Essential California: Alex Perez, the Times cartoonist turned councilmember
Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Friday, April 22. I’m Gustavo Arellano, and I’m writing from Orange County.
In the fall of 2020, L.A. Times editorial library director Cary Schneider and I pondered an unexpected question: Who was Alex Perez?
We had received an inquiry about him from a woman who said she was the wife of Perez’s grandson and wanted more information on Perez, who, “I was told, was the first Mexican cartoonist/illustrator hired at the L.A. Times.”
Damn. And here I thought it was the Pulitzer Prize-nominated cartoonista Lalo Alcaraz, author of the comic strip “La Cucaracha” that we run.
Schneider is the keeper of L.A. Times history, and I’m slowly building a history of Latinos at the paper who predate the late, martyred Rubén Salazar. But neither of us had heard of Perez. A quick search through our internal digital archives proved that Perez did have a long career at The Times — but what was his story?
The way his son, 84-year-old Charles Perez, describes it, “it’s like a novella.”
Born Alejandro Reyes in Torreón, Mexico, he never knew his birth year: Both of his parents died of tuberculosis when he was a child. A childless couple with the last name of Perez adopted him in El Paso, and he joined them when the family moved to Los Angeles in the 1920s, part of the great migration tradition between that border city and Southern California.
They settled in Lincoln Heights, and Alex attended Lincoln High School. That’s where he got the attention of Times editors after winning multiple drawing contests through their Junior Times children’s supplement.
The earliest Perez cartoon I could find in The Times dates to April 5, 1925. Perez would stay with us for 50 years.
He moonlighted as a beat reporter on Latino affairs, and there are dispatches into the 1950s that suggested Perez translated for English-speaking reporters, which his son said was true. But Perez gained fame largely for his lighthearted illustrations. He jumped between creating the art for stories in the Sunday Los Angeles Times Magazine and doing caricatures of celebrities and one-panel comics for various sections of the paper, eventually settling in Sports.
Perez’s style was classic art deco — sharp, vibrant lines a la Al Hirschfeld, with an eye to the good life — and was popular enough that he contributed to Walter Foster’s popular line of how-to art books and even caught the eye of Walt Disney, who Charles said tried to poach his father from The Times.
“But you had to buy company stock to join Disney, and my dad refused,” said the retired L.A. County civil engineer from his home in Hawaii. “Dad said, ‘I’ve got a good job at The Times, they pay me good.’”
Charles paused, then laughed. “A penny stock then is now worth like $30,000 to $40,000!”
With the money that would’ve gotten him into Disney, Perez instead bought a house in Bandini, a town that’s now part of the City of Commerce. He became a community leader, helping to start Boy Scout chapters and youth baseball leagues and even convincing the Archdiocese of Los Angeles to build St. Marcellinus Catholic Church in 1957.
Perez mentored young Latino artists and eventually became a Commerce planning commissioner and served a term as a councilmember from 1968 to 1972 while continuing to work for The Times, a move that wouldn’t be tolerated today by the bosses. (So sorry, Steve Lopez: You can’t run for L.A. County sheriff this year.)
“Dad never bragged about what he did,” Charles said. “He never blew his whistle. He only did his work.”
Perez finally left The Times in 1975 because Parkinson’s was affecting his ability to draw. “They gave him a good buyout, because they knew he was a hell of an employee,” said his son. “He went the extra yard — no, the extra mile — to do what needed to be done.”
Asked how he wants people to remember his father, Charles thought for a bit. “In this day and age, with the bad publicity that Latinos are getting because of that one president [Donald Trump], Dad embodied the spirit of ‘Don’t give up,’” he said. “Continue doing what you do best and don’t give up. And he never gave up.”
And now, here’s what’s happening across California:
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Tenants complain about mold and broken pipes at South L.A. apartments, even after city intervention. Landlord Mike Nijjar’s companies own more than $1 billion in real estate, mostly in Southern California. Los Angeles Times
He’s terminally single and getting old. What’s next for P-22, L.A.’s favorite wild bachelor? The mountain lion that launched a million memes needs to try OKCougar or something. Los Angeles Times
A week in Orange County on a $330,000 joint income. Judging by the tastes of this person, I’m pegging them as a resident of either Yorba Linda or the bougie part of Costa Mesa. Refinery29
MLB star Mookie Betts is the hardest-working man in professional … bowling? Let’s see him try to beat the regulars at Linbrook Bowl in Anaheim. InsideHook
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POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT
L.A. says it can’t take care of its sickest and most vulnerable. The county isn’t buying it. A settled lawsuit, and no solution to homelessness in sight from either the City Council or the Board of Supervisors. Los Angeles Times
How the gay rights showdown threatens Disney’s unprecedented self-rule in Florida. The perfect example of the right thing done for the wrong reasons. Los Angeles Times
49ers break the bank for San Jose mayoral candidate. The NFL team should be more concerned with keeping star receiver Deebo Samuel than the politics of a city they’re not in, you know? San José Spotlight
CRIME, COURTS AND POLICING
Why shoplifters keep heading to Canoga Park. Another reason for me to think about the San Fernando Valley neighborhood besides mi compadre Pingo. #mexicannicknames Crosstown L.A.
Soledad Luna and the St. Francis Dam Disaster. An eyewitness account of the second-deadliest calamity in California history. American Experience
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HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT
“I’m not all better”: How long COVID upended the life of an L.A. teen. It’s real, folks. Los Angeles Times
The farm that grows luffas. For more than 20 years, Deanne Coon of Nipomo has grown natural sponges — and not the kind from the sea. Modern Farmer
“Beyond outrageous”: L.A. company faked COVID test results, authorities allege. Sameday Technologies will pay more than $20 million in a settlement announced by Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer. Los Angeles Times
San Francisco: An index of influence. Thirteen sites that transformed the city, and the nation — though they look mundane today. Places Journal
“Pacific Magazine Billing” sent me a bill for a magazine I don’t subscribe to. Thank God I always throw away the mail sent to me by the San Marcos-based company. BoingBoing
Oral History Center releases project documenting founding generation of Chicana/o Studies. Among the local legends interviewed: Rudy Acuña of Cal State Northridge, Vicki Ruiz of UC Irvine and Mario T. García of UC Santa Barbara. The Bancroft Library
The L.A. Taco Guide to eating and drinking in Coachella and Indio. My former Orange Coast College student Sean Vukan does me proud AND beats me on a story I held on to for too long — don’t get beat, folks! L.A. Taco
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Los Angeles: Turning sunny and cool, 67. San Diego: Brief morning showers, then sunny with winds, 64. San Francisco: Partly sunny and cool, 61. San Jose: A passing morning shower, then partly sunny and cool, 65. Fresno: Partly cloudy, 68. Sacramento: Cool and cloudy, 66.
Today’s California memory is from Madeline Contreras:
It may have been in April of 2001, when I was chaperoning a high school trip to San Francisco. Two teenage girls and I were taking a cable car back to our hotel late on a cold, misty evening. As the cable car almost reached the crest of a hill, seven or eight young Italian men leaped onto the car, grabbing the handrails, and locked eyes with my two girls. In unison, the men burst out singing “Funiculi Funicula” in beautifully trained voices. They stood on the running board, backs arched backward as they held onto the handrails and gestured to the dark sky with their free arms. At the end of the song, they leaped off the car like acrobats, blew kisses to all, and shouted, “Buona notte.”
If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)
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