EDINBURG, RGV – Cristela Alonzo, Mexican-American comedienne and actress, gave the keynote speech at La Unión del Pueblo Entero’s 3rd Biennial Gala at Mayrin Banquet Hall in Edinburg.

The San Juan native spoke about growing up in the Rio Grande Valley and how it shaped her to become the strong, outspoken activist she is today.

Alonzo started her speech by talking about the person who influenced her life the most – her mother Natalia. Natalia hailed from the small village of Zancarrón in Mexico, where she lived in absolute poverty. Alonzo shared how her mother would pick and eat wild berries, unsure if they were toxic but too hungry to care. Alonzo’s father Adalberto chose Natalia to be his wife, and the two were married. They had three children with another on the way when Natalia left the abusive relationship and came to live in San Juan. Alonzo was born soon after with the help of a midwife, after whom she is named.

The family of five lived as squatters in an abandoned diner for the first seven years of her life. Her mother worked double shifts at Garza’s Café, making $6,000 a year to feed the family while saving to become a resident alien along with Alonzo’s oldest brother born in Mexico. They received food stamps, cooked on a space heater, and heated buckets of water to bathe in the winter. Still, her mother was happy to be in America.

“My mom was so thankful for the opportunities this country gave her, and it wasn’t because we had money,” said Alonzo. “It was because here in this country, my family didn’t have to go to a well to get water. My brothers didn’t have to sell gum on the streets. We kind of had plumbing. To live in extreme poverty here in the United States was better than my family’s life in Mexico.”

But, Natalia and her son’s immigration status meant a life living in constant fear of deportation. If her mother saw a Border Patrol agent in a store, Alonzo was tasked with throwing a tantrum so that they could leave without much notice.

“Walking into a business as a child and having your mother terrified of seeing Border Patrol is scarring … Living with the fear that if you didn’t throw realistic tantrums, your mother could be taken away from you … is scarring,” said Alonzo.

Alonzo joked that her mother was even afraid of Girl Scouts because she thought they were Border Patrol agents in training. While the joke was part of one of her comedy routines, it is based in truth.

“My mother, the strict woman who would hit us whenever she even thought we were doing something bad, was scared of little kids that wore uniforms. My mother surrendered herself as inferior to children because she thought they could deport her.”

Because of her story, and a myriad more like it, people often ask why they didn’t go through the “proper channels” to come into this country legally. Alonzo says that those critics are dismissing the life and death decisions many are forced to make. Applying for and waiting to get a visa is a luxury few immigrants have.

“So many people leave their home for reasons that people can’t imagine,” said Alonzo. “They leave their home because they’re trying to escape civil war. They’re trying to go to a place where they don’t have to starve. They’re trying to go to a place where women are not seen as property. They’re trying to go to a place where they have a fighting chance at life.”

With immigration at the national forefront, Alonzo commented that it has been a rough year for Latinos. She said that the disparaging rhetoric aimed at immigrants and Mexicans, in particular, as well as the passing of laws prejudiced towards them is the work of ignorant people who do not know the community, but are working to vilify it.

“To my undocumented brothers and sisters, know that you matter and none of this is fair. You must remember that the mental anguish and abuse that you suffer at the hands of fools is coming from fools,” said Alonzo.

In light of the recent rescindment of DACA, Alonzo offered sympathy and encouragement to recipients in the room.

“To my DACA family, I am sorry for everything that has happened. You placed your trust on a government that decided to turn their backs on you,” said Alonzo. “… You are decent people that are trying to forge a life for yourself.”

“No one comes to take jobs away,” she continued. “When people say that, what they are really saying is ‘my life hasn’t worked out the way I wanted, and it has to be someone else’s fault.’ … It’s easy to blame someone that isn’t around to defend themselves, but we must remember their hate is not about you. It’s about what you represent. You have not had anything handed to you, yet you still thrive. You succeed.”

Alonzo says that while she was upset with the results of the election and the Trump administration’s policies since then, it is all the more crucial for the Latino community to organize and make their voices heard. She says the work of activists and organizations like LUPE must continue, with people educating themselves and passing the information on to others.

“Our system is not perfect – far from it. But, that doesn’t mean that we don’t try. We can’t expect to improve things if we do nothing to change it,” said Alonzo.

Circling back to her humble beginnings, Alonzo reflected on how far she has come thanks to the sacrifice of her mother. She said she is proud to be from the Rio Grande Valley with good people that share similar stories of hardship and resilience. This, she says, is what being an American is actually about, and those who try to demean those trials and triumphs are dismissing what makes this country truly great.

“I will not have anyone belittle or bastardize my mom’s journey. She came here for a better life without an education, without money, without knowing the language, and, somehow, she gave me the chance to live my dream,” said Alonzo. “Now there has been a lot of talk about making America great again. But, the truth is in order to make it great again, we have to make it great the first time. And, we do that by honoring people like my mom and so many of the people like my mom in this room, in this area – hardworking families with heart – honoring those people, the ones that make the Rio Grande Valley what it is. That, my friends, is how we make America great.”

*Alonzo has starred in “The Angry Birds Movie,” “Cars 3” and “Cristela,” a semi-autobiographical TV series that ran on ABC from 2014 to 2015. Alonzo became the first Latina to create, produce, write and star in her own network show, and her “Cars 3” character, Cruz Ramirez, was the first Latina lead in any Pixar film.

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above story features Cristela Alonzo and mistress of ceremonies at the LUPE gala, Nora Linares-Moeller.