San Juan native Cristela Alonzo provides voice for Cruz Ramirez in new ‘Cars’ film

Cristela Alonzo shines in “Cars 3” as her character’s story arc echoes her own journey to become a successful actress and stand-up comedian.

An homage to NASCAR and its legacy, the third installment of the animated Disney•Pixar franchise opens in movie theaters today.

Alonzo, 38, was born in Hidalgo and raised in San Juan. In her first major film role, Alonzo voices Cruz Ramirez, a tech-savvy trainer for veteran racecar Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson).

Lightning must work with Cruz to return to his beloved sport after he suffers a devastating crash. But Cruz’s training regime frustrates Lightning when they don’t progress as quickly as he prefers.

Cruz coaches the next generation of blazing-fast rookie racecars outfitted with cutting-edge technology. The older, slower Lightning has drawn from the wisdom of old-school racing embodied by his former mentor, Doc Hudson (Paul Newman, voiced from archived recordings from the original “Cars”). Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) inspires Lightning to visit Thomasville, Doc’s hometown.

That pivotal decision launches Lightning and Cruz down a long, unexpected road. In keeping with Pixar tradition, “Cars 3” features spectacular scenery, and it delivers a poignant conclusion.

Precious gems of Pixar humor and heart are plentiful. For example, Cruz wears Texas license plate C01 06A, a combination of Alonzo’s initials and her Jan. 6 birthday.

Meaningful Mentorship

After screening the film at Disney headquarters in Burbank, California, The Monitor surprised Alonzo at the studio’s two-part news conference last Saturday, just hours before the movie’s world premiere in Anaheim.

Ray Evernham, former crew chief for NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon, served as the moderator between the film’s voice cast and many international reporters.

The underlying theme of mentorship resonates throughout the movie. So Evernham asked each actor to name their professional or personal mentor.

Alonzo of course named her mother, Natalia, an immigrant from Mexico, as one of her two biggest influences.

“With her, I learned that hard work and being nice and really just giving it your all is the best way to succeed,” Alonzo stated.

Then the actress turned the spotlight on Bryan Honl, her former drama teacher at Austin Junior High in San Juan.

“In 8th grade, my drama teacher forced me to go into theater, because he saw something in me and changed my schedule without me knowing. He told me I had something,” she revealed to the crowd.

“My teachers really taught me that if I wanted a dream, I could go do it. I think that is why I love this movie so much, because it has the same theme.”

Ever the comedian with the boisterous laugh, Alonzo quipped to Wilson: “Top that, Owen.”

As he, their fellow actors, and the reporters laughed, she joked: “Owen’s mentor is my mother.”

Watering Hometown Roots

Evernham unknowingly called on Alonzo’s hometown newspaper to ask the first question taken from reporters at Disney’s news conference.

Alonzo clearly was not expecting to see a representative for The Monitor only five minutes after she talked about her mentors while growing up in a border town.

Her voice quivered with some emotion as she spoke from the heart.

What would Alonzo like to specifically say to her family, her friends and all residents in her hometown area that they will read in The Monitor today?

“People don’t know this, but the area that I grew up with is called the Rio Grande Valley. The majority of the people that live there, when I was there, live well below poverty,” she explained to the crowd. “ I like this movie a lot because I feel like it’s a good way to tell kids that they matter.

“I think that growing up, when you come from a family that doesn’t have a lot, a lot of times the parents forget to tell the kids that they matter, because we’re too busy trying to survive.”

Alonzo continued: “I want them to know back home — because my brothers still live there and I visit there often — I want people down there to know that it’s possible to have a dream and actually achieve it.

“Every day I wake up so grateful that I have the opportunities that I have, and it came from living in an area where everybody is so warm, kind and loving.

“I want them to know that every day and every opportunity that I do, I carry that area with me, because I know it’s such a rarity.”

She concluded: “I just love that I get the chance to do that, not only for my family but for everybody there in my hometown.”

Alonzo smiled beautifully as everyone in the room applauded. Friendship and Support

The next reporter asked Wilson and Alonzo to elaborate about their characters’ friendship as the core of the movie.

Wilson spontaneously extended his hand to Alonzo. She reciprocated. They grinned over the brief actor moment.

“That also goes back to the mentor question,” Wilson told the reporter, “and what you were saying about your hometown,” he told Alonzo.

“That idea that we all do need encouragement. The idea that we’re part of a community, and I think that’s a really important message for everybody.

“That is a big part of the movie: the support that you give me,” Wilson told Alonzo, “and then I hopefully give you.”

On the red carpet at the world premiere, John Lasseter added another layer to the film’s story.

“We also wanted to have a really strong female character,” announced Lasseter, Pixar’s chief creative officer and the movie’s executive producer.

Lasseter hinted: “I think audiences will be really surprised, when it’s over, to realize what a strong female-empowerment movie ‘Cars 3’ is.

“You don’t expect it, but it’s really special.” Just ask Alonzo.