Puerto Rico needs a hero right now. Before Hurricane Maria struck, over 200 schools had closed due to the fiscal crisis, and there were water shortages and electrical shortages — and now, all of these issues are being exacerbated. We need a hero, a voice, and Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez has created that hero, a puertorriqueña named Marisol Rios De La Luz, also known as La Borinqueña.
Miranda-Rodriguez incorporates Puerto Rican history both from the island and the diaspora to tell the story of La Borinqueña, a fictional comic book hero from a real island with real problems. Marisol is a graduate student at Columbia University studying earth and environmental studies. She travels to Puerto Rico in order to finish her senior thesis, and it is on the island that she discovers her powers and develops her identity. More importantly, the comic book — first published in 2016 — tells an eerily prescient story about a hurricane that destroys the island, causing a total blackout and causing Puerto Ricans to express how often they feel forgotten. Miranda-Rodriguez was well aware of the fragile state Puerto Rico was in before Hurricane Maria struck.
“For me, it’s kind of weird and surreal that it’s so relevant,” Miranda-Rodriguez said. “Puerto Rico was long overdue for a natural disaster, given the current debt crisis and the compromised infrastructure of the island, and the amount of devastation [from a natural disaster] would cripple the island. Knowing all of this, I put this into writing a comic book.”
Miranda-Rodriguez first announced the book in summer 2016, after he was invited by the Smithsonian Museum to give a talk to a group of graduate students. Since then he has been on tour for over a year. In addition to being a fan favorite, the book has also been taught in university classrooms. Two doctoral students have featured his book in their doctoral thesis, and Colgate University — Miranda-Rodriguez’s alma mater — taught an entire comic book course.
“I often talk to my wife [Kyung Jeon-Miranda] about a lot of ideas, and run it by her to make sure they’re not corny,” Miranda-Rodriguez said. “She said, 'What if you put a hurricane into the story?' and taking her idea, I fleshed it into the storyline; initially it wasn’t going to be in the story.”
Miranda wrote and released book one of La Borinqueña in 2016; during that year, 1.5 million residents of Puerto Rico experienced a complete blackout for three to five days. Even before Hurricane Maria, Miranda-Rodriguez was well aware of the fragility of Puerto Rico’s infrastructure.
As long as Miranda-Rodriguez has been touring this book, he has been saying, “What’s happening in Puerto Rico is a humanitarian crisis.” For him to hear those words from journalists now, he says, leaves him a little bobo: “I literally feel like Chicken Little."
Since the hurricane, the book has become relevant, not only in informing people of the issues in Puerto Rico, but also teaching the general public about Puerto Rican culture and history. It informs audiences of the feminism that has been alive within the Puerto Rican community, both on the island and in the diaspora.
Front and center vocalizing these important issues is the comic book's protagonist, Marisol. When I asked Miranda about why he made the central character a female superhero, he said he unfortunately gets asked that question more than he would like.
“Were she a man nobody would ask me, 'Why didn’t you make him a woman?' Unfortunately, we’re used to absorbing and consuming popular culture that’s fed to us on a patriarchal menu,” Miranda-Rodriguez said.
“I’m speaking as a man, obviously, but as a man that was mentored by very strong women like Iris Morales, one of the original members of the Young Lords party; Dr. Marta Moreno-Vega, who founded El Museo del Barrio; Francis Lucerna, who was one of the co-founders of El Puente,” Miranda-Rodriguez said. “These are the women that mentored me, these are the women that shaped me to become the man that I am today, the father that I am, the husband that I am to my wife. And for me there was never a debate, man or woman. Nunca.”
Miranda-Rodriguez explained that for him, Puerto Rico has always been a maternal entity. “The name La Borinqueña came instantly because it resonated perfectly; it literally means the Puerto Rican woman. To me, it’s the most powerful name a character can have that really exudes unapologetic patriotism,” Miranda-Rodriguez said.
La Borinqueña is unapologetically patriotic. This is showcased in her costume, her language, in how she looks and how she obtains her powers. She is the first superhero that is distinctively linked to Taino mythology, the indigenous population on the island of Puerto Rico before Spanish conquest. She receives her power from the Taino gods, and in her free time dances bomba, the Afro-Puerto Rican cultural dance from the island. “She completely embraces the true powerful mix that is puertorriqueño,” Miranda-Rodriguez said, “and she is an Afro-boricua because that is one of the strongest presences on our island."
