Lalo Alcaraz: Humor with a Political Point

"La Cucaracha's" creator uses his power to incite, delight

By Peter Rowe, Sign On San Diego
Published on LatinoLA: October 22, 2010

Lalo Alcaraz: Humor with a Political Point

Borders create divisions, so it's appropriate that "La Cucaracha" is set in an unidentified border city. This comic strip from Lalo Alcaraz is about Chicano life. And politics.

"I have that thing going," Alcaraz said, "a split personality."

The San Diego native's work also splits audiences. Some love "Cucaracha," which follows Eddie, a young Latino living in the Southwestern United States; Vero, his girlfriend, a teacher; and Cuco, a walking, talking, human-sized cockroach. But since the left-of-center, pro-immigrant strip's syndication in 2002, some readers have wanted to exterminate "Cucaracha."

While the strip appears in roughly 100 dailies, including the Los Angeles Times and this newspaper, it has also been dropped by the Houston Chronicle, the Dallas Morning News and others.

"That's a by-product of speaking your mind," Alcaraz said.

He's not backing down. If anything, recent installments have been more pointed with invented ads from Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, "billionaire businesswoman seeks housekeeper at bargain basement rates"; conservative talk shows on "GOPTV"; and barbs hurled at the immigration laws of a nearby state (sign erected by Taco Cart Man, a street vendor who is a "Cucaracha" regular: "If You Can Read This You Are Probably Not the Governor of Arizona").

So the complaints continue. These can be divided, too. One camp charges Alcaraz with ignoring anything that could reflect badly on Latinos. The other, that Alcaraz reinforces every stereotype that reflects badly on Latinos.

"I do positive stuff," Alcaraz insists. "But I get that kind of hate letter from Latinos, 'Why do you represent Latinos like that?' Like Taco Cart Man -- they don't see that he's complex. He rarely speaks, but when he does he's smart. And he's a small-business man!"

Eddie: It's the new right-wing TV network...

TV: Coming up after "CSI: Wasilla," and "Everybody Hates Barack," it's the season premiere of "Mexican in the Middle."

In 2002, Universal Press Syndicate editor Greg Melvin read a new comic strip. He was impressed. The artwork was clean and, with photocopied images of real people occasionally juxtaposed against its cartoon characters, experimental. And Melvin noticed something else about "La Cucaracha."

"It was funny," he said. "And that's a really hard thing to do."

Comic strips, Melvin has found, fall into broad categories. There are talking animals ("Garfield"). Families ("Zits"). Strips the editor calls "legacies." ("Beetle Bailey"). The smallest category features gags coming from an overt political viewpoint. Think "Mallard Fillmore" and "Prickly City" on the right; "Doonesbury" and the late "Boondocks," left.

Melvin edited "Boondocks," Aaron McGruder's recently retired comic that revolved around Huey Freeman, a 10-year-old African-American boy who was smarter and more cynical than most adults. "Cucaracha" had a similar edge, Melvin thought, and echoed "Doonesbury" by blending the personal and the political.

Three-panel ideological jabs, though, don't sit well with everyone.

"That's not the place for political opinion," said Carole McDonald, a self-described conservative from Clairemont. By coincidence, she called The Union-Tribune Wednesday to complain about "Cucaracha."

"Funny papers are supposed to be just that, funny papers."

Some, though, argue that politics shapes every panel of every strip. "Something like 'Mary Worth' is nothing more or less than a commercial for white middle-class conservative values," said William Nericcio, an English and comparative literature professor at San Diego State University.

Nericcio shares Alcaraz's politics, but most appreciates his humor: "He's batting like .750. That's good in this league. Most cartoonists are batting around .119."

Vero (reading aloud from the newspaper): "Jan Brewer has the cojones our president lacks to secure our borders "

Vero: I can't believe Sarah Palin said that.

Eddie: I know! Her Spanglish is way better than her English 

The son of poor immigrants, Alcaraz is living the Mexican-American dream. He's acquired a solid education, including an undergraduate degree from San Diego State, a loving partner -- his wife, a teacher, is the model for Vero -- and three children blessed with talent and good fortune.

"My kids are solidly middle class and live in an area where being Mexican-American is not a big deal," he said. "It's the norm."

That's the Eddie in him talking. His Cuco side can't forget being "poor and brown" in San Diego, infuriated by a local TV report about a Latino farmworker who had been killed by lightning.

"It was not known whether the worker was an illegal immigrant," the reporter said.

The boy wrote a letter to the TV station, protesting this callous and irrelevant aside.

To the boy's surprise, the station manager wrote back, apologizing.

"That's when I realized something about the power of the media," Alcaraz noted.

A power he's learned to use.

Upcoming Events:

Lalo will be featured at the:
Dia de los Muertos Cultural Festival @ Rose Hills Memorial Park
Saturday, October 23, 2010
12:00PM to 5:00PM


An Evening with Lalo Alcaraz (La Cucaracha)
Thursday, November 4, 2010
6:00PM to 8:30PM

About Peter Rowe, Sign On San Diego:
Originally published at: http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/2010/oct/20/border-lalo-alcaraz-la-cucaracha/
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