Life in the fictional desert border community of Mexifornia is never dull.
In “Bordertown,” the new Fox animated adult comedy that will premiere Sunday, the town is populated with unauthorized immigrants smuggled through an underground tunnel, sign-waving demonstrators protesting a new border wall and most significantly, two neighbors: Ernesto Gonzalez, an upbeat, hard-working Mexican immigrant, and Bud Buckwald, an angry and frustrated U.S. border agent who feels overpowered by the growing Latino presence that surrounds him.
With immigration flaring as a central theme of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, the prime-time comedy relies on satire and biting humor to address some sensitive political issues. Mark Hentemann, the show’s creator, said his aim is to address cultural shifts in America — and tell the story from a multicultural perspective.
“The border is the epicenter of a lot of the changes that I see happening in the U.S.,” said Hentemann, a writer and executive producer of another Fox sitcom, “Family Guy.” Comedy, he said, “can be a tool that allows you to address some delicate issues that don’t get talked about.”
“Bordertown” depicts a generic U.S. border town, with desert scenes, a tiny port of entry and rows of middle-class houses that reach right to the border. For Southern Californians watching the show, some scenes and topics may feel especially familiar, including wildfires, Santa Ana winds and the growing presence of megachurches.
Among the 13-part series’ dozen writers, five of them are Latino. One is a San Diego native, Lalo Alcaraz, the nationally syndicated cartoonist best known for his politically-oriented strip, “La Cucaracha.” Alcaraz, who now lives in Los Angeles County, is also a consulting producer for “Bordertown.” He co-authored the show’s first two episodes with Hentemann, plunging right into some of today’s controversial immigration topics.
The second episode has Bud building a tall border wall, only to find it so effective that he loses his job. His neighbor Ernesto is also unhappy, complaining that he can no longer find workers for his landscaping business.
“I just don’t know where a guy like me fits in anymore,” Bud laments to his wife.
“We were joking about giving Donald Trump credit for pitching his Mexican border wall idea,” Alcaraz said of the episode, which was written two years ago — well before Trump announced his intention of campaigning for president and made his border wall proposal. “People at Fox were amazed at our psychic abilities, our vision. But it’s not that hard to predict what’s going to happen on the border. A lot of stuff stays the same.”
Alcaraz’s collaboration on “Bordertown” has allowed him to contribute a number of personal touches. The fictional landscaper Ernesto is a native of Jerez, Zacatecas — just like Alcaraz’s father. It is no coincidence that Mexifornia’s Catholic church strongly resembles St. John of the Cross Catholic Church from Alcaraz’s boyhood home of Lemon Grove. And the hanging beads in the doorway of the Gonzalez household are inspired by the ones Alcaraz saw while visiting his aunt’s house in Sherman Heights.
Latinos now comprise about 18 percent of the U.S. population, and the majority speak English. But they have remained under-represented in Hollywood, said Alex Nogales, president of the Pasadena-based National Hispanic Media Coalition.
To have five Latino writers on a prime-time network show “is a major, major breakthrough. It’s rare that Latinos get those kinds of opportunities,” he said. “These guys not only bring two languages, but two cultures. They can go back and forth in one conversation.”
Born at Mercy Hospital and raised in Lemon Grove, Alcaraz is a 1982 graduate of Helix High School in La Mesa and a 1987 graduate of San Diego State University, where he majored in art and environmental design.
Alcaraz said he grew up feeling like an outsider, the son of two struggling Mexican immigrants: his mother was a housekeeper from Sinaloa, while his father labored as a gardener and landscaper. In his youth, Alcaraz crossed the border often, staying for stretches at a time with an aunt in downtown Tijuana or crossing with his mother to buy the family’s weekly groceries.
“I grew up watching TV on Channel 6 back then, and stuff from Tijuana, dubbed-over American shows into Spanish, and you could not find a TV show with a brown face on it. I grew up thinking, ‘We’re not worth anything because we’re not even on TV.’”
Growing up, Alcaraz found his voice through art. He frequented the Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park, connecting with the Chicano artists Victor Ochoa and David Avalos. “That’s where I really blossomed,” Alcaraz said.
In college, he joined the Chicano student group MEChA and honed his skills as a cartoonist on the staff of SDSU’s Daily Aztec newspaper.
Alcaraz left San Diego, earning a graduate degree in architecture at UC Berkeley. Over the years, he has become a national voice for Latino culture and politics, largely through his daily cartoon strip that is syndicated in 60 newspapers. He has won both loyal followers and fierce detractors.
Rick Najera, a Mexican-American comedian, author and producer who grew up in La Mesa, said more voices like Alcaraz’s — on the TV screen and behind it — are needed to convey the the experiences and sensibilities of a growing segment of the U.S. population.
As Latinos, “we’re outside the window, looking in at Americans, yet we’re also Americans,” Najera said. “We live in that ironic dichotomy.”
Hentemann said when Fox gave him the go-ahead for “Bordertown” in 2013, he made a point to seek out a diverse group of writers.
“I wanted to find people who had lived on the border or who had immigrated, people who could bring that experience to our writer’s room,” he said.
His first contact was Gustavo Arellano, publisher and editor of Orange County’s alternative publication OC Weekly and author of the nationally syndicated column “Ask a Mexican.”
“Mexicans are now all over the United States,” said Arellano, who is collaborating part time as a consulting producer. “We’re trying to show people, ‘Hey, if you have Mexicans in your town, come and glimpse at this family. Mexicans are like any other Americans, if not more so.’”
Arellano connected Hentemann with Alcaraz, and the two clicked.
“I liked the way that he used comedy to make a statement, and I liked the way he had comedy with an edge,” Hentemann said. “We both like to laugh at ourselves, and we think other people should be able to do that as well.”
During a November screening of the show at The Front gallery in San Ysidro, “there were a lot of laughs,” said director Luz Camacho.
“You have to pay attention to all the subtleties. They’re inserted, but not in an obvious way,” Camacho said. “It’s an invitation to think about many, many different issues that we cannot deny we’re living through right now.”