By: Dave Astor
When Ken Burns’ World War II documentary began airing yesterday, the “Baldo” comic strip was already six days into a story line inspired by content the public-television series was mostly lacking.
The “Baldo” sequence, which continues through this Thursday, is about an elderly barber named Benito Ramirez who looks back on his World War II experiences. “Baldo” co-cartoonists Hector Cantu and Carlos Castellanos created the character after learning this summer that Burns’ massive “The War” documentary had little content about the huge number of Latino-Americans who fought between 1941 and 1945. (Burns reportedly added some footage about Latino veterans after the complaints.)
“We saw an opportunity to do a story that wasn’t being told,” said “Baldo” artist Carlos Castellanos during a phone interview from Florida.
“We have this little spot in the newspaper where we can talk about things that might not be talked about elsewhere,” agreed Texas-based “Baldo” writer Hector Cantu, also reached by phone.
Indeed, “Baldo” — a rare Latino-themed comic in syndication — periodically focuses on topical issues such as immigration, voting rights, health care, lottery scams, and more. The Universal Press Syndicate humor strip also offers plenty of less-topical content as it focuses on the lives of the teenaged Baldo, his younger sister Gracie, his widowed father Sergio, his great-aunt Tia Carmen, and other characters.
“A lot of the strip is fun and family,” said Castellanos.
Cantu added that in “Baldo” — as in real life — most people aren’t “constantly going through social controversy. But at times it comes up.”
Benito, who lost a leg in the military, is sort of a composite character based on research conducted by Cantu. He found much of his information by studying material collected by Dr. Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, a former Dallas Morning News reporter who’s now an associate professor at the University of Texas-Austin School of Journalism. Rivas-Rodriguez began the U.S. Latino and Latina World War II Oral History Project in 1999.
Cantu, also a former Morning News staffer, not surprisingly confirmed in his reseach that Latino soldiers fighting for their country faced a lot of discrimination from fellow U.S. soldiers and officers. This was at a time when stores and restaurants in some parts of America had signs like “No dogs and no Mexicans,” said Castellanos, who noted that two of Cantu’s uncles (one living, one deceased) served during World War II.
A handful of “Baldo” readers didn’t believe that Latino-Americans faced discrimination in the 1940s reminiscent of the kind faced by African-Americans. But the “Baldo” cartoonists said reader reaction to the partly upbeat story line (Benito is a resilient character) has been mostly positive — with the volume of e-mail at least double what it usually is. Many e-mailers talked about the World War II experiences of their own relatives.
Cantu said of the current story line: “I’m by no means pretending that this series is the be-all and end-all of Latinos serving in World War II. It’s a snapshot.”
Will Benito return to “Baldo” after this story line is over? “We don’t know,” replied Castellanos.
“Baldo,” which runs in more than 200 newspapers, was introduced by Universal in 2000. The previous year, Cantu was working for Hispanic Business magazine in California and using Castellanos’ illustrations in the publication. When Cantu came up with the idea for “Baldo,” he asked Castellanos (who he’d yet to meet) if he wanted to draw it.
The two have since met a number of times, but mostly collaborate via e-mail. While Cantu is the writer and Castellanos the artist, they do have some input into each other’s work on the comic.
Cantu said it’s amazing how much the two have in common — noting that both are 46, both have three children, both have “beautiful wives,” both have similar cars, etc. “We’re like a Match.com couple,” joked Cantu, whose current day job is editorial director of the Heritage Auction Galleries in Dallas.
Castellanos continues to spend about half his working hours on a thriving illustration career — freelancing for magazines, book publishers, ad agencies, and corporate clients.
Even as Burns’ documentary airs, a “Baldo” animated TV series is being shopped around. Thirteen episodes have been completed, and two of them were shown to appreciative audiences at the San Diego Latino Film Festival this past March.
For more about “Baldo,” see the comic’s Web site .