Cristela is filled with these bitingly funny moments of Cristela knocking her white peers down a peg or refusing to fit into the stereotypical box they keep trying to put her in. It’s also full of moments characterized by refreshing cultural specificity — Quinceañeras and Latino Christmas traditions — that in their representations of a group that’s underrepresented on television. But the sitcom works on multiple levels; I don’t just appreciate Cristela because of my Hispanic roots, but also because of everything else it represents.
Cristela often rejects gender norms, even though this means actively going against Mexican tradition that’s extremely important to her old-fashioned mother. In one episode, “Fifteen-something,” in which Natalia openly wonders if Cristela would have turned out different had she had her own Quinceañera, Cristela expresses her frustration with Natalia’s expectations: “I’m sorry I’m not your idea of a woman. I go to college — boom: you’re disappointed — I don’t want to settle down and have kids — boom: I’m dying alone.” It’s a conversation that rings true within many Latino cultures: My (white) classmates were always encouraged to keep furthering their education; my (Spanish) father never fully understood the purpose of graduate school. For Natalia, and quite a few Latino parents, law school isn’t as big an accomplishment as a husband and children.
Cristela also provides an accurate depiction of working-class life — it’s been compared to Roseanne for both that and Cristela’s outspoken nature; Barr herself guest starred this season. Money problems are a recurring topic. In “Village Mode,” Cristela had to choose between taking the bar or working in a salon in order to help bring extra money to the house; in “Enter Singing,” when Cristela gets fancy box seats to West Side Story, Felix refuses to let his son go because he’s worried Henry will then get used to the things that Felix will never be able to afford to provide. There is no glamorization in Cristela, only struggle that’s interspersed with Cristela’s dark humor — humor that acts as both a defense mechanism and a survival instinct.
One of the most impressive aspects of Cristela is how it manages to simultaneously represent a particular culture and remain funny and relatable to the larger television-viewing population. Like Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat, Cristela is adept at placing hyper-specifics into bigger family sitcom tropes: In “Mr. Felix and Ms. Daniela,” a fight between siblings is actually about Daniela’s attempts to keep up false appearances to impress a white peer; in “Fifteen-something,” a workplace flirtation with Josh leads to Natalia explaining how dating a white man is seen as a status symbol within the Latino community; in “Hall-Oates-Ween,” a typical Halloween episode explores Cristela’s insecurities about her looks, particularly when stacked against her thin, blonde coworker.
Cristela, which airs its season finale tomorrow, doesn’t get the same ratings or attention as its counterparts (to be fair, it airs on generally ignored Friday nights). Yet it certainly reaches, and sometimes even surpasses, the quality of both Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat — both shows that I love dearly. All three sitcoms were wonderful additions to a television world that is still starved for diversity (and each one provides such a clever, nuanced take on the specific culture it’s aiming to represent that it’s almost unfair to lump them together at all). But it’s Cristela that is not only consistently entertaining, but also has made the case for why its continued existence is absolutely necessary.