Getting the ‘Bordertown’ cartoon right as border issues reemerge

J.C. and Becky on “Bordertown.”

When it was announced in 2013 that Seth MacFarlane, the man behind “Family Guy” and “Ted,” would executive produce an animated project on Fox that would tackle cultural shifts in the U.S. through the prism of a town on the Mexican border, Latinos were more than a little anxious.

MacFarlane, after all, isn’t known for being politically correct or sensitive.

But “Bordertown’s” creator Mark Hentemann, a veteran “Family Guy” writer, was already making moves to quell any preconceived fears.

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“I wanted this show to be about whites and Latinos, but I didn’t want it to be a show written solely by white guys,” Hentemann said. “It had to be authentic if we were going to confront the anxiety surrounding the cultural shifts.”

The cartoon, which premieres Sunday, is set in a fictitious desert town called Mexifornia and follows the lives of two neighbor families. Bud is the Archie Bunker-like head of the Buckwald house who works as a Border Patrol agent and feels threatened that he’s losing his place in the world; Ernesto is head of the Gonzalez clan and is a hard-working Mexican immigrant trying to attain the American dream.

To help bring authenticity into the series, Hentemann enlisted Mexican American cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz as a writer (he’s one of five Latinos on the 14-person writing team) and well-known Mexican American journalist-author Gustavo Arellano as a consulting producer.

“I wasn’t going to put my name on something — and neither was Gustavo — that was going to suck,” said Alcaraz, best known for his “La Cucaracha” comic strip. “The streets are already littered with the corpses of crappy Latino shows that were done with no Latinos behind the camera or in the writers room.”


Alcaraz and Arellano came armed with their own questions: Are Latino actors going to do the voices for the Latino characters? What are the themes here? We’re tired of hearing racist jokes, is this going to be different? And what’s the point of it all?

Their questions and suggestions, they say, didn’t go unanswered or unheard. Nor did their influence.

Alcaraz helped craft the look of the Gonzalez home using the interior of his aunt’s Victorian house in San Diego as inspiration — there’s beaded curtains in door frames, a wall covered in framed pictures, and the occasional crucifix. There was also the time Arellano suggested that the animators give the Mexican characters different shades of color to show the spectrum. Even the question of which characters should have accents was carefully thought out.

“Yeah, you need your big plot points, but sometimes it’s those little touches that people really notice,” said Arellano, a respected voice in the Latino community as the editor of OC Weekly and author of the syndicated column ¡Ask a Mexican!.

Details were one thing, but then there were the internal debates over jokes.

In one scenario, a Buckwald family member goes to Mexico for a heart transplant and the joke was something about replacing the heart with a can of beans. “I know the writer wasn’t doing it out of bigotry or racism,” Alcaraz said. “But we don’t have to go for cheap shots. The way the show works, if you pitch a joke and it’s funny, it stays in.”

Hentemann said it all helped get to the root of what they hope to achieve with this show.

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“We want to make fun of absurdities of the political extremes on both sides of the aisle,” he said. “Maybe it’s something about the bright colors and the animated nature that makes it so harsh, things go down a little easier. You can push things further without them being too horrifying.”

Hentemann’s idea for the show came about right around the time President George W. Bush was in office and suggestions of building a security fence along the border had stirred a heated debate.

“When Fox didn’t pick up the show early on, I sort of put it on a shelf,” Hentemann said. “I thought maybe the show would no longer be relevant.”

Fox eventually ordered the show to become a series in 2013, and after much delay, it wound up smack dab in the middle of the current election season.

One particular episode, “Border Wall,” imagines what would happen if a wall were actually erected between the U.S. and Mexico. Though the episode was written two years ago, it feels timely given Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump’s mentions of a border wall as part of his campaign.

“I thought we’d be pushing reality with that premise for an episode,” Hentemann said. “And then Trump comes along and you realize reality can be stranger than animated fiction.”




Where: Fox

When: 9:30 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-14-DLSV (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language, sex and violence)


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