Queerness, Latinidad and Joy

Gabby Rivera brings queerness from the Bronx to Marvel universe and to UC Santa Cruz

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“I don’t think we allow ourselves to experience joy,” said queer Latinx writer Gabby Rivera. “A lot of our narratives are centered around oppression and the diaspora and the fact that we are here because of chattel slavery. So it is really important to highlight joy.”

Rivera, the writer of the young adult queer coming-of-age tale “Juliet Takes a Breath,” spoke at Inspiring Radical Creativity on Feb. 12. She is currently writing the plot for America Chavez — the first Latinx and queer Marvel superhero — an intergalactic woman who punches Nazis and has superhuman strength, speed, invulnerability and can travel interdimensionally. Being asked to work with Marvel was a shocking opportunity that humbled and honored her.

“When that [opportunity] had come my way, I had never written a comic before. My first instincts were to be like, ‘No, I don’t know how to do that, I’m gonna fail,’” Rivera said. “As creatives of color, there’s always going to be a time where you’re the first, so sometimes you feel like you shouldn’t be the first.”

Her breakthrough into the world of Marvel led the Lionel Cantú Queer Center and the Merrill Programs Office to bring Rivera to speak to a crowd of about 60 as a “possibility model,” or to show what can be achieved, for individuals who identify as queer and trans people of color.

“The first person to use [possibility models] was Laverne Cox,” said Cantú Queer Center director Travis Becker. “As opposed to role models, of having to fill a certain role, [we are] really carving out new possibilities of having folks like Gabby serve as possibility models.”

Possibility models were introduced to the Latinx queer identity through works like the queer Chicana writer Jean Cordova’s memoir “Why We Were Outlaws,” which discussed gay rights activism and the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s. Rivera saw that she could use the power of language and writing to explore her identity.

“When my little weirdo ass was coming up in the world […] I read [Cordova’s] book and I was floored. Never did I think that queer Latinos existed before myself,” Rivera said.

This theme hits close to home for many at UC Santa Cruz. Fourth-year biology major Camila Jesus attended the event in anticipation of seeing Rivera in person, whose work spoke to her own queer identity. She believes the queer population of color is often marginalized on campus.

“[This event] makes the [LGBTQIA+] community feel more present and welcome,” Jesus said. “It gives us something to relate to.”

“Juliet Takes a Breath” was influential to her own creative writing and experience coming out to her family. Rivera’s themes about embracing her cultural identity felt far-removed from her own life.

“I feel what a lot of daughters and sons of Latinx immigrants feel, which is a disconnect and guilt with our world, and we want to be part of it, but there are so many barriers that we have to cross,” Jesus said. “Not just culturally, but within our own realm with trying to figure out how to grow in the community itself.”

Rivera said it is necessary for queer Latinx artists to find their narratives and unpack the lack of Latinx historic and cultural representation in the U.S. to know the real history that is often obscured.

“Latinx is an identifier that points to something else,” Rivera said. “It’s this thing that you are because you’re here when you were there. But what’s wild is that because there is some way that we’re classified, there is some identity forming. There is something here in this country that is connecting us to here.”