Gus Arriola and Gordo, agents of Mexican culture

On February 3, 2008, San Francisco Chronicle writer Wyatt Buchanan reflected on the life of Gustavo "Gus" Arriola, creator of the comic strip Gordo. Buchanan quoted Arriola’s 1989 words: “my main goal [in the strip] was to maintain a positive awareness of Mexico through all the years, every day, without being political. When I started [the strip, in 1941], words like 'burrito' were unknown in the United States." Arriola thought of his strip as an “accidental ambassador” to Mexico.

Gordo, published between 1941 and 1985, was created, drawn, and written by Arriola; it was distributed by the United Feature Syndicate. The comic strip’s story followed the life of fictional Mexican bean farmer Perfecto Salazar "Gordo" Lopez, who lost the lease on his land and made a living traveling around Mexico as a tour guide. Arriola used Gordo and the tour-guiding theme as a method to introduce Mexico and its people to a wider audience: households in the United States.

Gordo comic strip. Uncle Mio (wearing a suit and carrying a box of chocolates bouquet of flowers) talks to his nephew, who explains the qualities of different types of flowers. Behind the two figures appear precise, scientific diagrams of flowers.
“Gordo,” August 21, 1966. This pen-and-ink drawing shows Gordo’s nephew, Pepito, pulling apart and eating the gifts Gordo is bringing his date. Pepito is fascinated by the scientific components of the flowers and fruit contained in the chocolates. Nuanced messages in the strip point to human traits and cross-cultural similarities such as scientific curiosity, interest in the environment, and young behavior, such as a disregard for accepted etiquette. Pepito was modeled after Arriola’s son, Carlin. (The listed author Anna Lizer—analyzer—was a pun pseudonym for Arriola.) Comic strip art was regularly prepared as “camera-ready,” meaning that the works were prepared and readied by the artist to be photographed for their transfer to a printing plate for printing. (GA.22445)

Gus Arriola’s father was born on a hacienda in Sonora, Mexico. He immigrated with his family to Arizona before Gus was born, then moved to Los Angeles when Gus was eight. Gus credited newspaper comics with helping him learn English while living with his Spanish-speaking family.

After receiving art training in high school, Arriola took Los Angeles animation jobs during the Great Depression at the Mintz Studio, where he worked on Krazy Kat, and later Tom and Jerry, at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. In an interview with author John Province in 1998, Arriola said he remembered being fascinated by the Sunday color comics, the great art and storytelling cliffhangers of the time.

While working for MGM, Arriola began producing his own strip, which echoed events from his life. He left MGM to work on his creation full time. Gordo, the continuous-story newspaper comic strip, was first published in 1941, when Arriola was only about 24. To make his subject palatable and humorous to American audiences, Arriola initially relied heavily on demeaning stereotypes about Mexicans in the strip. Later, however, he reexamined the title character and through Gordo and his colleagues endeavored to promote a more positive understanding of Mexican culture and history. Arriola also began to interject messages related to contemporary environmental interests and concerns.

The strip was suspended at the beginning of World War II through 1943, when, according to Arriola’s obituary in the Los Angeles Times, he resumed drawing Gordo as a Sunday edition from his military station. There, he was involved in the production of animated training films for the military. He remained the sole artist and writer on Gordo for its entire run.

Arriola’s tranquil and understated strip was never a mass-market success; at the height of its popularity, it was only carried by around 250 newspapers. However, the strip, according to Province’s interview, was “recognized for its attempts to open [a] window to the south and for Arriola’s gift in capturing the artistic and poetic essence of the human experience using the comic-strip format.”

This drawing and additional examples of Gordo, found on the internet and in other repositories, like the University of California, Berkeley, help us better understand the importance of the strip as a forerunner of similar works by Latinx authors, which widen understandings about the different cultures represented in our nation.

Comic strip art today continues to inspire interest in Mexican and Latinx subjects and characters through works like the comic strip Baldo, first published in 2000 by Hector Cantú and Carlos Castellanos. The strip looks at life in the United States through the lens of a Latino teenager and his family. La Cucaracha (the cockroach), by Lalo Alcaraz, first published in Los Angeles in 1992, takes hard looks at the U.S.-Mexican political and cultural scene through its namesake character.

Along with this drawing from the Gordo strip, the museum’s Graphic Arts Collection houses some nine hundred original and reproductive comic art drawings representing over 375 artists and about four hundred titles. You can explore a representative sample of these works in our Object Group, Comic Art.

Joan Boudreau is a curator of the printing and graphic arts collections in the Division of Work and Industry.