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Connecting Storytelling with Philanthropic Work - An Interview with EDGARDO MIRANDA-RODRIGUEZ

With less than 48 hours remaining for the ZOOP campaign, CBY Contributor Andrew spoke with Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez about La Borinqueña.


COMIC BOOK YETI: ¡Bienvenido, Edgardo! We’re happy to have you join us in the Yeti Cave today. First and foremost, it would be great to discuss the special place La Borinqueña has claimed in positive portrayal of a voice emerging from within the Puerto Rican/Nuyorican community. At what point in your career of activism did you conceive of this character, and what were important mile-markers along the journey towards releasing the first book in 2016, in terms of the character/narrative development process, and who from your day-to-day life helped shape the world that has resulted from your efforts?

EDGARDO MIRANDA-RODRIGUEZ: Prior to creating the character La Borinqueña I have been actively involved in New York City as an activist in the Puerto Rican/Latiné community. At a young age, I was art director of the award-winning documentary 'Pa'lante Siempre Pa'lante: The Young Lords," a film about a group of Puerto Rican activists from the late 1960s to the mid 1970s. I was also a high school teacher in Brooklyn and combined with my work as an activist and artist gave me the foundation to see the value in creating stories that spoke to my heritage and that of 9 million Puerto Ricans from the Caribbean archipelago to across the U.S. It was in late 2015 that I became concerned with the economic crisis in Puerto Rico, an $80 billion debt that led to a humanitarian crisis. Austerity measures were implemented under the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) that lead to school and hospital closures, tuition increase at the public university, and more. This was something beyond what Lex Luthor could have conjured, and something Superman couldn't solve with his Kryptonian powers. However, a superhero who drew her powers from the mysticism of Puerto Rican's ancient Taino goddesses and gods? That to me spoke of potentially a storyline that could draw people in.

CBY: I was particularly excited to interview you over this project when I learned about it, given the similarities in terms of colonial overreach and systemic oppression faced by both Puerto Rico, where you’ve built La Borinqueña into an icon, and the Marshall Islands, where I’ve been working with Marshallese students and educators on a similar initiative. After watching your io9 interview (part 1 and 2), I wondered - can you elaborate a bit on what achieving decoloniality in narrative spaces entails? You mention Nuevo Ricans and the return from diaspora - how can positive cultural feedback loops be created and broader benefit be realized, particularly when systematic inequalities are perpetuated by the economic policies of the United States to the direct marginalization of island communities?

EMR: Decolonized storytelling involves active deconstructive writing practices. Traditionally superhero narratives for close to a century have centered around the white male point of view. I went into creating La Borinqueña knowing that these stories needed to be told from a matriarchal perspective with a direct connection to untapped mythologies. I decided that tropes typically found in science fiction and superhero stories are at their core connected to a reality in Puerto Rico. Government corruption, corporate greed, environmental natural disasters, all do not need the machinations of a megalomaniacal supervillain. I researched, interviewed, lived in Puerto Rico, and created relationships with non-profit organizations that are on the ground engaged in transformative work. These conversations with these activists and artists gave me an insight to a world that I wanted to create in the pages of our graphic novels so that readers globally could find a way to relate to Puerto Ricans and see themselves in my characters. What sets apart my storytelling from others is a direct connection to philanthropic work. These relationships we've cultivated over the past 7 years via $200,000 in micro-grants we have awarded has allowed us to create a new form of activism and social justice that is rooted in investing in long-term solutions.

CBY: Having lived in Fiji for over a decade, dealing with our own Category 5 storm (Cyclone Winston) a year and a half before Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, I’m curious about your perspective regarding grassroots engagement and creating resilience in island systems to reduce vulnerability to these natural hazard events of increasing intensity - how do we respond to calls to “build back better” from international bodies who act in the interest of perpetuating systems of inequality? How do you prepare stories for La Borinqueña to effectively deliver added social value while writing scenarios both targeted to the Puerto Rican community and broadly relatable to a global audience?

