Caricatures depicting the age-old struggles many modern-day Native Americans face hang on the windows of Ricardo Caté's gallery space on the lower level of San Francisco Street's El Mercado.
One shows a Native youth writing "I will not act indigenous in class" on a chalkboard; another features two characters looking at an erupting volcano, one saying to the other: "Ohmigosh! What did you say to them?" A sign proclaims that Redskins fans are welcome.
Inside, Caté, known for his "Without Reservations" panel in The Santa Fe New Mexican, laments the lack of foot traffic the winter months bring with them. "I've had no customers for the last three days," the Santo Domingo Pueblo artist says, sitting in front of a desk cluttered with his production accoutrements—pencils, pads, brushes and miniature bottles of acrylic paint.
Caté opened the space a year and a half back. He confesses struggling to remain up-to-date with the rent, but as soon as his motivation is questioned, a gleam comes to his eyes. "I used to walk around just like the other people from SD, carrying jewelry and stuff, selling it," he reminisces. "I used to do that as a kid, and shop owners would tell me that I couldn't stand there. I remember thinking, 'The only difference between me and you is that you have a place'—then it kind of sunk in."
Signaling at his business license, he describes with pride the moment he became legit. "I thought, 'I'm somebody.' I even put it on Facebook."
So far, he relies on word of mouth to get people through the door, as homespun marketing initiatives have proved futile. "I put a couple of signs out there on Water Street, but people kept stealing them. Can you imagine how much those will be worth some day?" he says with a chuckle. "I've got three kids that I try to feed every other day," he says of his persistence.
"It was never my intention, nor my dad's," Caté says about his journey to the funnies, which had a couple of detours along the way. "He put me in computer robotics classes and sent me to school in Kansas where I was the only Indian within a 70-mile radius."
Age 40, he pursued a degree on interdisciplinary studies at Fort Lewis College, where he was one credit away from graduating. It turns out the only class that offered a lone credit was for the school newspaper. "I was sitting in the back, and no one wanted to talk to me," Caté says. The ongoing course was set staff-wise, with sections and features already assigned, so he decided to coast by. That is, until two weeks later, when the first issue was to come out and, because of an editing oversight, the entire back page was left blank.
"People were scrambling and slowly my hand went up," he recalls. Timidly, he showed his instructor his drawings and puzzles. A regular cartoon depicting and often mocking college life titled "Fort Leisure" was born.
Representatives from tribal newspaper The Southern Ute Drum called and soon Caté's signature characters would come to life. "I figured, it's in Native community, so my characters should be Natives. That was the first time I had attempted to draw a Native cartoon, and it was a huge hit."
Back on Kewa land, approaching the nearest daily paper seemed like a natural progression. Caté marched himself into the New Mexican's offices, clippings in hand, and asked to speak with the person in charge. He was swiftly told that the cartoon page that houses Garfield and the like comes preassembled in a plate via Florida's King Features Syndicate.
After insisting multiple times, a newsroom employee took a look at his cartoons. "Pretty soon, there were 15 people there and they were all laughing," Caté says. An exception was made, and "Without Reservations" started soon after.
The main character is the Chief, one fashioned not from neighboring pueblo culture, but the plains tribes. "I could have made him like Natives from here, but I didn't do that for two reasons," he explains. "One, I wanted to make fun of Hollywood's portrayal of Indians—with the feathers and the loincloth and all of that—and two, I did it to stay away from my own culture, so I don't slip up and touch on a subject matter that I'm not supposed to."
"The General," a figure loosely based on Custer, represents the dominant culture.
Under comedy's veil, Caté has broached everything from appropriation to the current Keystone XL Pipeline controversy. "It's hard to do that on a day-to-day basis because first, you have to make it interesting, then you have to make it funny, then you have to make it thought-provoking," he points out.
Like many of his cohorts, Caté's response to the Jan. 7 attack on Charlie Hebdo was immediate. "I felt a camaraderie," he says. "I know these guys not personally, but as a cartoonist. I know that they're trying to get their point across and make people see things they don't want to see," he continues, his tone more passionate. "They don't want to read about the Battle of Little Big Horn; they don't want to read about the Sand Creek Massacre or the mascot thing. I feel that sometimes I put stuff out there out of necessity, because I want people to not forget."
Looking forward, Caté says has his sights set on expansion and has sought another modern-day cartoonist for advice, "La Cucaracha" mastermind Lalo Alcaraz. He also plans on dabbling in editorial cartooning, a category lauded by the Pulitzer Prize board. "It's somewhere in my horizon, I think. I'd love to be the first Native to win that," he muses.
The reason for his hustle, the Indian Market artist says, is so he can provide a good life for his children. "I've got three kids—teenagers—they eat, watch TV and use up electricity and take hot showers. I have to take care of these homeless," Caté says, his signature humor peering though.
And while the prestigious award might be a nice add-on to his shelf, he notes that the rewards that come with being a family man far outweigh any professional accolade.
"I joke about it, but I love that they're there and we're still close. When I go home tonight, my daughter will say, 'Hi, Dad. How was your day?' and my 20-year-old-son will come up to me and say, 'How's it going?' and give me kind of, like, a hug," he says, pausing. "That's…that's just awesome."