A Puerto Rican Nerd on a Mission

by Special Contributor | February 15, 2016 10:41 pm

Exclusive Interview with artist and activist Edgardo Miranda-Rodríguez

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Edgardo Miranda Rodríguez. Photo: Danny Hastings

Edgardo Miranda Rodríguez. Photo: Danny Hastings

By: José A. Rodríguez

Edgardo Miranda-Rodríguez doesn’t have superpowers, but he has a strong voice which he amplifies through his stories and characters. He’s an advocate of our community and throughout this conversation, you will understand why I think he’s indeed a superhero; a superhero of the Diaspora and a restless fighter for social justice. Some heroes don’t need to wear a cape! ¡Vaya!

JR: Would you like to talk a little bit about yourself and about your work?

EM: Well, I have been actually a fan of comic books my entire life. I grew up in the South Bronx side of NYC and I remember my friends of elementary school always asking me to create original stories for them. I would go home that night, write and draw something to sell them the next day for 25 cents or 50 cents, that was a part of my life, my fabric. My cousin Santiago De Jesús (may he rest in peace) introduced me to comic books, he would draw for me all the time and as a child was my first real introduction to storytelling and visual arts. In a way that I could recreate it in my own voice and in my own style. He introduced me to characters like the White Tiger, the first Marvel Puerto Rican superhero. As a child, everyone that had brown hair I thought they were Puerto Rican, when I saw Peter Parker I said: El es boricua!

For the last 16 years I’ve been working in my studio Somos Arte, everything from web design, graphic design, and curating art exhibitions.

My first relationship professionally with Marvel started in 2007 when I worked for Joe Quesada (who, at the time, was Marvel’s editor-in-chief). Presently, he is Marvel’s chief creative officer for television, film, and comic books. Joe es Cubano, from Jackson Heights. I curated his first solo art show based on characters he on the orishas. As a child his mom used to sing songs about Yemayá, take him to do walks on the beach. When both of his parents passed away, he decided to do something to honor his heritage and to do a celebration of his family. He created The Santerians: Chango, Eleggua, Ogun, Oshun, Oya and these characters had the powers of the orishas. Marvel gave him the opportunity of reinterpret santería and its mysticism, just as they did with Norse Mythology with Thor, so it’s kind of what I did organically with this Groot in Guardians of Infinity #3. I had this opportunity to do my first book with Marvel with my partner Darryl DMC McDaniels and I had the opportunity to tell a story that celebrates my Nuyorican and Puerto Rican roots.

For the most part, comic books are written for a demographic that doesn’t necessarily speak directly to Latinos or directly to Puerto Ricans, that’s a reality. As a person growing up here is the US you realize that very quickly. When you grow up in P.R., you are looking at novelas, you are around your people all the time and you have everything, hay una mezcla de todo. We represent everybody.

My background before getting into comic books, before having my own studio, when I was in college, I was an activist. After college, I joined a social justice organization called El Puente. El Puente is a non-profit organization with its headquarters here in Williamsburg, so I did a lot of activist work with young Latinos and their families. Teaching them how to be aware of protecting themselves in case of police brutality, and more than anything advocating for the celebration of acknowledgment of our culture. I organized a youth conference for almost ten years, called Muévete, here in NYC. I wasn’t one of these artists or writers that came straight out of college starving to become an artist. I was an activist and I always fought for social justice, pero, a la misma vez, yo me pasaba leyendo comics, siempre leyendo comics. Todos los miércoles iba a la tienda para comprarme los nuevos libros de Marvel, DC o lo que se encontraba.

I was in my own way, a superhero that was always fighting for social justice just like these fictional characters! It was always a parallel, siempre existían los dos, el héroe y el activista.

