Lalo Alcaraz
We Have Entered the Satire Dimension

“I use humor as a way to let our community know that we’re not invisible, at least not to us.”

Chicano cartoonist and writer Lalo Alcaraz explores his dual identity by creating characters and places where he can be seen. He’s known as a writer for the Fox sitcom Bordertown and for La Cucaracha, the first nationally syndicated, politically themed, Latino daily comic strip. Humor as a tool for survival is embodied in his very being.

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is a cartoonist and writer best known for creating La Cucaracha, the first nationally syndicated, politically themed Latino daily comic strip. He also wrote for the Fox sitcom Bordertown. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The L.A. Times, and La Jornada.

Transcript

[music: “Ixtepec” by Café Tacuba]

LALO ALCARAZ: Learn to cope with your horrible life through laughter. And I think that is — it’s a very Mexican thing. It’s a very Latin American thing, but Mexicans are really good at it.

[music: “Ixtepec” by Café Tacuba]

LILY PERCY, HOST: I’m Lily Percy. And this is Creating Our Own Lives, COOL for short, the podcast where I ask people to think through how they shape their lives. And hopefully by listening, we learn how to create our own.

This season on COOL, we’re talking about humor as a tool for survival. And cartoonist and writer Lalo Alcaraz embodies this idea in his very being. Growing up Mexican in San Diego, near the U.S.-Mexico border, Lalo’s world was in Spanglish. When he first began to draw as a kid, he explored his dual identity, creating characters and places where someone like him was normal, where he could be seen. And he never stopped doing that, as a writer in the Fox sitcom Bordertown, produced by Family Guy’s Seth McFarlane, or in La Cucaracha, the first nationally syndicated, politically themed, Latino daily comic strip.

MS. PERCY: So Lalo, this is the burning question that I have, literally burning.

MR. ALCARAZ: [laughs]

MS. PERCY: Who was the person that made you laugh the most, growing up?

MR. ALCARAZ: I don’t know if it was one person, but Mad magazine really screwed me up and made me laugh when I discovered that satire was a language. And it kind of screwed up my whole outlook on life.

MS. PERCY: How old were you?

MR. ALCARAZ: Man, I want to say I was around—probably 12, maybe, when I first started reading Mad. I mean I would listen to Dr. Demento — that’s how I discovered kind of classic comedy bits and sketches that were recorded on various comedy albums, probably how I discovered Monty Python.

MS. PERCY: As a 12-year-old kid, that’s pretty advanced.

MR. ALCARAZ: Yeah. I was really into comedy, for some reason. And I used to watch the 1970s Saturday Night Live. I would have little sketchbooks with the skits written in, like a little log.

[laughter]

MR. ALCARAZ: So I have, like, “Oh, no! Mr. Bill! Oh!”

MS. PERCY: [laugh]

MR. ALCARAZ: All the John Belushi stuff…

MS. PERCY: Were you writing it down so that you could reenact it later, or you were just taking notes, like, I need to learn how to do this?

MR. ALCARAZ: I’m not sure. I think I just was in love with sketch comedy and jokes, and I just thought, I’ve just got to record this, because we don’t have technology to record it. [laughs]

MS. PERCY: Yeah. That’s true. It was pre-VCR.

MR. ALCARAZ: That’s in our cave.

MS. PERCY: [laughs] Well, I remember in an interview that I read with you, you talked a lot about how you learned how to cope and how to have humor as a tool, from your Mexican parents. And I just wonder, what was it that they used that really taught you that?

MR. ALCARAZ: It was mostly my mom.

MS. PERCY: The mamis are always so funny.

MR. ALCARAZ: Oh, yeah. I mean, well, I’d love to say that my mom was a funny, wisecracking lady. But really, she was just vicious. [laughs] Brutal.

MS. PERCY: Oh, yeah. That’s usually the shared link among all of our Hispanic parents.

MR. ALCARAZ: [laughs]

MS. PERCY: They weren’t intentionally funny. [laughs]

MR. ALCARAZ: Yeah. No, I mean she was a very smart person. She went to the 4th grade in Mexico, which at the time is probably the minimum requirement of schooling, back in the ’40s. But she just had a wicked and very inappropriate sense of humor. And she passed that on directly to me.

