Client: Lalo Alcaraz - Artist
Like many prestigious awards that recognize great accomplishment in this country, the Herblock Prize for editorial cartooning, created in 2004 to commemorate the legacy of the late Washington Post cartoonist Herb Block, had never been offered to a nonwhite person—until this year. While accepting the prize at the Library of Congress on the evening of April 27th, Lalo Alcaraz, a Chicano from San Diego, California, said what many of his friends and followers were posting on social media: “It’s about time.” For the past thirty years, Alcaraz, who is also the first Latino political cartoonist to author a nationally syndicated comic strip, has used a caustic, take-no-prisoners humor against anti-immigrant and racist public figures. “No other political cartoonist working in the U.S. brings as much passion, dedication and brilliance to the fight for fair immigration at the border and justice for the Latino community,” the Herblock judges stated.
In 2020 and 2021, Alcaraz had been a Pulitzer Prize finalist in the editorial-cartooning category, but, last year, in a decision that angered many cartoonists, the board chose not to declare a winner and has since eliminated that particular category. The Herblock Prize, then, signaled a triumph for an artist beloved in the Latinx community but who, like the community itself, has long felt a lack of recognition from mainstream America. Now he has finally been accepted. Or has he? “I get a lot of hate mail,” Alcaraz said in his acceptance speech. A few days later, during a Zoom call from Los Angeles, he told me, “There is still this American societal attitude that we are foreign.”
He is not, in fact, foreign. The child of immigrants who moved to this country from the Mexican states of Sinaloa and Zacatecas, Alcaraz was born in 1964 in San Diego, a city, he told me, that was “in denial that it was on the U.S.-Mexico border.” He grew up witnessing and experiencing discrimination and racism—from cops pulling him over for no reason, when he rode his bike as a kid, to “shoplifting police,” following him and his mother in stores, to a large outdoor swap meet that ended with Border Patrol cars and helicopters chasing a group of undocumented immigrants as a crowd of horrified Mexican Americans watched. These experiences, he said, put “the politics of the border in front of my eyes.”
That political awakening led him, as an undergraduate at San Diego State University, to join mecha (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán), a civil-rights student group founded in 1969. He graduated in 1987, with a degree in art focused on environmental design, and completed a master’s in architecture, at U.C. Berkeley, in 1991. He started drawing cartoons seriously at San Diego State, and at Berkeley he co-created a comedy group, the Chicano Secret Service, in which he performed at campus protests, and a satirical magazine called Pocho, which still exists as pocho.com. (Pocho is a derogatory term for Mexican Americans who have Americanized and lost their Mexican culture.)
In 1992, soon after the L.A. riots, a friend introduced Alcaraz to Kit Rachlis, then the editor-in-chief of LA Weekly, an influential alternative magazine. Rachlis looked at Alcaraz’s work and, impressed by his “sardonic, pointed” cartoons, which, he told me, had “a sensibility taken from graphic novels,” offered him a regular spot. He created a comic strip, “L.A. Cucaracha,” which ran in the magazine until 2010 and, since 2002, has been nationally syndicated as “La Cucaracha” in more than sixty newspapers. The main character, Cuco Rocha, Alcaraz has explained, is “such an angry Chicano activist that he turned into a cockroach.” Cuco is actually an anthropomorphized cockroach who, according to one reviewer, “comes off less Kafka and more Subcomandante Marcos” (the former leader of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, a guerrilla group in Chiapas, Mexico). Cuco is joined in the comic by two regular humans, his best friend and alter ego, Eddie, and Vero, Eddie’s girlfriend. They are young, working-class, bilingual Chicanos, with a world view shaped by the enthusiastic activism sparked by Cesar Chavez and by the anger ignited by Proposition 187, a 1994 ballot initiative that restricted public services, including health care and education, for undocumented immigrants. A review of past strips offers a catalogue of anti-Latinx episodes. In one, from June 2016, Cuco reads from his smartphone to Eddie, “Trump called a Mexican judge who is going to rule on the Trump University fraud case ‘a Mexican’ and ‘a hater of Donald Trump.’ ” Eddie replies, “Wow. Openly Mexican judges.” Cuco adds, “Next thing you know, they’ll want to use our bathrooms.” (Alcaraz’s Twitter name is Mexican Judge.)
The cockroach “is a symbol for Chicanos,” Alcaraz said, which derives from two sources. One is Chicano literature and art, including the classic “The Revolt of the Cockroach People,” by Oscar (Zeta) Acosta, a roman à clef, published in 1973, about the rise of the Chicano movement in Los Angeles in the late sixties and early seventies. As Israel Reyes, a professor at Dartmouth College who has written about Alcaraz’s work, put it, the cockroach “is a metaphor of how immigrants, Mexicans, have been represented as insects, as a nuisance, as space invaders, the Latino threat to be eliminated. Alcaraz appropriates this and turns it upside down. It’s a way of empowering through this image that was used to marginalize.” The second source is the popular Mexican folk song, of Spaniard origin, “La Cucaracha,” about a cockroach who can’t walk. The song has a traditional melody, but the lyrics are often improvised to fit the occasion; it has been used at least since the Mexican Revolution for satirical commentary on social or political topics.
