An interview with the political cartoonist
By Angelo Lopez / Everyday Citizen
This interview by artist and blogger Angelo Lopez features cartoonist Eric J. Garcia whose El Machete Illustrated cartoons are published regularly here at San Diego Free Press.
One of the best most incisive political cartoonists working today is Eric J. Garcia. His cartoon El Machete Illustrated offers a sharp and incisive critique of America’s economic and political system, especially the way these systems oppress the poor and immigrant communities. Eric began creating cartoons while serving in the U.S. Air Force, making fun of the military. He completed his MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he won numerous awards to include, 1st Place College Cartoonist Award for both the New Mexico and Illinois College Associated Press competition. Eric’s work can be seen in many national and international publications and online news networks such as In These Times, Hoy Newspaper, and The Black Commentator.
Eric, thank you for doing this interview. In your website it says that you began doing cartoons while you were in the Air Force. Did you like drawing before the Air Force? What experiences led you to start critiquing the military in your cartoons?
I have been drawing for as long as I remember. Drawing caricatures and satirical sketches during my time in the service was a way keep up with my drawing skills, to kill time, and to make my buddies laugh. I joined with the understanding that the military was a way for me to eventually to go to college, make some money and travel; it didn’t join because of patriotic intentions. While serving overseas I began to understand the United States’ military presence throughout the world. It was this experience of once being inside the beast that gives my position/criticism its unique power.
Your cartoons offer a sharp critique of the economic and political state of America. What were the big influences on your political point of view?
My older brother has always been a huge influence on me politically. He served in the Army and used the GI Bill to pay for school. He studied history, then studied for his law degree and is now a Ph.D. candidate and a political activist. He instilled the importance of knowing and understanding one’s history. History not only teaches us who we are, it also gives context for our role in the bigger picture. Learning history can be difficult, especially when certain histories are not taught in schools and others are purposely erased. These unspoken, whitewashed, and deleted histories are the important elements that make up who we are and without them we are lead to believe we are something we are not. Contemporary news has this same problem. If we are not given all of the facts and background of the news story then we are manipulated into believing a certain way.
You attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where you got an MFA. I looked in your Facebook page and you’ve done linocuts for the Instituto Grafico de Chicago. How was your experience in the Art Institute? What were your big artistic influences?
I have a BFA with a minor in Chicano Studies from the University of New Mexico and an MFA from the SAIC. Going from a University to an Art School was a challenge. The University was great because it allowed me to interact and be influenced by other disciplines like philosophy, history, and the sciences, but in art school there was only other artists, and this was strange to me. My artwork was not just about art, it was about people, history, politics, foreign policy etc. So I had to look hard to find others that were interested in this kind of art making but overall it was a good experience for me to study at SAIC. The instructors really challenged me to think critically about what I was creating. I guess it should be mentioned that the political cartoon is only one of the media I employ in my art. Though I have been creating cartoons for ten years now, I also sculpt, paint murals, and do printmaking. Printmaking and the use of multiples is how I inevitably got into political cartooning. I took my first printmaking class during my undergrad at UNM, and it was there that I began to understand the use of creating multiples. Printed multiples are a media that challenges the fine art idea of the precious unique object. Instead of having one single image that can be seen at one certain location, the printed multiple allowed for an image to be seen by many people in multiple places and times. This medium was soon adopted by activists for flyers and posters so messages and images could be distributed to the public. I wanted to create images that could reach more than a few people, so printmaking was an ideal media for me. But when I found an ad in my university newspaper for an editorial cartoonist I immediately thought this was the next step toward getting visual messages out in a modern mode.
I still create hand pulled prints. When I got out of grad school in 2009 I helped form a printing group called Instituto Grafico de Chicago. IGC is a small group of friends who also use the printmaking medium, we now organize multi-national print exchanges and last month we had our annual print festival Grabadolandia in Chicago.
When I look at your cartoons, the anger in your cartoons reminds me of the work of alternative cartoonists like Ted Rall and Stephanie McMillan. Some of your cartoons, like your August 28, 2013 cartoon on Bradley Manning, your July 31, 2013 Stand Your Ground cartoon, and your October 16, 2014 Force Feeding Liberty cartoon, are brutal on Uncle Sam. What is your philosophy on doing political cartoons? Do you see yourself as a journalist or more as an activist/artist?
I was once told that by a photojournalist that he envied us cartoonists because we were always able to capture the perfect shot of what’s happening. Unfortunately our government is involved with some terrible stuff and it might be hard for us to visualize the United States being a culprit of injustices because the United States isn’t a person. But with the use of the iconic image of Uncle Sam, then the nation and the government becomes alive via this persona. This character then enables the public to clearly see and understand what our government is up to. I feel, it is one thing to hear or read about what bad things our government doing to but when you actually see it, it makes the reality of it hit home. Journalists can write about it and we can try to picture it in our minds. Photographers can only wish to capture an image of things we depict. We as social/political artist/activists have a responsibility of getting this information out.
