Autumn 2016
By Aleta Mayne

 

With La Borinqueña, his new Afro-Latina superheroine, Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez ’93 is taking the world by storm.

Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez mimics a superhero changing into costume by posing dramatically while loosening his tie

Photo by Danny Hastings

Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez ’93 likes to joke that he’s gone from desgraciado (disgraceful one) to destacado (distinguished one). At this summer’s National Puerto Rican Day Parade, Miranda-Rodriguez was an honoree — alongside actress Rosario Dawson and NBA player Carmelo Anthony. Miranda-Rodriguez had been named the 2016 Outstanding Boricua (Puerto Rican). Eighteen years ago, it was a whole different story.

In 1998, he was “a red-hot radical,” Miranda-Rodriguez said. He was part of a group called Muevete (Move) that was invited to participate in the parade, held annually in New York City. At the time, Puerto Rico’s governor, Pedro Rosselló, was looking to privatize some of the island’s industry.

“We were a group of activists focused on raising awareness of Puerto Rican issues,” Miranda-Rodriguez said. “We decided to make a political statement.” Marching up Fifth Avenue, Muevete members chanted while carrying a banner that read “PUERTO RICO IS NOT FOR SALE.” Agitated by the disruption, the then-president of the parade descended from the VIP stands and started tugging at their signage. He ordered the mounted police officers on the sidelines to corral the group off the route, which they did using a fluorescent-orange net.

“Remember when we got kicked out of the parade?” Miranda-Rodriguez’s longtime friend Melissa Mark-Viverito asked him at the 2016 parade press conference. They’ve both gained prominence after being in Muevete together. She is now the speaker of the New York City Council — the first Puerto Rican and Latina to hold a citywide elected position. In her press conference speech with the honorees, she noted the irony of the two of them being treated remarkably different that day.

Miranda-Rodriguez, meanwhile, has been spotlighted by every major media outlet — from Telemundo to the Times — for his creation of the Afro-Latina superheroine La Borinqueña. His latest form of activism, she represents an amalgamation of the issues he holds close to his heart. One of them continues to be drawing attention to Puerto Rico, whose economy now suffers more than ever with a crippling debt crisis.

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CULTIVATION AND GROWTH

As a kid growing up in the South Bronx, Miranda-Rodriguez was captivated by comic books and funded his collection by returning bottles. He liked to copy the characters, so friends persuaded him to turn his notebook doodles into comic books for them. Miranda-Rodriguez’s hobby, which he called “pure escapism,” also sustained him through tumultuous times — particularly being uprooted from New York City and moving to Puerto Rico as a teen.

“It was difficult to acclimate to, because I went from living in a very urban environment to a rural neighborhood in a small town called San Lorenzo,” he said. “I was miserable, and I didn’t understand the language.”

“One of my favorite groups was Run DMC. It’s crazy that thirty years later, DMC [Darryl McDaniels] is my business partner, and we’re running our own publishing company.”

Miranda-Rodriguez ended up moving in with his uncle, Joaquin, who would forever change his life. “He transformed my view of what it meant to be Puerto Rican,” Miranda-Rodriguez said.

In his backyard, Joaquin grew plantains, starfruit, breadfruit, avocados, and more. “He had just a little plot of land, but he was able to till so much from that earth,” Miranda-Rodriguez said. “He showed me the value and power of nature.” Joaquin was also deeply rooted in the church and plugged in politically. “He showed me a connection to the island that I had never experienced before,” Miranda-Rodriguez said. “It stayed with me.”

Miranda-Rodriguez spent just under a year living in Puerto Rico before his family moved to Syracuse, N.Y., where he attended high school. In the mid-’80s, anti-apartheid protests at nearby universities awakened the young Miranda-Rodriguez to social justice issues. It foreshadowed his future — as did his taste in music. “One of my favorite groups was Run DMC,” he said. “It’s crazy that thirty years later, DMC [Darryl McDaniels] is my business partner, and we’re running our own publishing company.”

 

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BUDDING ACTIVIST

At Colgate, Miranda-Rodriguez remembers himself as “an artful radical on the fringes,” but the sociology and anthropology major was quite woven into the fiber of the university. A leader in both the ALANA Cultural Center and La Casa, he organized events and fostered the community among students of color.

Silvia Alvarez ’96 recalls meeting him through the Office of Undergraduate Studies (OUS) program, which eases incoming students’ transition to college during the summer before their first year. “Edgardo made himself available to make sure we were supported as newcomers to Colgate,” Alvarez said. Miranda-Rodriguez took on a big brother role, introducing the OUS students to the various student organizations and activities that were available. “Empowering a community is just ingrained in him,” added Alvarez, who today is the head of marketing and communications at New York Law School as well as the former press secretary for Senator Cory Booker.

