Lemon Grove native Lalo Alcaraz has long been an advocate for better representation of Latinos in America. Now, it’s his day job.
A shy, but artistically-inclined kid from Lemon Grove has become a bold artist whose influence can be felt far outside Southern California — not just across the U.S. but around the world.
Lalo Alcaraz got his start as an editorial cartoonist at San Diego State University’s student newspaper The Daily Aztec before going on to create the first nationally-syndicated, politically-themed Latino daily comic strip, “La Cucaracha.” More recently, he’s worked as a cultural consultant on the Pixar film “Coco” and the upcoming animated Nickelodeon show, “The Casagrandes.”
“It’s a job I wish didn’t exist, you know, because if we had adequate representation, if we had culturally competent people that really knew their stuff, you wouldn’t need to drop me in from outer space on a project,” Alcaraz said at a panel at the L’ATTITUDE conference in San Diego last month. “To Pixar’s credit, they were like, ‘We want this done right.’”
He recently met with The Conversation podcast at The San Diego Union-Tribune to talk about growing up in the San Diego region, what inspires his art, the challenges of publishing an editorial cartoon in the politically charged climate of 2019 and how he’s taken all he’s learned to Hollywood.
Here are some excerpts of the interview. Listen to the entire conversation here.
What was growing up in the San Diego region like for you?
“I grew up a kind of typical Mexican border kid. My mom came through Tijuana. She lived there for 10 years in the ‘50s from 1948 to 1958 and then was undocumented for a bit and then got her papers as a nanny in La Mesa. My dad came, I think, through Texas from Zacatecas, Mexico. My mom came from Mazatlán, Sinaloa and they met at Helix High School, the high school I went to, in an English as a Second Language (ESL) class, sometime early 1961 or 1962. Their desire to assimilate and fit in and learn English — it only took my mom 50 years to learn English — got them together and created me. And then I eventually graduated from that high school. I’d like to find that class where they met and put a plaque... they’d remove it the next day. I grew up in Lemon Grove after living in various cities and back and forth — Logan Heights and Tijuana for a tiny bit — but I grew up basically in Lemon Grove. It was like Mayberry, but SoCal style. It was a time of, kind of a lot of racism and police profiling. We’d get pulled over on our bicycles by the sheriffs. My parents were treated pretty poorly and it made me the bitter old cholo that I am today.”
Would you say growing up here influences your art?
“It is everything. That’s what kind of sharpened my sense of injustice.”
How much of yourself do you put into the characters in ‘La Cucaracha?’
“They’re definitely me. Half of me is angry all the time, wants to tell everyone how they’re wrong constantly, never has an incorrect opinion, and the other half of me just wants to chill and sit on the couch and drink a beer and watch endless hours of crap TV. Preferably science fiction crap. ... I’m usually more of the angry cucaracha.”
How would you say life for Latinos in America has changed or not changed since you’ve started illustrating it?
“Sometimes I’ll see a cartoon from 1994 and all you have to do is change the date on it because obviously we’re living in a super, hyper anti-immigrant time — not everyone, I mean, where some people think it’s ok to be that way — so, you know, I think society goes in cycles instead of progressing forward sometimes, I feel. So things have changed, they haven’t changed. The thing that has changed is, you know, society’s catching up to the things that I was saying 25 years ago, especially stuff about show biz and representation and it’s just becoming a thing. That’s why I’m fully employed. I’m fully overemployed these days in Hollywood so, you know, we’re getting more representation, but it’s still not enough.”
What can you tell us about the show you’re working on now?
“I am a consulting producer, cultural consultant and gadfly and freelance writer on this show called “The Casagrandes,” and it’s on Nickelodeon. It’s for ages 6 to11, and it’s the first animated show about a big Mexican-American family. It’s a spin-off from a show called “The Loud House,” which is one of the top shows there at Nickelodeon. The character, Ronnie Anne, is a little Mexican-American girl who was a super popular character on the loud house so they decided to spin that off, move her, her brother and her mom from Royal Woods, this Michigan suburb where “The Loud House” is set, to Great Lakes City, which is like a fake Chicago kind of amalgam of a bunch of cities — to go live with the mom’s family. They live in a big apartment building. The abuela, the grandma, is the building supervisor and they have a market, a mercado, on the ground floor. ... We’re making it as authentic as possible.”
Is it funny? Serious?
“It is very funny and it’s a good co-viewing show. I watched 10 years of Nickelodeon shows when my kids were little, so if you are that parent, you can watch this show because we sneak in a lot of funny adult things that kind of get by everybody but not the grown ups watching.”
“The Casagrandes” premieres on Nickelodeon on Oct. 14.