Buggin' out
La Cucaracha's prolific cartoonist, Lalo Alcaraz, still answers his hate mail.

By Jeff Chang

ANOTHER DAY, another hate letter. This one reads, "As a Hispanic, I find La Cucaracha by Lalo Alcaraz very offensive and in very bad taste. For years, we have been stereotyped as lazy, lawbreakers, etc. And I think Mr. Alcaraz has a way of perpetuating that stereotype." In his spacious but stuffed Los Angeles studio, Alcaraz rises in his seat. "Oh my god!" he shouts. "What comic strip are they reading?"

This is the life of the hottest cartoonist in Aztlan. Since launching his national strip in November 2002, Alcaraz has been on a roller-coaster ride. Along with his Universal Press Syndicate comrades Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury and Aaron McGruder's The Boondocks, La Cucaracha has quickly become one of the most controversial in the history of American comic strips, labeled "anti-white" and "divisive" by its detractors and defended as "truthful" and "progressive" by its supporters. It runs in nearly a hundred newspapers and was dumped by four others after passionate debates.

La Cucaracha features a walking, talking, down-for-brown, fist-pumping cockroach named Cuco Rocha, who comes off less Kafka and more Subcomandante Marcos; Cuco's best friend, Eddie, a journalist and Alcaraz's chilled-out alter ego; and Eddie's level-headed schoolteacher girlfriend, Veronica. Neto, Eddie's Spanish-challenged younger brother; Chato and Jose, two precocious elementary school students; and the hilariously deadpan Taco Cart Guy round out the crew. They're all young and working-class, swimming in pop-cult signifiers and sensitive to racial injustice.

One of the most poignant characters is Chava, Eddie's cousin, a soldier serving an indefinitely extended tour of duty in Iraq, who writes gently sarcastic letters describing the follies of war. In fact, Alcaraz's characters don't exhibit the in-your-face, East Coast attitude of McGruder's. They generally have the sunny vibe of a warm weekend in the Mission District. So why all the fuss?

In the history of American newspaper comic strips, there have been perhaps less than a handful of major Latino-themed ones. The most popular, Gus Arriola's Gordo, which ran from 1941 to 1985, reached about 300 papers at its peak. But if some Chicanos felt Gordo bent toward white stereotypes, Alcaraz's La Cucaracha is suffused with a post-Cesar Chavez, post-Proposition 187, thoroughly MEChA-minded worldview. It's a daily window into the wit and wisdom of a generation of bilingual, polycultural, California-bred Chicanos.

From 'Fusco Brothers' to 'Chuco Brothers'

Alcaraz was born in San Diego in 1964. After crossing the border for work, his parents met at an ESL class and raised Alcaraz in the working-class Latino neighborhood of Lemon Grove. When he was a student at UC Berkeley during the George H.W. Bush years, his sensibility cohered. By day, he marched for ethnic studies and faculty diversity, and by night, he worked with groundbreaking comedic troupe the Chicano Service and published the popular zine Pocho. The magazine gave Alcaraz an outlet to recaption Family Circus and Fusco Brothers (which he renamed The Chuco Brothers) strips with pro-Chicano dialogue. He further sharpened his skills by writing for comedy troupe Culture Clash and inking award-winning editorial cartoons for the Los Angeles Weekly.

Funny pages remain the last pop terrain to be successfully integrated. Newspaper comics-page editors find themselves caught between the goal of modernizing for younger readers and the fear of offending older readers. Alcaraz and McGruder represent the future – edgy, topical, contrarian, and polycultural. But apparently quite a few readers want comics to keep them safely in the past.

In Arizona and New Mexico, older white readers immediately complained that La Cucaracha was "racist" and demanded old comic strips like Gasoline Alley back. Perhaps more surprisingly, many older Latino readers, like the one above, didn't see the irony of having an angry cockroach as the lead character. For Alcaraz, these reactions represented nostalgia for the bad old days of no-coloreds funnies. Just two months after its launch, he satirized his hate-mailers – white and brown – by drawing a letter-writer pleading, "Please drop 'La Cucaracha' and bring back my favorite comic strip, 'Whitesville USA' by Aryan McCracker." Alcaraz says, "I'm sorry, but I'm just not polite about this stuff."

