In the border town of Mexifornia, the Buckwald and Gonzalez families lead an uneasy co-existence as neighbors. Bud Buckwald is a border patrol agent and Ernesto Gonzalez is an immigrant who runs a gardening business.
Their daily interactions and the goings-on in the fictional town are comedic fodder for the highly irreverent new Fox series, "Bordertown." One of the writers and consulting producers on the show is Lalo Alcaráz. He’s the cartoonist behind the syndicated daily comic strip, “La Cucaracha.”
The Frame's Oscar Garza spoke with Alcaráz about how his childhood along the border influenced the writing on the show, how "Bordertown" walks the line of funny and offensive, and why it's important that this show exists today.
You grew up in San Diego as the son of immigrants. I'm wondering how much of your experience growing up that you're bringing to this show.
All of it. The reason I'm hooked on comics is that I grew up reading Mexican wrestler comics, watching lucha libre movies, reading Kalimán comic books. Latin America has a huge tradition of comics because reading levels are kind of low and it helps the population cope with reading. Also, living in San Diego, we would get our groceries in Tijuana because they were cheaper and better. That whole experience, you can't shake it. If you grow up on the border, you have a different perspective on things because you see both sides at once.
Do you still have family there? I'm wondering how much the border has changed since you grew up and what is it that's ripe for comedy now?
Oh, man. Well, I still have family down there. It's funny, a young whipper-snapper on Twitter tried to call me out on working with Seth MacFarlane and he said, "Well, how many years did you grow up living on the border?" I said, "25. And my dad is buried is Tijuana and my mom is buried in Los Angeles. Any more questions?"
My mom came [to Tijuana] when she was 18 from Sinaloa and lived there 10 years and came across undocumented until she got her papers. She would tell me that back then the border was a little booth with a little arm in a field of grass. When you wanted to cross, the border agent would literally look the other way.
It's funny you said what the border was like when your mother was growing up because that's the way it's depicted in the show. It's just a singular little booth in the middle of nowhere.
Exactly. I think — this is a secret — the actual border station that this [show] most resembles is the station in Ajo, Arizona. We actually had a border patrol agent come and talk to us about their side of the job and he talked about how [an agent] gets busted. If you did something dumb, you get sent to that station because it's in the middle of nowhere. It's desert and if you look at an aerial map of it, it's like, Wow, that looks just like the Mexifornia border station.
Mexifornia is the fictional town that's at the center of this show.
Yeah, it's our Springfield. It could be anywhere.
Have you heard concerns that the show might reinforce stereotypes about Latinos?
Yeah, you know, as a long-time cartoonist, I find that there's a small portion of the population that thinks that all cartoons are offensive. There was a person at one of our screenings that said, "Immigration is nothing to laugh at." They were concerned about people laughing at the plight of immigrants. I said, "If you look at my work, I would never do that. My work is to defend immigrants and talk about their rights and bash xenophobes." I think this is what we do in "Bordertown." Nobody takes that lightly. It would be ridiculous.
You've told a story about the Fox standards people pushing back on the word pocho. For people who don't know, what does pocho mean and how did that struggle play out?
Pocho is what a Mexican national would call me or you, Oscar.
Me before you!
[Laughs] Regardless of our Spanish skill or ability to eat hot chiles, a pocho is an inauthentic Mexican. Literally, it means to be cut off at the roots. You're cut off and you're out here and you're just not authentic. Over the years it's become less of a pejorative and more of a celebratory term.
We took ownership of it.
Yeah, that's right! Every show goes through standards-and-practices. So my boss is sitting in the room with a couple of the producers and the lawyers on the line. They call me in and say, "Lalo, you gotta come in and explain pocho to these people because they don't want to let us use it." Not only did they say it was a pejorative, but they said it was a curse word and I said, "What? You cannot translate it into anything that's a curse word. Who told you this?" They said, "Oh, well that's what our friends over at Fox Mundo Sports said." I said, "Oh, there's your problem."
Some Italian immigrant from Argentina who's not familiar with Mexican anything. I think that's a big problem in Hollywood in general. You know, we need more diversity because it opens your eyes and viewpoints.
"Bordertown" debuts on Jan. 3 on Fox.