Lalo Alcaraz was 13 when his father, a landscaper and plant nursery worker in the San Diego area, was killed in a Tijuana car accident. As the child of non-English-speaking immigrants, young Lalo was soon calling his father’s clients to let them know. Instead of expressing sympathy, though, one customer coldly asked him for the phone number of a replacement gardener.
Stunned, Alcaraz yelled, “That’s my dad!” before slamming down the phone with rage. The sting of the exchange was formative — a pain that would affect his career path.
“That made me a good, pissed-off political cartoonist,” Alcaraz says by phone now, speaking from the Los Angeles area. “That’s what I draw about: My dad was being treated like just a machine, not even a human.”
The powerful and frequently official forces of inhumanity are often exposed and ridiculed in the art of Alcaraz, 58, who on Tuesday evening will be honored at the Library of Congress, becoming the first Latino cartoonist to receive the Herblock Prize. The honor, presented by the Herb Block Foundation, salutes work that reflects the spirit of the legendary Washington Post cartoonist.
Alcaraz, a two-time Pulitzer finalist, says his artistic role is to battle misinformation in these polarizing times: “It’s what we do as cartoonists, to cut through the [bull] and expose it.”
His winning portfolio from last year satirizes such hot-button issues as abuse at the U.S.-Mexican border, the Jan. 6 insurrection attempt, school book bans and farmworkers’ rights. He also has tackled pandemic health measures — by creating cartoons that make an appeal directly to Latino readers about vaccine hesitancy and by working with such entities as CovidLatino.org and the California Department of Public Health.
“No other political cartoonist working in the U.S. brings as much passion, dedication and brilliance to the fight for fair immigration at the border and justice for the Latino community,” the Herblock Prize judges said of Alcaraz’s distinctive perch in political journalism.
The jurors made special mention of Alcaraz’s homage to “Tierra o Muerte (Land or Die),” artist Emanuel Martínez’s 1967 work depicting Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata that became iconic during the Chicano movement. They appreciated how Alcaraz replaced Zapata’s rifle with a vaccine needle and titled the image “Vacuna o Muerte” — to create “a work that draws inspiration from the past in order to tackle the current pandemic.” (His illustrations often nod to artistic traditions, including wood cuts and Mexican muralism.)
“Sometimes I’ll try to make an image that can transcend the moment,” says Alcaraz, noting that if that cartoon’s vaccine awareness simply “reached 70-year-old Chicanos from that era, that would be great” — sufficient to merit his making it.
In one work, he drew a rope-wielding member of the U.S. Border Patrol on horseback in the style of an antique engraving — visually evoking last year’s viral photo of an agent trying to stop a Haitian migrant in Texas. In another, he depicted migrant children confined to cages under both the Trump and Biden administrations, with the sign changed from “kids in cages” to “migrant child facility.” (“Everyone deserves to be scrutinized” under this “mishmash immigration policy,” he explains.)
Alcaraz’s border cartoons often stir controversy, as did a stark black-and-white artwork that compared the rights of women under the Taliban to women’s reproductive rights in Texas. Asked about these works, he says, “You’re making me realize: All of my cartoons get a lot of backlash.”
Alcaraz became accustomed to such backlash early on, often when he satirized what he saw around him in and near San Diego.
His parents met in adult ESL class at Helix High in the area’s East County — his alma mater — and while at San Diego State University, he became the daily cartoonist for the main student newspaper. He lampooned cultural issues as well as aspects of the campus’s Greek system, until he says, his nickname in the paper’s mid-‘80s phone list was “Please Forward My Hate Mail.” He says that as a Chicano artist he drew strength from the student organization MEChA and supported the labor efforts of Cesar Chavez.
Alcaraz’s political growth continued while getting his graduate degree in architecture at the University of California at Berkeley. He then relocated to the L.A. area — where he and his schoolteacher wife have raised three children — and pursued entertainment in various forms, including screenplays and sketch comedy troupes. He is a writer and consulting producer for the animated series “The Casagrandes,” and was a cultural consultant on Pixar’s “Coco.”
Alcaraz divides his time between Hollywood projects — his comic strip “La Cucaracha” is in development as an animated show — and cartoons for such outlets as Andrews McMeel Syndication, Daily Kos and Pocho.com.
The former LA Weekly contributor bemoans the lack of diversity among American newspaper staff political cartoonists. There are relatively few prominent artists of Latino descent who do editorial cartoons, he says: “We’re too spicy for mainstream papers, I guess.” Yet he embraces the freedom to be political in his comic strip instead: “If I had a staff job, ’La Cucaracha’ would be more about burrito jokes than war crimes in Ukraine.”
And by pressing on along multiple fronts, Alcaraz — a virtual artist-in-residence at Arizona State University — aims to inspire the next generation of increasingly diverse creators.
“They don’t have to be a starving artist, and I hope society catches up to that idea,” says Alcaraz, who also illustrated the book “Latino USA.” “I’d be happy if they all became screenwriters or wrote graphic novels.
“You can be true to your culture — and you don’t have to water it down for anybody.”
The Herblock prize ceremony will be live-streamed at 7 p.m. Tuesday at herbblockfoundation.org. Lalo Alcaraz and NPR host Michel Martin will be the featured speakers.