On this episode of Unlocking Us
In this episode, I talk with writer, storyteller, and joy advocate Gabby Rivera, the first Latina to write for Marvel Comics. Gabby penned the solo series America about America Chavez, a portal-punching queer Latina powerhouse. We also talk about her debut novel Juliet Takes a Breath, how important it is to see ourselves in stories about the hero’s journey, and how joy is a form of resistance.
Listen to the episode
Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera
America (2017-2018) #1 by Gabby Rivera
Peach Mimosa, HDC-MD-18, Behr paint color
Christy Road, artist
“The Story of Marvel’s First Queer Latina Superhero,” Gabby Rivera, TED Salon
Joy Revolution podcast by Gabby Rivera
Once I Was You: A Memoir of Love and Hate in a Torn America by Maria Hinojosa
Production by Cadence13
Brené Brown: Hi, everyone, I’m Brené Brown, and this is Unlocking Us. In today’s episode, I am talking with writer, storyteller, and joy advocate, Gabby Rivera. She is the very first Latina to write for Marvel Comics. So we are going to completely geek out about superheroes. I don’t know if y’all know this, but I’m a Marvel fan. Gabby penned the solo series America about America Chavez, a portal-punching queer Latina powerhouse superhero. And she is not just a superhero, she’s a shame-resilient superhero who does vulnerability. It’s incredible.
BB: We also talk about Gabby’s debut novel, Juliet Takes a Breath, which will actually take your breath away. We discuss how and why it’s so important for us to see ourselves as the hero in the hero’s journey. So many books and films about the hero’s journey center just boys or men as the heroes, but not Juliet Takes a Breath, and certainly not our Marvel superhero, America Chavez. We also talk a lot about food, and we explore how joy is an important form of resistance. I’m so glad you’re here for this conversation. I cannot wait to introduce you to Gabby if you don’t already know her, and if you do, you’ll get a chance to visit with her again.
BB: So Gabby Rivera describes herself as a Bronx-born queer Puerto Rican author on a mission to create the wildest, most fun stories ever. And having read her work, I can just say, mission accomplished. Again, she’s the first Latina to write for Marvel Comics, and her critically acclaimed debut novel, Juliet Takes a Breath, was called “effing outstanding” by Roxane Gay and was re-published in September 2019 by Penguin Random House. Her podcast Joy Revolution is available now. When she’s not writing, Gabby speaks on her experiences as a queer Puerto Rican from the Bronx, an LGBTQ youth advocate, and the importance of prioritizing joy in QTPOC communities at events across the country. She makes magic on both coasts, currently residing in California, and I think she is incredible. Gabby Rivera, let’s jump in. Okay, y’all, she’s here. I’m with Gabby Rivera in her pink bedroom.
BB: And it is awesome, and she keeps tidying up, which is like now, maybe my 1000th favorite thing about her. Welcome to the Unlocking Us podcast.
GR: Thank you so much, Brené. Actually, it’s called peach mimosa. [chuckle]
BB: Is that the color?
GR: [chuckle] The color of the walls.
BB: It’s so good. We’re going to take a screenshot of us together in a minute, and then people will say, “Oh, peach mimosa, is that like a Sherwin-Williams, Benjamin Moore, do you know who makes that color?”
GR: B… What is that? B-E-H-R? Yeah.
BB: Oh, Behr, it’s a Behr. Okay, peach mimosa. It’s a good color. So you describe yourself as a writer, speaker, storyteller, joy advocate, and sinvergüenza.
BB: A no shamer.
GR: Yes. Without shame.
BB: Without shame. I love it. Alright, I’m going to start from the beginning. Tell me about growing up in the Bronx.
GR: Oh, my gosh. [chuckle] I grew up in the Bronx, the North Bronx, the border of Yonkers and Mount Vernon and the Bronx. So 241st and White Plains Road. Both sets of my grandparents lived within walking distance to my parents’ home. And so my grandparents lived with us, so I had a lot of family around me, a lot of Puerto Rican family around me, and also the energy of a very diverse neighborhood, a lot of Puerto Ricans, a lot of Italians, a lot of Jamaicans. All of us, just kind of living in this urban environment, right? I went to Catholic school, I grew up taking the subway, I grew up Pentecostal Evangelical, so like…
GR: Lots of church, very strict parents, but hard-working, affectionate, caring parents. My mom was a teacher in New York City public schools for 35 years. My father was a salesman, very like… I don’t know, very boomerific kind of parents, but very sweet. Yeah, that was kind of my upbringing, like one minute being in church, one minute being in Catholic school and the rest of the time running around my grandparents’ houses, listening to them tell stories and trying to be a good student. I always had to be a good student.
