Opinion

The Symbolism and Bigotry of a Supposedly Satirical Cartoon About ‘Dreamers’

A troubling cartoon in the Albuquerque Journal takes the perspective of the surveillance state, when it ought to examine the state itself.

Political cartoon by Sam Delonas in the February 7 issue of the Albuquerque Journal (courtesy of the author)

ALBUQUERQUE — Last week, leaders, activists, and intellectuals across New Mexico condemned and protested the Albuquerque Journal for an editorial cartoon that conflates international gangs with the children of immigrants. New Mexico Senators Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall called the cartoon racist, as did Albuquerque’s newly-elected mayor Tim Keller, and State Senator Linda Lopez, among others. The cartoonist, Sean Delonas, faced similar accusations of racism in February 2009 for a New York Post cartoon, in which NYPD officers shoot a monkey dead and compare it to President Obama.

In response to the blowback, Journal managing editor Karen Moses apologized — sort of. She said in a statement that the cartoon is satirical, that readers just don’t get it, and that, anyway, the paper isn’t responsible for the opinions expressed by its contributors.

Readers weren’t convinced. “Not good enough,” wrote the Albuquerque poet, educator, and activist Jessica Hellen Lopez, expressing the view of many readers in a February 8 Facebook post. “A canned wanna-be-apology.” The cartoon does nothing for Dreamers still fighting for rights, she wrote, and has earned Delonas accolades from the far-right.

The February 7 cartoon takes a perspective of surveillance, the point of view of a camera mounted on an alley wall or a passive bystander looking down from a window.  It depicts a white man and woman, apparently a couple, backed into an alley and held at gunpoint by faceless masculine figures. They seem racially identified by puffy jackets, saggy jeans, hoodies, and backwards baseball caps. One of them wears a sleeveless jacket bearing the mark “MS13,” shorthand for the Los Angeles-based, internationally active, and Latin America-associated gang Mara Salvatrucha. Around the corner from the hold-up, a masked figure holding a bloody machete, presumably a caricature of a jihadist, stands in waiting, his body strapped with lit dynamite.

The white woman — the only woman in the image — curses unintelligibly, and judging by the white man’s response, we can guess that she’s issuing a racial slur. The man says: “Now, honey, I believe they prefer to be called ‘Dreamers’ … or future Democrats…” Alleyway stereotypes abound in the image: giant rats, scared cats, indifferent pigeons, a garbage can on its side, and hasty graffiti all condition the space for the racialized stereotypes of off-guard white victims and dedicated criminal immigrants.

If the image holds any satirical content, it’s directed at Dreamers — undocumented immigrants who arrived as children and are pursing official U.S. immigration status under President Obama’s executive order, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and the proposed DREAM Act. From the surveillance point of view, we become witnesses of a scene that echoes racially-charged stereotypes that appeared in President Trump’s State of the Union address. Trump, too, suggested a correlation between MS-13 and DACA. As framed by Trump and this cartoon, immigration proposals like the DREAM Act are depicted as shells for criminal entry into the United States. We’re encouraged to identify with the white couple, the only speaking subjects in the image, and the only subjects with discernable faces.

Despite its echoes of Donald Trump, the image is nothing new. It echoes a centuries-long undercurrent in US immigration policy, beginning with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. As Mae Ngai argues in her book Impossible Subjects, US laws have often helped businesses recruit foreign workers, only to target immigrants during crises of national identity, expressed as racial anxiety. Similarly, Kency Cornejo, an art historian and theorist at the University of New Mexico, has written that the criminalization of Central American migrants depends of comparisons between “illegal” immigration and transnational gang violence — which downplays the history of US imperial policies in Latin America.

Raquel Andrea, a doctoral student in American Studies at the University of New Mexico, wrote in an email that the perception of immigrant criminality allows so-called native-born Americans to pose as the rightful owners and protectors of indigenous lands. “What this cartoon visually and ideologically communicates,” she wrote, “is that within our dominant, American, cultural and political discourse around immigration, Dreamers are the new racial, epithetical threats to the nation. It signals that they are likened to the racial-gendered stereotypes of the terrorist, the gang member, and thug, which then permits continued state-sanctioned disavowal and removal of their presence.”

Where stereotypes are, in Lisa Cacho’s words, “intellectual shortcuts” that “link race to other categories of devaluation,” satire is an unsteady and mutable genre of political commentary that attempts to enforce humor — even derogatory humor — as a social-political cure-all. Too often, the purveyors of political satire paternalistically tell marginalized people to “lighten up.” Delonas’s cartoon in particular fails as satire, because it uncritically reproduces histories and stereotypes that have justified exclusion while ignoring the history of US policies aimed at keeping immigrant families together. In short, the image takes the perspective of the surveillance state, when it ought to examine the state itself.

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