Music to My Years
Alonzo, Cristela. (2019). Music to My Years: A Mixtape Memoir of Growing Up and Standing Up. Atria Books.
If you have not heard of Cristela Alonzo, let me fill you in – she is a stand-up comedian, podcast host and the first Latina to create, produce, write and star in her own primetime TV show, Cristela, on the ABC network. The television series, which was based on her life, aired during the 2014-2015 season. After the show ended, Alonzo dedicated most of her time to advocating for social justice and immigrant rights within Latinx communities. One of the outcomes of the time spent working in the Latinx community is her 2019 memoir, Music to my Years: A Mixtape Memoir of Growing Up and Standing Up. Alonzo who was born in San Juan, Texas, a small town in the Rio Grande Valley is a product of both Mexican American and Generation X cultural experiences. The book tells the story of Alonzo’s upbringing as the daughter of a Mexican immigrant single mom. She recounts the years she and her two brothers and sister spent living in an abandoned diner before moving into their own small house. As the youngest of the family, Alonzo spent much of her time alone while her siblings and mother worked. She was what so many of we Gen Xers were: latchkey kids. Consequently, U.S. popular culture became her touchstone. When no one else was around, there was the radio and the TV. It is for this reason that I adore this memoir. As someone who is of that generation and the daughter of a single mom, Alonzo’s story deeply spoke to me.
Each chapter is organized around a song that holds a particular place in her life. These songs range from The Golden Girls’ “Thank You For Being a Friend” to A Tribe Called Quest’s (ATCQ) “We the People.” Each song elicits a memory and a significant point in her growth as an artist and political activist. For example, the theme from The Golden Girls serves as an instrument from which to tell both the story of a young girl spending Saturday nights alone and the story of learning English in order to translate for her exclusively Spanish-speaking mother. The same is true for “We The People,” which is a track on ATCQ’s We Got It from Here . . . Thank You 4 Your Service (2016). This album, which debuted on 11 November 2016 had been in production since November 2015 and directly addressed issues of racial violence and white supremacy. In this chapter, Alonzo describes the naturalization ceremony of her oldest brother who had been born in México. She recounts the pride she felt in witnessing this event: “They took the oath and I started crying . . . as their countries were announced, each person who was from that specific country got to stand up one last time for the country they came from before walking out of the room as an American . . . The people in that room had decided to become American” (276).
As in the other chapters, there is more. Alonzo transitions to the day of the 2016 election. She describes a panel she was moderating that day which included African American poet Sonia Sanchez and Mexican American activist Dolores Huerta. After learning of Donald Trump’s win and detailing her own grief, she recounts meeting up with Sanchez and Huerta. This is one of the most powerful points in the book. Alonzo writes: “They asked me what was wrong. I told them I had been crying because of the election results. They both lightly nodded their heads and Dolores said . . . ‘Ah, this is the first time your country has broken your heart. Trust me. It won’t be the last’ . . .She looked at me and said, ‘It’s okay to be sad. Be sad. Cry. Go to sleep. Then wake up and go fight. The fighting never ends because you’re sad. The fighting continues BECAUSE you’re sad. The work never stops (279-80).’” From here, she describes a violent encounter that occurs between her special-needs nephew and Trump supporters during a family vacation. She returns to the impact of “We the People’s” lyrics; their call-out against anti-Black, anti-Mexican, anti-Muslim and anti-LGBTQI violence. She directly addresses the white supremacist rhetoric of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan and answers it with this: “In order to make it great AGAIN we have to make it great the first time . . . for everyone (289). Of course, these are only two of the thirteen songs, Alonzo discusses in this memoir. Some of the other songs include: Selena’s “Dreaming of You,” Backstreet Boys’ “Shape of My Heart,” and Boston’s “More Than A Feeling;” yet, these two chapters demonstrate the beauty of Music to My Years. It is the story of a Mexican American woman learning who she is, where she comes from, and finding the strength to fight not only for herself, and her family, but for her community. Not many of us in the Latinx community get a voice. Cristela Alonzo uses her voice. In doing so, she empowers us all.
Review by: Patricia Perea, Ph.D., NHCC-HLA Educator
Available in the NHCC Library: PN2287.A544 A3 2019