BB: Was there a lot of value put on that by your parents?
GR: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Especially because my mom, like I said, was a teacher, so my homework had to be perfect, I had to get straight As, I had to behave and… Yeah, just almost that stereotypical model minority situation, because you’re Puerto Rican, they’re going to come down harder on you, so you have to be the best student, you have to be… You have to behave. That was… It was tough. [chuckle] I had tough parents with high expectations for me and my brother.
BB: Fair to say, tough parents, high expectations, a ton of love?
GR: Yes. Definitely a ton of love. My mom, she was a kindergarten teacher, so for our birthdays, she would make the decorations herself. The year that my brother wanted Ninja Turtles, she hand-crafted Ninja Turtles, before Pinterest. [laughter]
GR: I love Pinterest, but before all of those resources, you just had your mom and some Scotch tape and construction paper. You know, nerdy stuff, right? Like, on a Saturday afternoon, if me and my brother got good grades, we would go to the Barnes and Noble. And we’d get to pick out two books and whoo, what an afternoon us crazy Riveras had. [laughter]
BB: Very wholesome. Yeah, I love it. Were you a creative, imaginative kid?
GR: I think I was a wacky little kid. I think I was always making up stories and giggling to myself as I do now, right, like writing and reading books. I think I read a lot of books. I think there were moments where I was shy, and I also got teased a lot in school for being chubby and for being a nerd and for being… Having one eyebrow and thick glasses, so there’s the part of you that’s silly and goofy with your family, and you’re singing karaoke and you’re doing your little nerd games in the car, right? And then there’s a part of you that’s just like writing in your journal that you don’t have any friends. [chuckle]
BB: Yes. Yeah.
GR: Very Shakespearean. Also woe is me. [chuckle]
BB: So let me ask you this question, what role did storytelling play in your family growing up?
GR: Storytelling was like this central way of exploring and explaining the world around us. A lot of folks would be like, “Puerto Ricans in general are big storytellers,” but depending on your ethnicity, you could say that about so many groups. For us, it was the bigger the story, the better. The funnier the story the better. In Juliet Takes a Breath, there’s Titi Wepa, she is the cop character, the tough love aunt.
BB: I love her.
GR: Right. And one of her big moments is just this random story about chasing a perp down Yankee Stadium, and that was kind of the energy in my family. It was always just some big story and you escalate, you exaggerate, and you take the elements of your life that might be terrifying, like being a cop or just trying to navigate the Bronx on your own, you take those elements and you turn them into something funny, larger than life, something that you can share. And I just soaked it all in. If you were telling a good story, you got all the attention, you got all the laughs, you know what I mean?
BB: Really, yeah.
GR: If you were funny, everyone couldn’t wait to hear a story. My dad was a big storyteller. I think it was like turning everyday moments into things that were more fun and more entertaining and ways to share family stories and tell us about ourselves and who we were, and remember our ancestors and all of those things.
BB: Who was the storyteller that when they started talking, the whole place was rapt? Like the whole place was like, “Oh, my God, this is the best.”
GR: You know, I really have to say that at one point, it was my Titi Sol. She just had that big story energy, the ability to sneak in all the inappropriate jokes, right?
GR: And still be like, given the table, get away with the hilarity and the silliness of whatever she was going through. Her and my dad, I would say my dad as well. My father could turn any meeting with a group of strangers into a big story, and those were my favorite things about both my father and that aunt, his sister, they can tell a good story and be tough. You know, like you don’t want to think your dad’s cool, but there were moments when he would tell these stories that I was looking up to him, all that confidence and that charisma. He’s not just my strict dad, he’s also this guy that lights up in a room when he’s talking about growing up in the Bronx in the ’50s, seeing this whole other side of my dad through his own storytelling, I think those were my favorite, favorite things. It still is, he’s still got it in him.
BB: God, I love a good story. Okay, so I have to say this about your writing, first of all, I met with my team before we did the podcast because we all read the book together, and just everyone is so floored by your writing ability. It is so poetic and so lyrical. The thing that sucked about your writing, especially in Juliet Takes a Breath… I was so hungry. I was so hungry the whole time I was reading it. Tell me about the role food played in your family.
