LONG BEACH — When looking at political comics, you might see one or two Chicano names pop up, but few will be as well-known, influential, and celebrated as Lalo Alcaraz, the award-winning editorial cartoonist and television/film writer.
On the tail end of Hispanic Heritage Month, which ends Friday, Oct. 15, the often-controversial Pulitzer Prize finalist for editorial cartoons and artist behind Los Angeles Times syndicated comic strip “La Cucaracha” was the featured speaker during the 10th annual Latino Comics Expo in Long Beach.
With all the titles and accolades under Alcaraz’s belt these days, during a virtual talk on Sunday, Oct. 10, the San Diego native expressed his humility and happiness with the art of cartooning, which he said was borne of the desire to not be excluded.
“I cartoon because I got tired of feeling excluded from the comic stage,” Alcaraz said during an interview with Latino Comics Expo founder and fellow artist Ricardo Padilla. “It comes from a place of necessity, but it is a necessity what we do, because we want to do it, too.”
Alcaraz’s political inspirations come from growing up with immigrant parents in San Diego. He watched his parents work hard every single day and watched them suffer as immigrants, he said. They led hard lives and Alcaraz watched them be beat down by the economic system while society ignored them, and in turn, ignored him and all the other Latino generations who came after.
“We’re not here to fix the world’s problems but to shine a big, fat light on them hopefully,” Alcaraz said of being a political cartoonist.
Although his highly charged political cartoons and strip have garnered him a deep following, in recent years, Alcaraz has broken through the mainstream a bit, even if he still isn’t quite a household name.
Alcaraz has dabbled in more than just comics, as a consulting producer and writer, he’s rose to prominence with Nicklelodeon titles “The Loud House” and “The Casagrandes” and as a writer and producer of Fox’s “Bordertown.” You also might have heard of the fruits of his side gig as a “cultural consultant” on 2015 Disney-Pixar’s Oscar-winning hit, “Coco.”
Still, the fire that comes with political cartooning has not dimmed or taken a backseat. His Pulitzer nomination came in 2020, and the fact that he was a finalist and did not win still stings.
Interview Padilla told those listening during the Latino Comics Expo that people in “the industry” were proud that a Latino got close, yet it was a bitter pill to take for Padilla that Alcaraz lost.
Alcaraz said much of the same, saying there was a familiar feeling in his chest as the winner was announced — that feeling of exclusion and a “not again …” — but Alcaraz said he will keep on doing what he always does.
“I’m not going to stop, I’m not going to give up,” Alcaraz said, “because that’s what happens. And that is why the Latino Comics Expo keeps going.”
Only two Latinos have ever won the Pulitzer Prize: Oscar Hijuelos for the novel, “The Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love,” and Junot Diaz for his book, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.”
As for his work in animation, Alcaraz spoke of “Bordertown” and “The Casagrandes,” two very different kinds of cartoons, with one for children and the other for adults. Alcaraz said the medium gives him more of an opportunity to stretch his creative muscles in writing, which he greatly enjoyed.
“I’m just blown away by the power of animation. It’s a cinematic artform that is beautiful and that I think is harder than live action,” he said. “In animation, you can work that product to death, you are like a god! You control every single aspect of this world you create!”
Consulting on “Coco” was a bit different from working on other animations; there was one con. He said there had been concern from the producers since back in 2015, when he created a piece called “Muerto Mouse” during Disney’s efforts to trademark Dia de los Muertos. He was happy to say that the Chicano culture won this fight.
He got a lot of heat for working with Disney after protesting with his cartoon, but Alcaraz said the movie would have been made even without his involvement. Being there would assure him that “Coco” was done right, and he didn’t plan on just rubber stamping the movie.
“They were going to do the movie with or without me. Why not with me?” said Alcaraz. “And the first question was, ‘Are you going to listen to what I say? Because I was not going to be a rubber stamp, just put my name on a crap movie, why would I do that? I would never do that.’”
Thus “Coco” was able to be as successful as it was thanks to Alcaraz and many other Chicano consultants who were involved. They were heard, they were acknowledged, and the movie went on to be No. 1 in both the United States and in Mexico.
Alcaraz even got a line in the movie that is an Easter egg for his “La Cucaracha” strip.
Alcaraz is beginning to dip his toes into the gaming industry as well, recently serving as a consultant for Forza Horizon 5, a racing game that uses South American and Mexican biomes as part of the background environments. He said the company asked him to consult, write, and check what is OK and what is not.
Gaming is part of the future of Chicano arts, he said, and that traditions could be kept, but the arts need to evolve.
“Traditions are great, but even our ancestors messed with traditions. They got it from somewhere else and changed things,” Alcaraz said. “Now it’s 2021. We can’t be rigid, but we have to be respectful.”
Alcaraz even got a compliment from a cartoonist from Calexico who only identified himself as Enacio. He thanked Alcaraz for his work and being an inspiration for other Chicano artists to be just as successful.
“As a cartoonist, I just want to thank you, Lalo. I grew up in Calexico CA, a border town, and I remember as a kid discovering ‘La Cucaracha,’” Enacio stated. “It’s meant a lot, discovering that a Chicano could become a successful cartoonist.”
Other Chicano artists provided the same inspiration for Alcaraz, who cited the strip “Gordo” by Gustavo “Gus” Arriola, Chicano American cartoonist and animator. Alcaraz saw the comic with a person who looked like him and he thought, “Wait, I can do this!” and took off from there.