Laughter is the Best Medicine

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, Writer, “Baldo”: 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,

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