On a Friday night at VFW Post 2951 in Santa Fe, through a haze of cigarette smoke, cartoonist Ricardo Caté is singing a Sam Cooke song. “Give me water, I’m thirsty,” he warbles into a microphone. “My, my, work is so hard.”
Caté, who is a veteran of the Marine Corps, easily has the best voice at karaoke night. He honed his sweet tenor and smooth delivery as a teenager singing doo-wop with friends in the boys’ locker room on rainy days at Santo Domingo (Kewa) Pueblo, where he grew up and still lives.
It’s hard not to relate the song’s lyrics to the guy singing them. The daily grind of Caté, who has been drawing the one-panel comic Without Reservations for The Santa Fe New Mexican since 2006 and The Taos News since April 2017, is indeed not easy. As the most prominent Native American cartoonist in the country, he must communicate a point of view that educates what he calls the dominant culture, all while gratifying Indians and making people of all races laugh in six comics a week.
Day after day, joke by joke, Caté straddles the line between sly humor and subversiveness in the cross-cultural banter between his central figures, the Chief and the General. The comic also includes a cast of Native characters’ bitingly funny takes on sobering topics like government usurpation of tribal lands, massacres, broken treaties, and the prevalence of diabetes and obesity on reservations, along with jokes about frybread, SPAM, and Native life in Trump’s America.
And what about “Give me water, I’m thirsty”? In fall 2016, the humorist played a key role in bringing media attention to the fight for clean water and against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock Reservation, publishing a series of comics that chronicled his stay at the protest camp and appearing in a deadpan sketch on The Daily Show. In addition to paintings and drawings, he sold a chapbook titled The Drawings and Cartoons of Standing Rock at the Indigenous Fine Arts Market showcase on Aug. 18 and Aug. 19 at the Inn and Spa at Loretto.
Caté said he drew inspiration for Without Reservations from Mad Magazine cartoonist Don Martin, whose artistic style influenced the big noses of Caté’s characters. He also liked the look and tone of Andy Capp, the Reg Smythe comic strip about a hard-drinking Englishman who is always at war with his wife Flo.
“They were like my parents,” he said. “My dad drank a lot, and I would always go looking for him. My mom would take me to different bars around the rez, and I would go in as a little kid. ‘Hey Ricky, how’s it going?’ ‘Is my dad here?’ ‘Yeah, he’s back there.’ ‘Dad, you gotta come home, Mom’s outside.’ Then he would be coming out and he would be yelling already and they’d be going back and forth. All the way home I’d just be sitting there listening, hearing all this stuff.”
As a kid, Caté liked how Andy Capp’s tartan hat obscured his eyes so that his words were more open to interpretation. Perhaps not coincidentally, Caté, who himself is a recognizable figure around Santa Fe in his signature bandana and braid, renders his own charac-ters sightless — the General’s bushy blond eyebrows and the Chief’s war bonnet both sit across their fields of vision, while other Natives in the comic have their hair over their eyes. Their lack of facial expressions blunt the seemingly absurd yet often profound things they say, causing the reader to think twice about the meaning of the dialogue.
“In a weird way, the Chief represents my dad,” Caté said. “He’d do things without thinking about it.” He said he inherited his sense of humor from his father.
“He was just quick. We’d be in the car stopped, and I’d have to turn left, but I’d have to see if there was any traffic coming. My dad had the best view, and I’d say, ‘Dad, is everything OK?’ and he would go, ‘You’re queer.’ And I’d say, ‘What?!’ ‘I said, you’re clear.’ I’d know what he said, but I could never catch him.”
Caté, who is in his early 50s, was nurtured by pop-culture humor in Santo Domingo, where he grew up with four siblings. “I’m kind of the middle child. I was pretty much a loner. I’ve been a nerd since I can remember.” He was a fan of The Pink Panther series and Peter Sellers, The Little Rascals and The Three Stooges, The Carol Burnett Show and The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour. He loved Looney Tunes cartoons.
“Foghorn Leghorn, when he said, ‘Old boy’s about as sharp as a sack of wet mice.’ I mean, who comes up with that? And Ernie Kovacs!” he marveled. “The funniest thing I ever saw on TV — he comes out dressed as an Indian. He comes out, takes out an arrow. [Caté made a bow-and-arrow shooting motion.] Boom! It hits him in the back of the head. It had gone all the way around the room! I just roared with laughter.”
In school, he hung out with other misfits who finished their work quickly so they could trade comics and try their hand at drawing them. “I couldn’t draw as well as some of the other kids who could draw deer and horses and stuff. I just started doodling, but I found I could make it funny, drawing pictures of
people doing funny things, saying funny things.”
He forfeited a running scholarship to the University of Nebraska in order to stay home and care for the family’s land after his father, a house painter, broke his back in three places from a fall. Instead, Caté attended the University of New Mexico for two semesters, but said he lost his tribal scholarship because of drinking and bad grades.
“I didn’t have the heart to tell my parents,” he said. “And so they dropped me off in late August in Albuquerque, thinking I was still in that apartment. I said, No, no, just leave the stuff here, go ahead, I’ll take it up. So they drove off. Right there I sold my stereo and other things, and I went downtown with the little money I had from that, and for the next month I was just homeless. I had nowhere else to go.”
Ambling by a military recruiting station, he responded to a challenge by a racist Marine to take the ASVAB test. After missing only one question, he shipped off to basic training within weeks.
