Plot spoilers and car spoilers ahead.
CRISTELA ALONZO refused to listen to her mother, at least about this. She may have shared a bed with mom till hitting adulthood, and she definitely looked up to the woman who worked two jobs to support the impoverished family after leaving an abusive husband. But having traveled thousands of miles — and seemingly even farther than that from her aspirations to her Hollywood reality — Alonzo rejected her mom’s long-ago advice to “dream small.”
Even if, at the moment, she could barely buy a break. It was 2015, and Alonzo was performing her stand-up act in Canada as part of the “Just for Laughs” tour — just months after her ABC series “Cristela” was canceled. Her debit card — her only card — had been declined. “My card had just been used fraudulently,” she says, “and I had no way to get a replacement.” She was a long way from both her home base, Los Angeles, and her home town of San Juan, Tex.
Right then, though, opportunity rang. “I got the call. I got Cruz,” she says. “Oh, my God.”
Alonzo had just landed the voice role of Cruz Ramirez, the new motivational character of a race car in Pixar’s “Cars 3.”
Like always, however, Alonzo knew that a new starting point meant that yet again, she would have something to prove — to others as well as to herself.
Alonzo was raised as a child of the ’80s, her family on the edge of homelessness for years as they squatted in an abandoned diner with wonky plumbing in San Juan — where she and her three siblings were “the poorest kids among the poor kids.”
Mom — Natalia Alonzo — was a Mexican immigrant who spoke no English. She put in long hours for low pay, working twin shifts at a Mexican restaurant. But they had a TV — a beam of outside hope and dreams for young Cristela.
Growing up, she relished comic books and sports (she remains a Los Angeles Dodgers fan), and she especially loved sci-fi, sitcoms and detective dramas. But it was a telecast that preempted her beloved “Murder, She Wrote” in 1991 that had the strongest impact. Alonzo watched the Tony Awards and saw Lea Salonga and Jonathan Pryce performing numbers from the hit show “Miss Saigon.” “Here was this daughter of immigrants, talking about the American Dream,” Alonzo recalls.
“At that moment, I started telling people I had two dreams: One, to be the first female president of the United States — but I listened to people who told me it was [impossible] and I didn’t follow that dream,” she continues. “My second dream was to be a performer. But people said: ‘You’re Latino and you’re from South Texas — you’re never going to do it.’ ”
And her mother had those two words of advice: “Dream small.”
“In my family, our concept of work was blue-collar — you have to kill your body,” she says. “They couldn’t understand that I could be creative and get paid for it.”
Fortunately for Alonzo, her drama teachers in school recognized budding talent and urged her to study theater. “My junior high drama teacher even forced me by changing my schedule behind my back.”
As she pursued theater, Alonzo realized the only way she could tell her own story was to write it herself — and so she began developing her stand-up material. By 2006, she was writing for Comedy Central’s “Mind of Mencia” as well as film shorts, until getting a chance to create and star in “Cristela” in 2014. The series lasted only 22 episodes.
Alonzo remembers meeting Pixar co-founder John Lasseter — who directed the first two “Cars” films — and thanking him profusely for the opportunity to appear in “Cars 3.” As she did, she began sharing her own life story — about what it meant to come so far from such a poor background. The more Lasseter heard, she says, the more the filmmakers were convinced that Cruz Ramirez’s arc should borrow much of its heart from Alonzo’s experience.
“The scene when Cruz asks Lightning McQueen how he knew he could be a racer, and he says he never thought he couldn’t,” Alonzo says, “when Cruz says she was told to ‘Dream small,’ that is me. I am Cruz. I am that long shot.”
In the film’s climax, Lightning McQueen gives Cruz a chance to compete on the track — a telling parallel to how Pixar gave Alonzo her shot.
“I love that Pixar allowed me to tell that story,” she says. “As a woman of color in this industry, I love Pixar because they listened to me and they respected me.”
“I don’t want this to be a male-dominated franchise — that was never even John Lasseter’s intention,” “Cars 3″ director Brian Fee says. “He would say this is for everybody. We took a long look and thought: ‘Well, we do have a bit of a responsibility to make sure it isn’t — that’s on us.”
Alonzo says that she was particularly moved when she heard that several Latina girls at an Arizona screening of the film had to ask their mothers if they understand the film correctly — “they couldn’t trust their eyes that had a girl was getting to win within this ‘boy’ franchise.”
That means so much to Alonzo, she says, because she works from the heart. “Every project that I pick has to matter to me.” And now, she adds with a laugh: “I’m ready to prove myself again.”