¡Caramba! Gordo comes to Berkeley
Gus Arriola's much-loved comic strip, published almost continuously from 1941 until 1985, brought Mexico to millions of readers north of the border. Now his chubby tour guide's archives have found a home at the Bancroft
| 05 March 2008
For an East Coast expatriate in the 1970s, Tucson was a mystery wrapped in a tortilla, a sweltering land of businessmen in bolo ties and leathery old Chicanos in straw Stetsons, a Lego-like sprawl ringed by desert and mountains and topped by celestial sunsets. The Spanish was singsong, slower and less hard-edged than that spoken by New York's puertorriqueños, the barrios abloom with cactus flowers. Officially, Mexico lay 60 miles to the south. To a new arrival, though, the sense of having stumbled into a foreign country was profound and persistent. That so much of the populace seemed in denial only deepened the strangeness.
A guide was needed, by newcomers and native-born Anglos alike. And happily enough, a most simpatico teacher was right there under our noses, seven brutally hot days a week, in the funny pages of the Arizona Daily Star. Gordo Salazar Lopez, a bean farmer-turned-tour guide sporting a too-tight charro outfit and a wisp of a mustache, was, for many in the Southwest - including, it turned out, his Arizona-born creator, Gus Arriola - a trusted (if not always steady) bridge between north and south.
Gordo, the syndicated comic strip Arriola drew almost continuously from 1941 until 1985, at its peak ran in 270 newspapers, including the San Francisco Chronicle. (The Chronicle was among the original dozen or so papers to pick it up, printing the inaugural strip two weeks before the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor; Gordo took a brief hiatus a year later while Arriola served a stint in the army.) By turns fanciful, narrative, and flat-out psychedelic - especially on Sundays, when the conventions of daily comic-strip art gave way to lyrical, visually dazzling tributes to jazz, ecology, or Mexico's Day of the Dead - it won kudos from lawmakers on both sides of the border for its role in promoting international understanding, and from fellow cartoonists for its originality. More important, it won the loyalty of millions of readers, many of whom followed Gordo's adventures as devotedly as the wealthy Widow Gonzales pursued Gordo. (Gordo's own taste in women, alas, skewed a bit younger.)
"Gus's are real people, the kind one can easily and happily live with for a quarter of a century," rhapsodized the late Chronicle columnist Herb Caen. "I know, because I have done it. As for Gordo himself, he is a literary contrivance of the first magnitude - buffoon as hero, great lover manque, a pen-and-ink Everyman whose triumphs and tragedies are our own. Long may he and his flock survive. Breakfast without them would be unthinkable."
"Flock," indeed. Gordo's extended comic-strip family was as diverse as it was vast, embracing not just human relatives, friends, and romantic interests but a literal menagerie of farm and domestic animals who often crowded the strip's people entirely out of the picture. Even in a world where it was common for animals to talk - and for one particular beagle, Charles Schulz' Snoopy, to toy with novel-writing - Señor Dog, Poosy Gato, Cochito the pig, and friends were unusually memorable, expressive characters; Bug Rogers, a goateed, beret-wearing spider, had a fondness for jazz and martinis. (Alcohol, in fact, was a hobby shared by many of Gordo's characters, whatever the species.)
Among the strip's two-legged cast, regulars included his formidable housekeeper, Alicia Contreras de Ortiz, better-known as Tehuana Mama; her small grandson, Trailing Arbutus; Gordo's nephew, Pepito; and the Poet. Those of legal age passed much of their time in the cantina run by Pelon Pedilla; any of them might be found aboard Halley's Comet, the bus with which Gordo spirited tourists around the country.
According to Robert C. Harvey, who came to know Arriola while writing Accidental Ambassador Gordo (University Press of Mississippi, 2000), the cartoonist was raised in a Spanish-speaking home, learning English by reading the funnies. Yet he never set foot in Mexico until 1960, nearly two decades after starting the strip. By then he had given his readers - Harvey among them - a beginner's course in Mexican culture, from Spanish words and phrases to such once-exotic artifacts as piñatas and burritos.
"More by accident than by deliberate intention, Gordo evolved a cultural ambassadorial function, representing life in Mexico to its American audience," wrote Harvey, reflecting on the artist's death last month. "At first, Arriola's depiction of his characters perpetuated the stereotypical imagery of Mexicans found in American popular culture and in Hollywood, where Arriola worked in animation after graduating from Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles in 1935. Eventually, however, Arriola realized his comic strip was one of the few mass-circulation vehicles in the United States that portrayed Mexicans, and he began in the 1950s taking pains to reflect accurately the culture south of the border."
In the year before his death, Arriola began the process of transferring a lifetime of Gordo strips to the Bancroft Library, along with correspondence, personal papers, and promotional materials. "These papers will be a wonderful source for anyone working on Mexican-American culture from the 1940s through the 1980s," says Charles Faulhaber, Bancroft director and a professor of medieval Spanish literature. "They introduced Mexican culture to huge numbers of people who previously knew it only through the stereotypes in movies."