Photo by Benoit Rousseau

Ethnic Show host Cristela Alonzo engages extreme emotions

We spoke to the U.S. comic about living and laughing through Trump’s vilification of her community.

This year’s edition of the Just for Laughs Ethnic Show opened last week at Club Soda, and it’s definitely worth a look. Featuring the prodigious talents and disparate styles of stalwarts including Robby Hoffman, Dave Merheje and Donnell Rawlings, it’s more than worth the ticket price.

In the middle of it all is the show’s host Cristela Alonzo, whom I spoke with before she hit town but after a particularly empowering and sticky pilates class that, hot as it probably was, pales in comparison to the July humidity in Montreal. That’s not me saying that, it’s the person who doesn’t live here — such is the enduring quality of our swampy summer chaleur. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Cristela Alonzo: The weather during the festival is brutal! Every time I pack for the festival, I have to pack the lightest, layered clothes I can find. It is brutal over there.

Dave Jaffer: Yeah because it’s a humid hot. Humid hot makes you want to kill yourself. Dry hot makes you want to have a beer.

CA: That’s actually like the best way to say it! 

DJ: Hasan Minhaj and I were talking a few weeks ago about how it’s kind of rare for him, a popular brown-skinned performer, to be interviewed by a brown-skinned arts journalist. You and I are doing that again right now. What’s it like being part of this cultural moment in re: diversity which, maybe 20 or 30 years ago, wasn’t really available to either of us?

CA: In a way it’s interesting because it’s so groundbreaking for so many people, but the reality is that it’s sad that it took this long to acknowledge that we exist. You mention Hasan Minhaj. I understand his points of view and we have so much in common. Coming from an immigrant family, [he and I] understand that you don’t even have to be the same culture to find things in common with other people. 

As a Latina, as a Mexican, I live in the United States in the time where politically, my community is just being vilified constantly by the administration we have, so to go to a country like Canada and host The Ethnic Show is kind of like a reminder that we are actually all human beings with hearts and souls, and we can make people laugh, and laughter is part of an emotion that we need to showcase more.

DJ: Hasan Minhaj told me that laughter is a device to relieve tension, and to release tension. It happens, and then we’re all in that place where the ice has been broken, we’re relaxed, and I think that’s a great place to start any conversation about, like, “Hey I’m a person, too” or “Hey I have rights, too” or “Hey this administration is destroying my community and please listen to me!” And even though I don’t really want to be a bummer, I’m curious: how has this administration and its brutal policies affected the way you go about doing your job? 

CA: After the 2016 election I actually stopped doing comedy for about a year or so, actually maybe even longer, because my community, I don’t think we were ready to laugh. We were scared. So what I did, I stopped doing stand-up and devoted my time to travelling the country, visiting my community, helping raise money for DACA students to pay their application fees to stay in this country… I wanted to make sure immigrants were taken care of. I didn’t think we were in a position to laugh, because we were just letting the dust settle. 

And let me tell you that through those experiences and talking to people, and communities that are very affected directly by this administration, through the severity the laughter was still so important. Laughter is such an extreme emotion. A lot of us actually laugh when we feel very sad.

DJ: What is the point of your comedy? What is your comedy trying to do for people, and also for yourself? What are you trying to achieve other than a laugh?

CA: The only thing that I try to do is to actually connect with people who can share my experiences. I don’t have a specific agenda. I can tell you that years ago, I was one of the most if not the most-booked comedian on the college circuit here in the States, and I would get booked in Iowa, Wisconsin — states where people would think, “There aren’t any Latinos there, how are you going to do these shows?” And I’m thinking, “I speak English and I was born in the United States, so what do you mean?” I don’t understand that. People are people.

Throughout those shows I realized, actually, that I had to find common ground so that people could understand where I was coming from, and aside from being Latina, I was also raised in a Catholic family, I was also raised in poverty, I also had struggles that a lot of people here of any race seem to have. So it actually helped me in cultivating this sense of commonality. ■

The Ethnic Show continues at Club Soda (1225 St-Laurent) from July 17-21, various times, $59.61

Cristela Alonzo will also be part of the Wanda Sykes gala at Place des Arts’s Salle Wilfrid Pelletier (175 Ste-Catherine W.) on Friday, July 26, 7 p.m., $42.80-$121.09