When quarantine hit in March there was only one thing I wanted to do with my newly acquired, anxiety-riddled time: rewatch every Seth Rogen movie ever (yes, even Green Hornet). When I finished those, I kept going down the path of comedy. I spent my days and nights with every comedian that made me forget about the pandemic-panic roaring outside my apartment.
Somewhere between the movies and stand-up specials, I had an unshakable thought; where were all the Latinas at?
The Hollywood comedy scene has always been a boys club. It doesn’t help that certain studies have suggested that men are funnier than women. One study, reported by BBC News in 2019, found that 63% of men in the study were rated funnier than the women. There has been some breakthrough work from women that have been given a chance, like Cristela Alonzo, but comedy appears to be further out of reach to women of color. When it comes to Latinas, I can count the number of famous, household name comedians on one hand.
Aside from polishing my ‘pretending to go down the elevator’ bit, I am not a comedian. I’m an outsider. So I spoke to some Latina comedians to answer the question I couldn’t get out of my mind: why are there so few Latinas in mainstream comedy?
Some quotes have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
“I think it’s because the industry has a hard time placing us,” said L.A. comedian Cat Alvarado. “Some of my difficulties in moving up the ranks have to do with what industry gatekeepers see as what a Latina is, versus what we all can be. There are so many versions of a Latina.”
Alvarado’s comedy includes stand-up and Instagram videos featuring characters like “Cat’s mom,” among others.
“There are a lot of up-and-coming Latina comedians that I know, and each one of us is so unique. I think that’s why we’re running into that wall, nobody’s breaking through to those gatekeepers because they have an image of what we’re supposed to be, and nobody is that.”
Could that be because the majority of gatekeepers are white, older men?
“Ironically, no. And that speaks to a whole other issue of, can anyone be ideologically pure and unbiased?”
Jenni Ruiza, a New York, Bronx-based comedian, had a similar experience.
“I once had a conversation with a person in the industry who does development. One of the first notes that I got from him was, ‘how can we downplay your Latinadad?’ I was like, bro, you’re Mexican, what do you mean?”
Ruiza grew up watching comedy. She noticed at an early age that the only characters that looked like her were maids or featured heavy accents.
“I just always felt like I wanted to see someone like me, so if no one was going to put ‘me’ up there, I was going to do it myself.”
Stereotypes and Expectations
One shining moment for us all came in 2016, when Melissa Villaseñor was the first Latina to join the cast of SNL. Ruiza and Jesenia, another Bronx-based comedian, were particularly thrilled. Two years earlier, in 2014, Jesenia wrote, edited, and co-directed her video, “Latino Stereotypes for Dummies (SNL = Still No Latinas),” aimed at notorious Kingpin of sketch comedy himself, Lorne Michaels. With the help of Ruiza, the two demonstrated every Latin stereotype featured on SNL, as a way to call out Michaels for never hiring Latinas on his show. The video went viral and got attention both locally and nationally.
Jesenia’s comedy includes stand-up, sketches, music parodies, podcasts, and character skits.
“People don’t generally flock to female comedians, they feel like we’re going to be preachy, or annoying, or whatever it is. Women have a bad rap. Latinas in comedy, that’s just on a whole other level. We’re not being sexy; we’re not doing the stereotypical things that Latinas do. And forget about it if you’re a mom. People will be like, ‘You should be raising your children.’”
Ruiza feels that performers should shoulder some of the responsibility of underrepresentation as well.
“For every actor out there that’s hungry for work, and for every ‘maid role’ that gets offered to us, being told to play up an accent, an accent we don’t even have most of the time. They’re making us caricatures of who we actually are. And for every actor that takes those roles, it’s so disappointing, because, come on, why? If we keep saying no to those roles they won’t make them anymore.”
Maria De La Ghetto, an L.A. based comedian, feels that women could make a bigger impact on comedy if they worked together more. Her goal is to someday have her own comedy group to work with.
“Because there’s so few of us, I feel like there might be a little bit of a divide amongst women in general. And then it goes into the other subsections like, women of color, queer women, trans women, groups like that. If we were just women banding together I think we would have a bigger, better presence overall and a chance to bombard these clubs.”
Recently, over Mother’s Day weekend, she participated in a Zoom comedy show, which featured all women of color.
“Where are these people talking about how women aren’t funny and Latina women aren’t funny? It’s because you’re not even trying to have them, we’re not on the radar. These groups of [comedy] guys are just going to hook up their friends, so it’s within us. If one of us gets that show or booking, we’ve got to bring in our homies. That’s the only way it’s going to work, is through community.”
This theory is backed up by Ruiza as well.
“It feels like we’re constantly like, ‘I can’t support you because I need support, and I don’t want to distract people from supporting me because I’m supporting you.’ I think that’s one of the biggest issues that we have as a whole and why we’re still climbing to get executives’ attention.”