EMR: I touched on this in my previous answer, but I'll add to it. My partner Kyung Jeon-Miranda is the Director of our La Borinqueña Grant Awards She, our advisers, and myself vet organizations that reflect values represented in La Borinqueña and our stories. You can see what we mean when you see the groups we've been supporting over these years.

CBY: La Borinqueña is clearly one piece of your broader social engagement and activism work. How can island communities use art and storytelling more effectively to communicate necessary information and issue calls to action? What methods of media production and distribution do you find most effective at achieving social awareness and instigating societal change?

EMR: I only know from publishing graphic novels. It's a medium I'm familiar with and a fan of. As a storyteller, it's also only within our studio's resources to produce. Therefore, I can speak to the effectiveness of these graphic novels as they are used by educators from primary through graduate schools to engage students with intersectional topics. Once the books are in the hands of the readers, they are empowered to use them as tools. Right now we're working with one of our grant recipients, Resilient Power Puerto Rico, to engage a cohort of organizers that we've provided them with a grant with to train. I'll be engaging them in a conversation about the power of graphic design and storytelling to bring in an audience. Imagery pulls you in, art provides you sustenance, and the work you perform creates sustainable and transformative change.

CBY: I’ve repeatedly seen this meme joking about Captain America’s costume design indicating it’d be more accurate to call him Captain Puerto Rico, and the costume you’ve selected for Marisol definitely draws upon the flag design. Was it clear from the start what you wanted to achieve with the character’s costume, or did you go through a variety of iterations? When not in superheroine guise, what other considerations go into the clothing and costuming choices for your characters to strengthen their visual identity with readers?

EMR: I was inspired by two different Puerto Rican flags created by women. The first flag by Mariana Bracetti was for the short-lived Republic of Puerto Rico after the revolution in Lares, Puerto Rico against the Spanish empire in 1868. The second flag was created in New York City by Mimi Besosa and unfurled in 1895. The history of the flags are lost to a larger audience, but the iconography is recognizable by most. Tapping into patriotism and nationalism was key in creating La Borinqueña's costume. As Puerto Ricans, we either are or are descendants of colonized people. At one point in our history our flag was outlawed. Waving our flag unbeknownst to most that own one is in itself a political statement. Therefore, a character's look is important in her story but also beyond the sequential pages. With social media, I know that La Borinqueña is far more recognized by millions over the tens of thousands that have actually read the graphic novels, and I see the power in that visibility too.

CBY: You’d mentioned the partnership with DC allowing for co-branding and affording a deep dive into their pool of characters to initiate appearances of La Borinqueña alongside the likes of Wonder Woman and Superman. How does a relationship like that come together in practical terms around retention of rights, revenue split, and the delegation of authority around creative and editorial control of appearances of pre-existing characters with closely dictated intellectual property management while you’re trying to achieve specific goals and deliver specific messages with a character of your creation?

EMR: This was a project of the right people in the right room at the right time. Since Ricanstruction, DC Comics has a new president, publisher, and editor-in-chief. However, that contract we created remains intact. We own the copyright of that book, the collection of stories in that anthology. It will only exist as a paperback book, and 100% of the revenue from that sales to this day go towards our continued philanthropic work in Puerto Rico and it remains to be 5 years later our best-selling title.

CBY: Not only does La Borinqueña delve into the realm of eco-fiction and a variety of social issues within the narrative, it does so with practical connections to on-the-ground philanthropic action in Puerto Rico. The La Borinqueña website mentions the grant program, the partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and other initiatives, but can you share more of the sort of tangible impacts you’re seeing as a direct consequence of this narrative being packaged, printed, and sold for fundraising purposes? I’m very curious, both generally on the topic of community-owned intellectual property (and from my perspective of trying to organize viable financing for creative writing and art projects with colleagues in the Marshall Islands) - what sort of business/financial structure have you found most effective for ensuring the production of comics continues to raise revenue to support additional social equity efforts at a grassroots-level?

