In Hew New Memoir, Cristela Alonzo Talks About the Difficulties of Being Her Mom’s Translator

Photo by Koury Angelo. Courtesy of Atria Books

Before she was a stand-up comedian or became the first Latina to create, produce, write and star a network sitcom, Cristela Alonzo was a young girl growing up in San Juan, Texas (spending some of that time believing she was Puerto Rican). In her new book, Music to My Years: A Mixtape Memoir of Growing Up and Standing Up, the comedian and actress opens up about her childhood, her dreams and her career.

The memoir is broken up into chapters named after songs and artists – Selena – “Dreaming of You,” Backstreet Boys – “Shape of My Heart” and Ice Cube – “It Was a Good Day” to name a few. In the chapter titled The Golden Girls – “Thank You for Being a Friend,” we learn the role that TV played in Cristela’s life growing up. Not only did she feel a kinship with The Golden Girls, but she also learned a lot of English from watching TV – so much so that she eventually became her Spanish-speaking mom’s interpreter. Below, read or listen to an excerpt of her book, where she delves into what it’s like to translate complex topics starting at a very young age, a topic that many children of immigrants can relate to.

After making such a concerted effort to improve my English, I quickly started noticing that I was making a lot of progress with my ESL class in school and thought it was largely due to the amount of American TV shows I was watching. Obviously, the teachers were an integral part as well, but considering the amount of time I had with them, even they were surprised at the pace in which I was becoming fluent. Who knew TV would help me with school?

I was eventually able to leave ESL months later. When the teacher told me, I looked at her, pointed at her, and said, “Thank you for being a friend!” She laughed—a sound I still remember. It was then that I realized I was getting a new responsibility that came with being a bilingual first-generation American. I had to join the ranks of my siblings and serve as a translator for everything my mother needed. It was as if I were having a linguistic quinceañera thrown for me, except that instead of a party, I was handed government paperwork I had to fill out for my mom. IT SUCKED.

There was a lot of pressure that came with having to translate for my mom as a kid. It made me grow up quicker than my friends. I was dealing with adult responsibilities that some kids couldn’t imagine. While friends were collecting rubber bands to make their own Chinese jump ropes, I was walking with my mom to the post office so that I could buy money orders for her that I would fill out and send off to pay bills. One of the things I hated doing the most was having to translate the news for her because I didn’t know what they were talking about. Imagine an eight-year-old girl trying to explain the Russian nuclear reactor exploding at Chernobyl and releasing radioactive materials throughout Europe! I had JUST gotten out of class where English was my second language and now I was trying to explain to my mother nuclear war? Who was I? Rose Nylund from The Golden Girls episode where she wrote to Gorbachev and Reagan asking them to get rid of nuclear bombs?

It became part of my life. Every night, I would have to sit on the floor next to my mother and translate the news. The news anchor would say a headline and I would have a couple of seconds to translate it into Spanish. That was usually the easiest part of the job. Then I’d have to listen to the actual story and translate the big bullet points to my mom. This part was a guessing game because I had to find a quiet spot in the news story that would give me enough time to translate for my mother without lagging too much, and do it with enough time left over for me not to miss the next story.

Excerpt from Music to My Years: a Mixtape Memoir of Growing Up and Standing Up by Cristela Alonzo. Copyright (c) 2019 by the author and reprinted by permission of Atria Book.​ Music to My Years goes on sale October 8.