MS. PERCY: Did she see that the two of you shared that?

MR. ALCARAZ: I don’t know. I mean maybe she had a realization later, once she saw me — she watched me do this bit where I responded to a libel lawsuit that Emilio Estefan was filing, threatening the LA Weekly with, because I’d Photoshopped him as Fidel Castro, and for some reason he didn’t enjoy that.

MS. PERCY: [laughs]

MR. ALCARAZ: And I dressed up as Fidel Castro, to explain satire on Primer Impacto, because they were the first people to call and say, “Can we come over?”

MS. PERCY: Not surprised there. [laughs]

MR. ALCARAZ: Yeah. Oh, no, they were on it.

MS. PERCY: They’re kind of like the ambulance chasers.

MR. ALCARAZ: They’re TMZ in Spanish.

MS. PERCY: Exactly, yeah.

MR. ALCARAZ: So they came over. I said, “But I’m going to be dressed like this. I’ve got fatigues and a cigar.” And they said, “Yes, please!” The only thing better would have been a bikini.

MS. PERCY: [laughing] I was going to say…

MR. ALCARAZ: And Primer Impacto comes on like five times a day, right, so my mom finally saw it. She finally kind of understood what I did for a living, which is: mock powerful people.

MS. PERCY: [laughs] Wow. So something I’m so curious about is, your work—a lot of it is in Spanglish, right? It has the dual language and features characters with dual identities, just like you. I mean you talked about growing up on the U.S.-Mexico border, between those two worlds, and something that you wrote about that I’ve read that you talk about, as well, is feeling like you weren’t Mexican enough for the Mexicans, and then not American enough for Americans. And it’s something that I’ve heard a lot of my Mexican — particularly my Mexican friends — really talk about, because their great-grandparents or their grandparents, even their parents made the decision not to teach their kids Spanish so that they could better assimilate. And it’s such a complicated issue, such a complex thing. And I just wondered, what role did humor play in helping you figure that out?

MR. ALCARAZ: It definitely is the number one complaint of Mexican-Americans and Chicanos. I mean I went into possibly the worst career, in Hollywood, to try to right this thing, where really, in Hollywood, I mean they don’t know we exist. They’re barely starting to figure out that there are Mexican Americans. And so I use humor as a way to cope with that and to let our community know that we’re not invisible, at least not to us. [laughs]

And I do push Spanglish. I do push biculturalism, to make it normal. That’s what I didn’t see, growing up, on TV. I grew up on the border, in San Diego, as a kid. Never saw brown people on TV unless I watched the stuff in Spanish. But so eventually I realized, wow, we are just not anywhere — what’s going on?

MS. PERCY: And that really motivated you to do that.

MR. ALCARAZ: I wanted to make more media featuring us, more imagery; whatever I could get my hands on.

MS. PERCY: When did you first start drawing and coming up with cartoons, becoming that future illustrator?

MR. ALCARAZ: Drawing, being artistic kind of runs on one side of my family, on my mom’s side of my family from Sinaloa. And so when I was a kid, we would go to Sinaloa and visit with my cousins. They are talented musicians, artists, painters. They could do it all. But, of course, because you can’t make a living at that back then, they became accountants. [laughs]

MS. PERCY: Yeah, exactly.

MR. ALCARAZ: The Mexican dream…

MS. PERCY: [laughs]

MR. ALCARAZ: Be a CPA.

MS. PERCY: And play music on the side.

MR. ALCARAZ: Yeah, yeah, exactly. And so we would go to Mexico City during the summers. And my mom took me to every possible museum, and we did all — the whole tourist thing in Mexico City. And I learned there to, a) understand that, wow, art runs in my family. I could do it as easily as my cousins can do it, even though they’re grownups and they’re drawing. I could do that. And then also to see all that Mexican culture and realize: Wow, there is no blackout on Mexicans over here. Why is that? [laughs]

MS. PERCY: Yeah, exactly.

MR. ALCARAZ: And why did I not learn in school that my culture is older than 2000 years. It’s maybe 20,000 years old. And how come they don’t teach you that in school?

MS. PERCY: And integral to civilization, not just to Mexico. [laughing]

MR. ALCARAZ: Right, right. I mean where would we be without tacos right now?