 

La Casa Pan-Latina Americana

This 1993 Salmagundi photo shows a sign that Miranda-Rodriguez re-painted to change the name from La Residencia Hispanica to La Casa Pan-Latina Americana, reflecting the group’s desire for a more accurately representative name
Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez (seated in the middle, wearing a Malcolm X hat) with friends in the Coop, 1993

 

 

Through his Colgate experience, Miranda-Rodriguez was also feeling empowered himself. “Colgate gave me the opportunity to expand my awareness and knowledge of my own culture,” he said. He gained a better understanding of Latin America’s history and became fluent in Spanish, thanks to the prodding of Professor Lourdes Rojas-Paiewonsky. “Studying under her helped me to become the bilingual orator that I am today” — a boon for doing recent media interviews in both languages, Miranda-Rodriguez said.

“Edgardo was a gentle and respectful student,” Rojas-Paiewonsky recalled. “I remember his creativity and his desire to do more, yet he wasn’t completely sure then of what it would be.”

At graduation, he received the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. ’30 Award, which recognizes the person who enriches the students of color community. “That was the ultimate honor I could have received from the university,” Miranda-Rodriguez said, “given the work that Adam Clayton Powell Jr. did for the Civil Rights movement.”

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FROM GRASSROOTS TO THE GALAXY

After spending six years at the Brooklyn-based grassroots organization El Puente as an events coordinator and arts instructor for its high school, Miranda-Rodriguez got into graphic design. In 2010, he founded his design studio Somos Arte (We are art). He wanted to use his artistic skills to help the nonprofit groups he’d worked with get more visibility. Somos Arte also ended up attracting bigger-name clients like Marvel and HBO.

Miranda-Rodriguez was invited to curate two exhibitions for Marvel — both of which highlighted diversity in comic books.

“People were excited that there was a Latino creating Latino characters for Marvel, discussing issues of diversity within the pages of a comic book.”
— Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez

“Edgardo was able to open [the] eyes of people who were not familiar with how the world of comic art was so multicultural,” Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer José Quesada told the New York Times in 2010. “It’s not just guys in capes, but socially relevant content.”

Another pivotal moment for Miranda-Rodriguez came a few years ago when he met fellow comic book buff Darryl DMC McDaniels, of Run DMC fame. They teamed up to start their own company, Darryl Makes Comics, of which McDaniels is the publisher and Miranda-Rodriguez is the art director and editor-in-chief. Marvel gave them a shot with their idea for Guardians of Infinity, a comic book spinoff of the Guardians of the Galaxy film. The book featured the Thing (from Fantastic Four) and Groot, a treelike character who spoke Spanish. Surprisingly, Miranda-Rodriguez’s character that attracted the most attention was Abuela Estela. She saved Groot by educating him about his ancestors, the ceiba trees, which have been long venerated by Puerto Rico’s indigenous people.

“People were excited that there was a Latino creating Latino characters for Marvel, discussing issues of diversity within the pages of a comic book,” Miranda-Rodriguez said.

All of a sudden, Puerto Rican organizations came out of the woodwork to express interest in Miranda-Rodriguez, who is still owner and art director of Somos Arte as well as an illustrator and scriptwriter. The Puerto Rican Day Parade board approached him about doing something for this year’s event, but they didn’t know what. How about a table where he’d sell comic books? Miranda-Rodriguez envisioned something with more Pow! Thus, La Borinqueña was born.

Sample page of comic book in which the hero reflects on her environmentalism while flying over the ocean

©2016 Somos Arte, LLC. All rights reserved.

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WEATHERING THE STORM

Meet Marisol Rios de la Luz, an environmental studies major at Columbia University. She lives in Williamsburg (like her creator) but is studying abroad in Puerto Rico.

“‘Marisol’ means ‘sea and sun’ in Spanish. My last name means ‘rivers of light,’” she explains by way of introduction in La Borinqueña #1, Miranda-Rodriguez’s new comic book that will be released in December. “I wonder if my parents always knew what I’d become.”

In the opening to the story, Marisol — a.k.a. La Borinqueña — is swimming underwater, leading leatherback sea turtles to the shore of Luquillo Beach. There, Puerto Ricans await the turtles’ arrival for the annual El Festival del Tinglar, which celebrates the animals’ nesting. It’s not explicitly stated that La Borinqueña needs to help the turtles because climate change has affected the tide, but the dialogue hints at the underlying message. It’s the first example of how Miranda-Rodriguez slips subtle messages into his script. “This island, my island, changed me forever,” she continues. “It was a rough start.” The words could have come from the creator’s own thought bubble.