Alcaraz has published a book of “La Cucaracha” strips and a collection of cartoons about immigration (“Migra Mouse,” 2004), illustrated two books on cartoon history, and worked on several animation projects. He has also occasionally performed. During the 1994 reelection campaign of Governor Pete Wilson, who supported Proposition 187, Alcaraz played a right-wing, anti-immigrant activist named Daniel D. Portado, which in Spanish reads as deportado (deported). Wearing the dark sunglasses of a cartoonish secret agent, D. Portado made mock radio ads and media appearances, including on a Telemundo news show, to express support for Wilson’s “self-deportation message.” (Proposition 187 passed but was later ruled to be unconstitutional.) Almost two decades later, during the 2012 Presidential campaign, Mitt Romney, who was clearly not in on the joke, seriously suggested self-deportation as a solution for the undocumented workers’ plight.
But for the many who were in on the joke, Alcaraz’s work provided fodder for the fight against discrimination, racism, and injustice. His cartoons were printed on large placards and carried at protests and sit-ins. Among them were the Migra Mouse cartoons, which depict Mickey Mouse dressed in a Border Patrol uniform, a character that Alcaraz created in response to Disney’s financial contributions to Wilson’s campaign. (Disney also contributed to the campaign of his opponent, Kathleen Brown.) Years later, Alcaraz created Muerto Mouse, a skeleton Mickey Mouse—this time rebuking Disney’s attempt to trademark, for marketing purposes, Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) as the title of the 2017 Pixar animated feature that was eventually released as “Coco.” Online protests against the commercial appropriation of an important Mexican holiday led Disney to drop the attempt, and to hire Alcaraz as a cultural consultant to provide feedback on the film. More recently, in an effort to fight covid disinformation in the American Latinx community, Alcaraz reimagined the artist Emanuel Martínez’s 1967 depiction of the Mexican Revolution leader Emiliano Zapata, “Tierra o Muerte” (“Land or Death”), with his typical sombrero and bullet belt across the chest, but replacing his rifle with a giant vaccine needle, and the legend “Vacuna o Muerte” (“Vaccine or Death”).
Alcaraz has also targeted conservative Latinx people, whom he has portrayed in “La Cucaracha” as “self-hating Latinos.” Cuco Rocha can often be found answering “hate mail from Latinos, a.k.a. self-hate mail,” such as one letter that reads, “Dear Lowlife, the characters in your strip are all gang members, not smart, super observant, educated Hispanics like me.” Cuco replies, “Dear Reader, our strip is populated by teachers, pupils, journalists, business folk, even astronauts!” And the reader writes back, “My point exactly! A gathering of more than three Hispanics is technically a gang.”
Not everybody takes this kind of sting lightly. Alcaraz learned that early on, at San Diego State, where he was the main cartoonist for The Daily Aztec, a campus newspaper, and found a furious attack on his work written in a toilet stall. Over the years, many similar messages have followed. But it was when “La Cucaracha” became nationally syndicated, in 2002, that larger audiences denounced it as anti-white and divisive. After being “deluged with complaints” from readers, several newspapers dropped the strip, including The Houston Chronicle, The Los Angeles Times (the paper reinstated it after a countercampaign), the Albuquerque Journal, The Denver Post, The Fresno Bee, and The Dallas Morning News. “As soon as the cartoon was syndicated into mainstream media, you could see how it could be misread,” Rachlis told me.
“There is a long tradition of his type of humor and satirical commentary in Latino media,” Albert Laguna, a professor of ethnicity, race, and migration and American studies at Yale, told me. “It’s not meant for the mainstream. It’s meant for communities.” That commentary speaks to the experience of particular groups and circulates in spaces that are not for mainstream consumption. But, as Reyes notes, Alcaraz has lately gone beyond the immigrant or Chicano experience and into more mainstream topics, such as Trumpism, anti-vaxxers, and anti-abortion activism. The broader reaction to that work can be read in the comments on Alcaraz’s social-media channels. “Your cartoon sucks. Go back to Mexico you filthy beaner,” a typical example reads. Just before Donald Trump was elected, a reader commented on Instagram that he couldn’t wait for Alcaraz to be arrested, “so we can torture you.” Others have included death threats. In 2020, a reader wrote in an e-mail, “You piece of shit. . . . I will give it to you one day."”
Alcaraz usually responds to the comments, sometimes calling their authors “dumb” or “stupid,” because, he told me, he believes in “hitting back fast.” According to Reyes, Alcaraz is trying not to start “a dialogue” with nativism or authoritarianism but to “undermine it.” He was thin-skinned at first; then he worried about the death threats. In time, though, Alcaraz started to find the comments funny. Now each one gives him a sense of victory. “The other person is at war with me, but I’ve already defeated them,” he said, “I made some drawings that will be in their heads forever.”