MS. PERCY: [laughs] Amen.

MR. ALCARAZ: [laughs] The height of civilization.

MS. PERCY: So is that why you—I mean you went to school for architecture. And so was that kind of the accounting part, where you were like, okay, I can do that?

MR. ALCARAZ: Oh, yeah. If you’re the first person in your family to go to college, man, you better go get a career,

MS. PERCY: [laughs]

MR. ALCARAZ: And I was it. And my father had died when I was 13, and it was just me and my mom. And even though I was doing graphic arts and actually making a living in high school and college, doing graphic arts like printing, working in a print shop, I just didn’t see that as a way to change society. I saw architecture as a way to change society.

MS. PERCY: Wow.

MR. ALCARAZ: And I eventually — when I went to Berkeley, which is where I got my masters in architecture, there I met other Chicanos that wanted to do sketch comedy, wanted to make music, wanted to write comedy. And we, of course, aggregated, and that’s when I realized, wow, this is what I was meant to be doing.

MS. PERCY: When did you first realize that you had that power, that you could communicate through your cartoons, through — I mean all of the places that you write, actually, because you write in more than just your cartoons. When did you first realize that you had that power?

MR. ALCARAZ: I think probably the first time that some bully was going to kick my ass in high school. [laughs] And because I drew him, he…

MS. PERCY: No.

MR. ALCARAZ: Yeah. That’s when I kind of realized, like, oh, wait a minute.

MS. PERCY: So you had drawn him beforehand, he saw it, and then he’s like, “I’m going to kick your ass”?

MR. ALCARAZ: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

MS. PERCY: What was the drawing?

MR. ALCARAZ: I might have made fliers.

[laughter]

MR. ALCARAZ: [laughing] I might have posted them around. Because we were kind of all friends, and he was like — I used to hang out with these guys called the Sports Buddies.

MS. PERCY: [laughs]

MR. ALCARAZ: And they were all the jocks at school. And it was mostly the — we’re a minority of Mexicans and blacks in my high school, mostly-white high school. So we all kind of clumped together. I was not a jock, I just kind of liked hanging out with all the Mexican guys. So I drew this one guy named Ray. [laughs] He didn’t like the way I drew his head, because we used to call him, I don’t know, “football head.” I forget. You know, we were cruel high school kids. And then he came in and he wanted to kill me, but luckily, my biggest fan was Alvaro Flores, who was a body builder that just looked at Big Ray and was like, “Back off. Don’t kick this kid’s ass.”

MS. PERCY: [laughs]

MR. ALCARAZ: So that’s when I realized, whoa, what is this? What is this weapon?

MS. PERCY: That you have with your pencil. A couple weeks ago, you created a really striking cartoon in La Cucaracha. It showed an ICE officer arresting the Statue of Liberty. And you know, it actually made me cry when I was looking at it, because it portrays the ICE officer arresting the Statue of Liberty as the two main Latino characters are in the car, watching, kind of horrified. And I think part of it was just the sadness and the humor that was mixed into that image, and you do that so well in your work. And it just made me wonder, what do you feel when you finish a cartoon?

MR. ALCARAZ: Yeesh. Man. I mean, that’s — I feel pretty Mexican, because…

MS. PERCY: [laughs]

MR. ALCARAZ: That’s the other thing that I got from my mom, which is, learn to cope with your horrible life [laughs] through laughter. And I think that is — it’s a very Mexican thing. It’s a very Latin American thing, but Mexicans are really good at it.

MS. PERCY: Very good at it. You gave us Cantinflas. Forever, I am eternally grateful.

MR. ALCARAZ: Yeah, yeah, you’re welcome. I did that.

MS. PERCY: [laughs]

MR. ALCARAZ: But I feel like, definitely, melancholy, mixed emotions. I’m sad that we’re still — I’m now drawing again almost the same cartoons that I was drawing 22, 23 years ago, during Prop 187 in California, the first anti-immigrant — big anti-Mexican-immigrant law that came out, modern time.

MS. PERCY: Which said that Mexicans couldn’t ride — was it public transportation? I mean there were so many things involved in that law.