Por ejemplo, uno de mis mejores amigos, es el escritor Junot Díaz. We were always… we called it, geeking out about comics. A lot of people don’t know, that on Junot’s book, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, he used The Fantastic 4 as a template to write that book. If you look at the first page of Oscar Wao, you’ll see that there’s actually a quote from Fantastic 4 on the opening page! Oscar Wao is The Thing, you know; Junior is The Human Torch, el doctor, the patriarch of the story, that’s Reed Richards, y la hermana, that’s Susan Storm! For us talking comics, reading comics, being activists, and listening to hip-hop music was our life growing up here in NYC.

My madrina, Iris Morales, is one of the most prominent voices in Puerto Rican activism here in NYC. She is one of the original members of the Young Lords party. She even directed the documentary film Pa’ lante, Siempre Pa’ lante: The Young Lords in which I was the art director of. She told me, many many times, “institutions come and go, but its individuals that keep the movement moving forward”. So whether I’m working for El Puente, or I’m working today for myself in my studio, or I’m writing for Marvel; it’s not EL Puente, that defines the movement, it’s not Marvel that’s defining the story, it’s the individuals.

My place in my life right now is, how do I keep this narrative moving forward? I’m on a path, I’m on a journey. I’m doing something, José, that has never been done before, you know. I run my own design studio Somos Arte (www.somosarte.com), out of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I came from a background in activism and I don’t have professional education in Fine Arts or in Business Management, but, I grew up in the streets of New York, and I can say that I’ve been able to keep myself busy.

Many people feel that you have to kind of forget your roots, forget of where you come from; and just like Groot you need to have strong roots to actually grow in your career, grow for your family, and be a strong foundation for generations to come. I’m the father of two boys, my son Kian and my son Ennio and what I do in my life is a legacy that I’m leaving for them!

I started my own independent publishing company, Darryl Makes Comics (www.dmc-comics.com) with one of the founding members of RUN DMC, Darryl McDaniels, and we were able to put out a few graphic novels within the last three years, and even last year, I introduced a Puerto Rican superhero, Leticia Lebron aka LAK6. For me it’s important to always include ourselves in the narratives.

So here we are at Marvel, writing a comic book about The Thing, a man that is covered in orange rocks that is part of a group of superheroes that started in 1960′s. It was the first Marvel superhero team, The Fantastic 4. Then, you have a character named Groot that didn’t really reach the level of pop culture recognition until 2014 when Guardians of the Galaxy came out. Here you have two cultural icons, from different generations that represent different things to different people, pero ninguno de los dos son Boricuas. When we had the opportunity to write the story for Marvel, we gave them a pitch for a different story. Darryl immediately said: ‘I want to put Grimm and Groot together,’ and he even said it like they were a rap crew. Immediately yo vi that Darryl was going to be The Thing, who is a character that still talks like he’s a definitive Newyorker. The slang is translated as if he literally still lives on the Lower East Side of NYC. So then I said if we are going to tell a story of The Thing, then we’ll need to bring him to the Lower East Side; and I know about the Lower East Side! My family came from Puerto Rico in the 1950′s, we settled in El Barrio and we also settled on the Lower East Side. So, that neighborhood spoke diversity in a such beautifully unique New York way and I was like: esto se tiene que ver en este cuento, eso se tiene que ver en las páginas, en los dibujos, en los personajes.

Para mi was like: How do I write this story, so that it still feels like it’s been written by me and not just anybody else. I’m like well, if it is going to be written by me, every panel on that page has to be carefully and thoughtfully developed. I took a lot of time to develop what the rest of the story was going to look like. Darryl came up with the idea of pairing Grimm and Groot grouped together and having them on a trip where for the whole trip, se están quejando el uno al otro, peleando, not getting along! And I said: How about they just land in NYC? I wanted so badly to show the projects, I wanted so bad to show public housing. Yes, I wanted to show how public housing units look like! Let me show the building from the outside, they land on the East River, they walk through the projects, everybody’s taking pictures of [Groot]. One of the most important things for me was: How do I write about Groot, so that Groot speaks to me? Groot is an alien tree from Planet X according to the Marvel universe. He’s also the last remaining survivor of his planet; he carries within himself the life essence of his entire race. Now, when I thought about that, I thought a lot about my background.

