As a Black Latina raised in Jamaica, Queens, in the 1980s and ‘90s, my first taste of women in comedy came from classic sitcoms and telenovelas. Me and my Afro-Dominican immigrant mom cackled from our plastic-covered sofa while watching Jackée Harry and Marla Gibbs’ shady yet hilarious back-and-forth banter on NBC’s “227.” Then we’d flick the channel over to Univision to catch “El Chavo Del Ocho,” where its quirky Mexican women characters, like the hopeless romantic Doña Florinda and the freckle-faced La Chilindrina, cracked us up in our first language with their slapstick physical humor. While I knew the Black Latina women in my life were hysterical, whether recounting exaggerated tales about growing up humbly in the campos of Dominican Republic or bochinchando about a fulanito de tal, it would be years until I saw their jokes depicted on TV or comedy club stages.
For too long, non-Black, cis-hetero Latino comics have shaped Latine comedy in U.S. films and TV shows. Starting in the ‘50s, white Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz displayed the hyper-masculine Latin lover opposite his wife Lucille Ball in the beloved “I Love Lucy.” In the ‘70s, the late charismatic Freddie Prinze, of Puerto Rican and German descent, characterized a working-class Latino on “Chico and the Man,” the first U.S. TV series set in a Mexican-American neighborhood. Next up, Chicano comedic legend Cheech Marin and Mexico-born Paul Rodriguez brought massive visibility to Brown Chicanx politics and representation in the ‘80s. Since then, Colombian John Leguizamo, Mexican-American George Lopez, and Honduran Carlos Mencia have all had their reigns as kings of Latine comedy — and I’ve been in the audience waiting to watch our reinas shine, too.
"Many of these brilliant funny women use comedy to work through generational trauma, survive the chokehold of cultural assimilation that weighed on their immigrant parents, and make sense of the first-gen struggle."
Little by little, it’s happening. In 2014, Mexican-American comedian Cristela Alonzo became the first Latina to create, produce, write, and star in her own U.S. primetime comedy for ABC, though it was canceled after one season. More recently, Puerto Rican-Dominican jokester Aida Rodriguez released her debut hour-long HBO Max comedy special "Fighting Words." But online, through hilarious Web series and viral TikToks, is where I’m finding the Black Latinas in comedy who remind me of the humorists in my family. Veteran Afro-Dominican comic and actor Cheddy Garcia, La Mamá del Humor, has become an undisputed Black Latina comedy queen within Latin America. Meanwhile, in the U.S., comedians like Dee Nasty and Sasha Merci, who leveled up their Internet fame in 2020 with their Fuse TV talk series “Like, Share, Dimelo,” Julissa Calderon, whose viral videos landed her a main role in Netflix’s “Gentefied,” and BuzzFeed’s Haitian-American Joyce Louis-Jean have the Internet cracking up.
Interested in hearing from emerging Afro-Latina comedians, I spoke with a few of them about how humor has been a talent they’ve honed while growing up Latine, whether taking mental notes as family members roasted one another or watching toxic novela tropes on TV. In fact, many of these brilliant funny women use comedy to work through generational trauma, survive the chokehold of cultural assimilation that weighed on their immigrant parents, and make sense of the first-gen struggle. Here, we chat about how finding the funny amid the struggle has been the special sauce they cook up in order to thrive.
Can you talk about humor in your family while growing up in a Guatemalan and Trinidadian household in Queens?
Both of my parents like to laugh. My Trinidadian dad is quiet and kind of serious, but my Guatemalan mom is outgoing and very fun. My mom loved comedy in English and Spanish, and we watched lots of specials. The first time I saw John Leguizamo’s HBO special “Freak,” I could really relate. My mom was like, “you could do that.” My mom's best friend, Nancy, owned a Dominican hair salon; that’s where I remember having the most fun and cracking the most jokes. My mom didn't know what to do with me and my sister's hair, so we were there every Saturday. My perspective on comedy has been heavily influenced by my mom and that Dominican hair salon.
Now that Afro-Latina women comics are getting more visibility, what do you feel that you bring to the conversation?
I think I have the power of surprise, because I don’t “look” Latine. When I was growing up, there was no title or description for Afro-Latine, and people always questioned my identity. So I use it as an element of surprise in my stand-up. I literally say, “surprise, I’m Afro-Latina; we come in different colors.” I think I bring an Afro-Latina view on being a married millennial and being raised by a Guatemalan mom who’s a traditional wife, one who also went to a PWI (predominantly white institution) and studied women’s studies and feminism while being Afro-Latina, and how, in theory, I don’t want to be traditional, but I can’t help it sometimes. I want to have fun and say things to all women, but especially the ones who look like me. That means the big girls, the dark-skinned girls, but also the girls who grew up with their Latina moms’ commentary constantly running through their minds.