Political/editorial cartoonist, visual journalist, satirical illustrator, artivist, these all apply to me and I use them interchangeably. My philosophy is simple, if you are doing bad things, if you are being hypocritical or if there is a story not getting attention it deserves, then a visual representation is needed to cut through the bullshit and make these complex and important situations understandable to the public.
Your cartoons occasionally highlight important activists like Corky Gonzalez, Lynne Stewart, Jose Montoya, Sam Coronado, Sister Megan Rice, and Chester Nez. You also commemorate important cultural events like the closing of Casa Aztlan and the 1864 forced march of the Navajo and the Mescalero Apache into concentration camps. Why do you think it’s important to remind the larger society of these activists and historical events?
Like I was saying before, history is such an important way of understanding who we are. If we forget significant individuals and events then our idea of our society shifts. If we forget or are unaware of the genocide of the indigenous peoples who lived here before the arrival of Europeans, than we believe the United States was created with this pure ideal government of the founding fathers. If we don’t remember individuals like Corky Gonzalez, then we have this false understanding that people of color always had the rights we have now. To forget or never be taught these histories is to live in a kind of ignorant bliss that leads people to be easily manipulated. This is why I like to pay homage to important events and individuals, though tragic as they may be in my work. I make my cartoons so people don’t forget or for those people who might not be aware of these histories.
One of my favorite cartoons of yours is your September 25, 2013 cartoon where Lady Liberty is so distracted by the internet, she doesn’t even notice how much information the NSA is getting on her. You’ve done several powerful cartoons about how the NSA has intruded on our private lives. How do we get Americans’ attention to see these important things that are going on right under their noses?
There is no denying that the United States government through the NSA and other intelligence agencies are listening and watching everything we do. Unfortunately people are aware of this and don’t really care. First of all there are generations growing up with their whole lives being documented as we speak, and this is not being done by a third party, this is being done by individuals themselves. These new generations live on social media, tweeting, facebooking, instagramming their whole lives out to the public and also in the hands of the government. They understand this publicity as the social norm of living within the digital age.
Second, there are those who say “I don’t mind the government listing or tracking me. I’m not doing anything wrong so why would I mind?” This is a selfish answer and is usually made by a person who does not know their history and who is then easily manipulated. If this person did know their history, then they would be aware that the rights that they posses were not given to them but were forced by social activists who in secret caused the government to change. If Lucy Gonzalez Parsons’ was not able to meet in private we would not have the eight hour work day. If Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was not able to organize without the intrusion of government we wouldn’t have the civil rights movement. If Green Peace cannot plan behind closed doors then our natural environment cannot be protected. Not to say that these activists were not spied on by the government, because they were and are, but never to level or extent that is happening today. Social activists are the counter-balance to the government. Activist working behind closed doors keep the balance of power; they keep our government in check. Without them we are living in a totalitarian state that can not be questioned or pushed to change for the better.
Hopefully we as political cartoonists are in some small way doing our part in the bigger crusade of getting the word out about this dangerous situation. Ironically, through the very medium that is part of the problem, social media will be the vehicle to get our message out.
You’ve done some of the most insightful cartoons on the immigration crisis that I know. I especially like your September 25, 2014 cartoon about how American foreign policy has often destabilized poorer countries in the Latin America and are at the root of the illegal immigration problems in our country. How do we get the American people to focus on that, rather than scapegoating illegal immigrants? Do you have any hopes that Obama and the Republicans could finally agree to some humane form of immigration reform?
Again, I believe history is the root of understanding the present. If we don’t know or were never taught that the United States militarily invaded, politically manipulated and economically castrated Mexico and Central America then of course we will be manipulated into thinking “What’s wrong with these countries? Why are these people coming? They should go back where they came from.” The United States government is responsible for the destabilization of Mexico and Central America (not to mention many others places around the world) and is part of the reason Latin-Americans and others from around the world are coming to the economically stable “land of opportunity”.
I have no hope that President Obama will do anything with immigration reform [SDFP Editor’s Note: though President Obama did take Executive Action it wasn’t to the extent artivists like Eric J. Garcia would prefer]. My biggest fear is that the republicans will do something about immigration reform in hopes of cashing in on immigrant support and also to manipulate new waves of immigrants into supporting conservative causes. I fear these new “conservatives of color” will then turn their backs on the progressive social activists who championed immigrant rights or worse yet turn their backs on future immigrants.
What has been the most rewarding about doing political cartoons for you?
Reaction. Both good and bad. Reaction is what we all political cartoonists want from our cartoons. “I learned something. Your drawing made the issue understandable for me. I hate your work. You should be fired.” All of this is rewarding. My cartoons are not only tools for teaching but are also weapons to lash out at injustices. And when people are so troubled by my little drawings that they react and write back that’s when I know my art is working.
Angelo Lopez is an artist and writer that has illustrated three books: Two Moms, the Zark, and Me, Night Travelers, and Cherubic Children’s New Classic Story Book, Volume 2. He blogs at Everyday Citizen.