When he graduated from Fort Lewis College in Durango, where he had returned to study at age 40, Caté walked into the offices of The Santa Fe New Mexican in 2006 with a sheaf of cartoons. Bernadette Garcia, who was then in charge of the comics page, explained to him that the paper got its comic strips from a syndicate and didn’t have room for an original cartoonist.
He convinced her to look at the work he had brought.
“I went over them, and they were pretty funny, but we had never done anything like that,” Garcia said. Her managers told Caté he had to have at least eight weeks of one-panel comics ready to go, and that unlike the computer-assisted syndicated cartoonists, he would have to hand-draw and color his work.
“I told Ricardo, ‘I have some reservations about this,’ and he said, ‘Without Reservations! We’ll get this done,’ “ Garcia said.
The strip skyrocketed in popularity within a few months. Opinion page editor Inez Russell Gomez writes in the introduction to his first self-published collection, “Immediately, Ricardo’s irreverent look at the sometimes hard times of Indian life was a hit with readers ... His cartoons are on refrigerators all over Northern New Mexico. They are mailed to friends and family who live out of state.”
Garcia recalled that when Caté came into the office for the first time, “I wasn’t on deadline that day, so I had time to talk to him. It was meant to be that he chose to walk in on a slow day, and I’m so glad he did.”
In 2014, Gibbs Smith released Without Reservations: The Cartoons of Ricardo Caté; another book is forthcoming from the publisher.
Comedy is the filter Caté has always used to process hard luck in life. “I’m diabetic,” he said. “When I was diagnosed in 2010, I became a recluse for a week. I locked myself in my house because I couldn’t handle it. So I started drawing cartoons about it that whole week. The first one I drew was exactly what I had told my doctor. He said, ‘Does obesity run in your family?’
“I go, ‘Uh, no. Nobody runs in my family.’ Humor comes a lot from tragedy and bad stuff.”
His barbed wit has caused controversy over the years. In response to a few angry letters about a cartoon with a scalping joke, Caté penned a follow-up panel in which he wrote, “My non-Native characters will no longer be scalped, but I will have them permed and comb ed.” Another panel, about an Indian worker etching a sign in front of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi that mis-takenly reads, “The Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis the Sissy” also raised some eyebrows in the City of Holy Faith. “It came out on a Thursday. I went into Tía Sophia’s and the whole restaurant was arguing back and forth. Someone said, ‘Well, here’s the cartoonist here!’ And people came up to me. But it was all in fun.”
He doesn’t worry too much about offending people, though he tries to make Without Reservations accessible and funny to as many people as possible.
“I could do much worse. I have the capacity to offend every single white person. But that’s not the point. My point is to get this out there. I’m not preaching to the choir, I’m preaching to everybody.”
He added, “But my friend Lalo Alcaraz, who does [the comic strip] La Cucaracha — I shared a cartoon with him and I said, ‘Should I send this out?’ He said, ‘If you’re not offending someone, you’re not doing it right.’ “
He has been accused of having an us-versus-them mentality about Anglos. “I do have thoughts about us versus them, a lot,” he said. “I get pulled over — I’ve never been so scared in my life, getting pulled over in Texas — twice. Arizona, just last year. It’s all the time. People following me around in a department store. It really does happen.”
He said, “I want the dominant culture to at least acknowledge that these things are happening. I pick certain things and I go, Oh, the rest of the world should know that.”
Several years ago, during an editorial cartoonists’ conference in Washington, D.C., he went to a luncheon with some other cartoonists at a hotel near the White House. While walking to their table in the restaurant, he said, “All of a sudden I feel this violent jerk on my arm. I’m standing over a table in front of this white guy, kind of like a Donald Trump-looking guy, and he goes, ‘Hey! Clean our table!’ I was like, ‘What?’ ... When stuff like that happens, it’s still inside me. Next time you see me, ask me what happened to make me draw that cartoon.”
Not surprisingly, Without Reservations displays an acute sense of history. Caté, who has taught social studies on the Kewa reservation, commemorates important dates in Native American history, jumping back and forth in time from the 1600s to the 1800s to the present, sometimes all in one week.
“It depends on the time of year, like June 25, I had to do the Battle of Little Big Horn; August 10, Pueblo Revolt,” he said. “If it’s Geronimo’s birthday next week, I’ll start thinking about stuff for him.”
He’s conscious of the legacy he’ll leave his three children, aged 19, 21 and 23, and wants them to have the same awareness of their people’s past.
At the VFW, his daughter Nicolette Bailon, a sophomore at Fort Lewis College, patiently waited to take him home for the evening. “He’s always making us laugh — he’s always up to something,” she said. “He doesn’t care what everybody thinks of him.”
As Caté prepared to sing on a duet of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash’s “Jackson,” she added, “And he loves karaoke. Obviously.”
Caté is considering filling a safe deposit box with his more than 4,000 panels to leave to his family, which is a nicely tangible idea coming from the guy whose very first comic published in the New Mexican depicts a father telling his child, as they look out at a scenic vista, “Someday, son, none of this will be yours.” He said, “I lay there at night thinking, wow, I have the capacity to change the world — just people’s perceptions. I’m having fun with the thought of, you know, when I die, how much have I done to contribute? And I want to be able to get as far as I can.”
Caté’s book “Without Reservations” is available from Gibbs Smith and in bookstores, and his paintings are on view at Vida Loca Gallery, 203 W. San Francisco St., Santa Fe.
Molly Boyle writes for Pasatiempo, the arts magazine for the Santa Fe New Mexican. The New Mexican is a sister publication of The Taos News.