How a natural disaster prompted this poet to focus on race in America
How the writer behind the comic strip ‘Baldo’ blends humor with humanity
Judy Woodruff: The comics can be a pleasant diversion from the headlines on a newspaper's front page, but John Yang introduces us to one comic strip writer who says he has a duty to reflect reality.
It's part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.
John Yang: For Hector Cantu, Saturday mornings begin in a coffee shop near his home in suburban Dallas. It may look like he's just passing time with his wife, Linda, reading the newspaper, but he's really hard at work, looking for ideas for the comic strip he writes called "Baldo."
Hector Cantu: Most everything you see in the comic has to be generated in some kind of way that I see so many elements coming together, whether it's newspaper stories I read, stuff I see on TV, books I'm reading, real-life events.
John Yang: Since "Baldo" debuted in 2000, it's been the only nationally syndicated strip about a Latino family.
It centers around Baldo Bermudez, a teenager who's into girls and cars. He lives with his little sister.
Hector Cantu: Graciela is a smart young girl.
John Yang: Their dad, a widower.
Hector Cantu: Dad is the conservative, traditional dad.
John Yang: And their great aunt, Tia Carmen.
Hector Cantu: She's kind of the loony old aunt.
John Yang: Cantu is Mexican-American. He grew up in South Texas, crazy about comics. While working as a magazine editor, he took a shot at his dream of doing a daily cartoon.
Was it always going to be a Latino family?
Hector Cantu: Oh, yes, absolutely. It was an area that I thought I could write about, a family that I thought I could write about in the comics page, where no one else was like that.
John Yang: Over the years, Latino fans have told him how much it means to them.
Hector Cantu: I was at a Comic-Con last year, when some young lady came up to me, and she said, "Are you the guy who does 'Baldo?'" I'm like, "Yes, that's me."
And she couldn't believe it. And she pulled out of her bag like a Sunday comic that was clipped out of the paper. Her and her dad would read the comics together. Her dad had passed away.
It meant so much to her, just the characters and the connection with her dad. And she started crying. And it was just such a touching moment. And I realized that comic strips can touch people in a pretty significant way.
John Yang: Because comics have to be quickly understood with little explanation, Cantu says they rely on stereotypes.
Hector Cantu: It's a tricky thing to do.
I mean, we decided early on to stay away from just the taco jokes. It does take away some of our tools in that tool chest where it's like a cheap laugh, it's an easy laugh.
But I have kind of discovered there are jokes you can do that don't poke fun at the culture. They more celebrate the culture.
John Yang: And Cantu feels a responsibility to have Baldo inhabit the real world.
In a two-week storyline in December 2017, Baldo's best friend, Cruz, reveals he is a dreamer, brought to the United States by his parents illegally when he was a child.
Hector Cantu: We have Baldo and Cruz walking down the street.
"Cruz, are you undocumented?"
"I'm a dreamer."
"How old were you?"
"I was 5 when my mom and dad said we had to leave."
"And you couldn't stay home alone on your PlayStation?"
"Not an option."
Cruz tells the story of how he came to the United States.
"I don't remember much about getting here. I remember walking, sleeping on the ground, and I remember my dad's promises. 'When we get there, I will get you an ICE cream. I promise.'"
The story continues
"Dude, I have been learning about my rights since I was 8. I had to know exactly what to do if I came home from school and my parents had been taken away."
On the very last day, Baldo and Cruz are walking down the street.
"I feel bad for my parents. Maybe they made a mistake. It was hard, but they chose to come here because they love this country. And now this is my home. This is where I'm from. I'm American. And that means I'm a survivor."
Politics, like immigration and the dreamer issue, is so much a part of so many people's lives that, to me, it has to be a part of the comic strip. If there's like a sense of duty, that may be it, of reflecting what a lot of people in this country go through every day.
John Yang: Even more dramatic was the 2007 April Fool's day strip. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers wrongly accuse Tia Carmen of being in the country illegally and take her away in handcuffs.
Hector Cantu: It was just meant to be a gag. But we got so many e-mails from people saying, how could you do this to Tia Carmen? She's such a lovely lady. She's like a friend. She's like my next-door neighbor.
And the more they said, the more I said, exactly. That's the point.
John Yang: "Baldo"'s illustrator is Carlos Castellanos. He lives in Florida, Cantu in Texas. They collaborate over the Internet and have only met in person about a half-dozen times.
The comic strip appears in nearly 200 newspapers across the country, including The New York Daily News, The Washington Post and The Houston Chronicle.
Hector Cantu: I just realized the other day that we have been around for 20 years. And there are kids out there who are 18 and 19 years old who have grown up with Baldo. They have grown up with these characters in the paper every day.
John Yang: Characters who don't age a day over the years, frozen in time on the comics page and in Hector Cantu's imagination.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang in Richardson, Texas.