Lalo Alcaraz and the long journey of a Latin political cartoonist
Like many prestigious awards that honor great achievement in this country, the Herblock Award for Editorial Cartooning, established in 2004 to commemorate the legacy of the late Washington To post cartoonist Herb Block, had never been offered to a non-white person – until this year. As he accepted the award at the Library of Congress on the evening of April 27, Lalo Alcaraz, a Chicano from San Diego, Calif., said what many of his friends and followers were posting on social media: “It was about time .” For the past thirty years, Alcaraz, who is also the first Latino political cartoonist to author a nationally distributed comic strip, has used caustic and callous humor against anti-immigrant public figures and racists. “No other political cartoonist working in the United States brings more passion, dedication and brilliance to the fight for fair border immigration and justice for the Latino community,” Judges Herblock said.
In 2020 and 2021, Alcaraz had been a Pulitzer Prize finalist in the editorial cartoon category, but last year, in a decision that angered many cartoonists, the board chose not to declare a winner and since eliminated this particular category. The Herblock award therefore marked a triumph for an artist beloved in the Latinx community but who, like the community itself, has long felt a lack of recognition from mainstream America. Now it has finally been accepted. Or has he? “I get a lot of hate mail,” Alcaraz said in her acceptance speech. A few days later, on a Zoom call from Los Angeles, he told me, “There’s still this American societal attitude that we’re aliens.”
He’s actually no stranger. The son of immigrants from the Mexican states of Sinaloa and Zacatecas, Alcaraz was born in 1964 in San Diego, a city, he told me, that “was not on the US-Mexico border.” He grew up witnessing and experiencing discrimination and racism – from the cops stopping him for no reason, when he rode his bike as a child, to the “shoplifting police”, following him and his mother. in stores, to a large outdoor swap meet that ended with Border Patrol cars and helicopters pursuing a group of undocumented immigrants as a crowd of horrified Mexican Americans looked on. These experiences, he said, put “the politics of the border before my eyes.”
This political awakening led him, as an undergraduate at San Diego State University, to join MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán), a student civil rights group founded in 1969 He graduated in 1987, with an art degree focusing on environmental design. , and completed a master’s degree in architecture, at UC Berkeley, in 1991. He began drawing cartoons in earnest at San Diego State, and at Berkeley he co-created a comedy group, the Chicano Secret Service, in which he performed at campus protests, and a satirical magazine titled pocho, which still exists as pocho.com. (pocho is a pejorative term for Mexican Americans who have Americanized and lost their Mexican culture.)
In 1992, shortly after the LA riots, a friend introduced Alcaraz to Kit Rachlis, then editor of THE weekly, an influential alternative magazine. Rachlis looked at Alcaraz’s work and, impressed by his “sardonic, sharp” cartoons, which he told me had “a sensibility drawn from graphic novels”, offered him a regular spot. He created a comic strip, “LA Cucaracha”, which was published in the magazine until 2010 and, since 2002, has been distributed nationally under the name “La Cucaracha” in more than sixty newspapers. The main character, Cuco Rocha, Alcaraz explained, is “a Chicano activist so angry he turned into a cockroach.” Cuco is actually an anthropomorphized cockroach who, according to one critic, “stands out less from Kafka and more from Subcomandante Marcos” (the former leader of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, a guerrilla group in Chiapas, Mexico ). Cuco is joined in the comic by two regular humans, his best friend and alter ego, Eddie, and Vero, Eddie’s girlfriend. They are young, working-class, bilingual Chicanos, with a worldview shaped by enthusiastic activism sparked by Cesar Chavez and anger over Proposition 187, a 1994 election initiative that curtailed public services, including health care and education, for undocumented migrants. immigrants. A review of past strips offers a catalog of anti-Latinx episodes. In one, from June 2016, Cuco reads on his smartphone to Eddie: “Trump has called a Mexican judge who is going to rule on the Trump University fraud case ‘a Mexican’ and ‘ a Donald Trump hater’.” Eddie replies, “Wow. Openly Mexican judges. Cuco adds, ‘Next thing you know, they’ll want to use our bathrooms.'” (Alcaraz’s Twitter name is Mexican judge .)
The cockroach “is a symbol for Chicanos,” Alcaraz said, which derives from two sources. One is Chicano literature and art, including the classic “The Rebellion of the Cockroach People,” by Oscar (Zeta) Acosta, a novel à clef, published in 1973, about the rise of the Chicano movement in Los Angeles. Angeles in the late sixties and early seventies. As Israel Reyes, a professor at Dartmouth College who wrote about Alcaraz’s work, puts it, the cockroach “is a metaphor for how immigrants, Mexicans, have been portrayed as insects, as a nuisance, as invaders space, the latino threat to eliminate. Alcaraz appropriates it and upsets it. It is a way of empowering through this image that has actually been used to marginalize. The second source is the popular Mexican folk song, of Spanish origin, “La Cucaracha”, about a cockroach that cannot walk. The song has a traditional melody, but the lyrics are often improvised to fit the occasion; it has been used at least since the Mexican Revolution for satirical commentary on social or political topics.
Alcaraz has published a comic book “La Cucaracha” and a collection of cartoons on immigration (“Migra Mouse”, 2004), illustrated two books on the history of cartooning and worked on several animation projects. It also happened occasionally. During the 1994 re-election campaign of Governor Pete Wilson, who supported Proposition 187, Alcaraz played a right-wing anti-immigrant activist named Daniel D. Portado, which reads in Spanish as deported (deported). Wearing the dark sunglasses of a cartoonish secret agent, D. Portado made fake radio commercials and media appearances, including on a Telemundo news program, to voice his support for the “message of Wilson’s ‘self-expulsion’. (Proposition 187 passed, but was later ruled unconstitutional.) Nearly two decades later, during the 2012 presidential campaign, Mitt Romney, who was clearly out of it, seriously suggested the auto -deportation as a solution for undocumented workers. critical situation.
But for the many people who were in on the joke, Alcaraz’s work provided fodder for the fight against discrimination, racism and injustice. His cartoons were printed on large placards and carried at protests and sit-ins. Among them were the Migra Mouse cartoons, which depict Mickey Mouse dressed in a Border Patrol uniform, a character Alcaraz created in response to Disney’s financial contributions to Wilson’s campaign. (Disney also contributed to the campaign of his opponent, Kathleen Brown.) Years later, Alcaraz created Muerto Mouse, a Mickey Mouse skeleton, this time chastising Disney’s attempt to trademark it, for marketing purposes. , Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) as the title of the 2017 Pixar animated feature film which was eventually released as “Coco”. Online protests against the commercial appropriation of a major Mexican holiday led Disney to abandon the attempt and hire Alcaraz as a cultural consultant to provide commentary on the film. More recently, with the aim of fighting covid disinformation in the American Latinx community, Alcaraz reimagined artist Emanuel Martínez’s 1967 depiction of Mexican Revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata, “Tierra o Muerte” (“Earth or Death”), complete with his signature sombrero and sash bullets to the chest, but replacing his gun with a giant vaccine needle, and the caption “Vacuna o Muerte” (“Vaccine or Death”).
Alcaraz also targeted conservative Latinxes, whom he portrayed in “La Cucaracha” as “self-hating Latinos.” Cuco Rocha can often be found responding to “hate mail from Latinos, aka self hate mail,” such as a letter that reads, “Dear Lowlife, the characters in your gang are all gang members, not Smart, super observant, educated Hispanics like me.” Cuco replies, “Dear reader, our strip is populated by teachers, students, journalists, businessmen, and even astronauts!” And the reader replies “Exactly what I mean! A gathering of more than three Hispanics is technically a gang.”