Being the first at something is usually cause for celebration. Why wouldn’t it be? Whether you’re the first person to cross the finish line in a race, finish first in your graduating class, or are the first female vice-president of the United States, you’re lauded for your landmark accomplishment. Writer, comedian, and activist Cristela Alonzo knows all about being the first. However, on this week’s episode of The Cut podcast, host Avery Trufelman sits down with Cristela to explore why sometimes you just don’t want to be the first one, and learn more about her new podcast on the subject, Chicano Squad.
AVERY: The inauguration of the vice-president was this amazing, historic moment. I was absolutely moved by it. The first woman vice-president, the first VP of color, being sworn in by the first Latina Supreme Court justice. But then it just turned a little too prematurely self-congratulatory. All this talk of “the barriers are broken.” It’s true, firsts matter, tremendously. But it’s everything that comes afterwards that really signals change. It’s so soon to pat ourselves on the back because … firsts are rocky and difficult. Ask someone who has been a first.
CRISTELA: I was the first Latina to create and star in their own network sitcom in TV history and American TV history [ABC’s Cristela]. Obviously, Latinas and Latin American countries have done it. And also, I was the first Latina to star in a Pixar movie, Cars 3. I was Cruz Ramirez.
AVERY: Before Coco.
CRISTELA: Right, before Coco.
AVERY: As comedian, writer, and activist, Cristela Alonzo will tell you, sometimes you don’t want to be the first. The temptation to break a barrier can pull you away from the work you actually want to do.
AVERY: The huge question that I had for you is, how do you go to these places that have never been gone before and still be choosy? I heard that you turned down The View.
CRISTELA: I did, I did.
AVERY: The View has an audience of 2.5 million people every single day. When Cristela was offered a job as a host, that would have made her the first representative of the Chicanx experience regularly seated at the table. But part of her fight is choosing her battles.
CRISTELA: One of the biggest things I had was that I grew up in poverty, so growing up in poverty actually gave me the ability to say no. I know what it’s like to come from nothing. At the end of the day, if I end up with nothing, that is my familiar spot. That is my comfort zone. Also, I’ve always said I just love what I do. I have so many people in my past, you know, they do say, “I want to be rich and famous.” I always start thinking that’s going to be your downfall right off the bat, because how much fame is enough? How much money is enough? If you can’t put an amount of it, a goal, something, you’ll never be happy. It will never be enough. When The View came up, I loved Whoopi, I loved Raven. Nicolle Wallace was back on at that time, we had a great time. I didn’t like the energy of it for me. When I got offered the job I knew immediately I was going to be miserable. I felt like the fighting was going to get worse. I felt like, Is it all worth it? Is it worth my mental state to have this much money? I said no, and my agents they were like, “Oh, I get it, you’re negotiating. Here’s more money.” I was like, “Oh, yeah, no, I don’t want the money.” And they’re like, “Okay.” I’m choosing this because I also love this thing that I do so much that I want to be happy doing the thing that I do. That’s the weird thing.
AVERY: Cristela has been an activist for years. But after the 2016 election, she took a step back from show business entirely. A break from being a first. A pause from blazing paths, to maintain the paths that already existed.
CRISTELA: People were asking me, “Why haven’t you created another show? Why haven’t you done this? Why haven’t you done that?” I said, “Honestly, I don’t feel like being funny right now.” Dolores Huerta is my mentor and one of my best friends.
AVERY: No way!
AVERY: Dolores Huerta. the iconic activist, who, with Cesar Chavez, helped organize the farm workers movement. She actually coined the phrase “Sí, se puede.”
CRISTELA: Yes. We’re both members of a nonprofit where she and I during election cycles will do bus tours together to get people to go out. We try to focus on Spanish-speaking communities, farmworker communities, to get people to go out and vote. We always talk about how when you’re in the movement and you’re trying to see progress, it’s so hard to see the actual progress, because we always want to see the end result. So as we try to go towards the end result, we don’t take time to celebrate the little wins here and there. Dolores and I have always talked about celebrating the wins along the way. The wins along the way get you through the losses
VERY: Do you guys actually celebrate? Do you and Dolores take a shot?