Miranda-Rodriguez celebrates la herencia puertorriqueña, as well as what it means to be a Puerto Rican. A part of that celebration is celebrating her strength, and not her “exoticness,” nor does he over-sexualize her.
“I make sure the artists do not draw her standing in a provocative pose, or even conveniently her cape lifts up at this exact moment, or her leg is this way at this exact moment,” Miranda-Rodriguez said. "Everything is deliberate in comics, just like in film. So I choose to position her in a way that you never see anything that could be perceived as provocative, or erotic, or sexualized. I look at her when she’s drawn as how Superman would be drawn, literally.”
This autonomy over the drawing of women in comics is refreshing. “You never see a male character tilting the torso just to the right so that the hips pops out, a dude never does that. That’s not the way I want my character portrayed. Also just because she’s a hero, she is not 6’7" with a negative 12 waist, she is about 5’6" with maybe a size 6 or 8 waist. It’s about healthy body image; you don’t have to be super skinny to be healthy. She could have the body that she has and still be healthy.”
Marisol is not only La Borinqueña with amazing superpowers, she is also a scientist. This detail was very important to the author. Miranda-Rodriguez says he wanted to make sure she would grow as a character, and was careful not to superimpose his own thoughts on the politics of the environment or Puerto Rico.
“What I wanted to do with her story was present the objective truth,” Miranda-Rodriguez said. Most readers don’t know all the history of Puerto Rico, and neither does the book's protagonist. Through images and language, Miranda-Rodriguez presents what is happening objectively.
“We don’t sit in front of each other eating sancoho and waxing poetic, we just don’t,” Miranda-Rodriguez said. “So I didn’t want her story to be that as well. For her, her narrative it is important. As her story grows into future books there’s a lot of space for me to explore.”
The first book covered many of the problems the island is currently facing, and Miranda-Rodriguez says the second book will focus more on the rebuilding of Puerto Rico, and what those challenges mean to Marisol's identity, echoing how those of us in the diaspora feel.
Since the time we were given American citizenship, we’ve always been received as second class citizens, says Miranda-Rodriguez. “Because of the platform this book is giving me to talk, I am very mindful of what I do and what I think."
He has used this platform not only to bring light to issues happening in Puerto Rico, but also to work with organizations in order to raise money for Corporacion Piñones Integra (COPI) and Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education, both groups helping hurricane victims. In addition, Miranda-Rodriguez has also launched a t-shirt featuring La Borinqueña, and 100% of the t-shirt sales go to hurricane relief. Before Maria hit, Miranda-Rodriguez was working with these groups in order to raise money for homes that were destroyed by Irma, now it will also help victims affected by Maria.
“I continue to advocate that this rebuilding process is not something that is going to be done in the next few weeks,” Miranda-Rodriguez said. “This is going to take months, years to rebuild. Literally, it will take as much time for those leaves to grow back on the palm trees, the flowers to blossom once again on the flamboyan, and the amapolas to shine their crimson petals under the beautiful sun.”
He is right; there is no band-aid solution. It will take time. Miranda-Rodriguez is not only working on La Borinqueña, he also designed the artwork for “Almost Like Praying,” the hurricane relief song composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda (no relation). In addition at this year’s New York Comic Con, Miranda-Rodriguez unveiled book one of comedy legend John Leguizamo's first comic book, Freak, which Miranda-Rodriguez art directed (with artwork by Chris Batista, Chris Sotomayor, Sabrina Cintron and Adrian Martínez). Although he is doing all of these amazing collaborations, the most important project to him is La Borinqueña.
“Working on La Boriqueña speaks specifically to who I am, and it speaks to fundamentally the humanity of who I am, the passion I have for being a puertorriqueño, the constant reminder that I come from a legacy of resilient people, that we will overcome this hurricane, just as we overcame the Ponce massacre, just as we overcame Vieques. La Borinqueña, she is an ambassador for real people.”
Top image by Sabrina Cintron
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Isabel Dieppa is a writer and actor. She is a part of the performance duo Of This World in Chicago, IL. Her interests lie in science, art, and history. Past writing includes interning for the Chicago Field Museum ECCO program, the national theater blog HOWLROUND, music reviews for UR Chicago, and in a former life was a beat reporter for the Indiana Daily Student. She loves archaeology, kitties, and dancing. The next big adventure may include an archaeological dig in Peru. Follow her on twitter @isabelsdieppa