Photo of Cristela Alonzo and Carlos Ponce, courtesy ABC
ABC freshman comedy Cristela wrapped its first season on Friday with its future still unknown.
The multi-cam sitcom based on the life of series creator and star Cristela Alonzo was mildly received when it premiered last fall (largely because it’s a multi-cam sitcom) but has since become somewhat of a beacon within the format.
Six Latino actors make up the cast of series regulars, something not seen on a broadcast network since the days of George Lopez, which premiered 13 years ago also on ABC.
“It’s long overdue,” claims Puerto Rico native Carlos Ponce, who co-stars as title character Cristela’s brother-in-law Felix. Speaking with Variance shortly after wrapping production, he says he’s thankful to be part of the show “because we [Hispanics] are still extremely underrepresented in Hollywood.”
Not until speaking with Ponce did it become so apparent the indisputable void Cristela fills on television—including cable.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Hispanics make up 17% of the population, with 54 million as of 2013. That’s up from 37 million in 2001, a year before George Lopez premiered. Yet according to a 2014 Columbia University report, Hispanics were better represented on screen in the 1950s than they are today.
Cristela isn’t perfect and it’s got its work cut out for it should it be renewed for a second season. But as Ponce explains, one of the show’s strengths is how it has “flipped the stereotypes … it’s kind of making fun of the perception of what Middle America sometimes thinks we are. Yes, we share a language, but our cultures are so diverse. You can’t just blanket everyone that easily; we’re more than just maids or the character with the sexy accent.”
"Yes, we share a language, but our cultures are so diverse. You can’t just blanket everyone that easily; we’re more than just maids or the character with the sexy accent."
Until this season, broadcast’s most prominent torchbearer for the Latino community has been Sofia Vergara, who has nabbed four Emmy nominations for her role as Gloria on Modern Family. But TV casting hasn’t favored Hispanics much outside of mostly guest spots or minor characters.
“It can be overwhelming as an actor as it is,” says Ponce, who counts among his best-known roles the very uninhibited yoga instructor from Vince Vaughn and Jason Bateman’s Couples Retreat. “You have to get your numbers right a lot of the time. Come September, October, you’re thinking, ‘OK, this [savings] will get me to pilot season.’ You’re forecasting the next year or more of your life because you may not find work for that long. And for Hispanic actors, it may be even longer. I feel blessed because I’ve spent so much time on Spanish-language networks that I can do some work in Spanish too. But on American television, look at how uneven the landscape is. Even in 2015.”
In fact, Alonzo’s multi-hyphenate role on Cristela actually made television history, as the comedian last year became the first Latina to create, write, produce and star in her own primetime comedy.
Additionally, the show has found a way to incorporate important topics such as income inequality and equal pay for women. “It can be hard to make that funny,” Ponce admits. “But here we have show, with a number of female, Hispanic writers, creating content that gets the point across in a smart, humorous way that’s relatable to anyone of any race. And we need more of that.”
Sure, the ratings haven’t been spectacular, but its 6 million viewer average has exceeded that of its time slot predecessor. And as the networks seek to represent a more diverse level of onscreen talent, Cristela provides a comedic perspective that most critical darlings like Girls and Veep haven’t offered.
As Hispanics’ buying power this year tops $1.6 trillion and with a looming election in which Latino voters could determine the next U.S. president, voices like that of Ponce, Alonzo and fellow freshman comedy star, Jane the Virgin’s Gina Rodriguez, are that much more important.
"These faces, 'Cristela,' 'Empire, 'How to Get Away with Murder,' 'Fresh Off the Boat,' this melting pot on screen, these diverse casts; that's the greatness of America."
“That diversity—that’s what America is,” Ponce passionately declares. “These faces, Cristela, Empire, How to Get Away with Murder, Fresh Off the Boat, this melting pot on screen, these diverse casts; that’s the greatness of America.”
The actor says networks in the past made the mistake of “targeting the black community or targeting Latinos, as if this could only be funny to Latinos.” As television and society progress, he believes it “shouldn’t be, ‘black comedy’ or ‘Hispanic sitcom.’ We’re not just ‘the minorities.’ We’re the people next door, we’re your friends and neighbors trying to give our family a good life just like you. We can play the heroes, the villains, the patients and the doctors, the criminals and the lawyers, the janitor and the CEO. It’s time we see more of that reflected on our screens because, hey, we’re already doing it in real life.”
Carlos Ponce can next be seen in comedy-thriller Spy, starring Melissa McCarthy, Jason Statham and Jude Law, which arrives in theaters on June 5.
(Photo of María Canals Barrera and Ponce courtesy ABC; Photo of Ponce solo by Bobby Quillard)