EMR: I consider the work that I and Kyung do with La Borinqueña to still be a work in progress. This model we have created doesn't exist before us. What we have seen is that over the years, collaborations have produced the most viable projects for us. Our hope is that the precedent set by DC Comics, and our most recent partnership with NRDC opens others to seeing the viability of working with us. Our books inspire readers of all generations and give back in a very real way.

CBY: Part of the character launch in 2016 included casting La Borinqueña for a live-action event at the Puerto Rican Day Parade detailed following this recent ABC Tiempo interview in New York City, and you worked with Boss Fight Studios on releasing a 1:12 scale action figure. Can you detail the process of coordinating and delivering on these multimedia efforts beyond the

EMR: Working with Boss Fight Studio is a childhood dream come true. As a child, I'd create paper dolls of my favorite superheroes because we were too poor to buy toys. Seeing that these full-articulated collector action figures are now in production, exhibiting the prototypes in art galleries, is beyond what I could have wished for. Our hope is that our fans continue to support these endeavors as we take our characters and charity work into spaces that typically do not operate in this manner. We're trying to change the game, bring the 'hero' back into superheroes, by making the consumer an active participant in our movement.

CBY: Though I’ve most of my adult life in island environments, I’m what’s called in Fiji a kaivalagi (from the land of foreigners) - so my connection to indigenous perspectives is limited to my ability to listen and learn. Migration, mobility, and holistic positional value of unique island spaces is a key element of my research work, and earlier we touched upon decoloniality - Martina Ferrari writes eloquently on how voicing and silence are tools for power - while the dialogue slides in and out of English and Spanish throughout the text of La Borinqueña in a rather seamless way aided by visual context, can you give readers some insight into the full breadth of Taíno culture and its influences on the motifs and themes of the stories? Since the indigenous language is extinct but permutations of culture persist, what more can you tell us about the pre-colonial history of Puerto Rico and the manner in which it imbues the character of this narrative world?

EMR: Much of my interpretation of Taíno culture is inspired by my academic background in anthropology. I've read and researched. The other most important part of my work is embracing speculative fiction. Due to colonization, a lot of Taíno art, history, language is very sparce. I draw inspiration and fill in the gaps with my fictional storytelling. I don't profess to be a historian, though I love reading history. I'm a graphic novelist and tell stories. My hopes are that my stories inspire others to do a deeper dive into different spaces as well.

CBY: Finally, we always offer our guests the opportunity to take a step back and reflect on other media out there on the landscape. What were your largest aesthetic influences growing up that led into the creation of La Borinqueña? Separately, what media are you into when you’re not working on your own material? What’s keeping your interest and attention in the world of comics, art, film, literature, and music?

EMR: I listen to Radio Universidad de Puerto Rico, public radio. I listen to WNYC's La Brega produced by Alana Casanovas Burgess. I follow Bianca Graalau's independent journalism. I listen to Ile, Rubén Blades, PJ Sin Suela, Residente, Bad Bunny, Héctor Lavoe, and more. I frequent art exhibitions at Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico, the recent Whitney's no existe un mundo poshuracán: Puerto Rican Art in the Wake of Hurricane Maria. I also read my 8 year old son Ennio's comic books. He co-created our newest superhero Oro el Coqui Dorado who had his spin-off this past spring and would be very excited to read his name in your article. :)

CBY: Thank you for making the time to discuss your work on La Borinqueña, Edgardo! Please include any links and social media accounts below you’d like our readers to check out, and we look forward to seeing what you come up with next!

Edgardo Miranda-Rodiguez Philanthropist • Graphic Novelist • Creative Director Twitter/Instagram: @MrEdgardoNYC Twitter: @LaBorinquena_GN Intagram: @LaBorinquenaComics

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