GR: You know, it’s interesting, I think about this a lot when it comes to… I’m still trying to figure out what it means to be a Puerto Rican from the Bronx, living in the United States. My family didn’t use the words displacement, but as I explore the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico, that migration to me is like a big displacement. People could no longer really survive on the island, and so you get pushed into the Bronx and that story itself wasn’t often really shared with us. I never was old enough to ask, “Why did we come here?” because coming here was part of accessing the American dream, right? So I got stories about the American dream, and what I got about being Puerto Rican was definitely through food. There was no fear in talking about the parrandas at Christmas time, going around and singing songs while everyone’s cooking, making pasteles, making pernil, making arroz con gandules. Those were the stories that were shared. That’s where the pride was. Oh, my God, my grandma in the Bronx had this giant kitchen with a huge bay window, and we would set up stations to make pasteles, which are like the Puerto Rican equivalent of… Like a tamale, essentially.
GR: So you start with the banana leaves, and then you have the aceite and you’ve got somebody who’s mashed up all the plantains to make the masa, you have the chicken or the pork or whatever, you got the olives. My mother’s job was to wrap it all up in the special way and tie it and so through food, I experienced so much of the culture of being Puerto Rican, right? Through food, I got to learn about my grandmother’s grandmothers and their names, like Doña Luz Maria, that was like… She died 40 years ago, but she’s still here with us. So food was a big part of understanding who I was, who I am, and feeling that connection to my people and my roots. And in Juliet Takes a Breath, there’s just food everywhere, right? They send her off with a big dinner because that’s what you do. Of course, my family, thankfully, could often afford to go eat at a restaurant. For the everyday celebrations, that’s when you got the banquet at home. That’s when you could tell the big stories with abandon, because you’re in casa with everybody around you, eating your own food and having that safe space.
BB: When you were describing meals in the book at home, I could feel the connection to ancestry. It was like a thin place, I don’t know, it was so powerful and God, I was so hungry, because it wasn’t just the pleasure of eating it and you describing it, but it was like the love with which it was made and what it meant to folks.
GR: Yes. And my grandmother, my father’s mother, Amalia, had a saying, I mean, it’s a common phrase, but she’d always say, “Dondé cabe diez cabe once.” So it’s like, “If you can feed and fit 10, you can feed and fit 11 and 12 and 13 and so on.” There’s always room for more, there’s always an extra plate, and so that was like… No one was ever turned away in our family, we would always have extra folks over for Thanksgiving too. So there was a lot of room as well. Writing Juliet, I definitely wanted to make sure that everyone felt that room, that there was room for them to sit with Juliet and her family.
BB: Oh, man, I felt it. It was so good. So let’s jump into Juliet Takes a Breath. First of all, the cover is so incredible, but I love the top where it’s an endorsement by Roxane Gay that just says, “Fucking outstanding.”
GR: Yeah, how dope is that, right?
BB: It’s dope, yeah. That would qualify. I can’t pull off the word dope, but if I were to, it would be describing Roxane Gay’s blurb on top of your book.
GR: Thank you. First of all, that cover with the girl in the shaved head, that is courtesy of Cristy Road, who is an incredible Latinx queer, a multidisciplinary artist. They have an incredible deck of tarot cards, The Next World. And so Cristy, we were able to keep that on the original purple cover when I indie published and when I was working with Penguin, my editor, Nancy Mercado, was like, “Oh, we’re definitely going to keep that girl on the cover and we’re going to keep Cristy’s work.” And when they plopped Roxane’s endorsement at the top, I was like, “Ooh, look at this!” [laughter]
BB: Oh, yeah, I know that feeling. That’s an out-of-body experience, right?
GR: Yes, 100%. Can I tell you my little story about Roxane Gay? Can we digress?
BB: Yes. Oh, my God, yes.
GR: So listen, when… Maybe it was Hunger. I think when Hunger came out, Roxane was doing a whole speaking tour and we were at the… Oh, my God, that book store in New York City, a Housing Works, right? There’s a Housing Works in the Lower East Side, she did a performance there, I was so starstruck. There was no Juliet Takes a Breath out, so I’m watching her, wait in line to talk to her, me and my girlfriend at the time, and of course, I get up to her and I’m like, “Roxane, my name’s Gabby Rivera, la la la. I’m writing a book, I’m going to… ” You know, that person. [chuckle]
BB: Yeah. [chuckle]
GR: So awkward, and Roxane, cool as a cucumber, she looked me right in the eyes and was like, “You publish that book, you let me know. Here’s my email.” And she gave me her email and I was just like, “Oooh… ” [chuckle] I just couldn’t believe it, right? And so there we were, right? I emailed her and I was like, “Thank you so much,” and we gently kept in touch, and when I published Juliet, I immediately emailed her and offered her the book, I was like, “Here, take it.”
