At no point did I think superheroes would become such a huge part of my life. As a kid, I looked at them, and I saw everything I wasn't. They had big muscles, supermodel good looks, and phenomenal cosmic powers. And me? I kind of looked like this, except shorter and with frizzier hair, and I never felt powerful. I was always just one big ball of nervous, soft energy, and superheroes, much like the bullies at school, didn't seem to have a lot of room for that, for me. So I stayed away. And besides, who needs superheroes when you're surrounded by Puerto Rican women from the Bronx?
My tias were cops and paramedics, my abuelas were seamstresses and sold jewelry up the street, and my mom got her master's degree in education and taught kindergarten in New York City public schools for over 30 years. So my superheroes were sitting around the dinner table with me.
And I don't know how much time you've spent with Puerto Rican women from the Bronx, but we're also some of the world's greatest storytellers. And I'd sit there at my grandmother's dining room table and I'd listen to the women in my family tell these wild, rambunctious tales about navigating their lives in the Bronx. And I wanted to be them so bad. But I wasn't tough like them either. So mostly, I listened, and I soaked it in, and I found myself gravitating to the soft threads in their stories, and I wrote those down. The funny, the goofy, the gentle—those were my in to storytelling, so much so that I wrote a young-adult novel called "Juliet Takes a Breath," about a chubby, queer Puerto Rican girl from the Bronx navigating sexuality, family and identity. And on the strength of "Juliet," Marvel Comics tapped me to write the solo series for their first-ever Latina lesbian superhero, America Chavez.
Yeah! Listen, OK. Created by Joe Casey and Nick Dragotta for the Marvel miniseries "Vengeance," America Chavez has been in the Marvel Universe for over seven years. She's tough, Latina, and she's so strong that she can punch portals into other dimensions. I know, right?
And people were so excited, because finally, someone who shared her identities—queer and Latina—would be writing her story. And I saw that, right? And also, when I looked at America, I saw a young Latina in survival mode. See, because her moms had sacrificed themselves to the universe when she was a kid, and she'd been on her own ever since. No wonder she had to be tough. And that link, that link of having to be tough, that rested heavy with me. Like I said, I'm from the Bronx, and the Bronx is tough, tough like walking past sidewalk memorials and dodging cop towers on your way to the train type of tough. When stuff happens that's bad, people are like, "Yo, you gotta keep it moving. You gotta keep trucking. Don't cry. Don't let it get to you." And my mom and my tías and my abuelas, I never saw them take a moment to rest or to invest in self-care. And their soft? It never left the house.
And so that was the first thing that I wanted to give to America, the thing that I wished I'd been able to give to my abuelas and my tias, the thing that I'm trying to give to my mom now: permission to be soft. Like, it's OK to sit in silence and go on a journey just to discover yourself, and your pain will make you crumble and you will fall and you will need to ask people for help, and that's OK, and that being vulnerable is good for us.
But see, I didn't come to all this compassion and healing stuff like, you know, out of nowhere, and so when it came to America's story, I wanted to give her the space to be human, to mess up, and to find soft on her own.
So she kind of had to quit her day job. You know what I'm saying? I had to give her a superhero sabbatical, and the first thing I did was enroll her in Justice Sonia Sotomayor University.
Because where else would she feel safe and represented and liberated but a university dedicated to the first Puerto Rican woman nominated to the Supreme Court of the United States? And her first class is "Intergalactic Revolutionaries and You," and America is so excited, she's ready to show off her strength, she's ready to show off her portal-punching skills, and I stripped that safety net from her right away. And I limited her powers, and I changed up her location and shook up her world, because that is what college is like, especially if you're alone. But I didn't want America to be alone for long, and so in a homework assignment gone totally wrong, she lands on a battlefield with the X-Men.
Because, when I was in college, the Reverend Kelly Brown Douglas was my mentor, and I knew that America Chavez needed one, too. And who better to mentor America Chavez than Storm, the first black female superhero and one of the most powerful members of the X-Men? Nobody, that's who.
And Storm teaches America how to quiet her mind inside of a star portal, and when America quiets her mind, she opens up the dimensions, and in that silence, she can listen for anything and anyone. And no one has ever offered her silence and deep reflection as a way to be powerful. And at first, she rejects it, but with Storm's encouragement, it clicks, and America quiets the world around her, and she leans into a deep vulnerability. I mean, her and Storm even hug. I know. And that's because my mentors loved me enough to encourage me to investigate myself and my ancestors, and when you're 19, how do you even know what that means? I didn't learn about the history of my people in college. I learned about the history of my people sitting on my grandmother's lap when she pulled out the photo album and she named everyone that was here and everyone still left on the island.
So obviously, I had to crash-land a grandma on America Chavez, and not just any grandma—a big, strong, luchador grandma, one that loved her enough to take her to the ancestral plane, where America Chavez could see the history of her people play out in the skies above.
And America gets to see Planeta Fuertona, the birth planet of her grandmother, and she sees it get invaded, and she sees her grandmother and her mom flee. And she also sees the joy that they experience when their new homeland accepts them openly and offers them tremendous care. She gets to see great pain met with even greater compassion, and that's right alongside the tremendous strength of her family. And so everywhere that I could, right, I wrote her little love notes for her and for all the other queer kids of color trying to be magnificent. Like, when you lose yourself, dig deep into your ancestry, because you will find the pieces there.
And also, reminders that soft is not a pass to duck, to hide, to be silent, to cower. Soft is also a push to hold ourselves accountable. Kind of like when America lands in World War II and comes face-to-face with Hitler, and she knocks him the hell out...just like Captain America did in 1941, and who knew we'd need America Chavez to punch Nazis in 2018.
And even that, that justified act kind of wrecks her a little bit, so I made sure that she linked up with her best friend, and they talk feelings and they go on a road trip and they sing "Just a Girl" by No Doubt at the top of their lungs.
And when Midas, a sinister corporation, takes control of Sotomayor, threatens to ban portals and almost kills America...her ancestors reach for her...because they know that she needs to heal. And it is that burst of care, that healing, that gives her the fuel to defeat Midas and reclaim herself.
See, because that myth of having to go it alone and having to be tough...doesn't serve us. America Chavez is a whole superhero, and she still needed a team of support to help her find herself. And she needed that gentleness, the type of gentleness that is rooted in compassion and still very much invested in justice and liberation. Because it's in that space where softness and vulnerability meet strength that we transcend our everyday selves, that we become something greater, something majestic, maybe even something super.