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.
Keynote Address Q&A Session Recap
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on the screenplay for Juliet Takes a Breath. I’m also in talks with BOOM! Studios to develop my own comic series and am working on another book project, so be on the lookout! OH, and also a Podcast where I want to talk to queer people of color about how we manifest joy in our everyday lives.
How does America Chavez feel about fighting imperialism while wearing the flag? How do you feel?
There are certain things I could push on, and others I couldn’t. For example, America belongs to Marvel so we couldn’t change her costume a lot; but we did try to expand on it. I wanted to bring some of the hard femme energy and fashion that I like to her style (the knee-high boots, hoodies, cut offs, etc.). There’s a part of me that also thought her costume was really interesting. Her name is America, she’s dressed like this, but at the same time she’s fighting the corporate imperialist structures and power. If I designed her, it would be different, but it’s also good to grab people’s attention and ask, “What is your country really about?”
How do you navigate between your artistic vision and the constraints you work within?
Marvel’s editor, Will Moss, was put in charge of staffing the comic and he could have said “Okay, America Chavez. Lesbian, woman… Matt, Steve, John we’re just gonna do this comic.” That’s generally what happens; but Moss did his homework, found my book, and chose me. His actions may have not cost him anything, but it opened up a door to this world I didn’t have access to. Luckily, the Marvel editors I was working with supported me and wanted to hear my ideas. The ones that actually caused some controversy weren’t necessarily about gender, race, or sexuality at all. It was more corporate things like branding (not using Coca-Cola in the story, or having America punch the then potential candidate for president, Donald Trump). In that respect, where there was push-back, there were alternatives to do something better or different. It doesn’t take as much as you think for folx in positions of privilege and power to open doors, support, or just be quiet and listen.
How, when, and what challenges did you pass through when coming out?
I had to “come out” to myself first and have a whole reckoning. As someone who was raised as a Pentecostal Protestant Evangelical, I was very terrified. When I turned 16, I asked God to “un-gay” me; but when I woke up, I was still gay. While I was a little angry, I thought, “Okay. You didn’t change me, this is how I’m meant to be.” I was good with myself, but I was very scared of telling my family in a time without gay marriage and the lingering stigma of aids. I first went to my college’s financial office and worked with them to secure funding and grants in case my parents stopped paying their portion of my tuition. I talked to my homegirls and a tia who were ready to take me in if they rejected me. When I came out, my dad was okay. He had other relatives who were gay. My mom was wrecked. She was really worried about my salvation and more terrified of my soul not going to heaven and being with hers. She told me she didn’t understand, she didn’t think it was of God, but said I didn’t need to go anywhere and she still loved me. I also let her do her own work and realized that her journey was not one that I needed to drag her on. I’m so thankful for it and blessed that my mom left the option of love on the table. I know that isn’t the case for a lot of us, but just make sure you have your security systems in place and reach out for help.
How do you deal with feedback that your work is problematic and isn’t representative enough?
One, I don’t think there’s such thing as un-problematic. I try hard to listen, stay open, positive, and real; but I mostly try to write characters that are like people I know and respect. Folx have called me out, so I apologized and accepted that I needed to do better. In one instance, I wrote a note about an updated section explaining the former version of the book and how it had caused harm to someone. I know I’m gonna cause harm, I just try to figure out how I can cause less. I think we’re all trying to do our best, but I don’t try to shout over people or shut them down.
I worry about not fitting in. I want to thank you for being an example of a lesbian with such a positive aura and making me proud to be me.
We’re not gonna fit in. There’s a part inside of me that always wishes I could that still hurts sometimes; but I accepted that I’m not going to, and don’t want to fit in. It would be shrinking myself and that’s no way to survive. Sometimes you’ll sit in discomfort, other times you have to let the light inside you radiate and lead the way.
What reactions have you gotten from the heroes you’ve written into your stories?
Sonya Sotomayor wrote me a letter! She thanked me and I jumped out of my skin. Roxane Gay tweeted reviews of Juliet Takes a Breath, and I got to meet her in person. I’m still waiting to meet Michelle Obama… but all the experiences have been so positive.
What’s one thing you do when the work is too much? How do you decompress?
I go to therapy mostly for anxiety and depression and my mental health. Writing is very solitary and helps me not feel down. My therapist has me meditating every morning and affirming my goodness. Also, my basic needs are met. I don’t think I could find joy in my twenties when I couldn’t find a job or take a study trip. Now that I’m in a position to sustain myself and pay my bills, I’m in a space where I can take care of myself.