GR: It was essentially me doing my own marketing promotion. When it was indie published, I was buying my own books and shipping them to everybody’s little gay cousin everywhere I could, you know. And so she writes back and is like, “Hey, I’m doing a lot right now, but thank you, I’m so proud of you.” And to me, that was enough. A couple months later in June, my phone starts blowing up. Roxane Gay has finally read the book and has tweeted like six tweets about Juliet Takes a Breath, and then that was like the A-train to Washington Heights, to the magic.
GR: Yeah, that’s from her… Either her tweet and her Good Reads blurb. Yeah, that’s from her tweet.
BB: What a great story and I have to tell you, as someone who’ self-published my first book and like sold shit out of the trunk of my car, that is the A-train. [chuckle]
BB: How autobiographical is Juliet Takes a Breath?
GR: I mean, it is pretty autobiographical. When I was 19, I fell in love with a book about feminism and made it my business to create an internship with the author in Portland, Oregon. All of that book nerd energy, the frizzy, excitable, goofy energy, that’s a lot of me in there with Juliet, the relationship with her mom is a lot of my trying to figure out my relationship with my mom and honor her at the same time. It’s essentially me writing about myself, but then also me trying to make an offering to all my little queer Latinx folks. We are allowed to be this as well. We are allowed to be goofy and nervous and excited and joyful, and we do not have to fall into any stereotypes or anything like that, we are allowed to be free essentially.
GR: And so Juliet is super autobiographical, it’s like documentation and offering that I was here, Brené. Even now in 2020 Who’s repping me? Who’s writing about one, butch dykes, right? Like who out here… [chuckle] Who’s really like, “Oh, you know what, we could use this type of person in our show.” I still feel very much like I have to document for the folks who are not gender-conforming, who do not conform to certain beauty standards, who are just navigating this world, literally in their own way, like forging their own path, so yeah, [chuckle] it’s autobiographical, but it also, it feels like my purpose.
BB: Yeah, it’s got some manifesto in it, for sure. It definitely has an autobiographical vibe, but it also has a manifesto feel too.
GR: Yes. [chuckle]
BB: I like it. It’s got some revolution in it.
GR: Thank you. Yes.
BB: Tell folks what the book is about. Lay out the premise for us.
GR: The premise of Juliet Takes a Breath… It centers on Juliet Milagros Palante. She is 19 years old, she loves herself, she is chubby, she is brown, and also she is lesbian. She has come out to herself and is excited. She’s also reading this book about vaginas and feminism and just things that she has never experienced before when it comes to feeling empowered in her body, in this one book. And so she’s got a couple of things to do, she’s got to come out and she’s got to go on this internship with the hippy white lady who wrote the book, and so, yeah, right away, you jump in and she is navigating her family in the Bronx. She heads to Portland, Oregon, so it’s that fish out of water tale. And then she does some serious reckoning and soul-searching. It’s like one of those perfect summer movies, you know, where the kids figure out who they are, and that is the… That is the whole point. That is the magic.
BB: You know what I loved about it so much is I’m a huge student of, studier of, Joseph Campbell and the monomyth and the hero’s journey. But damn, there are a lot of white guys making that journey. Very few women, very few women of color, very few queer women, very few disabled… I mean, you know, trans women. Like white guys are not the only people making this journey, right?
GR: Literally, yes.
BB: And then you’ve got Juliet as a protagonist [chuckle] in this absolutely riveting hero’s journey.
GR: Hey, I love that. Yes, thank you. The amount of women in the book is also really intentional as well, because I feel like a lot of times when there is a story about a girl, she must be surrounded by at least five boys at the very least. [chuckle]
BB: To give her context, like we need context.
