The Man Behind 'Mexterminator'

The Los Angeles-based cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz is behind the nationally syndicated Latino comic strip, "La Cucaracha," launched in late 2002, and carried by more than 55 newspapers. During last year's California recall election, Alcaraz also became known for his op-ed cartoons in the L.A. Weekly blasting actor Arnold Schwarzenegger's candidacy and his posture toward Latinos. Yet on May 3, Alcaraz was presented with a "Latino Spirit Award" at the California state capitol, given by the legislature's Latino Caucus. Alcaraz was interviewed a few days before by Marcelo Ballvé, a PNS editor.

During California's recall last year, your cartoons were very critical of Gov. Schwarzenegger. How do you think he feels about you receiving the award?

I asked, has he read my cartoons, does he know who I am? And they said: "Oh yes, he does! But this is meant to be a fun day ... a fun, nonpartisan day." I'm just a little fly, so I think he's taking it all in stride.

Your "Mexterminator" cartoon showed Schwarzenegger in "Terminator" gear, armed to the teeth, as Latinos run scared. The caption was "Hasta la vista, Latinos!" Did your recall cartoons generate hate mail?

Actually, no. Except for one in particular. The character in "La Cucaracha" said he was surprised that the Republican Party was embracing immigrants like Arnold ... but that it didn't hurt that his daddy was a Nazi. Oh man, I got into a lot of trouble! A couple of papers apologized and said it was a mistake and all this B.S. But it's not like I made that up! His father was a Nazi. So maybe it was rude of me to bring it up, but I wasn't making stuff up.

Another recall issue was Proposition 187. Former Gov. Pete Wilson, one of Schwarzenegger's election advisors, was the main proponent of that 1994 ballot initiative to deny public services to undocumented immigrants. Are California Latinos still intimidated by 187's legacy, even though the courts scrapped it?

I think it's the opposite. Whatever small power we have, we have Pete Wilson and 187 to thank. I sort of became known for those cartoons that I would do against Wilson. Some of my satire was born because of 187 and all that hatred. We created media hoaxes, like a group called "Hispanics for Wilson," which was a fake self-deportationist group of Republican Latinos who were going to deport themselves once Pete Wilson won. We made it fun; we flipped it over. But we are still in the shadow of that anti-immigrant kind of hysteria that pops up its ugly head all the time.

Has the media done an adequate job covering post-9/11 anti-immigrant feelings and racial profiling?

Spanish-language media does a great job, but how much does that affect the mainstream -- sometimes not a lot. I try to put that pro-immigrant message and the interests of immigrants and non-white people in the center. My battle is with the mainstream society, to make that message acceptable and not have people roll their eyes when they hear we're complaining about this or that.

During the lead-up to the Iraq war you penned a cartoon in which Bush was running around with a missile between his legs. Did you imagine editors might have problems running that?

(Laughs). I drew that for the L.A. weekly. I can't get away with it anywhere else. I can't get away with it in my syndicated editorial cartoon. But I still think it's funny.

You're not worried about the FCC or someone coming after you for obscenity?

No, no. I'd like to see them write that law.

Harvard University's Samuel P. Huntington argues in new book that Latino immigration is a threat to the nation. Why is he setting the agenda for discussions of Latino identity?

That's the privilege of the white mainstream -- setting the agenda. We're constantly in reactionary mode. That's why art is important. It's not exactly public policy but it's all we've got to strike out with, like President Bush's pre-emptive strategy.

A lot of coverage now seems to focus on the demographic aspect, on how the Latino population seems to be growing everywhere.

We're coming out of the trees... (laughs)

Is that bad or good?

I guess if one falls on your head, that's not too good!

I mean the belated media attention on Latinos, and particularly their population growth.

I've detected evidence of this as early as the 1970s. National Geographic did this Mexican American issue. It's like they went to the Amazon and discovered Chicanos. It's really exotic. It kind of started back then. Then pretty soon they started with the old cliché of the Decade of the Hispanic, which was every decade. They keep trotting it out. It's ridiculous. They still act like they're in "Leave it to Beaver" days.

Is it any different on the comics pages?

There's a glaring lack of diversity on the comics page. Even though Aaron McGruder (creator of "The Boondocks," an African American comic strip) gets a lot of attention and I'm starting to get a little bit, it's still pretty bad. There are a lot of ancient strips.

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