I think that's why when I met him, I instantly felt a connection with him. People don't understand that even though I was born in Texas, I still had an immigrant experience because my mom wasn't born there.
I remember as a kid, I'd always try and hide from Border Patrol, fearing as a kid that my mom would be taken away and deported at any moment. And the idea of that is so frightening. Regardless of whether or not I was born here, that is frightening and it sticks with you. It's one of those things I wish people would understand: living in fear every day, wondering if today will be the day. For any kid—any person—to go through that, it's insane.
This is why the comedy night is so important to me. This is what opens up conversations. This shows you there's a space for people who want to talk about these situations, and we need to find and create that space. I think that through comedy, we can teach people lessons they need to learn.
Define American's Comedy Night takes place Nov. 3rd at the Broadway Comedy Club; you can buy tickets here.