Monday, November 1, 2010
Of Cultura & Comics
No one fuses politics and culture like Lalo Alcaraz, '87.
Lalo Alcaraz has a split personality—there’s the reasonable, everyday guy known as “Eddie,” and then there's the fist-shaking, protest-prone Chicano, “Cuco.”
It’s not a psychiatric problem. Eddie and Cuco are characters in Alcaraz’s nationally syndicated daily comic strip. "La Cucaracha” is where the Aztec’s gift for illustration and humor collide with politics—with a decidedly Latino bent.
“To me it’s a slice-of-life ensemble comic strip with a cast of thousands, but it centers around two guys that are basically me,” Alcaraz,’87, explained. “Eddie, a regular, run-of-the-mill guy, and Cuco Rocha, who is such an angry Chicano activist that he turned into a cockroach. They react to the headlines and to cultural topics.”
Alcaraz’s character design is influenced equally by the big-eyed cartoons people expect and the bold graphic sensibility he developed during years of designing posters. Meanwhile, the world he creates in “La Cucaracha” is just as much a practice in architecture and perspective as it is a sardonic reflection of the real world, like the neighborhood Barriobucks café Eddie frequents.
The honing of Alcaraz’s gift as a cartoonist and the birth of Eddie and Cuco took place at San Diego State University in the 1980s. Since then, he’s tried out architecture, published his own ‘zine, led a sketch comedy group and drawn comics that have been called both entertaining and divisive. Shaped by these experiences, he holds a wholly unique position in the world of American comics.
A world of his making
To be successful drawing comics is one thing, but to be a Latino drawing politically inflected comics is another altogether—“La Cucaracha” is the first Latino political strip in the country. And Alcaraz is a true American original, both in his dual persona as an activist and artist and in his rise at a time when Latinos are taking increasingly prominent roles in society.
“Alcaraz fuses regional Southwest cultural realities with a global, international vision,” said SDSU English and comparative literature professor William Nericcio, author of “Tex[t] Mex: Seductive Hallucinations of the ‘Mexican’ in America.”
“His mesh of politics and cultura sets him apart—like ‘Doonesbury’ and ‘Bloom County.’ Alcaraz has created a world unto itself that reflects and responds to the real world with humor, vision and satirical savvy.”
In his world, Alcaraz can express opinions that might otherwise draw ire, like when he calls Arizona legislators racists or criticizes President Barack Obama’s war policies. Comics are often seen as children’s entertainment in this country; not so in Latin America, Asia or Europe, where people of all ages consume sequential art regularly and without embarrassment. This uniquely American viewpoint allows Alcaraz to sneak in a message the average reader might not expect.
“Very few daily cartoonists take advantage of this power to enter into people’s minds the way Alcaraz does. ‘Cathy’ and ‘Blondie’ just ain’t going to shake the boat in the same way,” Nericcio said.
To shake the boat, Alcaraz's pop culture-infused strip and editorial cartoons hop easily from controversial topics, like Arizona’s SB 1070, to jokes about the taco truck trend overtaking Los Angeles, to Latino achievement, like the naming of Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court (the new justice has a print of Alcaraz’s editorial ‘toon hanging in her office). But finding inspiration is no small feat—especially when you’re drawing a comic that has to be relevant at the time of publication 10 days later.
One needs to look only so far as Alcaraz’s workspace to understand his methods. From ideation to creation, Alcaraz works from a cluttered, sunlit studio in Whittier. He’s surrounded by everything from posters of masked luchadores to proclamations from the California legislature to colorful Mexican sculptures.
Inspiration comes from the stack of yellowed Los Angeles Times and the radio where conservative talk radio often plays in the background.
His work examines themes similar to those found in Latino writing, but the cartoonist tells the story visually in a way that text cannot. If a picture is worth a thousand words, Alcaraz has spoken volumes since his time on Montezuma Mesa.
As a student in the 1980s, Alcaraz was involved with the Chicano student activist group, Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (MEChA). At the same time, he was editorial cartoonist for The Daily Aztec. When he talks about his time as a student, his gestures go wild for a moment before he settles into his old memories with a laugh.
“My political formation happened at State,” he confessed. “The campus was all about Reagan and capitalism. It was a great time to be a political activist and political artist.”
As a young man, the first-generation college student was happily surrounded by like-minded colleagues. But it was by no means idyllic.
“MEChA was pretty beleaguered and outnumbered in those days,” Alcaraz said matter-of-factly. “There really weren’t that many Latinos going to school, so we had to fight that much harder to stand up for ourselves. It was a good experience.”
He recalled MEChA’s battle with Associated Students when the student group tried to bring Mexican-American labor leader Cesar E. Chavez to speak on campus. There were many excuses given for why the labor leader’s speaker’s fee could not be approved. “They said things like, ‘If he’s going to speak at the Free Speech area, why doesn’t he speak for free?’”
None of the excuses mattered to Alcaraz. Other speakers were paid, but a Mexican was expected to speak for free, he remembered with a shake of his head. In those days, a liberal voice in a conservative climate wasn’t always heeded. Yet, Alcaraz stood resolute and continued to make his voice heard.
Growing up in nearby Lemon Grove, he never imagined becoming a professional comic strip artist and writer, and instead majored in environmental design, hoping for a career in architecture.
“My original plan was to be employable,” he admitted. “I loved the study of (architecture), but in practice, it was kind of boring.”
Nevertheless, he was a talented and hardworking student, recalled his faculty advisor and mentor, Eugene Ray, professor emeritus in SDSU’s School of Art, Design and Art History.
Ray, an internationally renowned architect from New Orleans, was ahead of his time, emphasizing affordable housing and sustainable design decades before society accepted these ideas. While Ray taught thousands of students during 27 years at SDSU—his curriculum fusing ecology, economy, health and social issues drew many minority students—the 78-year-old easily recalled Lalo and the complimentary comic Alcaraz drew of him.
But architecture didn’t hold young Alcaraz’s interest, although he earned a graduate degree in the subject from University of California, Berkeley. Instead, he turned to producing his ‘zine “POCHO Magazine” and performed sketch comedy with Chicano Secret Service before finally finding inspiration in what he’d loved all along—drawing, humor and politics.
Alcaraz has since made a living making people laugh, while also making them think. He’s found a way to combine his love of do-it-yourself protest with the platform of his nationally syndicated work.
To the small screen?
Despite keeping his pen wholly immersed in the present, Alcaraz has his eyes focused on the future, including the digital revolution overtaking comics and newspapers.
“Digital technology makes it easier to distribute the work, but I’m not good at the economic part, so I won’t even take a guess at how to make it work,” he said with a smile. “I’m hoping to avoid the scariness of jumping into digital-only comics and move into television instead.”
Going from newspaper page to the small-screen, a la Aaron McGruder’s “The Boondocks”—an equally in-your-face daily comic strip with African-American interests at its core—is a process unto itself. But Alcaraz is optimistic despite the many unfruitful Hollywood meetings he’s taken in the past decade.
“I probably just jinxed myself since I’ve been through the ringer several times,” he said with his trademark self-deprecating humor.
While luck may be a part of it, there’s no doubt that his hard work—evidenced as an an SDSU student, self-supporting artist and activist—plays a large role in his success. Or maybe at the core he’s just a guy listening to the voices of Eddie and Cuco.