Deluged with complaints, the Albuquerque Journal ran an online poll on the strip that registered a record number of votes and tipped in favor of its removal. The Journal dumped it. A readers' poll at the Dallas Morning News received 40,000 votes, and the paper replaced La Cucaracha with Love Is ... When editors at the Denver Post and the Fresno Bee dumped La Cucaracha, they noted that older Latino readers didn't like the strip. "When it's time to get rid of my strip," Alcaraz says with a chuckle, "all of a sudden Latino opinion is so important."

"When the Fresno Bee dropped me, they said, 'We didn't know what kind of strip this was. We thought it was a parody of racial stereotypes,' " he says. "I'm like, 'Nah, it's got an opinion, just like B.C., like Family Circus. These are comic strips with a white mainstream political ideology, an ideology of sameness, living in fake reality.' "

Despite, or perhaps because of, the controversy, Universal Press Syndicate counts La Cucaracha as an unqualified success and has signed Alcaraz to a 10-year contract. The strip continues to add major newspapers, including, most recently, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

East L.A. aesthetic

While folks can call Alcaraz a lot of things – and they certainly do – lazy isn't one of them. In addition to his daily strip, Alcaraz continues to do editorial cartoons. He maintains three Web sites: www.lacucaracha.com (devoted to the daily), www.cartoonista.com (for his editorial cartoons), and www.pocho.com (which reads like a Spanglish Onion). He's negotiating merchandising deals, including calendars ("I'm making sure they have Cesar Chavez's birthday!"), and is plotting a TV show proposal and a graphic novel. And this month two new Alcaraz books, La Cucaracha (Andrews McMeel) and Migra Mouse: Political Cartoons on Immigration (RDV/Akashic), are on the shelves.

La Cucaracha presents his first year of strips, including all of the controversial ones. Alcaraz's panels display a fine ear, an uncluttered eye, and a haiku-perfect economy, bringing their world alive in just a few strokes. Veronica's favorite hangout is a "Barriobucks Coffee and Check Cashing Café." Underemployed United Nations weapons inspectors inspect the chili at Chuy's Diner, Cuco and Eddie's lunch spot. The book is a breezy, often hysterical read that confirms Alcaraz's genius.

Recalling his 2000 book with Ilan Stevens, Latino USA: A Cartoon History, and covering 12 years of work, Migra Mouse reads like an alternative history of California's recent past – framed by a hypocritical debate over immigration, anti-Latino ballot initiatives, border wars, and a renewed post-9/11 backlash. An early, streamlined version of La Cucaracha appears alongside clever reworkings of Charles Atlas ads, Hollywood blockbuster posters, and those mind-reeling SoCal highway crossing signs. Imagine Kevin Starr and Michael Moore filtered through an East L.A. aesthetic.

And Alcaraz has begun reading his hate mail again. "I got a letter from some Latino sailor. He was like, 'How could you make the soldiers look so stupid?' " Alcaraz says. "Chava was writing back to Eddie, telling him that they were looking for weapons of mass destruction and also looking for the presidential war records. The gag was that they were all being manufactured at the same place. I guess he didn't get the joke."

"I wrote back to him," he continues. "I said, 'This is not the comic strip that makes soldiers look stupid. You must be thinking of Beetle Bailey.' And then I drew him a strip of Beetle falling asleep and had Cuco Rocha saying, 'I think this one's for you.' I told him this strip is not in the business of mocking soldiers. And he wrote me back, 'Hey! You should do something about Latino sailors!' "

Alcaraz laughs. "That one worked out."

Lalo Alcaraz lectures and signs books Thurs/7, 7 p.m., Cartoon Art Museum, 655 Mission, S.F. (415) CAR-TOON. He also signs Sat/9, Corazon del Pueblo, 4814 International Blvd., Oakl. Call for time. (510) 532-6733.