Ricardo Padilla grew up in East Los Angeles, in a neighborhood so tough that more people were killed there some years than on the Gaza Strip. He escaped by staying in his room and reading Marvel comics; Silver Surfer and other characters opened up new worlds to him. But when he discovered Love and Rockets, by Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, he found his own world again.
“That was the first time I was able to see Chicano characters, [and] Chicanas, that looked like the people in my neighborhood, doing things that reflected my life,” he said at the “Border Narratives: Beyond the Wall” panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego. “They weren’t flying through space, but they were people that could be my tías [aunts] and my mom’s friends.”
At a time when, as moderator Chloe Ramos-Peterson pointed out, harassment and discrimination against Latinx people are on the rise, the creators on the panel stressed the importance of stories as a way to build community, as well as a place for readers to see themselves and for creators to show others the realities of their lives. And perhaps shatter some stereotypes as well.
“I remember seeing myself in comics very early on,” said Johnnie Christmas (Firebug). “I would be reading Batman or what have you, and I didn’t see anybody that looked like me, and then a crime would break out, and there I was, suddenly, on the page, getting beaten over the head or kicked or punched.” When he started making comics, Christmas said, he made it a point to give his characters a rich inner life. “I think it is very important… to take back our narratives and position ourselves in a way we want to be positioned -- and where we actually are,” he said.
Artist Zeke Peña (Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide) sees stories as a way to counter the claim that immigrants are threats who need to be policed. “For me it is about complicating [current portrayals of Latinos],” he said. “We complicate it with introducing our own personal stories, our own personal narratives, to show the tenderness of a tender moment, like in [the Disney movie] Coco, how to show these very personal and tender moments.”
“Representation can be resistance,” said Padilla, who runs the Latino Comics Expo, recalling a conversation when Love and Rockets creator Jaime Hernandez was on a panel he was moderating. “Somebody from the audience asked, ‘Jaime, do you think you are a political artist?’ and he said, ‘Oh no, you know, I just draw, I just do comics.’ And someone in the audience actually got up and said, ‘You don’t know how strongly your work has to inspired us to go out in the community and spread art and spread stories.’”
“I get letters from a lot of young women, especially, who tell me ‘I had never seen myself in a book until I read your book’” said Isabel Quintero, the writer of Photographic. “To me, that’s a big thing, because [we are] representing ourselves in our experiences, and the different experiences that we have, breaking the idea that we are a monolith. We are not. My Chicano experience in Southern California is very different from Zeke's in El Paso. There is no one way to be Chicanx, there is no one way to be Mexican, there is no one way to be anything.”
As a high school art teacher, Marco Finnegan (Lizard in a Zoot Suit, Crossroad Blues) saw his students’ excitement at seeing the particulars of their lives portrayed on the page or the screen. “A lot of times kids feel like they are the only ones who are going through that experience,” he said, “but if you show them a movie like Coco—the kids were coming back like, ‘Mr. Finnegan did you see Coco? They had a crucifix made out of palm fronds in the background. I’ve never seen that before, can they do that?’… Typically what we have seen is Hispanic characters are gang bangers or gardeners or whatever. Now you are seeing them in spotlight telling stories, and one of my kids said, ‘It's like they took those characters that you always see in the movies and followed them home.’”
“There has always been a history of negativity coming our way, and it's our responsibility to rise to the challenge and to lift each other up and face it,” said Christmas. “It's been going on for a long time, and I don’t think it is going to be ending anytime soon, unfortunately. Hopefully it will, but I don’t let it scare me. We can’t stop. There's no choice. We have to move forward and we have to keep telling these stories. There are those coming up after us, and they need to see us creating things that represent them. They need to see themselves, as told to [and] by people who look like them, and to shine a light on the false narratives that people are trying to cast on us, because it's not their story to tell.”