Ricardo Caté described the moment that changed the course of his life. He was working as a blackjack dealer at the time. He was there in the casino, in the middle of a hand, with a full table anxiously awaiting his deal. And he stopped, struck suddenly with a realization: “I thought, 'This isn't me. I can't do this forever,' ” he remembered. He finished the hand, clocked out and told his pit boss that he didn't want to do it anymore, and never came back.
Caté began moving in the direction of his dreams, boarding a bus to Durango with a few dollars leftover in his pocket, selling drawings on the streets there and enrolling at Fort Lewis College—where education is free for Native Americans—to become a teacher. It was during that time that the Santa Domingo Pueblo resident began developing his eye as a cartoonist. Caté had always been creative, but he never considered himself an artist. Despite that, he confidently set to work developing his first strip, “Fort Leisure” (an “infamous nickname” for Fort Lewis). Soon, it started getting recognition, and he began developing a different series for the Southern Ute Drum, the newspaper of the Southern Ute tribe, based out of southwestern Colorado.
It was during this time that Caté began working on what has become his primary focus, “Without Reservations,” a cartoon strip that he has spent 11 years cultivating, which now has a daily audience of more than 60,000 people through syndication in the Santa Fe New Mexican and Taos News, among others. “The strange part, or the scary part, maybe, is that I'm just getting started,” he laughed. One piece of Caté's ever-expanding network is an upcoming exhibition of selections from “Without Reservations” at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center's (2401 12th Street NW) Art Through Struggle Gallery. The exhibition is broken into several parts—one with pieces that address the presidency of Donald Trump, one drawn from Caté's experiences at Standing Rock, and another that addresses a variety of other topics—treaties, mascots and some “off-the-wall, just funny stuff.”
Central to “Without Reservations” are two characters—The Chief and The General. The Chief is drawn in the style of one of Caté's favorite comic characters, Andy Capp, whose hat often rests over his eyes. The General is based on the likeness of George Custer. Caté had always wanted to develop a Native cartoon, and in “Without Reservations” he has created a platform for vital conversations and exchanges to play out. “The General … he is the spokesperson for the dominant culture. The Chief is our spokesperson, so the dialogue between them is pretty amazing. It's the two cultures talking to each other,” he said.
“I draw the world as I see it,” he continued. “I never set out to change the world, and I don't consider myself a spokesperson for Native people. … It's just how I see the world. A lot of Natives happen to agree with it.” In recent years, Caté has purposefully started gearing the comic more toward non-Natives; they now comprise a significant portion of the comic's audience. “Natives already know what I'm talking about; they've lived through this, but non-Natives haven't,” he explained. Through humor, Caté finds that he can approach topics that are sometimes difficult for people to discuss. “Humor makes it approachable,” he pointed out, and moreover, “it has a way of healing, … for what me and my family have been through, and what Natives have been through, and sometimes what other ordinary people have been through.”
Simultaneously, it provides a way for Caté to process his individual experiences, becoming, at times, therapeutic. “When I have things to say, I say it through my cartoons. … [and] I laugh when I make it. It really makes me laugh. I can't think of a better job than what I do. The process as I'm doing it, and how much I enjoy it, and afterwards, how much people enjoy it,” he described.
In the exhibition of his work, he hopes to bolster conversations around the topics that he brings to bear in his work, lending some perspective to non-Native viewers. “I want this cartoon to be read by everyone. I don't want to hurt anyone or point fingers or anything, but at the same time, I put these issues on the table so people can start thinking about it and maybe discussing it, maybe even change their ways a little bit,” he said. As he gains a greater following across the country, Caté recognizes that he has a responsibility. “People are counting on it,” he said. “These days everybody needs something, as crazy as this world is. It's weird, but my cartoon puts some sanity back in the world. That's a crazy thing to say, that a comic is doing that, but, The Chief is keeping it real.”
Catch Without Reservations at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, opening on March 17, and running through January of 2019. Viewing the work is free with admission to the museum, which runs about $6.40 for New Mexico residents.