By Emily Pantoja, Office for Equity and Diversity
Note: This article was originally published in People & Places.
Ask Gabby Rivera (she/her) to describe her essence, and she’ll self-identify as queer, Latinx, nerdburger, and storyteller among other attributes; but greater than that, her Women’s Week Keynote address showed us all what an inspiration extraordinaire she is. Her beginning statement, “This is gonna be fun because I don’t really know how else to do stuff,” could not possibly prepare the audience for how enraptured they would become with Rivera’s work and her energy.
She first acknowledged the loaded nature of the word “queer.” To Rivera, it’s a magical gift from the universe that gives her the ability to reimagine the world around her through the additional lens of also being Latinx. Perhaps most important to Rivera’s work is the ability to experience joy that goes beyond capitalist feel-good culture. Super-easy topics to tackle, right? When you’ve lived experiences like Rivera’s, you might know a thing or two about what it takes to find joy.
For a major period of her life, Rivera wasn’t sure she would live long enough to experience it. Growing up as an Evangelical Pentacostal Protestant made Rivera doubt her chances of surviving her queerness; but she found the ability to be weird and free within her own writing. In her first novel, Juliet Takes a Breath, she explored how it felt to be Puerto Rican and queer with the understanding that she isn’t a monolith and her story wouldn’t match everybody’s. Regardless, putting a little piece of herself out in the world in the form Juliet opened up a lot for Rivera such as the ability to heal, embrace her magic, and of course become Marvel’s first Latinx writer.
Contrary to popular belief, Rivera didn’t create the Marvel superhero, America Chavez. She credited the conception of the portal-punching powerhouse to “two white guys,” to which she expressed her thanks. However, Rivera evolved her from a generic Latinx figure into one celebrating her truth. She modified her costume to resemble the “femme” style Rivera likes and refuses to italicize the Spanish words and phrases she incorporates into America’s language. Rivera also challenges the idea of the typical family. America boasts two mothers and a luchador abuela who can also punch portals. When’s the last time you saw a grandma superhero?
Rivera’s inspiration for these characters is a message. “If you wait for the greater society to make your heroes important, you’ll be waiting a long time.” You don’t know who Sonia Sotomayor or Neil DeGrasse Tyson is? Look them up, because America Chavez is just as big in Rivera’s eyes. She utilizes these names as incentives for queer and Latinx kids, encouraging them to discover their history among the heroes their white, cisgendered counterparts see every day on billboards and dollar bills.
As much as America is an icon for young people, her story is also a catalyst for reflection. When America is taken into custody and stripped of her powers, her classmates rally in her defense. They’re met with some tiki-torch-wielding peers trying to shut them down, mirroring the events of the 2017 protests in Charlottesville. It’s within moments like these that Rivera sees her work as an opportunity to situate America as a parallel to real events affecting queer, Latinx, and marginalized communities. For them, it’s nearly impossible to not become lost and exhausted from sustaining a constant fight.
In response to our reality, Rivera’s work with characters like Juliet and America are examples of the philosophy she wants to impart, especially on fellow writers. She advises, “Start with what you know.” You can utilize your stories as vessels of inclusivity that, once shared, provide a platform for yourself and others to ascend. When Rivera is lost, she looks to her ancestors and remembers that she has a right to tell her stories. If nothing else, Rivera hopes that through this work you may remember a time where you felt joy and hopes that those who haven’t felt it will one day find it.