The path to becoming a successful American celebrity is bound to bring you down, Lalo Alcaraz. Since the launch of â€œLa Cucarachaâ€Â just a little more than a year ago, its relative success as the first mainstream, Chicano-centric daily comic strip marked the beginning of the end for its authenticity.
At least, thatâ€™s the way things usually work.
The fact that â€œLa Cucarachaâ€Â attempts to depict and comment on the issues and concerns facing Chicanos and Latinas in Americaâ€”sometimes deeply, often in just plain silly waysâ€”is precisely why it canâ€™t last. Itâ€™s in more than 65 papers now, and its author, Lemon Grove native Alcaraz, doesnâ€™t even see the compromising road ahead.
How can he still espouse the near-militant idealism he forged as a bitterly embattled pro-migrantsâ€Â-rights cartoon editor at San Diego State Universityâ€™s student newspaper, The Daily Aztec? Heâ€™s bound to be toned down by success. This month, Alcarazâ€”briefly a writer for Foxâ€™s short-lived sketch comedy â€œCulture Clashâ€Ââ€”publishes two books and hits the road for an extensive PR campaign.
A volume of 50-odd strips heâ€™s done as a nationally syndicated cartoonist will be released in late September, and his book of editorial cartoons, Migra Mouse: Immigration Cartoons by Lalo Alcaraz, is in stores now.
He is yet another enemy co-opted and assimilated, his ideas regurgitated in palatable form back to the masses, si? Alcaraz will become merely a shill for The Man who runs La Migra. Heâ€™ll be a sell-out. An Uncle Tomas, if you will.
â€œI have learned to be less strident in my attacks, more flexible and open to others' opinions,â€Â Alcaraz tells me from his home office in a suburban, east-side enclave of Los Angeles. â€œNo matter how ridiculous they are.â€Â
Since his first gig as an op-ed cartoonist for the LA Weekly (which, he jabs in one of his cartoons, was a â€œcommunist sex ragâ€Â that hired him because he knew the right people), Alcaraz hasnâ€™t wavered in his devotion to a clever mix of comedy and politicsâ€”polemics be damned. If he thought it was funny, heâ€™d put it in there.
â€œCompiling the material for these books didnâ€™t change my mind one bit,â€Â he tells me. A naturally charismatic person, Alcaraz says his appearances draw larger and more enthusiastic audiences these days. Heâ€™s finding that a surprisingly high number of young people either agree with his left-of-center politics, or at least donâ€™t find them particularly offensive.
But, there are still older readers he irritates on a glandular level. Heâ€™s been deluged with negative or downright hateful mail with clock-like regularity over the past year. Thereâ€™s no shortage of flat-Earthers out there whom adhere to the philosophy (shared by neo-conservatives and PC liberals alike) of â€œKeep politics out of the funny pages.â€Â
â€œComics are still meant to be â€œfunnies,â€Â not cheap-shot political statements,â€Â Union-Tribune editor Karin Winner was quoted as saying last year when â€œLa Cucarachaâ€Â made a Nazi name-check on then-gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger.
â€œItâ€™s a comic strip,â€Â explained Alcaraz. â€œI was joking.â€Â
Alcaraz, who has a bachelorâ€™s degree in art and environmental design and a masterâ€™s in architecture, says he isnâ€™t sure just what makes â€œLa Cucarachaâ€Â so shockingly offensive, but thatâ€™s not what worries him.
â€œIâ€™ve had hate mail, sure,â€Â he says, â€œbut what makes me laugh is the very calm and polite, â€˜I disagree with the political content of this cartoon stripâ€”please remove it from your paperâ€™ people I just donâ€™t get.
â€œSeriously, did I miss a meeting?â€Â he adds. â€œSince when are politics taboo in [comics] or comedy? I thought the â€™90s was supposed to bring politics back? â€˜Rock the vote,â€™ all that... what happened?â€Â
Modestly pleased by his fate as the modern Prometheus of political, Chicano comic strips, looking back on his early work was both humbling and enlightening.
â€œI wonder how I could have done such raw work,â€Â he says about the technical aspects. Politically, heâ€™s easier on himself: â€œI was kinda impressed with how much I was right aboutâ€”how prophetic some of it was.â€Â
Maybe he wasnâ€™t so prophetic about how much ire one little cartoon strip could muster.
â€œYeah,â€Â Alcaraz chuckles. â€œI wish Iâ€™d have been able to see that at the time. Maybe Iâ€™d have done something to avoid all the trouble.
â€œBut I doubt it.â€Â
The Decline of La Raza Civilization Top 3 most controversial Lalo Alcaraz moments
1. November 2002: A group of Mexican artists protest their exclusion from the Latin Grammys, prompting Cuban singer Gloria Estefan to dismiss them as â€œdivisive.â€Â Alcaraz responds in his L.A. Weekly column, offering a fictional account of the debate. In his parody, Estefan declares the Latin Grammys an â€œindependent nation.â€Â Besides, Alcaraz writes in the voice of Estefan, no one wants to see a bunch of â€œsweaty, short brown people onstage except in a Tijuana strip club.â€Â After hearing news reports about the column (which fail to mention its overt satirical tone), Estefan reportedly considers a libel suit. The ensuing controversy prompts Alcaraz to offer an ostensibly contrite correction on Spanish-language TV station Telemundo, which he delivers dressed in a full Fidel Castro outfit, punching the air with a cigar for effect.
2. March 2003: Alcaraz pours flaming-hot taco sauce on the already heated debate about Arnold Schwarzeneggerâ€™s gubernatorial bid. Commenting on the â€œMexterminatorâ€Â (as one Alcaraz strip dubbed him) and his duplicitous stance on the immigrant experience, one of the â€œLa Cucarachaâ€Â characters deadpans, â€œ... his Dad was a Nazi, so heâ€™s got that going for him.â€Â Reader mail to the Union-Tribune prompts editor Karin Winner to claim that â€œhad it been brought to my attention, I would have stopped it from running.â€Â How the controversial strip made it past both Alcarazâ€Â own editors and the U-T editorial staff is never made clear.
3. October 2003: In one strip, Alcarazâ€™ â€œCucoâ€Â character says: â€œThe census results indicate the Latino population will be receiving a lot more attention.â€Â Eddie, the â€œroachâ€Â character, cries: â€œWow! Itâ€™s like weâ€™re finally being discovered!â€Â Cuco: â€œYeah, Eddie, â€˜being discoveredâ€™ really worked out well for the Indians.â€Â