“I wanted her to be a realistic woman; a healthy, full-figured woman. And it’s resonating — especially with women of color — because they love the fact that she has hips and a wide waist. I often hear ‘she looks like me.’” — Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez

Like most superheroes, La Borinqueña gains her powers accidentally, while exploring a cave one stormy night for fieldwork. The mother goddess Atabex appears, telling Marisol that the island is suffering and needs a champion. Atabex summons her sons Huracan and Yucahu to grant Marisol her powers. Huracan tells her: “You shall fly with my winds, control my storms as your own.” Yucahu bellows: “Show me the strength of the sea and mountains!”

In most other ways, La Borinqueña is unlike traditional superheroes. The obvious differences are the color of her skin and the way she is shaped. “I wanted her to be a realistic woman; a healthy, full-figured woman,” Miranda-Rodriguez said. “And it’s resonating — especially with women of color — because they love the fact that she has hips and a wide waist. I often hear ‘she looks like me.’”

Miranda-Rodriguez also wanted her to have a practical outfit — like male superheroes. “I looked at Superman’s costume and thought, all you see are his hands, face, and neck,” he said. “So why is it that on Wonder Woman you see pretty much everything else — with high heels, a bustier, and a bikini bottom?” Raised by a single mom and noting that all of his real-life superheroes are women, Miranda-Rodriguez has respect for the opposite sex that shines through in his work. His characters are influenced by the women in his family — Marisol is named after his sister — and those who have mentored him.

Sample comic strip in which the heroine leads sea turtles to the proper beach

©2016 Somos Arte, LLC. All rights reserved.

With a red, white, and blue costume that is modeled after the commonwealth’s revolutionary flag, La Borinqueña also symbolizes her creator’s Puerto Rican pride. She is even named after Puerto Rico’s national anthem.

Through this character, Miranda-Rodriguez has been bringing attention to the island’s current debt crisis caused by a $70 billion burden. Years in the making, the recession has come to a head as residents face layoffs, school closings, and eroding public services — including hospitals as they try to control the Zika outbreak. Puerto Ricans are leaving the island for mainland United States en masse — an average of 230 people per day, CNN reported in May.

“This became an opportunity to create a character that can connect to a real, relevant, social, historical, political issue,” Miranda-Rodriguez said. “It reminded me of why Captain America was created in the 1940s.”

“This became an opportunity to create a character that can connect to a real, relevant, social, historical, political issue. It reminded me of why Captain America was created in the 1940s.” — Edgardo Miranda-Rodriquez

In the comic book, there is no overt text about the debt crisis, but signs of the recession appear: a national park is closed, university employees have been laid off, a newspaper headline reads “Crisis todavia afecta P.R.” (Crisis still affects P.R.). “The way I’m presenting it, she’s not taking so much of a position as her story is putting it out there to be absorbed and digested by the audience,” Miranda-Rodriguez explained. Drawing an analogy to how he learned about his heritage, he added that his goal is to present the information and hope that people become empowered.

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WINDS OF CHANGE

Superman didn’t appear in a parade until more than a year after he was introduced, while La Borinqueña premiered on a float before her comic book was even released, the New York Times noted. And, before she made her debut at the Puerto Rican Day Parade, media outlets including the Washington Post were already writing about her.

Wanting a woman to represent the superheroine not just in looks but also principles, Miranda-Rodriguez asked Stephanie Llanes to dress as La Borinqueña for the parade. A recent University of California, Berkeley School of Law graduate, Llanes just started working at the Center for Constitutional Rights. To add to the character’s authenticity, Miranda-Rodriguez hired a professional costume maker to create her outfit based on his design illustration.

Stephanie Llanes as the character La Borinqueña at the 59th National Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York City, June 12, 2016. Photo by Glynnis Jones

Stephanie Llanes as the character La Borinqueña at the 59th National Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York City, June 12, 2016. Photo by Glynnis Jones

It all came together on June 12. Miranda-Rodriguez brought his two sons and his wife, Kyung Jeon-Miranda (who’s Korean-American), to sit with him and La Borinqueña atop the float. But being perched up there didn’t feel right, he realized. The creator turned to his superheroine: “Why don’t we interact with the people?” They climbed down and walked into the crowd. “All these boys and girls — black, brown children — threw up their arms to get a hug from La Borinqueña,” he recalled. She embraced them and encouraged the children to “Show me your superpowers!” — to which they proudly displayed their mini-biceps.

“It was amazingly beautiful experience,” reflected Miranda-Rodriguez — who had become the destacado.

 

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Illustration of La BorinqueñaThere’s been an attempt to improve representations of diversity in the comic book world recently. The new Iron Man is a female 15-year-old black MIT student. Batwoman has been rewritten as a Jewish lesbian. Marvel introduced Kamala Khan, a Pakistani Muslim. And even Disney just released its first Latina princess. La Borinqueña, however, isn’t just a revised version of an existing character. She’s an original.

 

La Borinqueña #1 is available for preorder at laborinquena.somosarte.com

 

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