Powered by Puerto Rico’s ancient spirits of wind, water and mountains, La Borinqueña—aka Afro Latinx college student Marisol Rios de la Luz—is a superheroine who’s moving heaven and earth to call attention to the island’s environmental and debt crises. But that’s not all. La Borinqueña and her creator, Nuyorican artist Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez, are holding up a mirror for people consistently left out of mainstream superhero comics.
From her proud black-boricua heritage, to her realistic body proportions, to her presence as a bilingual STEM student at an Ivy League college, to her friends and family rendered in a refreshing variety of skin tones and hair types, Marisol is not the kind of heroine one usually sees in print. Her costume is also based on the Puerto Rican bandera and her name is the title of the Puerto Rican national anthem, which literally translates to “The Puerto Rican Woman.”
La Borinqueña just debuted in winter 2016 through Somos Arte, Miranda-Rodriguez’ own indie imprint, but the artist has been working for years to address this lack of representation. He curated an art exhibit on longtime Cuban-American Marvel editor, writer and artist Joe Quesada, bringing the cultural aspects of his legacy into focus. There was also Marvelous Color, an exhibit and multimedia project in which he explored the contributions of Marvel’s creators of color, and their indelible characters.
Though Miranda-Rodriguez has written for Marvel in the past, La Borinqueña’s indie status has allowed him to assemble a hand-picked roster of skilled artists, inkers and pencillers, colorists and cover artists of Puerto Rican heritage from across the country. Crucially, he also retains full rights to his character and her world.
The Origin Story
Marisol Rios de la Luz is an Environmental Studies student from Columbia University, who travels to spelunk in Puerto Rico’s cave system. She becomes La Borinqueña when Atabex, a Taíno mother goddess, grants her with the formidable natural powers of the island.
Her blisteringly fast-paced first trade brims with knowing nods to Puerto Rican food, history, and music, and flips freely between English and Spanish. Marisol does some heavy lifting in her first story arc—using her wind powers to save villagers from a sudden hurricane—but also makes time to help migrating sea turtles, work on her thesis and in her grandparents’ cafe, munch sancocho and pasteles and dance la bomba.
La Borinqueña only has one major adventure under her cape thus far, but Miranda-Rodriguez has big plans for his environmentally-conscious crusader. He’s currently away from his New York base on a national promotional tour, and will be at UW Bothell on April 11 to read and sign copies of La Borinqueña. I emailed with him in advance of his visit, learning more about his aims, the importance of recognition and representation in comics, and the cosplayability of his flag-draped storm-slinger.
VS: You write, curate and design at a very high level. What’s your background, and how did you amass all of these proficiencies? Tell me about the path that has brought you to the point of publishing a comic of La Borinqueña‘s quality.
EMR: As a child, I grew up poor, raised by a single mother on public assistance. I’ve always felt that my only limit is my imagination, which up until now is still fueled with many ideas. Soon after college, I worked as an activist and community organizer at a grassroots organization named El Puente, founded by a former member of the Puerto Rican activist group from the 1960s, The Young Lords Party. Working in a non-profit with limited resources challenged me to be very creative. There I self-taught myself production, marketing and graphic design.
VS: La Borinqueña is published under your own imprint, but you’ve both curated and written for Marvel. Tell me about the experience of writing for Marvel, and how you have brought your focus on heritage and representation in comics to your projects with them.
EMR: The first comic book I wrote professionally was for Marvel’s anthology series Guardians of the Galaxy: Tales of the Cosmos, which was released as trade paperback last year. I developed the story with legendary rapper Darryl DMC McDaniels of Run DMC. I developed our story for Marvel into a script incorporating my experience as a New Yorker to give it authenticity. I’ve learned that the most powerful stories connect readers via familiarity.
For too long, people of color have been invisible from mainstream narratives, especially in comic books. I wrote a script about The Thing and Groot, but I also created an AfroLatinx grandmother and grandson for the story. She was my vehicle to pull the reader that was quite often overlooked, and it worked. Abuela Estela resonated powerfully with readers and the media, more so than I could ever imagine. I saw then that I need to take a chance and do something more, and thus was born the idea to develop and write La Borinqueña.
VS: How did you choose your art and editorial team? What elements were you looking for in artists to bring Marisol/La Borinqueña, the locations, and the story to life? With so many realistic details in the mix (historical, local, etc.) how much direct input are you giving to your artists, and how much are they inferring themselves?
EMR: Given what was happening in Puerto Rico with the debt crisis, I wanted to create a project that not only raised awareness, but also served as a symbolic sign of unity. Never before had artists of Puerto Rican heritage come together to work on a project like this. I gathered a professional roster of talent with decades of experience of working for Marvel and DC. I also wanted this project to bring artists from across the diaspora, and it did. From Aguadilla, Puerto Rico to Chicago, Illinois to Los Angeles, California, artists came together to be part of this project.