Can you talk about how humor played a role in your upbringing living in a Peruvian and Black American household in New York City?
My early childhood was spent splitting my time between living in the Bronx with my mom and spending weekends in Washington Heights with my dad’s side of the family during the ‘80s and ‘90s. Between my mom having to grow up fast, facing all the challenges young Black women faced during that time, and my dad having immigrated to this country from Peru as a teenager, bringing with him his own emotional baggage, trauma wasn’t something ever acknowledged or discussed. You’re too busy trying to survive another day. Part of that survival was escapism via humor and entertainment. So while the struggle could easily be seen outside the window, I only ever knew of laughter inside the house.
Inspired by countless hours of watching novelas, my mom created comedy sketches based on those over-the-top shows for us to re-enact together. When my friends would come over, she would give us a scenario, and we would have to make up dialogue on the spot. My campy source material was born from the stories I watched with my mom. Topics involved very dramatic scenarios, from kidnappings and long-lost twins to adulterers and witches. The improv delivery was born from these fantastical worlds. As a nine-year-old wearing a long towel for hair, our skits were comic gold — or at least our audience of one, my grandma’s belly-shaking laugh, told me so. My mom saw all of this as a bonding and entertaining activity that kept me safe in the house. In retrospect, I recognize that my early in-the-house improv days taught me technique and has influenced how I approach my comedy till this very day.
Over in Washington Heights, at my abuela’s house, my dad, aunts, and uncles had perfected their dark sense of humor, often comically roasting each other. It was all done with love, but this also unknowingly prepared me for how I can use my quick wit and jokes to deal with bullies I would later face for being different. As one of the grandchildren who inherited my family’s strong Indigenous Peruvian features, I remember the moment I became insecure about it as a teen, new to the suburbs of Yonkers where no one looked like me. But when your cute abuelita jokes about your "tomatillo" nose while pointing out it’s the same as hers, you can’t help but to laugh. Abuela's got jokes, but there’s also this sense of pride that comes from it. You begin to understand that you’re connected to such a beautiful and rich history, and all you have to do is look in the mirror to be reminded of that.
I love this tagline from your YouTube channel These2Locas: “Two NYC Afro-Latinas undoing decades of generational trauma with comedy and dumb honesty.” How do you and your co-host J-Gil use physical comedy and culture-specific comedic sketches to achieve that?
These2Locas has been an incredible journey for both J-Gil and me. We first met at a party. A mutual friend introduced us by pointing out that we are both Afro-Latina. We immediately squealed together in joy. It was an instant celebration of knowing that we were not alone and are spiritual sisters who share this unique cultural experience. Soon after, we connected on wanting to tell our stories, both good and bad through a comedic lens. When you watch These2Locas, you are watching two women become friends and gaining perspective on some of the obstacles we faced. We’re learning about each other and from each other. The sketches we create around these experiences, the jokes we make, and how we use our bodies to tell our stories are all very therapeutic for us. Oftentimes, we learn that it is healing for our audience as well to know that they are also not alone. As we look to evolve These2Locas, we will explore the evolution of adult friendships and sisterhood as two Afro-Latinas who are still trying to figure what life is all about. And of course, we promise to bring big laughs and raw honesty that will continue to make our moms deeply concerned.
As a Dominican-American, I know that Dominicans are inherently funny. Can you talk about humor while growing up in a Dominican household in Los Angeles in the ‘80s and ‘90s, especially with the women in your family?
Growing up, humor was a full-contact sport. I learned roasting from my nana, who will clock your greatest insecurity and go in. We’re talking shady-shady botas. Her name is Altagracia, literally the highest grace, so if you’re going toe-to-toe with her, you’re going to lose, but at least I can say I learned from the best. Nana gave me my smart mouth, and I love her for it.
What I love most about your comedy is the semi-snarky and slightly cynical approach you bring to your lived experiences as a bi, fat, disabled, Black Dominican-American woman. It immediately pulls viewers in. With the continued visibility and opportunities you receive, how do you want to share power with fellow Afro-Latines that share your intersections?
I want to be proof that we contain multitudes. We are more than what we’ve been allowed to be on television and in film. I want my comedy to humanize us and bring people together through laughter. There is so much diversity within the Afro-Latine community, and there is space for all of us. Let’s celebrate our stories.