MR. ALCARAZ: I used to call it the Mexicans Hovering Over the Sidewalk law…

MS. PERCY: [laughs]

MR. ALCARAZ: “You can’t use public anything. Everything is welfare. Breathing.” It’s like, geez. Now I’m really sad. [laughs]

MS. PERCY: I’m so sorry! I mean you’ve seen that come full circle in your work, because you’ve been talking about it, like you said, for decades.

MR. ALCARAZ: Yeah, and it’s just the cycle. I spoke at a school, and a young woman said, “Our comedians failed us.” And I thought, no, the politicians failed us. The journalists failed us. The comedians just comment on it. [laughs]

MS. PERCY: You guys are struggling with it just as much as everyone else is.

MR. ALCARAZ: Yeah. But if we have to pick up the slack, okay, I’ll pick up the slack. But I’m extra-screamy on the internet these days. I’m extra-chest-poundy and everything, and extra-loud, because apparently the message is not getting through.

MS. PERCY: So this decades-long career that you’ve had of really illustrating the world through your humor, I wonder how it’s formed you as a human being.

MR. ALCARAZ: It’s made me slightly better at deadlines.

MS. PERCY: [laughs]

MR. ALCARAZ: And I’m also, I guess, getting older and appreciating other viewpoints. But I know that I have a solid line that cannot be crossed. You can’t be racist and justify it to me. You can’t try to convince me that it’s okay. You can’t be violent and justify it. And it’s tough, trying to be a funny person and trying to be cognizant of your audience at the same time. It’s pretty hard. I do cross the line, but I’ll say, “It’s the character saying it.” [laughs]

MS. PERCY: Yeah, exactly.

MR. ALCARAZ: And we have entered the satire dimension. These characters have come to life, and it’s hard to top them. Sometimes you’ve got to let them just talk for themselves, you know?

MS. PERCY: And yet — I don’t know if I’m reading into this, but in looking at your work through the years, I feel like you are more hopeful. Do you feel that?

MR. ALCARAZ: Where’d you get that?

[laughter]

MR. ALCARAZ: I don’t know.

MS. PERCY: You seem optimistic to me. Is that just me, hoping for that?

MR. ALCARAZ: I don’t know. I mean I feel like my work is wider, it casts a bigger net. It’s not as Chicano-centric as it was before, because you’ve got to evolve. You’ve got to have lots of different topics and can’t keep saying the same thing over and over again.

MS. PERCY: Well, and you also realize that being Chicano, being Mexican, you’re not alone in it, either. There are so many people who are part of your community, as well.

MR. ALCARAZ: Yeah. I want to be…I want to be part of the black community. I want them to be part of my community. I want to be part of the gay community. I want them to be cool with me and accept me for the hetero slob that I am. You know, we’re all in the same gang. And we really, really — now more than ever, we’ve got to keep it together, people, because we need each other like crazy.

MS. PERCY: Yeah, we do. Thank you so much, Lalo. I really appreciate your voice and your work. I really — I mean I do find hope in it. I find it to be very hopeful.

MR. ALCARAZ: All right. You’re the one. Great.

MS. PERCY: [laughs] I’m the one person who’s finding it hopeful.

[laughter]

MS. PERCY: You have that in me.

music: “Timtar (Memories)” by Bombino]

Lalo Alcaraz is a cartoonist and writer best known for creating La Cucaracha, the first nationally syndicated, politically themed Latino daily comic strip. I also loved his writing on the hilarious Bordertown, which sadly only had one season on Fox but thankfully now lives on in streaming.

Creating Our Own Lives is produced by Maia Tarrell, Chris Heagle, and Trent Gilliss and is an On Being Studios production. You can listen and subscribe on iTunes or wherever you download podcasts. And leave us a review on iTunes — it matters more than you think. I’m Lily Percy. Thanks for listening.

music: “Timtar (Memories)” by Bombino]

 

Books + Music

Recommended Reading

Author: Lalo Alcaraz
Publisher: Andrews McMeel Publishing
Binding: Paperback, (128)Pages
Author: Lalo Alcaraz
Publisher: Akashic Books
Binding: Paperback, (125)Pages

Music Played

Artist: CAFE TACUBA
Label: Warner Music Latina
Artist: Bombino
Label: PTKF

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