VS: Tell me about the process of developing the characters in La Borinqueña. Most of them—thus far—are women, and are multi-lingual and of mixed heritage. Marisol is, in a way, your ideal ambassador for what a young, smart, contemporary Puerto Rican role model should be. How did she develop?
EMR: I’m a writer of Puerto Rican descent, living here in New York City. I grew up reading comic books, and have always been drawn to superhero narratives. Perhaps it’s because I grew up poor and was drawn to comic book for escapism. I do know as an adult that most of these narratives were always written by and from the perspective of white men. Many great story lines truly captured the universality of the human condition.
As a man of color now raising two sons, I have grown up with a sophisticated eye for finding myself in every narrative I could find. Whether or not I’d literally see myself, I found a connection with billionaire orphans, extraterrestrial all-American heroes, or warrior woman and men from fictional realms.
However, now as a father, I realized the power of not seeing yourself. When you grow up, not seeing yourself, it slowly eats away at you. See, you think you’re fine wearing that cowl or cape or wielding that hammer until you see someone that actually looks like the character wielding it. Then you’re hit with the reality. That’s not me. That character never looked like me. You turn to your home, your parents, your meals, don’t look like these stories. How do you measure your worth?
One of the goals I set to accomplish with my book was to create a universe that many who read the story could relate to. I also wanted to show readers the diversity of being Puerto Rican/Latinx. Quite often, mainstream media neglects to show our African heritage, and our own Latinx media focuses too much on our European heritage. As Latinx, we’re an ethnicity comprising all of the global races. The book shows an all Latinx cast by showing the racial diversity that is our people.
I decided to make my protagonist AfroLatinx because I wanted to celebrate the diversity and beauty of our heritage. As Latinx, many of our families, like my own, are racially diverse even though we’re mostly Puerto Rican. We’re also mostly driven by the matriarchs in our family. These are the women who keep our families together and maintain our heritage.
I would not be the man I am today were it not for the powerful women in my life. My ideal superhero is a woman because when I think of my heritage, my island, she has always been a woman to me.
There is a significant amount of power when you write from your personal experience. I write from my personal experience and scholarship. I reference food, family customs, poetry, and complexities that exist within our culture. That’s why I decided to write some pages of my book in Spanish and not Spanglish. I travel to and from New York City and Puerto Rico and I do my best to observe and absorb my culture when I’m writing. That’s truly why I wrote La Borinqueña, because I knew what my character Marisol Rios De La Luz was going to sound like.
VS: Your book assumes a level of familiarity with Spanish, and with Puerto Rican colonial history and contemporary events. For a reader who recognizes these elements, there must be a frisson of recognition and excitement. For readers who do not, are you hoping they step up and do some research and translation? Are you hoping to see a spike in Google searches for El Grito de Lares?
EMR: We live in the United States. Although it’s assumed, there is no actual national official language. Across the United States many signs are provided bilingually in Spanish and English. I’m writing from a place that challenges non-Spanish speakers to move a little away from there comfort zone. With technology and smart phones within our very palms, no information is inaccessible. The dialogue in Spanish can easily be translated, but it doesn’t take away from the main plot either.
In Puerto Rico twenty years ago, English was made a mandatory language to be taught in schools. Now, young people into their early adulthood speak fluent English on the island. Introducing Spanish into my stories helps even the playing field.
I grew up reading comic books [with characters] that did not look like me, even though many of those characters grew up in New York City like me. I didn’t know what Elvis Costello sounded like or what wheatcakes tasted like. With my book, it’s time for readers to know what Eddie Palmieri sounds like and what pasteles taste like. If you want my advice? They sound and taste like love.
VS: And, most importantly: Have you seen any cosplayers yet?
EMR: I’ve had various young woman dress up as La Borinqueña. I initially commissioned a costume that was worn by activist and lawyer Stephanie Martín Llanes. Since then, young women in Chicago and Puerto Rico have made there own costumes. It’s amazing to see young women embrace this character in the way that they have and continue to do so. In fact, here in Seattle, undergraduate Tai Yang-Abreu, a student at the University of Washington Bothell dressed up as Lauren ‘La La’ Liu, La Borinqueña’s best friend.
She told me she always felt her Chinese/Dominican heritage was an anomaly. She never saw anyone else like her, and never expected to find herself in a comic book. When someone tells you, “it’s empowering to see mixed identities in a medium I’m a fan of, but could never personally relate to,” it’s a powerful feeling.
La Borinqueña is available exclusively at www.laborinquena.somosarte.com
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Banner image: variant cover by Gustavo Vazquez and Christopher Sotomayor.