De La Ghetto’s experience in navigating the socio-political landscape of comedy extends beyond appealing to the throngs of straight, white men on the scene.
“I’m a big girl, so I stick out already. I’m one of, maybe, two big girls I ever see out on the scene. Maybe it’s a different experience for someone else. But I see a lot of girls on the scene that are pretty and thin, and they kind of gravitate towards each other. And you can see that they’re just more accepted in the groups as opposed to a person or woman of color. I have to go out of my way to be seen by these people.”
Too Much Vs. Not Enough
One wall all these women have hit, to varying degrees, is being told to fit a specific mold. Alvarado, who is fair skinned, was once turned down because they were looking for a ‘Cristela Alonzo’ type.
“That is a very nice way of saying we want someone brown. I mean, fair, I understand. That’s the difficulty for me being mixed. My experience as a Latina, it feels sometimes like it doesn’t count.”
One theory heard in pursuit of this story was that audiences were tired of hearing jokes about our big families, Catholicism, and other stereotypes. But what about when that is the reality for some? Most male comedians continue to toss sex, penis, and masturbation jokes all over the place like they’re confetti, and audiences never seem to tire of it. Can a subject ever feel tired if it’s from a fresh, personal perspective?
De La Ghetto, who is half Mexican and half Filipino, once opened a show where the headliner was an Asian comedian. She was excited to be working with another female, Asian comedian, but her friendliness was quickly rebuffed.
“I wanted to be her friend, I wanted to have unity. She said, ‘so you’re not going to make any jokes about bad Asian drivers and small penises, are you?’ So in my head I freaked out because that was all my jokes, and that is my experience, what do you mean? So after that I was so messed up.”
For the record, she did tell those jokes and they were well received.
Alvarado’s opening joke for years has been, ‘Hi, I’m Latina, but I’m 23, so my kids are grown.’
“I had a white lady come up to me and say the joke was racist and I should stop doing it. I told her I have a cousin who’s a teen mom, so. There you go. It’s really common, so I’m going to tell that joke.”
While it’s important to be able to share personal, cultural experiences, it’s equally as important to tell the jokes and stories about general, human experiences. You know, that thing that unites us all.
“You also have to make sure that everyone can identify with your comedy, so it is a little bit challenging when not everyone can identify with you, when the majority of people are not from your background.”
“I don’t personally care to see stories that are centered on what the Puerto Rican problem or issue is,” said Ruiza. “I just want to see a ‘me’ on T.V. that’s me. It’s the reason I started writing. I can’t rely on white people to give me these roles, cause they don’t know. I feel like I always have to explain myself to people. Like, I’m not a Jenni from ‘the block,’ I’m just a Jenni from The Bronx, just me.”
“I do want to give Hollywood credit for looking,” said Alvarado. “It could be worse, they could not care at all. There are a lot of people out there that say, ‘It’s nice that you’re Latina, Cat, but we actually want a ‘real person of color.’ Which I take issue with, but I also respect it in that they don’t want half-measures, they really do want that additional representation.”
De La Ghetto sees technology helping to widen the social net and connect comedians of all backgrounds.
“I’ve definitely connected with way more diverse comedians in the last couple of months doing Zoom shows, than doing brick and mortar shows. Once comedy clubs start opening up it’ll be easier, we’ll be more inclined to reach out to comedians in further areas and have a wider network.”
Jesenia maintains that the future for Latinas in comedy resides in making comedy for every culture.
“If you’re doing a show and it’s all about Mexican people, then you’re not speaking to the rest of the cultures. And then you wonder why it isn’t doing well; it’s because you’re not speaking to the rest of the cultures.”
Ruiza believes that change begins with supporting each other.
“It’s our responsibility to put that competitive mentality aside and just root for each other. I’m rooting for everyone Latino and for the people who are really putting their hearts and souls into amplifying our voices in those outlets. I think it’s our responsibility to support them in any way that we can.”
While the future of comedy for Latinas is unclear, none of these ladies have plans to slow down. Alvarado puts fresh videos of her comedy on Instagram and has goals to make her own “Trainwreck” type of movie, a lá Amy Schumer, someday. Ruiza is developing several pilot scripts and co-hosts the PolitiSIGHS podcast. Jesenia has pages and pages of material she’s been working on for her stand-up. De La Ghetto is participating in virtual comedy shows and hopes to do a comedy tour once the shadow of Covid-19 is gone.
So. Why aren’t there more Latinas in mainstream comedy? After mulling everything I’d heard, and more, all I can say is there is no one answer. I’m tempted to say it’s because of “them,” the gatekeepers sitting on their Hollywood thrones, picking and choosing. And, to a large degree, it is. But it’s also up to us as an audience. We have to support the kind of entertainment that tells diverse stories about layered characters because numbers move Hollywood. A good place to start? Support up-and-comers and find some virtual comedy shows. Find comedians you like, then show some love and help create space for them.
Maybe the next time I go on a major comedy binge this story will be old news.