Recently debuted sitcoms like Fresh off the Boat and Cristela shed light on stereotypes in charming, humorous, and truthful ways and, in doing so, are dominating the ratings game. Cristela’s leading man and international superstar Carlos Ponce discusses why he is on boardby Urmila Ramakrishnan
Carlos Ponce grew up wanting to be a singer. At home, he was surrounded by the sweet, melodious voice of his mother and a largely musical family. Ponce would eventually fulfill his musical dreams, but it was acting that triggered his international fame.
Ponce started at the early age of six, booking commercials in Puerto Rico. His uncle owned a publicity company and would throw Ponce into whatever he was working on—including one advertisement involving Christie Brinkley and Captain Kangaroo.
As a teen, Ponce moved with his family to Miami, discovered his high school’s drama department, shot commercials for KFC and Pond’s cold cream, and landed a scholarship at the New World School of Arts Conservatory and his first role in a telenovela.
“Acting fell in my lap by mistake,” Ponce says. “Back in high school, the drama teacher picked me from the school choir for the annual musical. That’s when I thought, ‘Maybe I can be an actor,’ but I really had no clue. I was always aiming to have a music career.”
After high school, Ponce began studying and auditioning. He shot an independent Spanish pilot with a few friends. While waiting for that to be picked up, he decided he would just drop by the Miami studios that were shooting some of the first telanovelas in the US. “I just kept showing up to see if they needed me to step in as an extra or something, but finally one of the producers told me, ‘Listen boy, I promise you that when I have a part for you, I will call you. You don’t need to show up here anymore,’” Ponce recalls. “And he actually did call me.”
Ponce first breakout role was in the series Guadalupe, starring Adela Noriega and Eduardo Yáñez. He was then offered the opportunity to host a talk show on Univision, Hablando. He also negotiated a contract for the credit song, which got him his first record deal. Since then, Ponce has been in the Hollywood spotlight, starring in shows such as 7th Heaven and movies like Couples Retreat. He also returned to music, with a double-platinum debut album and two more follow-ups.
Today, he balances fatherhood with music and acting. As the character Felix, one of the leading men in ABC’s new hit TV show Cristela, Ponce tackles the stereotypes and realities of being a Hispanic American with humor. This show, alongside ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat and the CW’s Jane the Virgin, have revolutionized the immigrant experience for entertainment, according to Ponce.
“It’s like we have the magic wand,” he says. “We’re laughing at our situation as immigrants in the United States instead of weeping about it. The character Cristela uses comedy as a mechanism of defense when things are out of her control.”
Because of his own immigrant experience, Ponce relates to the show. Like his kids on the show, he finds his mother to be nothing like his grandmother. Ponce’s mother left Cuba at the age of six to move to Denver. She later married a Puerto Rican and raised Ponce and his sister in both Puerto Rico and Miami. He jokes that his mother is more American than he is, but he loves that their stories are just two of so many Hispanic narratives in the United States.
“You can’t fit us into a category,” Ponce adds. “The fact that we don’t play what is expected on Cristela is what I think makes people like it. The show represents immigrants, not just Hispanics. This nation is created by immigrants, and shows like ours and Black-ish have pushed the envelope a little bit.”
These shows are primetime comedies that reflect the present reality in the United States by including different races and backgrounds. They put everyday cultural issues in the spotlight, presenting them in an entertaining and, at times, very laughable setting. It’s a whole new territory, which is great for Latin actors. But it also has its challenges.
“We have to be careful not to offend anybody. Many jokes are simply too soon,” Ponce says. “On the other hand, we also want to be edgy. We are leading the way by laughing at misunderstandings that are absurd to think still exist in the 21st century.”
Ponce advises aspiring Hispanic actors to be passionate in what they’re doing because it’s a difficult, complicated, and rejection-filled business. He makes sure to have fun at all of his gigs and in every other endeavor—including the sillier ones, like the upcoming Memorial Day-release action-comedy Spy. For now, Ponce continues to work on music and feature films, while looking forward to a second season of Cristela, which was recently renewed by ABC.