Episode Three Transcript

Chuck Rocha:
In many ways, when we think about political movements or advocacy or getting folks out to vote, we often think like, "Oh, you work in DC," or, "Oh Mr. Fancy, you work on Capitol hill or working for an elected official," but we know that's not the only way change is actually made. That's not the only way folks actually get involved. We know that so often these movements are made possible because of the many artists who lend their talents to the struggle. They give us a universal language to talk about the big things like gerrymandering, immigration reform, criminal justice reform. From singers to comedians, to photographers, creatives of all kinds, giving us a helping hand to shape what our community is about and telling our stories out loud. And that's what really gets me excited about today's interview. I got a chance to sit down and talk to an incredible visual artist, political cartoonist, and my brother Lalo Alcaraz.

His nationally syndicated daily comic strip La Cucaracha was launched nearly 30 years ago at the LA Weekly. Lalo's work blends political satire and comedy to create stories that speak to the Chicano in LA and Latino culture all across United States. And trust me, he isn't sugar coating shit. He's got a lot of opinions and a lot of pride for his people. Lalo even worked behind the scenes in Hollywood on the Oscar winning film Coco. You might have seen his work on TV screens. You could read one of his comics in your favorite newspaper. Heck, you may even have some of his art hanging on your wall at home, but today we're going to learn all about the man behind the work: Lalo Alcaraz.

I know you as a friend, of course, but most people know you today as this famous political cartoonist whose been behind some of our favorite movies and TV shows, and don't worry, we'll get to all the fancy stuff. But what I really want to do is take you back to San Diego, California. When you were a young boy growing up there, what was your neighborhood like? Better yet, what was young Lalo like?


Lalo Alcaraz:
My childhood is everything to understanding how I am now, how messed up I am now. And why I believe in immigrants rights and Mexican American and Chicano political ascendancy, I believe in equal rights for everybody. I grew up on the border. When I was growing up there and '60s, '70s, even in the '80s, San Diego was in denial that it's on the Mexican border. It does prefers not to think about it. The way it prefers to think about Mexican people is, "Oh, Don Diego, the Spanish flamenco dancer looking Californio." That's how they like their Mexicans and Don Diego is even the mascot of San Diego, portrayed. I'm a visual person. And to make it easy for you, Don Diego is based, modeled on the guy that played Zorro in the Disney show, like the classic Zorro dude. And San Diego always kind of thought of itself officially as that, like, "We got a mission, tacos are 20 miles that way," and then growing up as a Chicano in there, of course I grew up pissed off realizing my parents were treated like crap, because they're Mexican immigrants doing the landscaping, doing the cleaning.

Literally my dad was a landscaper gardener. My mom cleaned houses for middle class white people who I thought were gajillionaires. They were kind of living high on the hog, but we now see their homes; they're just like overpriced homes. Now this gave me a huge sense of what injustice was. I grew up as a little Mexican kid. Spanish is my first language. I was forced to learn English in kindergarten. Luckily I'm good with language so I learned it in about a month, according to my dearly departed mom, but I grew up seeing their struggle. And then I grew up knowing Tijuana, which is where my mom lived for 10 years before she emigrated. She was over illegally, undocumented in the '60s. And before she got her papers, just about everybody that comes. And then seeing that negative reaction to them and to our communities by folks in San Diego, like the "light up the border" people [crosstalk 00:04:34].


Speaker 3:
Thousands of people crossing the border.


Speaker 4:
Yes, yes.


Speaker 3:
Every...


Speaker 4:
Every night about.


Speaker 3:
Every night.


Speaker 4:
And so I determined that, first of all, we needed lights along the border and-


Speaker 3:
To do what?


Speaker 4:
To light up the area so that the smugglers didn't have the darkness to work under.


Speaker 3:
To expose them?


Speaker 4:
Right, right.


Lalo Alcaraz:
There were people who would drive up to the border and flash their lights and to try to stop emigration. Just try to stop braceros for coming over. We're the land of malicious. We're the land of the KKK. Tom Metzger lived in east San Diego county, the grand wizard. So all of this stuff drove me to be the banana that I am today.

Chuck Rocha:

I think that it's so interesting to hear you talk about the things you were aware of, even back then. At what age did you start creating art and realize like, "Hey, I'm pretty good at this stuff?"


