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Cristela is a Cringeworthy Missed Opportunity

When the first ads for ABC’s new sitcom, Cristela, started airing, I got a little excited. A show with a funny, chubby Latina in the lead? Si! I’m in. Even from the first promos, however, I was a little leery. The humor felt forced, and I worried the show would end up being one-dimensional and stereotypical.

The series premiere proved my worries to be accurate. I agree with other reviewers, that the show’s lead and co-creator, comedian Cristela Alonzo, has so much potential to be a real star. She’s charming, likable, cute and unique. We need more faces like hers on television.  I would like to say we need more voices like hers as well, but the real Cristela’s voice is not clear. I don’t know what she’s trying to say.

The biggest problem is every character introduced in the premiere is a one-note stereotype, from a machismo driven father to a ditzy blonde co-worker.  The pilot’s premise is that Cristela, the character, is struggling to finish law school after six on and off years, working several jobs and helping to support her family. Yet that family, (sister, brother-in-law, immigrant mother, niece and nephew) all treat her like a disappointment and a burden who should give up her dreams to take a dead end job just so she can afford her own place and get the hell out of the brother-in-law’s house. Cristela doesn’t want that dead end call center job, she wants the unpaid internship at the big law firm that will help get her foot in the door for her dream career. At the same time, Cristela encourages her young niece (the one member of her family who appreciates Cristela just as she is) to go out for the soccer team instead of cheerleading. Here’s where the mixed messages start.

Perhaps the best line in the episode is when Cristela’s sister, Daniela (Maria Canals-Barrera) says “I can’t believe it. Today my little girl is going to become a cheerleader.” Cristela quips back, “Ah yes, the great Texas tradition where girls learn they’re not quite as important as boys.” Nice. Having also grown up in Texas, this rings soooo true. This is a great line that gives us insight into Cristela’s character as a strong woman who believes in equality. This is also why it is so disappointing when Cristela later fails to stand up for herself and her heritage.

In the internship interview, we meet Trent (Sam McMurray), the head of the law firm. He’s a good old boy Texan and while McMurray is a skilled enough actor to make the character somewhat interesting, he is still written as another one-dimensional stereotype – with one of the most obnoxious jokes I may have ever heard on broadcast television. The joke also requires a bunch of forced and clunky set up to deliver. He asks her about why she’s been in law school so long, she replies that paying her own way she’s had to start and stop a few times but will never give up. He replies that when a person is drowning after the third time down, it’s over. She says she never learned to swim so she would just be dead. The “joke” follows with, “Can’t swim? How’d you get to Texas?” Cristela’s eyes widen in disbelief, Did this wealthy white man just call me a wetback? Yes, Cristela. He did. That’s exactly what just happened. Trent then breaks into a broad Mexican accent, and “Orale, mija!” he’s just kidding, just messing with her. (Subtext: you’re not allowed to be offended. I can say anything I want and it’s okay if it’s a “joke.”)

This could be the moment where Cristela shows us what she’s really made of. It has already been clearly established that Cristela’s mother, Natalia (Terri Hoyos), is an immigrant, a hard working woman who struggled and fought through adversity to give her children a better life than the one she had in the rough village she grew up in where “We didn’t have cheerleading. We had fun games like getting water from the well… and digging the well.” Natalia may be superbly skilled at throwing around the Catholic guilt and haranguing her children with horror stories of her own childhood, but the sacrifices she made do deserve a little respect from her daughter. Cristela has already taken offense to the boss’s daughter assuming she is the office cleaning lady, so wouldn’t it make sense that this callous comment from the boss would cut her too?

But no, Cristela just takes it, sheepishly apologizes for her background and sucks up to the white man. “I’m an American, born in Dallas. Go Cowboys!” Cristela is a huge fan of quarterback Tony Romo but critical of team owner Jerry Jones. Trent has the opposite viewpoint. Cristela makes a dig about geriatric Jerry, who, oops!, turns out to be a close friend and client of Trent’s.  Cristela leaves the interview dejected and defeated because she insulted the boss’s friend! What? He just called you a wetback! She’s lamely playing into another Texas stereotype that football trumps all. Can’t we raise the stakes a little here? Or, is actually dealing with the issue of immigration too sensitive and too touchy for a network like ABC to tackle? To me, there really shouldn’t be a “debate” about immigration. Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, let them work and let them pay taxes! We’ll all benefit. But, from my perspective the only issue at the heart of the debate is racism. The opponents of immigration and Border Patrol radicals are not complaining about all the Canadians, Australians and Britons who come to Hollywood to take our preciously few, highly coveted and high paying acting jobs. Why not? Or should I say, white not? Why are they so terribly threatened by all those brown-skinned parents who work their fingers to the bone to provide for their children? I truly don’t know, but it’s the people like Cristela’s mother who seem to receive receive the most hate, derision and ridicule for entering our country to work.

I expected the same woman who wants her niece to have a chance to play soccer and not just jump around on the sidelines rooting for the boys, to also stand up for her mother when the white man makes a wetback joke. Yes, I am repeating that word because let’s not beat around the bush here, that’s what he said. I think of other strong female comedy protagonists and how they would have reacted in this situation. Wouldn’t the stronger choice be to walk out? Raise the stakes! Cristela might want this internship, but not at this price. She’ll make a stand and a sacrifice, even if it means she has to take the soul-crushing job her family is pushing on her. Claire Huxtable would have walked out, with so much elegant grace and dignity. Roseanne would have walked out, with some crude and snappy comeback. Even Lucy would have walked out, probably with a pratfall and a pie in the face, but she would not have just taken that insult and then beaten herself up because she disagrees with the boss about football! In the end, Cristela wins the job because the boss is impressed with how hard she has worked to put herself through school, unlike his own spoiled daughter. But, what if he’s impressed with her work ethic, her integrity and familial pride? What if nobody has ever stood up to him before and he loves that she has the cajones to do so? That’s the show I wish this had been.

Nonetheless, I’m over here on the sidelines still cheering for you Cristela, not with pompoms but with hope and solidarity. I hope this show gets better and I do hope that both Cristela the character and Cristela the writer figure out who she really is and what she wants to say with this incredible platform and opportunity. Your voice is important, querida, raise it. 

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