Today is April 6th. I’m on my way back to LA from Australia as we speak. Today is also the anniversary of the day my mom passed away. It’s been thirteen years and yet it still feels like yesterday.
I was listening to SiriusXM in my hotel room as I usually do and they played this Vanessa Carlton song (“A Thousand Miles”) from back in the early 2000s. It made me stop what I was doing to listen to it because this song was the song that I used to listen to a lot after my mom’s death. I started running a lot after she passed away. I was always a runner. If it was up to me, I’d run right now. I always felt like my life has stopped me from doing things I’ve enjoyed doing. I’ve always said that life gets in the way.
In my life, I have had to stop and start so many times with things I really wanted to do with my life because obstacles would get in the way. My family comes from a world of survival. We were never the people that got to enjoy life. I had to quit college a couple times to help family out. It wasn’t my choice but it’s what was needed of me and therefore, it’s what happened.
When my mom passed away, I realized I was really on my own. I had no tether to my home anymore. I knew she wouldn’t ask me to do anything anymore and I felt helpless and confused. That’s where running came in.
I would average a minimum six miles in an hour. I loved running in the evening because it was my own personal time. I loved listening to the same playlist over and over again and that Vanessa Carlton song used to be on it. That song really spoke to me back then and still does. There are a couple of lines in the chorus that would just stop me in my tracks:
Cause you know I would walk a thousand miles / If I could just see you tonight.
Right after my mom passed away, I’d run and when that song would come out, I’d stop running and cry for a second by myself because I felt like that’s what I was trying to do. I was trying to run a thousand miles trying to get a chance to see her that night when I’d return home. Because I always ran the same path, I always knew when I would cry. It was always by the highway, in a field. Every day I would stop and cry and after the song would end, I’d continue running.
Over time, I started feeling that me (listening to that song while I was running) was my daily private time to remember my mom and it started making me feel good to listen to it. Trust me, it took time but I got there.
I struggled so much after her death because in her last year of her life, we shared a small bedroom together and I used to hear her when she was feeling bad. We were together so much that when I lost her, I felt like my life was gone. I was with her twenty-four hours a day. To have someone gone like that, you feel like a part of you died too.
I didn’t know what to do with my life after she passed. I eventually got a job at a comedy club in Dallas and started seeing comedians on a weekly basis and a year later I decided to do stand-up.
People ask me why I started doing stand-up in the first place. I’ll tell you why. YEARS ago, when I used to do theater, I was told by people that as a Latina I could really only do West Side Story and Chorus Line because there weren’t a lot of roles written for me. RENT had just opened and people were barely becoming familiar with the part of Mimi. I left so limited. I had done West Side Story. I had done Chorus Line. What now? At first I thought people were wrong in saying that I was limited and eventually I realized that it was hard getting auditions for theater. After a while, I felt defeated and thought my days in theater were done. That’s when my mom was getting sick and within those years I found myself constantly moving back home to take care of her.
That was one of the biggest reasons I started doing stand-up. After feeling limited in theater, I told myself that if I was ever going to have a chance to do something, I was going to have to write it myself. I didn’t have to wait for someone else to write something for me. Why couldn’t I do it myself? So I started doing stand-up. I had always loved stand-up but being a kid growing up in the border of Mexico/US, I had no idea you could do it for a living. I started doing stand-up as a way to perform words that I had written myself. When I started doing stand-up, I didn’t know what to write about. I would write about anything. It wasn’t till I was about a couple years in that I started doing jokes about my mom and found that people LOVED those jokes which totally surprised me because I thought my mom was such a specific person that I didn’t know if anyone would get what I was talking about. But they did. That’s when I started realizing that however different a lot of us are, we all have the same kind of people in our lives in one way or another. If you’re not Mexican, you still understand that my mom was a single mom that raised us with no money. If you’re not a single mom, you understand that we were poor. What I was talking about became more personal to me and I loved that because those stories were mine. No one else could do my jokes the way I could.
After years of doing stand-up, I started talking about my family even more and more and realized that how much I loved it because I was giving a voice to people like me that maybe felt like they hadn’t been given one before and more importantly, by talking about my family, I felt like I was keeping my mom’s memory alive. I mean, think about it: that character is what my mom was like. There is a character named after her on my TV show and people love her. When I’m in the writer’s room and I say something my mom used to say…and I hear the writers laugh, it makes me laugh. When I hear them pitch jokes for her, I laugh and I love it because they get who my mom was. And they love writing for her.
When I got the TV show, I couldn’t tell you how NOT happy I was. Not that I wasn’t grateful or ecstatic because I was. In fact, I was so happy that I guess couldn’t express how happy I was. It’s like I said before, my family comes from a world about surviving. Getting your own TV show isn’t about survival. It’s the complete opposite. It’s like winning the lottery. Even after we’ve shot twenty-two episodes, I still don’t know how I feel. All I can keep saying is grateful. I feel grateful.
When the show came out, some people were critical about me choosing to do the show like a multi-cam, meaning a traditional sitcom shot in front of a live studio audience instead of the slick shows that are shot like movies (they’re called single-cams). I’ll tell you why. It comes from my love of theater. When I was a kid in San Juan, TX, I loved theater. I did plays all the time but being in a border town meant that Broadway wasn’t coming to us. We would occasionally have shows at the McAllen Civic Center but who could afford to go to the theater when you couldn’t even afford food? I learned about theater from having my brother drop me off at the public library in the summer. I learned about theater because I had such a love and passion for it, I just found it necessary to have it in my life.
And that’s why I wanted to shoot my TV show like a play: because I think most theater is for the wealthy and that’s unfair because it’s art. And art should be for everyone, not just those that can afford it. And I wanted to shoot a TV show that looked like a play because I think that’s what great TV can be: it’s theater for everyone to see.
I’ve had people ask me, “Why did you want to do network TV? You can get away with doing more on cable.” Yes, you’re right. You can get away with more on cable but I have a simple answer to why I chose network TV like an ABC network over an HBO. It’s because I grew up in an area where a lot of people couldn’t (and still can’t) afford cable TV. And I wanted to do a show for ANYONE to have access to it. I’d rather tell my story on a channel that anyone can get for free with an antenna. If my goal is to do theater that anyone can afford to see, then we have to do it in a way that allows everyone to see it.
I was told that I was limited to what I can do in theater due to my ethnicity YEARS ago. Without stand-up, I would’ve already given up and honestly, I can’t stand to think about that. Stand-up gave me a voice and taught me that I didn’t need to wait for someone to write something for me to do. I could do it myself and on my own terms.
Having a TV show named after you is such a rarity. It’s like I said before. It’s like winning the lottery. No matter if the show gets renewed or not, in 2014, I won the lottery.
I’m the first Latina to ever create, write and star in her own network TV show…and I did it because I was lucky enough to have the mother I did. As I sit here, celebrating her life, I can’t help but think she would’ve been so proud to see this all of this happen for me. She would’ve never believed it.
Some parents move mountains to make their kids’ dreams come true.
My mom moved mountains to make sure we had food to eat.
So thirteen years ago, I lost my mother. And with her passing, she gave me the greatest gift of all: the courage to go out and live my dream just like she lived hers of moving here for a better life.
Today, not only do I celebrate the life my mom lived…I also celebrate the life my mom gave me. And what a life it’s been so far.
I think I’ll start running again today.