Cristela Alonzo talks to us about never dreaming small and how to deal with imposter syndrome
Never one to dream small, actress and comedian Cristela Alonzo was the first Latina to create, produce, write AND star in her own network show, Cristela. Now, she’s the voice of Cruz Ramirez from Cars 3, a breakthrough character that we’ve come to root for, adore, and relate to so much. Whether you’ve ever felt like you weren’t good enough, have been scared of failure or have had trouble fitting in — Cruz Ramirez in Cars 3 will make you go #same.
Born in San Juan, Texas, Alonzo was the youngest of four children, who were “the poorest kids among the poor kids.” But rather than be ashamed of her beginnings, Alonzo loves to talk about the way she grew up, she wants you to know that her story isn’t common.
HelloGiggles spoke with Cristela Alonzo about everything from dealing with imposter syndrome, her humble beginnings, shaking up a male-skewed franchise, and how she believes Wonder Woman and Cars 3 were the most empowering movies of summer 2017 for young girls.
HelloGiggles: Can you tell us more about what led you to audition for the role of Cruz Ramirez for Cars 3, what were your initial thoughts when you read the script?
Cristela Alonzo: I auditioned for it once. I didn’t know until afterward that Pixar had already wanted me for the role. Everybody that’s obsessed with Pixar, they love to look for spoilers and want to leak everything so I didn’t get to ever read the script. I would only get my lines at the time when I was recording. I used to play this game with Pixar, ‘let me guess the story.’ I would give them the plot line to Cars 3 based on the lines they gave me; I was always very far off. I worked on the film for maybe two years and throughout the evolution of the film, I realized that the more time I spent with everyone I worked with, the more interesting they found my story. They started incorporating my life story into Cruz Ramirez’s character, so the character storyline is very similar to my own upbringing.
HG: Can you speak more on the parallels between Cruz and your own upbringings? Especially since as we watch Cars 3 we get a sense that Cruz has a lot of trouble dealing with that voice in the back of her head telling her that she’s not good enough.
CA: That’s something I struggled with a lot. A lot of it had to do with the way my mom raised me, she always told me to be modest. The modesty thing gets confusing — you start to think you can never say anything good about yourself because that means you’re not being modest. I mean, that’s how I felt. It’s weird when you constantly feel like you can’t brag or celebrate things about yourself. After a while, it starts taking its toll. When I moved out from my hometown, away from my family, I was surprised when I met people with confidence — they seemed so self-assured, and I never was.
Especially when I started going into stand-up, acting and writing, I would be the only person in a room that dropped out of college because I had to go take care of my family and help out at home, a lot of times I was always the person that felt like I didn’t fit in. Not only because I was usually the only Latina in the room, but I was also usually the one with the humblest background. So, I think when you grow up with no money that really stifles you, too. I was made fun of as a kid because I didn’t have money, and I was made fun of because my dream as a child was to be the first female President of the United States. When I told people that, they told me I was silly. Adults would say, “You’re not being real. How are you going to do that?” When adults who should be guiding you tell you that, how is a child supposed to thrive and actually move forward?
That’s an issue that Cruz really relates to because, for years, Cruz is a trainer that thinks she’s hit the ceiling — the highest place for her to go. Then along comes Lightening McQueen who tells her, just by his actions and his own confidence, “No. You can do it.” There’s a part in the movie that really sticks with me, that really affected me when I saw the whole thing at the premiere, when Cruz asks McQueen, “How did you know you could do it?” McQueen says, “I just never thought I couldn’t.” When he said that, it really hit me because I realized, I Cristela, I have never felt like that.
HG: While recording for Cars 3, did you ever think, “What am I doing here? How did I get here?”
CA: Constantly. For the majority of the time I was recording, I would fly from Los Angeles to Emeryville where Pixar is located and I would fly home to LA at the end of the day. Every time I would come home from a session, typical me, I would tell my friends, “I hope they don’t fire me. I hope they liked what I did.” I doubted everything. Even as the story evolved and the more they got to know me and incorporated my own life story, I still kept thinking that they could fire me. It’s so unreal when you think about it, it’s so ridiculous. My mom always taught me, “Don’t count on anything until you know it’s going to happen; until it’s done because you never know.” That kind of thinking makes me so skeptical of everything, you know?
HG: At face value, Cars as a franchise has always been typically tailored and skewed to young boys, but with Cruz Ramirez in the picture and both your stories being so central to the plot, what did it mean to you as a woman of color to come in and shake up that dynamic?
CA: Well, for me, what I loved the most about the story is Cruz thrives and gets to chase after her dream and achieve it because she’s good. That’s a story we have to remind people of all the time, that if you’re good enough, you’re capable of doing so much. She didn’t win because she was a Car of Color™, which sounds so ridiculous. Is that a term?
HG: You just coined it. I’m going to trademark it for you in the story!
CA: So many of the stories we should tell kids is that regardless of what you are, it doesn’t matter. If you want something and you really go after it, you can achieve it. It’s important, especially for someone like me because adults never really told me that I was powerful, or that I was capable of doing anything. Not because they necessarily believed that, but because everybody in my neighborhood, they were struggling to make ends meet. And when you’re trying to survive, you don’t think about telling kids that they’re powerful, you know? That’s why this story is so necessary. It’s reminding both adults and kids that the rules and all these limits that are given to you, they’re either given to you by your own doubts or by people trying to project their own insecurities on you.
Personally, I love to talk about the way I grew up. I want people to know that my story isn’t common. Our family was practically homeless for the first seven years of my life. My mom came from a second-grade education and somehow my brothers went to college. We’re all thriving in what we want to do. The neighborhood I grew up in, most of us were well under the poverty line and look at what I’m getting to do. It was a thing where I wanted to do this for years now and the fact that I get to live it, I want to show other kids that they can do it too. Especially right now, in the time that we live, we are so cynical and so negative as adults that we have to take a minute to understand that kids are watching. They pay attention and they learn, so we need to be careful about what we’re teaching them.
And this story? If you want to look at just basic gender roles, I grew up as a tomboy with brothers and I love football, I love basketball. Growing up, I was always told, “Oh, girls don’t like that” or “Boys don’t like that.” It’s like, are you saying that I’m not a girl because I like it? Are you saying that I’m not a woman? I don’t understand how that works. This franchise has always been very tailored for men, for boys, the racing world, but I also like that this story of Cruz is not about the fact that she’s a Latina car necessarily. It’s just that this car needs guidance and McQueen gives it to her. I mean, for me, that’s a story of empowerment that we should be talking about.
HG: Cruz grew up watching McQueen and looks up to him. Is there anyone you hold close to your heart like that for inspiration and motivation?
CA: Rita Moreno. I went to a One Day At A Time taping and I didn’t want to meet her because I knew I would lose it. The moment she approached me, and I realized she was going to say “Hi” to me, I started crying. Crying like you had just told me I could never go home and see my family again. When I was a kid, I fell in love with acting and performing because I saw the Tony Awards. I didn’t know what the hell they were but I was just in love with it. I grew up watching and translating West Side Story for my mom because she couldn’t speak English, and then I saw Rita Moreno. She was the one that was obviously Latina in the movie, it was like, “Oh my god, who is this person?” Then she was in an episode of the Golden Girls, I was like, “There she is again.” Then I’m like, wait a minute, she is the greatest [realization of all time]: She looks like me. I mean, that’s what people don’t understand. Those words. They look like me. Those four words are so powerful. Especially to kids. People want to see themselves on TV because it makes them feel like their story matters.
You can snag a copy of Cars 3 right now on HD Digital, DVD, and Blu-ray.