GR: To give her context, or there has to be some guy propping her up to give her stability and encouragement. Even Ugly Betty, there were multiple white guys in her life on that show in the American version that were there to boost her up. And it’s like, first of all, that is very rarely the case, especially for me. The most people boosting me up in my life were women, queer women, my mother, my grandmothers. [chuckle] When I started moving in my journey as a writer, it was the Latina writers’ group, it was open mics for queer folks, it was like Black and brown women creating writing spaces. You know what I mean? And so I think that was important. That’s totally important for Juliet and for that perspective. You’re allowed to breathe, you’re allowed to not constantly exist in this world of men and patriarchy, and so wherever I could in Juliet, that’s intentional. She is riding her own wave, she is talking about her own delicious curvaceous body, she is exploring relationships with other women in platonic ways and romantic ways, and there’s none of that push from men to do any sort of thing or go any which way. And the male characters that are in the book are very intentional, like her brother, little Melvin.
BB: Oh, I love him, and the Twix bars.
GR: Yeah. [chuckle] He loves her, he is compassionate, he is gentle and creative, and like if I’m going to write male characters, they are going to push against the stereotypes. They are going to be compassionate and vulnerable and caring and do their work.
BB: Let me ask you this, in Juliet takes a Breath, Juliet’s mom gives her a set of purple composition notebooks when she turns 13 with a card that says, “Reading will make you brilliant and writing would make you infinite.” Has this been true for you? I mean, how did you start writing?
GR: Oh, my gosh, I have been writing, I think since like… My mom taught me how to read and write. There’s even this picture of me at my first play school desk, writing some stuff down. That was just always my safe place. One, we didn’t have the Internet like we do now, so people just in general read more and wrote more. So for anyone really young listening, [chuckle] we did have that advantage. But I got teased a lot at school, I got bullied by boys and girls alike for all the things I mentioned before, and so writing in my journal was my release, it was my way to not feel alone, it was where I could put all of my sad thoughts and all of my questions for the most part. It was a place I was also safe from my parents’ watchful eye. Just all of these things, and then as I became a teenager, then it became poetry, and in high school, I was part of the writers and poets society there. And then at 17, I went to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York City, the Lower East Side, the first Afro, Boricua, Puerto Rican spoken word place, the Mecca.
GR: And that just blew my world right open. I did not know you could perform poetry like that. I didn’t know that words could be like hymns and symphonies from people. And then I was performing. So then I was always just at open mics, honing my skills, going to poetry slams, hosting poetry slams, always performing. I had a lot inside of me, especially, my parents were super strict, so there wasn’t a lot of talking back. I never yelled back at teachers because I was so scared all the time of getting in trouble, of getting punished. And poetry was a way to just be so loud and fearless, and it released so much in me. I had written stories as I was a kid, but I did so much more poetry growing up, and I left the writing of stories for a little bit that when I was older and performing a lot of my friends were like, “Yo, you should write some stories. Let’s get you in this anthology, write something for this other one.” I was re-introduced to storytelling through poetry and through making friends with communities of writers.
BB: I can feel your poetry in your prose.
GR: Do you know when I was writing this book, Juliet Takes a Breath, in my mom’s basement, no writing training, I would finish each chapter and then I would read it out loud to myself like it was a poem. And if it didn’t have that rhythm, then I would go back and write more and edit. And that’s how I navigated the flow of the book, as if it was a spoken word poem.
BB: The lyricism is so powerful, and you are really the reigning queen of emotional, one-line, drop the mic kind of moments. [chuckle] Do you know what I mean? It’s so good. Okay. So this is the craziest part to me, and I have to say to everyone listening, Roxane was right, it is effing outstanding. This book, it’s incredible. The folks on my team that I read it with have already bought it for nieces and friends. So it is just, it’s just an incredibly powerful poetic story of a young woman on her hero’s journey. That is just, it’s so good. So, thank you.
GR: Thank you. I don’t know what’s up. Maybe it’s an emotional week, but I remember writing Juliet and being unemployed and being scared that I wouldn’t ever be able to make my way in the world. And I remember just being like, “If this book can give me just one opportunity, I will stay here. I will stay. If I can just get a break.” And so it’s just wild, everything, the whole journey is so incredible to me still, and to just hear you saying that, it just means so much. It really does. Thank you so much.
BB: Well, I really, really mean it. I’m a better person having read it. So let’s talk about one of these weird, crazy opportunities that comes from this book. I have to caveat this by saying I’m a huge Marvel fan.
