San Diego native Lalo Alcaraz has always had a tendency to cross the line. Early on he drew political cartoons at The Daily Aztec. His recent foray into animation is as a cowriter on the Fox animated series, Bordertown, about a border patrol agent and his Mexican neighbors that takes place in the fictional town of Mexifornia. The outspoken cartoonist and Latino activist has built a reputation for pushing the envelope of political correctness (check out his Twitter feed for a taste). His syndicated daily comic strip, La Cucaracha, is now published in more than 60 newspapers since beginning in 2002 and is one of the few daily strips with primarily Latino themes and characters. Last year, he led a boycott of Disney after the company tried to trademark the phrase “Day of the Dead.” The company withdrew its trademark application and ended up hiring Alcaraz to consult and help write the upcoming Pixar film, Coco, which centers on the Día de los Muertos holiday. We sat down with the Lemon Grove native to discuss his roots, the controversies surrounding Bordertown and the Twitter trolls who call him a sellout.
CityBeat: Did you always want to do a comic strip when you were growing up in San Diego? I don’t imagine you were looking at Peanuts or Garfield and thinking it spoke to you, but were there any strips you could relate to growing up?
Lalo Alcaraz: I read comics like everybody else and didn’t really realize there was anything until I saw Gordo, the comic strip that used to run in the Union-Tribune and I realized, “Oh my God, this is the only Mexican in the comic pages!” It made me think that there was a problem here and why is that? So I became a fan of Gordo creator [Gustavo] “Gus” Arriola. He had the first syndicated strip with any Latino themes. So that was something that spurred me.
CB: Tell me about when you started and the early days of La Cucaracha.
Alcaraz: Yeah I think that could be kind of blamed on me doing editorial cartoons back at San Diego State. I was doing the editorial cartoon gig for The Daily Aztec. That was great training for doing a daily strip. Just working with deadlines, you know? I eventually started doing editorial cartoons nationally and you have to join those trade groups and such. Then I got to know the cartoonists and one of them recommended me for cartooning to a couple syndicates and one of them finally bit for me to do syndicated editorial cartoons. After a couple years they asked me if I’d consider doing a daily strip and I said yep.
CB: Considering how topical and political the cartoon was, was it hard to come up with new material and to consistently make it funny?
Alcaraz: Oh yeah! The big challenge was trying to develop new characters and trying to be topical and come up with story lines at the same time.
CB: You’ve said in the past that you relentlessly pitched La Cucaracha as an animated show. Did you find that networks just weren’t open to it?
Alcaraz: Maybe it’ll still happen. I still have hope in the next few years to keep pitching but in the past, I definitely think it was too political and too Mexican for the networks. They just had me in as a courtesy.
CB: One of the things I like about Bordertown is that, while it’s clearly farce, it’s equally offensive to people on both sides of the immigration issue. What made you want to get involved with the show?
Alcaraz: When I saw the pitch I thought, “Whoa, wait a minute. This is going to be on network television? And half the characters are Mexican? And this guy [show creator Mark Hentemann] is trying to hire Latino writers?” It made me think that this guy is the real deal. He’s not a big activist, but it showed that he cares about writing meaningful stuff and making it honest.
CB: The show has gotten mixed reviews. Do you think that some people just don’t get it?
Alcaraz: The show is not what people think it is. It’s not a racist free-for-all. Hollywood is littered with the corpses of bad Latino TV shows that were written by white guys. This one may be too challenging for people who may be expecting just something dumb, but that’s not the case.
CB: What’s next for you? Are you still working on the Coco cartoon for Pixar?
Alcaraz: Yeah, I go up and watch meetings and do a little tiny bit of writing and pitching jokes and consult on casting and cultural issues and things like that. It’s coming out in 2017. I can’t really talk about it much, though.
CB: I was amazed at the reaction you got when you announced you were working on the movie. To me, it was very clear that Disney was coming to you to make sure they got those cultural nuances right, but your own fans and community were screaming at you not to do it. That had to be kind of frustrating, no?
Alcaraz: It’s pretty clear to me but maybe it’s too subtle of a situation for a lot of people to understand. Instead of suing me, I got Pixar to give me money to help them and do this project right. I was let down because I was hoping people would give me a little bit of credit for the stuff I’ve done; to give me the benefit of the doubt. Obviously I don’t chase money. I’m an artist. And I do stuff about Chicanos and Mexicans and there’s really not a big cachet there. I’ve held it together for 25 years. I would have sold out a long time ago if I liked money.
CB: Though Pixar and Fox are certainly nice to add to the resume, no?
Alcaraz: I want to pitch some books this year and, of course, I’m going to put Fox and Pixar in front of my bio when I reach out to publishers. I really just want to do the same old stuff I’ve been doing which is to create diverse characters and have visibility for Latinos in media. But yeah, I’m going to reverse pimp my latest activities [laughs].