I could just imagine the jokes you heard growing up in an Uptown Dominican household during the ‘90s. How did humor in your family shape your comedic style?
When I think about the people who have impacted my humor the most, my grandmother Ysidra, my dad Joselito, and my godmother Ines have been the most influential. My grandmother is the matriarch of the family and always has a seat reserved for her at the dominoes table, which is a big deal in Dominican culture. That’s a very powerful woman; people know not to play with her. My grandma was the star every Saturday night when the family would gather around in the living room. The kids would watch “Sábado Gigante,” and the adults would play dominoes. My grandma would spend the evening telling joke after joke; they varied in topic. Some jokes would be memories of her growing up in DR; others would be finding light in the trials and tribulations of adapting to U.S. culture. Some would be inappropriate, so we would have to cover our ears. I learned how to command the room from my grandma.
My parents would argue all the time. My mom is a virgo — she’s big on order, structure, and being an adult — and my dad is a taurus. While he valued structure and routine, he was just trying to chill, and my mom was never satisfied with the level of work he was putting into the household. My mom would get super frustrated that he’d make inappropriate jokes about the situation to deflect. On a good day, he’d make a joke about a previous argument. It really taught me one of the most important techniques in my craft: the misdirect/callbacks. My sister and I would witness the jokes and start laughing. My mom would feel like we were ganging up on her. I’m happy to say, she has started to chill out … a bit. She’s still a virgo. Outside of the relationship, my dad is constantly joking, and his comedic timing is impeccable. I 1000% get a lot of my humor from my dad.
My godmother has also been another person I get my humor from. When we’d go visit her in the Bronx, she’d make funny commentary while playing bingo and hanging out. She always had a super-extroverted personality. She still makes jokes till this day. What I love about her is that she always knew how to make a situation less awkward.
I think the takeaway from this is that my family taught me the importance of using comedy in awkward situations to continue finding joy in life.
I’ve seen you perform live, and authenticity is one of your biggest gifts. You also love to work with and support fellow women comics. Can you talk about finding the funny in your everyday life and making sure women comics shine?
It means a lot to me to be acknowledged for my authenticity and transparency. I’ve spent so much time self-deprecating to make other people feel better, and that stopped the moment I started comedy. I’m taking ownership of my story and storytelling.
I love supporting women, and I love supporting my friends. I think it’s important to get more women involved in stand-up comedy. We’ve all been through so much. The moment I started telling my truth onstage is the moment I truly started to love myself for who I am and forgive myself for a lot. I want that for other women. I know what I’ve been through; I can only imagine what other women have been through as well – this is why I always extend kindness and try to create as many safe spaces as possible.
I have to find the funny in everyday moments or else I would drive myself insane. Every time I go through something challenging, whether big or small, I think to myself, this must be happening to me so I can talk about it onstage. I also think it’s mandatory that I find the funny onstage – I’m representing a woman that is not oftentimes seen onstage. There are few Dominican stand-up comedians, and when I started out, I didn’t know of any. As I get deeper into the scene, I’m starting to meet more Dominican stand-ups, but it’s important to tell our stories. We live at a very layered intersection of society that has a complicated narrative, and telling my story helps other women feel seen — and, again, forgive themselves.
Can you talk about humor while growing up in a Black American and Mexican family in Inglewood, California?
The No. 1 way my family expressed humor is by roasting each other. I appreciate it because I know they do it out of love and it keeps me humble. I remember when I was 10 and broke my ankle. I was walking up the stairs and my uncle Joe saw me and said, “is that you stomping?” Not “are you OK?” or “can I help you up the stairs?” He was concerned about who was making all that damn noise. And from that day on, he has called me “Stomp.”
The most amazing thing about you is how you always bet on yourself, no matter how dire your financial situation could’ve been. Can you talk about pushing past difficulties to create work that hits, like “Who Made the Potato Salad?” and “Unsung Heroes” for Upright Citizens Brigade as well as your Emmy-nominated success with "The Daily Show with Trevor Noah" and "American Auto?"
The reason I’m able to push past my difficulties and pursue my dreams is because I have an unwavering belief in myself that was built by my God, my mother, and my village. I’ve always been told by teachers, tías, dance coaches, and more that I was talented and I could do anything I put my mind to. I feel so blessed to have always had the Black church that allowed me a safe space to create and fail. I was able to produce plays at 19 and have a packed audience that was on my side. Do you realize how rare it is to start doing something and have an immediate following of people who want to see you win? I’m beyond grateful, and there’s no way I’d be able to be in highly respected rooms like “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah” without the love and support of my community.