“They’re like the sisters I never had and never wanted,” says Maria Russell of her co-stars, Sandra Valls and Diana Yanez. The three star in the Latina Christmas Special, a comedy show that, as you may have guessed from the title, is all about Latinx experiences during the holidays.
The show has run for nine years, starting out in a small theater in Los Angeles, which coincidentally is the same theater where Russell and Yanez met. Their performances typically sell out in L.A. where “Our repeat customers year after year come and make it part of their tradition, which is so humbling,” says Russell.
Latina Christmas Special first came to New York in 2019. “I wanted to bring it to New York. Obviously, New York is a center of theater, for our nation, and perhaps even for the world,” says Yanez, who is also an executive producer for the show.
Yanez lives part time in New York, but the other women both live permanently on the west coast and don’t know anyone out east, so finding an initial audience came with road bumps. Nevertheless, their first run in New York sold out all 29 shows, an experience that Russel describes as “Un. Fricken. Believable!” This year things are looking even better: “In New York people actually fly in to see us from Florida, from Seattle,” says Valls.
Despite premiering in New York three years ago, 2022 is only the second year they are performing here. The past two years were canceled due to the pandemic. Now it returns December 7-11 at the SoHo Playhouse.
Three Friends in a Living Room
The play has had the same structure since the beginning, but it remains unique every year. It is structured like a play with three friends in a living room celebrating the holidays and sharing Christmas stories from their past. Each women has a mini one-woman show within the play as a whole. “We change it as much as we want as we attempt to achieve perfection,” says Yanez. “Every year that we do this show, the show evolves.”
Part of the reason the Latina Christmas Special will be changing this year is to cater to their New York audience. “In LA most of the [Latinx] community is Mexican American. Here it was Puerto Ricans,” says Yanez describing the audience from 2019. “It was a whole new way of seeing the show, and the funny bits changed because they had a different reaction to it.”
The three stars themselves are all of different Latin-American backgrounds: Yenez – Cuban; Russell – Mexican and Lithuanian; and Valls – Mexican. So, coming together to create representation for the people who identify as Latinx was an important factor when they created the show.
“The Latino community here doesn’t really have a lot of theater that represents them,” says Yanez. “Our stories are the stories of growing up between two cultures: the culture we watched on TV, and the culture that was our own our parents culture, from whatever country they came from.”
Valls shares similar thoughts saying, “It was like just this beautiful thing, it’s a true stories of our lives growing up in the 70s.” She drops to a whisper when she says 70s, as if it’s a terrible secret.
Part of what makes this show special is the genuine friendship between the three women, despite Valls claim that “I hate these bitches.” Throughout our Zoom call Yanez and Valls jokingly call Russell “the baby” for being a few years younger or “the princess” for having her camera off while her makeup wasn’t done. “You can tell she’s a princess, she’s hiding,” Valls tells me followed by yelling at Russell, “I think you’re pooping in the bathroom.” Russell shares similar sentiments saying, “There’s obviously ups and downs and I want to kill them sometimes. But I mean, it’s only like 5%” of the time. “Because of the show, we’re literally like family,” says Yanez.
Working on the Latina Christmas Special for nearly a decade created new shared memories between the group, especially around mishaps on stage. One time Russell lost a maraca which broke open all over Valls lap. In there second year of performances they accidentally ended up drinking a real bottle of wine, instead of a fake one filled with apple juice. “By the time we got to my piece we were all very happy,” says Valls. It didn’t help that Valls makes everyone take a shot before going on stage before each performance.
The group’s camaraderie shines through, making audience members feel at home. During our talk they all threw in gentle teasing about how I was so young (I was born in 1996) and joked that I “put the mess in Messino.” They have a way of bringing the audience in to make them feel like part of the story. In the end they mostly just care about making memories according to Yanez: “We have these Christmas memories that we talk about in the show, but we are making Christmas memories every year with each other and with our audiences.”