by George Wolfe
For editorial cartoonist and faculty member Lalo Alcaraz, having one foot inside and the other outside the circle has been an ongoing metaphor for his life. Born in the San Diego area, he notes that he was not quite Mexican enough for some relatives across the border and yet not American enough for those in the States. His academic degrees include the fields of environmental design and architecture, yet he's best known for creating the first nationally syndicated, populist, politically-themed Latino daily comic strip, La Cucaracha, which appears in the Los Angeles Times. He also hosts a radio show and runs a satirical website. Now, once again, he finds himself exploring new territory as a writer on an upcoming Seth MacFarlane (Family Guy) project: an animated show for Fox featuring a largely Latino cast of characters, due to premiere in fall 2014.
Luckily for Alcaraz, what once raised eyebrows and caused judgment is now an increasingly accepted part of the times. On the federal level, it’s business as usual with an African American president; in a city like Los Angeles, you can’t throw a rock without hitting a hybrid car or a food truck touting a fresh confluence of ethnic cuisines; and at a college like Otis, interdisciplinary cross-training is fast becoming not only an advantage in the art and design professions but is practically a necessity for getting ahead of the status quo. And in this type of twister-like environment, artists like Alcaraz, who can keep their balance while straddling these various circles, are faring well.
Whether working on an editorial cartoon or creating content for his website (pocho.com), he attributes his original interest in biting social commentary to Mad magazine: “I used to tell parents to be careful: that publication can make a critical thinker out of a kid. For me, Spanish was my first language, then I learned English in school and, finally, I learned satire . . . so it was like a third language for me.”
Alcaraz has taught editorial illustration at Otis for nearly three years but will be taking a break to make ample space for his new full-time gig. It's a bittersweet time. "At Otis, I was reminded of how cool and fun college can be. Some of our best classes were when we threw everything out and just sat there and talked—I had young students from here and international students from all over the world, and it always gave me great hope that these kids remind me of how I was way back then. And we’re all the better for it [this merging of cultures]. I hope they’ll be able to carry on with what I’ve tried to teach them. But the truth is that I’ve really learned so much from them."
Despite using his craft to speak out on substantive issues like Proposition 187 (immigration) and federal elections (voting), and making both real and symbolic inroads professionally in ways that offer a model of achievement for Latinos and Chicanos, Alcaraz doesn’t see himself as any kind of spokesperson or cultural hero. “Most of all,” he notes, “what I can offer is my work, to support causes I care about. “
This humble stance isn’t false modesty. He’s genuinely fond of his simple-yet-proud roots and current middle-class lifestyle, and content to trade his onceangry 20-something years for the challenges and pleasures of life at home in Whittier with his wife and three kids. At the base of all he does, however, are the demands of his nagging muse, calling him to grind out his daily work, to fulfill his creative duty.
"I’m okay with simply being a role model for working artists. I’m not the most organized person, but I’ve managed to piece together a career and show that by just doing your art, steadily over time, it can be done. However dire the environment is out there, every career is fragmented, and we all have to figure out ways to make it work. My work urges people to think, maybe in the way I present it in my work, and maybe not. I’m not telling people how to think, just, you know . . . use your noggin. There’s a great saying in Spanish that uses the word maceta—which is slang for flowerpot—something like use what the good Lord gave you between your ears. So in short, use your flowerpot. There’s stuff in there!"
A Most Imperfect Union: A Contrarian History of the U.S. will be released by Basic Books in June with illustrations by Alcaraz and text by Ilan Stevans