Cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz visits SRJC, encourages Latino youth to master writing skills

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Cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz had a singular piece of advice for the 500 sixth- through 12-graders gathered Friday at Santa Rosa Junior College: Learn to write well.

“The importance of not only drawing, but writing, got me all of my gigs,” Alcaraz told the crowd at an annual youth conference staged by M.E.Ch.A., short for Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanista de Aztlán, a Mexican-American student organization.

And the gigs are plentiful for the artist behind “La Cucaracha,” a controversial, nationally syndicated comic strip first published in 1992 that boldly depicts Latino culture in the United States and themes of immigration, politics and race.

The SRJC conference — which had the theme “liberation through art” this year — brought Alcaraz to Santa Rosa, where he shared stories Friday about growing up in San Diego with Mexican immigrant parents, discussed the importance of minorities being reflected in media and encouraged students to work on their writing.

“He tells students that under free speech you can question those in power, and in doing so he motivates others,” said Rafael Vazquez, 16-year advisor for the M.E.Ch.A. chapter at SRJC.

It was a message that stuck with Jesus Flores, a junior at Ridgway High, a continuation school in Santa Rosa. Flores plans to attend SRJC and Sonoma State University, and he said writing will be integral in college admissions and coursework.

“From his perspective, that was really powerful. Writing is really an important tool in life,” said Flores, 17, who has ambition to study acting. “He’s putting it out there that if we learn to write, we can accomplish anything.”

A resident of Los Angeles, Alcaraz is known for his cultural consulting work on “Coco,” a popular, Academy Award-winning 2017 Pixar film about a 12-year-old who travels to the land of the dead on Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday. The offer for the 2½-year stint on “Coco” came as a surprise, since years earlier Alcaraz created “Muerto Mouse” to criticize Disney when the company tried to trademark Dia de los Muertos.

Alcaraz, alongside his team at Pixar, made integral changes to the film. Mama Elena, the abuelita (grandmother) in the movie, originally threatens family members with a spoon she carried. Alcaraz advised changing the spoon to her chancla, or flip-flop — to make the movie more authentic to Mexican culture.

“I grew up in San Diego not seeing brown people on TV,” said Alcaraz, who is now the cultural consultant on “Los Casagrandes,” a new animated Nickelodeon show. “It’s not enough to see our faces. Our story has to be right.”

Nora Parajon, family engagement coordinator at Ridgway, said Alcaraz’s humble background and journey to success provides a motivational spark for her students.

“It’s important to be surrounded by positive role models — and ones that look like them, too,” Parajon said.

Parajon, who is of Mexican descent, and her family are big fans of “Coco.” After her kids watched the film, they began asking about Dia de los Muertos and made an ofrenda, or altar for the dead, as featured in the Pixar film.

“It inspired my kids to look into their culture. It gave them a chance to connect with their heritage,” Parajon said.

Other sessions at the youth conference included workshops on students’ rights during immigration and police interactions, how to get into college with an empowering story, youth in the labor movement and free speech. In another session, youth could hear from first-generation college students on their experiences and challenges.

Noemi Reyes, Spanish teacher at Analy High School in Sebastopol and a former student at the junior college, brought about a dozen students on a field trip to the youth conference.

“I think it’s good for them to be exposed to a college campus,” said Reyes, a “Coco” fan who took a photo with Alcaraz and commended him for authenticity in the film.

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707-521-5216 or susan.minichiello@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @susanmini.

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