One of my other madrinas is Dr. Marta Moreno Vega. Marta is an Afro-Boricua herself and she’s also a practicing Yoruba priestess and a professor at NYU. She told me about the Ceiba tree. Yo pienso que para mí hay muchos puntos de mi vida que se conectan de manera muy rara é increíble; she tells me the story about the Ceiba tree. When I was a child, thirteen, fourteen-years-old, I used to live in Puerto Rico, in Ceiba Puerto Rico, so she tells me the story about these trees, these gigantic trees that kind of live above the ground and she also said that these trees are incredibly popular outside of Puerto Rico.

I’d never realized that this fictional character named Groot, although he came from another planet, looked to me like a Ceiba. I thought to myself, this is a cool way to make that connection. This goes back to what I said when we started the conversation José; most of these stories of popular culture in the United States do not speak to us as people of color, as Latinos, as Puerto Ricans. Whenever we do see something about us, carajo, we get super excited! When Gina Rodríguez takes on the role of Jane the Virgin, we eat it up, and thank goodness these type of shows are well produced programs, but there are not many like that, there’s so few. So we find ourselves loving everything that everyone else loves and when we are finally addressed, we can see ourselves, hear ourselves, read about ourselves; and nothing speaks better to us than that!

So when it comes on how you start telling a story, you have to start at the foundation, that consciously speak to us as Puerto Ricans, as human beings. In my story, I want to resonate to my community in NYC and I want it to speak to my experience as a Puerto Rican.

Groot

JR: Do you consider yourself a “ghetto nerd”?

EM: I’ve never even heard of that term! We grew up, and I say we meaning my friends, friends like Junot. We grew up in NYC and we were just nerds, period, you know. But we tried our best to hide our nerdiness by putting on the fly sneakers, the nicest clothing, pero se veía en como hablábamos, en las cosas que nos interesaban por ejemplo. We were nerds, I’ve never called myself a ghetto nerd, I don’t have a problem with that term, but as Puerto Ricans we are already categorized in that way. I don’t think I need to re-categorize myself further. I just say I’m a Puerto Rican nerd, you know.

JR: Who do you consider a hero in Puerto Rican history?

EM: I can’t say just one. Iris Morales, Marta Morena Vega, Lolita Lebrón, Don Pedro Albizu Campos, Eugenio María de Hostos, Julia De Burgos, Alex Schomburg, Arturo Schomburg. Those are just some of my Puerto Rican heroes.

JR: Have you been able or are interested to address topics like sexism, heterosexism, misogyny in your work?

EM: Yes! Actually in the DMC graphic novel we addressed the topic of domestic abuse. When it comes directly to misogyny, what I try to do is to develop characters based on their appearances, being very, very aware on how are they going to be received by the general public. For example, I created Abuela Estela for this first comic with Marvel and I was very conscious that I wanted to introduce a Puerto Rican character. I didn’t want her to be a superhero, I wanted her to be older, and I wanted her to be an Afro-Boricua. I intentionally picked someone older, because the power of abuelas overwhelmingly in our culture, is one where they are caretakers of our heritage, our culture, and our family.

JR: Edgardo Miranda-Rodríguez, hero or villain?

EM: I’m just a father and a husband! I’m just a dude writing stories and taking care of my family.

JR: Oscar López, hero or villain?

EM: Hero!

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José A. Rodríguez, BA Ed, MPA is a Puerto Rican born and raised Bilingual-Bicultural/ ESL teacher for the Randolph Township Schools district who resides in Dover, New Jersey (Morris County). He’s been teaching for 11 years in Puerto Rico, West Palm Beach, FL, New Brunswick, and Paterson, NJ at urban schools attending multicultural communities.

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