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Watch out, he bites

Cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz doesn't shy away from politics in his 'La Cucaracha,' a comic that straddles two cultures.

May 02, 2003|Maria Elena Fernandez | Times Staff Writer

THE radio is tuned to pro-war talk and Lalo Alcaraz, the irreverent creator of "La Cucaracha," is erasing the pencil marks from this week's batch of biting cartoons. Sean Hannity's on-air banter triggers a memory of angry e-mail from a reader Alcaraz received in November shortly after his Latino-themed comic strip was syndicated.

In the note, a Latino veteran demanded to know how the cartoonist dared to make fun of President Bush when it is the United States that grants the San Diego-born artist his freedom of speech.

"I basically told him if he hated dissent, he should move to Iraq," Alcaraz said. "It was like he was saying: How dare you criticize the government when you're free to do so in this great country of ours? Whaaaat?"

On this mellow morning in his office, dissent is heavy on the mind of the 39-year-old artist who created "La Cucaracha" for L.A. Weekly after the 1992 riots. In Alcaraz's cartoon-Chicano universe, characters discuss politics, pop culture and the ups and downs of straddling two cultures. His main characters are Eddie, a mellow Chicano, and Eddie's alter ego, Cuco Rocha, an angry, human-looking cockroach, who constantly carp at each other. The other characters are Eddie's little brother, Neto, a disengaged teenager who knows nothing about Mexican culture, and Veronica, Eddie's savvy girlfriend.

" 'La Cucaracha' is the political conscience of Eddie," explained Alcaraz, who works in Whittier. "He's an angry Chicano roach. Eddie is me basically. Sometimes I'm really angry and I want to tell everyone how right I am. The rest of the time I'm a bumbling idiot. I'm both Eddie and the roach."

Although "La Cucaracha," distributed by Universal Press Syndicate, is not the first Latino-themed strip to hit mainstream comic pages -- Universal has been selling the family-oriented "Baldo" since 2000 and "Gordo" ran in about 300 newspapers from 1941 to 1985 -- it is the first to plunge into social and political issues. In one early example, Cuco Rocha is sarcastically raving about the growing Latino population and the national hype about all things Latino when Eddie, his alter ego, responds: "It's like we're finally being discovered!" Cuco delivers the punch line: "Yeah, Eddie, being discovered really worked out well for the Indians."

"Lalo has a very progressive voice and eclectic vision of current culture," said David Diaz, a professor of urban studies at Cal State Northridge. "He's starting to bring bilingual thinking into American society."

"La Cucaracha" appears in 60 newspapers across the country, including The Times, Chicago Tribune, Seattle Times and Detroit Free Press. To his surprise, the fulfillment of his syndication dream has introduced the same bittersweet reality experienced by Aaron McGruder's "Boondocks." Alcaraz has been receiving such intensely personal and threatening mail that, on the advice of McGruder -- whose strip features African American characters and has had plenty of experience with reader animus -- he has ceased reading his e-mails, which he used to love. His vitriolic detractors range from whites who accuse him of reverse racism to Latinos who accuse him of reinforcing racial stereotypes.

"It drives you crazy," Alcaraz said. "They write mean-spirited stuff which has nothing to do with the content of the strip. I'm already self-deprecating and self-hating enough. I don't need more of that."

After a two-month run, the Albuquerque Journal, New Mexico's largest daily, canceled "La Cucaracha" in February. When Alcaraz poked fun at racism by satirizing McGruder's name with a character called Aryan McCracker who lived in Whitesville, the newsroom was deluged with so many complaints that editors decided to conduct an informal online poll. Of the 6,571 people who cast votes, 56.5% wanted the newspaper to scrap "La Cucaracha."

"It just didn't seem to the click here the way we'd hoped," said Assistant Managing Editor Dan Herrera. The poll "was very unscientific but it's about all you want to do for comics. That's an awful lot of people to vote on something stupid like that."

Greg Melvin, associate editor of Universal Press Syndicate, who edits "La Cucaracha" and "Boondocks," said newspaper editors underestimate what comic strips mean to readers. "Comics strips are a part of people's daily routines," Melvin said. "I'm a white guy, and the strips I see from Aaron and Lalo have never offended me. I'm a little disappointed that the Albuquerque Journal didn't have the spine to keep the strip in their paper."

Growing up in San Diego and Tijuana, Alcaraz never felt whole -- or at home -- in either world. He found himself him in a perpetual state of pochism. (In Mexico, "pocho" is a derogatory term for Mexican Americans.) "I would have never thought then that my pochismo would be the thing that drove me, that drove my art," said Alcaraz, who co-founded an online magazine,, in 1995.

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