CRISTELA: Yeah, actually Delores loves a good tequila. She likes to dance, she likes to listen to live music, everything. We’ve had those moments. Once the election was done, we drank the tequila. We went to a bar once and we were kicked out of it because it was closing at like four in the morning or something. We’re outside and all of a sudden we start saying, “Okay, so what we need to work on is creating a plan to get Texas to be able to register voters easily online.” We start talking about how to get people to register to vote. That’s how we work. I had said no to The View because it wasn’t me, but spending the middle of the night in New York City with Dolores talking about how to get people to register to vote online in other states like Texas, that feels right to me. I just want to do what I can to see that my people are safe. And by my people, I mean like my friends and my family and just anybody I could try to help and amplify, and I did it. Now I feel like I’m ready to go back to work. And my first project was the Chicano Squad.
AVERY: She is the host of a new documentary podcast called Chicano Squad. And, in many ways, it’s about being a first, and the challenges and complexities in that position.
CRISTELA: Chicano Squad is a story of the first of the first all-Latino homicide squad in the United States. What makes the story so fascinating is how they were created. You realize that there was a problem in policing. Go figure. In the ’70s, in the Houston population, there was a growing number of undocumented immigrants coming from mostly Mexico at that time. They couldn’t really get any crime solved. If anything happened to them, everything would just kind of go on like it didn’t happen, because the police department didn’t have Spanish speakers. Sometimes if you didn’t speak English, they couldn’t even write your name correctly. So if you look back, there’s not a lot of files that exist about crimes being committed in the Latino community.
AVERY: The tension between police and the community they were supposed to be protecting came to a head in 1977.
CRISTELA: So what happened is that the HPD, the Houston Police Department, ended up murdering an Army veteran. A 23-year-old Latino Army veteran.
AVERY: The brutal murder of José Campos Torres set Houston aflame. Protesters filled the streets chanting his name. Torres’s life was immortalized in chants, in artwork, in songs.
CRISTELA: It opened up this tension that had existed between the Latino community and the police department. No one could really communicate, no one trusted the other person, no one trusted anybody. The Houston Police Department decided to try this experiment where they said, “Hey, this is crazy, but what if we get police officers that speak Spanish to talk to people in the community that speak Spanish and see what happens?” Everybody’s like, “Whoa, this this sounds just crazy enough to work.” That’s what happened and that’s how the Chicano Squad happened.
AVERY: The series follows each officer who joins up with the Chicano Squad. As they struggle to pass the biased entrance exams, to meet the arbitrary height requirement, to transcend the barriers that were efficiently and silently erected to keep them out. Still, a number of these officers had grown up on the other side of the law. Harassed for their papers, watching as their friends and siblings were chased by cops. They had to really ask themselves if they wanted to become firsts in a space like the Houston Police Department, playing part in the system that marginalized and terrorized their community.
CRISTELA: For me, American Latino history means that we have to tell people that we have been here and contributed to this country since the beginning, even before the country was the United States. If we’re only telling that story from one point of view, which was that undocumented immigrants or Spanish-speaking people just had crime that was so hard to solve, they couldn’t do it. When we actually get to see that the people were Spanish-speaking cops, Latinos that grew up in those Spanish-speaking neighborhoods, when we see that they were there, that there are police officers who can do the police work, that all the other ones that couldn’t speak Spanish thought was impossible, then we realize those stories need to be told. It’s great to tell these stories about Latinos doing amazing things and everything, but we also have to remind people, by the way, they were cops.
AVERY: When the Chicano Squad formed, it didn’t mean they were suddenly welcomed with open arms and given resources and embraced by the system and community alike. They were given an impossible job: Go solve a huge number of murder cases and make peace with the community.
CRISTELA: The Chicano Squad, when they started, had nothing. They got no budget for anything. I just finished recording an episode, the seventh episode. When I was recording this episode, I was so angry at narrating this podcast because I was upset at the lack of resources they got and they still got the job done.
AVERY: Hear the origins of the Chicano Squad. And the murder of José Campos Torres, which started it all.
To hear more from Cristela about the Chicano Squad, listen below, and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.