Lalo Alcaraz:
In school I knew that I was different. And in my majority kind of... It was a mixed school. I grew up in a town called Lemon Grove, California, there a of suburb San Diego. All historically always Mexicans there because of the lemon orchards that historically were there. And so those people, the descendants of those people stayed and they had a little barrio called Olive Street. And so, even in my little town you could see the two different kind of worlds and Lemon Grove was the land of the Lemon Grove Incident. One of, if not the first educational segregation cases and it was in the '30s and it is a set in the backdrop of the Mexican deportations and stuff. So, that's still resonated in Lemon Grove and I didn't know what it was but I was growing up with those descendants.

So, I always knew that I was different and then in school, the best one or two kid artists in the school ended up competing against each other. And that's what happened. I ended up fighting for Best Drawer in school kind of thing. And that kind of helped define my identity, but also I realized, "Oh wow, I have all this pent up anger and feelings and I can put them on paper and I can make fun of things." And I'm good at making fun of things. Because you know, Mexicans; that's like the national past time, is making fun of your terrible life. Right? So I just fell into that, like drawing and through comics, drawing and expressing these feelings that I had in inside me. It took me years to really be good at it, but it did set me apart.

Chuck Rocha:
So, when did creating art actually go from being a hobby to something you could actually make a living from?


Lalo Alcaraz:
So, I had a future laid out before me as a broke-ass cartoonist for decades to come, which is kind of what happened, but eventually led to good things, right. But I had a guy that's been one of my mentors. He's still with us, his name's Charlie Erickson. And he was the founder of the Hispanic Link Weekly Report, which is in a foundation that trains, if you're a Latino journalist in the US, chances are you went through this and you had a small job as a editor, as a writer. Me as a cartoonist for this weekly newsletter out of DC. And when I was in my undergraduate in San Diego State, sure I had little jobs doing murals and doing posters and doing little things for people, flyers and I drew for the college paper, which was awesome.

That was one of the moments I think when I realized I like doing this, I like having a daily deadline. It makes me a sharper thinker and it gets me off my procrastinating ass to have this whip every day and to follow the headlines. I mean back then it was the '80s, it was Ronald Reagan. So he always had something stupid to say and it was kind of easy to make fun of. I even got chastised by the editor for making fun of Reagan, but I got paid like $3 and 50 cents to do a cartoon back then and that was one of the moments that was like, "Huh, people pay for this stuff, huh? Good." And I got paid to make fun of Reagan, to make fun of Republicans, to make fun of racists, to make fun of the cops. I mean, you name it. It was for $3 and 50 cents, man. I could make fun of the world. Flash forward to 10 years, the LA riots happened, right, 1992. Dramatic


Speaker 5:
A traumatic videotape obtained by Channel 5 News shows what appears to be a group of LAPD officers beating a suspect.


Speaker 6:
As soon as it hit the airwaves, it created a firestorm. Still, four of them were charged with assault and using excessive force. And they were put on trial in Simi Valley. More than a year later, the jury returned its verdict.


Speaker 7:
We, the jury and the above entitled action find the defendant. Stacey C, Koon not guilty.


Speaker 6:
All four officers were acquitted.


Lalo Alcaraz:
And right afterwards, LA had a big soul searching. Society kind of had a little soul searching. The institutions in LA opened up a little bit and I got called into the office of the LA Weekly. And there was a Chicano brother Ruben Martinez, a writer who was there at the LA Weekly. He suggested to the head of the LA Weekly, the publisher, "You should get this guy and give him a weekly comic strip because you know what, we don't hear from the Chicano community at all. And why don't you give it a shot?" And that's where it started, I became a cartoonist there for LA Weekly. I was still a freelancer, I wasn't on staff. It just gave me 75 bucks a week to do a comic. But that was it. We're off to the races. That's when I also realized, |Okay, this has potential." And I grew my national syndication out of there and eventually just became a fixture in LA because of that.

Chuck Rocha:
I saw somewhere that you self-identify as, and let me quote this right, "a Republican Chicano cartoonist" and end quote. What does that even mean? And more importantly, how do you want people to engage with your work as a result?


Lalo Alcaraz:
Well, I'm anti-pendejo, for sure.

Chuck Rocha:
Fair, fair.


Lalo Alcaraz:
So you could be Republican or Democrat or an independent pendejo and, and I'll try to cut you down. Growing up, the Republicans in San Diego especially... We can go back to Reagan being a reactionary and in the '60s and '70s in California, but really the current anti-immigrant wave, that sentiment, that festering cancer, it really started with Pete Wilson, the mayor of San Diego, who had bigger ambitions to become governor, to become president. And he rode the anti-Mexican thing all the way to the top. Thankfully he never became president, but he planted that seed. During the Pete Wilson Era of Prop 187 my cartoons became used in marches and this is pre-internet. I did a cartoon called Migra Mouse that was chastised into the Disney Corporation for donating money to the Republican Party.


