For being a 38-year-old pocho who still admits to a "huge" chip on his shoulder, Lalo Alcaraz wasn't exactly a picture of radical politics last Sunday evening. In fact, the kid from Lemon Grove seemed downright domesticated and comfortably, well, American-whatever that means. He had just spent hours playing phone tag with CityBeat as he chauffeured his two kids and wife around parts of Los Angeles for visits with doting relatives.
Despite all the controversy the cartoonist has endured since the 2001 national syndication of his creation, "La Cucaracha," some issues are far more pressing. Alcaraz' wife is about to make the family a quintet, "to live up to our Hispanic census quota," he deadpanned.
It was a typically barbed, smart-ass byte of ethnocentric irony from the cartoonist-one who's been deluged with negative or downright hate mail. The letters repeatedly branded him as a reverse racist for mentioning that Arnold Schwarzenegger's an immigrant whose father was a Nazi.
In the context of the comic strip, the comment was a goof-obviously an intended Freudian "slip" that voiced what some were thinking during the recall election. Certain people didn't think it was even remotely funny, including his editors at the Union-Tribune.
"Comics are still meant to be "funnies,' not cheap shot political statements," Union-Tribune editor Karin Winner was quoted as saying in a recent column that attempted to explain the unforgivable "La Cucaracha" Nazi-name check.
"It's a comic strip," explained Alcaraz. "I was joking."
But U-T reader representative Gina Lubrano took great pains in her weekly column to denounce Alcaraz' offending un-funny, declaring it "inappropriate." Yet Lubrano was mysteriously mute-as was Winner-on how such a blasphemous abomination made it to press.
"Had it been brought to my attention," Winner nevertheless added, "I would have stopped it from running."
It's not the first time Alcaraz has been at the steaming center of an ethnic shitstorm. He used to chase such socio-cultural hubbubs enthusiastically in his youth while making waves as a MeCHA member and staff cartoonist for San Diego State University's Daily Aztec.
Earlier this month he spoke about "La Cucaracha"-along with his edgier political satire as one of the founders of pocho.com-at SDSU, where he earned a bachelor's degree in art and environmental design in 1987 before going on to get a master's degree in architecture from UC Berkeley.
"The talk at [San Diego] State was one of the better ones," said Alcaraz about the heartwarming return to his alma mater. His beloved SDSU was the opposite of some campuses, where the students may have listened, but didn't hear a thing.
"Sometimes, like in Gainesville last time," Alcaraz said, "they can be so, um, stiff. They just have never seen anything like what I'm doing. They look at me like I'm completely shocking them; like I'm from another planet."
Just what makes "La Cucaracha" so shocking may be as hard to pin down as the Latino, Chicano or Mexican-American culture as a whole. Possibly it's because Alcaraz' postmodern caricatures and hipster themes mix irony and sharp satire that is often self-critical and irreverent of Latino-Chicano icons and trends.
"La Cucaracha" made its debut in the alternative LA Weekly. Rolling Stone profiled Alacraz recently as one of five dissenting artists in an article called "The Art of War."
Still, few events have shown like the recent recall election just how hard it is to predict how such a large and complex demographic as Latinos will swing on any issue, whether it be politics or comic strips.
"Latinos can be very, well, conservative" and reactionary," Alcaraz said about the failure of the Latino left to rally for pseudo-incumbent Cruz Bustamante. It's debatable whether or not the state is seeing another "Brown backlash" like the days of Pete Wilson's Prop. 187.
"I can only say that the reactions to my work going national totally surprised me," Alcaraz said. "[They] can range from dismay to sharply written dissertations on minutiae to complete misunderstanding of what I'm saying.
"There was one [letter] in the Union-Tribune about how undocumented immigrants were the first wave of a [military reclamation] of North America-and he was thanking me for being the first to uncover this evil plot!"
Alcaraz laughed at the possibility of getting such a message from "La Cucaracha":
""The artist dares to speak the truth' he wrote, and then he quoted my cartoon [as proof of the coming invasion]."
Alcaraz seems more resigned to his fate as the Prometheus of political Chicano comic strips, even though he said he worried that the incident was symptomatic of what he calls "the kooky" factor out there-a vast, mostly right wing that mixes the funnies and the news from the daily papers in far different ways than Alcaraz. ©
For more info on Lalo Alcaraz, visit www.cartoonista.com.