'La Cucaracha' Goes Nationwide
Lalo Alcaraz' comic strip alter-ego, Eddie, is a laid-back, blue-collar Mexican American with a posse of oddball friends who share an irreverent, activist view of life as Latinos in America. Not far from the truth of Alcaraz' life, really.
But the main character of his comic strip La Cucaracha is something else entirely — an anthropomorphic, militant Chicano cockroach, sporting a goatee, sneakers, khaki pants and flannel shirt, buttoned East L.A.-style, only at the collar.
For the past decade, Alcaraz' work was a mainstay of the back pages of Los Angeles' biggest alternative newspaper, The LA Weekly. But today La Cucaracha can be seen next to Garfield, Marmaduke, Blondie and other syndicated comic strips in major papers like The Los Angeles Times, Houston Chronicle, Chicago Tribune and about 50 other newspapers.
For All Things Considered, NPR's Mandalit del Barco profiles the creator of America's first daily syndicated Latino political comic strip, distributed by Universal Press Syndicate — the same group that offers the sharply opinionated strips Doonesbury and Boondocks.
Alcaraz, 38, is the son of Mexican immigrants who grew up bicultural and bilingual in San Diego, Calif., near the border with Tijuana, Mexico. "I grew up a little Mexican kid," he tells Del Barco. "I was born a poor brown child. I remember reading Mexican comics and watching Mexican wrestling movies in Tijuana on the weekends and... Batman at night at home — so I really did split my time."
Alcaraz went on to earn a master's degree in architecture at the University of California at Berkeley. It was there that he helped to create the satirical magazine Pocho — a derogatory term some Mexicans use against Mexican Americans who don't speak Spanish well. Through satire, Alcaraz and other contributors twisted the insult into a term of pride.
With some partners, he also formed a comedy troupe, the Chicano Secret Service, which performed satirical skits for campus protests and sit-ins. "Alcaraz also appeared on a live Spanish-language TV talk show, offering to deport himself back to Mexico," del Barco says. "He's also written TV skits for the comedy troupe Culture Clash, and he's dabbled in screenplays."
One of Alcaraz' inspirations was Gus Arriola, the author of the long-running Gordo strip — a strip that avoided politics, and concentrated on the cultural life of a Mexican bean farmer turned tourist guide. Arriola, now retired and living in Carmel, Calif., says he admires Alcaraz for saying things that he couldn't.
"I had to be a little more subtle in my day," he tells del Barco. "But now, he can come right out and say things that none of us could have said 30 years ago. I envy him the ability that he has now of doing that and having editors accept it."
Alcaraz says not everyone appreciates his sense of satire — he's received plenty of hate mail. "I knew I had to do this strip as a media activist... and now that I have my platform, my soap box, I'm gonna stick my neck out and say I'm here to say something.
"You might not like it," he tells del Barco. "Hopefully you'll laugh and maybe become educated — and maybe the cucaracha will get your attention."
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