Lalo Alcaraz:
And so, when you say the Chicano and anti-Republican together, this is where it all came together, that mixing of Mexican and American icons and cultural elements and language, English and Spanish into a cartoon like Migra Mouse that showed the Disney Corporation giving money to Pete Wilson and funding Prop 187, supporting this Prop 187 law that was the severe anti-Mexican immigrant law aimed directly at immigrants and their children. People would take my image, go to the coffee shop, go to Kinko's back then and blow it up on paper and carry it through marches or redraw it. Or eventually people started making the image for me. Some central American art group made a big wooden Migra Mouse for me. I still have it, I'm going to give it to the Smithsonian one day. And it's a beautiful piece. But people would carry these things in the marches along with other things, of course. That is a moment where all, all that really came together for me and I felt like I was in the zone. And I've tried to stay in the zone with that, with my cultural background and my political beliefs.


Chuck Rocha:
How do you feel like it's changed over the years? Leading up to... I feel like you're Nirvana, which was Donald Trump, which was so much good ammunition, but I guess the question is, has political satire changed over the years?
 

Lalo Alcaraz:
No, definitely. It has changed. I've always tried to follow the ethos of the progressive and liberal political cartoonists, which are most of them, not punched down and that sort of comedians should always follow, not punch down. Don't blame the victim, don't attack poor people, don't attack minority groups that already have a hard enough time. Punch up, try to take down those people that need to be taken down a notch. That's what a good political cartoony is.
 

Chuck Rocha:
Beyond cartoons, you're also out there in Hollywood, living out my personal dream, which is working as a cultural consultant on a major project like Disney's Pixar's Oscar winning film Coco. Now, what does it mean to be a cultural consultant? And you've got to tell me how you ended up landing this dream job.


Lalo Alcaraz:
Coco was interesting. And again, my comics collided with that whole story that Disney tried to trademark the term "Día de los Muertos" resulting in a great uproar with Chicanos and Latinos online. Día de los Muertos is the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead. It's a celebration, cultural, hundreds of years, if not thousands of years celebrated in Mexico. And it's a cool holiday. It's a nice holiday. Visually, it's stunning and Disney was working on a film, really Pixar was through to do story using this as a backdrop.


Speaker 8:
Online outrage forced Disney this week to drop its bid to trademark the phrase Día de los Muertos. The mega entertainment company had sought exclusive domain to sell merchandise associated with the new Pixar film inspired by the holiday, popular in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America. But the Mexican American community wasn't having it in social media like Twitter and Facebook ensured their voices were heard.


Lalo Alcaraz:
And so, the Disney lawyers thought it was a good idea to trademark the working title of the movie, which was Día de los Muertos. And they thought, "Well, we might want to make some Subway sandwich deals. Let's trademark the term for products." Oh, bad move, bad move. Imagine Disney trying to trademark Hanukkah. I don't think so, right? Because they didn't have representation or smart lawyers, I don't know, they went and really stepped in it. The community went bananas. And a professor in Colorado did a petition that exploded. I did a cartoon Muerto Mouse depicting Disney attacking, stealing culture everywhere.

Fast forward a year, I was contacted by a friend who is a consultant for Disney, Marcela Davison Aviles. And she said, "Hey, the producer of this aforementioned film now called Coco for Pixar wants to talk to you about being a cultural consultant on this film." I said, "This is crazy. This is crazy. Me, are you sure?" Sure. So anyway, after many martinis and steaks and after me grilling them and asking them, "Are you going to brown face on this film?" So they said, "Absolutely not." And I said, "Are you going to listen to what we say?" They said, "Absolutely. We're going to listen to you. We're not going to maybe do what you tell us to do, but we'll listen." And we got a big group of Latinos, three at the court. And our job was a great job too. Each time that they had a version of the film, we watched it, gave notes, say like, "This seems authentic. This does not seem authentic."

And also the challenge in having the characters speak in English, but have it sound like Spanish, but you know, try not to do it with a lot of fake accents. We have a variety of accents in the movie and it comes off as pretty authentic, like seamless. And to advise on the music, we advise on the merchandising. There was no big blunders in Coco. There's no big blunders in their merchandising. I think it went pretty well. And it went on to become Mexico's number one movie of all times.


Chuck Rocha:
Look, if you have not seen Coco, I cannot endorse it enough. And it is probably one of the most culturally competent films I have ever seen. And I see that as one of the highlights of your long illustrious career, but with all the attention and a claim, how do you balance the criticism and even worse, the haters online?


Lalo Alcaraz:
I'm a sensitive artist at core, but I do feel these things and I used to be super thin skin, but I can't anymore because I got so much heat from so many sides, man. It thickens your skin and not to seem like, "I don't care anymore." I do care, but I just can't react to everything. I mean, the things that people say are ridiculous. And before they used to mail me these things, that's how long I've be getting hate mail. I got actual hate mail, but now it's the comments section, man. They're just vicious and brutal.


Chuck Rocha:
But it's not just cartoons in the Sunday paper that you're doing. You're also providing artwork for major political campaigns all across the country. Our team actually had a chance to work with you personally on those Senate runoffs in Georgia in 2021. Talk to me about what it means for your political art to be a part of electoral history.


Lalo Alcaraz:
Yeah. Yeah. That was a good, surprising win. We gave it our all, we worked with Omi'gente. This was an armada, right? This was a D-Day.


Speaker 9:
Georgia has voted Republican in eight of the last nine presidential elections. Changing demographics is turning the state purple in the 2020 election. It was the black community that helped deliver a win for Biden. Going forward, Abrahams acknowledges both Democrats and Republicans are going to need the Latino community.


Speaker 10:
As they have said many times the Latino community is not a monolith. And so let's be clear, it was the Latino community that delivered Arizona. It's going to be the Latino community that delivers Nevada.


Lalo Alcaraz:
We all looked at each other, right? The cartoonists, the young people on the ground, the veteranos. We all looked at each other and said, "We've got to win this. We have to win this. We have numbers. We just have reticent voters and we have to make sure that they all hear the message, and then we get them to the polls." And so, there's no way any of us could have done it alon except maybe the young people that have all that energy that are okay with canvasing where they're not welcome or having to find all the Latino voters.

I know that they personally reached every single Latino voter in Georgia, in person if I'm not mistaken. And that my cartoons, because of their energy and their distribution, their networks, and our cranking them out and with a coordinated message. And week after week reached also all those voters maybe through Facebook, or maybe on Twitter or maybe on a TV spot, or maybe they printed them out that day and hung them on doorknobs. But it was that coordinated effort for everybody having that moment like, "We have to win this and we can win it. And we could do that each time."


Chuck Rocha:
Well, thank you for doing that. And I appreciate... I was part of that Armada and I watched your art come in. That's why I wanted to ask you that specific question, because I think it had real resonance, because you were not only a cultural consultant for Coco, you were a cultural consultant for lots of political people in Georgia when they saw your art show up that people could really relate with. But let me ask you something else. What's a piece of advice that you really didn't understand back in the day that now you feel like you probably couldn't live without?


Lalo Alcaraz:
Wow. People ask me about being a cartoonist. And the only bit of advice... It wasn't given in form of advice to me. It was given in kind of an interview when I was pitching my daily comic strip La Cucaracha which is still chugging along. The editor said, and this is my editor back in Kansas City, Lee. And he said, "Can you do this for the next four years, every day?| And I was taking it back and I didn't know if I could or not, but I said, "Yeah, yeah, I could do that. I could draw comics for the rest of my life." And that's basically the main job requirement. Glutton for punishment. But you've got to want to do this thing forever. You can't be like, "Oh, I'm going to draw comics for five years or a year and then I'll think of something." No, I don't think you're a real cartoonist. If you want to draw this until you drop dead, metaphorically, on your drawing table, like Charles Schultz did, then it's in your blood, it's in your heart and you're going to succeed because you're going to outlast everybody.


Chuck Rocha:
Now the show is called Nuestro. What does Nuestro actually mean to you?


Lalo Alcaraz:
Nuestro, it means "ours" and that's everybody. And that's our vision, man. Everybody in.


Chuck Rocha:
Everybody in. Thank you, my friend.


Lalo Alcaraz:
Thank you so much. And thank you for all you've done.


Chuck Rocha:
To learn more about Lalo Alcaraz, check out our show notes below. Nuestro is a production of solidarity strategies. Gabrielle Horton is our executive producer. Cynthia Pimentel is our lead producer. And Kevin Lou is our sound engineer. Our theme music is composed by Joel Rodriguez. If you want to hear more episodes like this, don't forget to subscribe to our podcast. It's going to be a new episode every week and most important don't forget to follow me @ChuckRocha. Adios, and until next week.