GR: Yeah. [laughter]
BB: So, I am because I have a son who’s 15 now, and this is how I connected with him during those really hard middle school years, upper elementary, where he didn’t talk to me about much, but we could sit down and talk about the Marvel Universe and who’s connected with whom. So tell me about, who are Joe Casey and Nick Dragotta? And how did they find you?
GR: They created America Chavez. She is their creation, they manifested her to be Latina and queer. They did really good work developing her character for the Marvel Universe. And then who found me is just the sweetest, smartest editor guy named Will Moss. He worked on Spiderman, just all sorts of… Howard the Duck, all sorts of random comics from Marvel, but he was put in charge of pulling together the team for America, the solo series. And what I love to share about Nick’s story is that he’s a white guy, a softy feminist, intelligent, white guy who wants to do what’s best for his kids and the world. And so instead of saying, we’re going to do America Chavez with Nick, Harry, and Joe, same team, same crew. He did his work. And he read books by Latinas and by queer people and went out of his way and did good research.
GR: And through that research, he found Juliet Takes a Breath. And so he passed it around at the Marvel headquarters and they reached out to me, just off of them reading that book. I was at work, at my LGBTQ non-profit job, and I get this email from Marvel. [chuckle] That was so surreal. Just writing the book was this blessing, and I was like, “Oh, this is great.” And then you get this other opportunity and you’re like, “Oh, my God, this is astronomical. This is unexpected magic.” And so yeah, they emailed me and I was falling out of my chair calling my mom [laughter] because they love Marvel comics too. They’re, again, 1950s growing up at the time of the Fantastic Four and all of that stuff.
BB: I kept thinking of that quote from Juliet Takes a Breath, “Reading will make you brilliant, writing will make you infinite.” And then here you are, you get this email. So are you like, nah, delete? Are you like, “Oh, my God, what the hell?”
GR: That quote is something that… That was a piece of offering. There’s a lot of times where ethnic mamas are seen as folks who don’t encourage artistic creativity. And so that quote is specifically a note to all the young kids to be like, “Yo, your moms can and will say this to you. You are and you will get this type of support.” And I think I missed your question there, but it isn’t…
BB: No, it was…
GR: And that quote really is our point.
BB: Yeah, no, because I do think there is a mythology that especially immigrant moms, first generation moms are like, “We have no time for art, we have no time for creativity,” and I just… I’m like, that doesn’t reconcile with all the creative people that are where they are today because they had moms who said, “If this is what you want, then turn your full force to it and we’ll do it.” So I love that we’re double-clicking on this a little bit because it is…
GR: Definitely. So a little piece of that context too is I really was unemployed, I really was experiencing also some familial trauma, and my mom was there for me and always holding space, always having my back. I had no job, I had no prospects. My gender presentation was changing. It was just such a low point and my parents could have been like, “Get a job.” And instead they were like, “Finish your book; finish this book, you’ve always been a writer. It’s okay, we love you, you’ll work it out.” And that space to… And I showed up to the table too, I did finish up.
GR: I did write every single day. And so that trust between us was fortified by both of us giving, my father, my mother, me, giving. And so without that, without that space and that room, I probably wouldn’t even be here talking, I wouldn’t have been able to finish Juliet. I wanted to honor those parents, those guardians, those caregivers who allow their kids that room to dig into their creativity and share it with the world.
BB: I think maybe the reason why it’s so highlighted and so tattooed on my heart is that, when I finished my PhD program, I had $110,000 or $115,000 in student loans, because I had worked my way all the way through my bachelor’s, and I wanted to write a book on shame and no one would even get close to it from the publishing world. And so I didn’t know what to do, and I turned to my parents and they said, “Let us lend you the money to self-publish it.” And I was like, “Oh, shit, I don’t know if I can do that because I already have $115,000 in student loan debt.” My husband has more, because he was in residency at the time.
BB: So we have $250,000 in student loans combined, and then to borrow more money from my parents. And they were like, “Write the book.” And I remember all I needed was the change belt at some point because I was selling that out of my trunk. And I do think that, boy, if you’re a parent listening to this, and you’ve got a kid who wants to be a creator, make the space.
GR: Yeah. Yes.
BB: Right? Alright, let’s go back to our superhero, America Chavez. What did you do when you read the email?
GR: It came with all these warnings, so I was like, “Is this spam? What is this?”
BB: [laughter] Sorry.
GR: Worried with the red stop sign that’s like “contents of this email, blah, blah, blah.” So I was a little freaked out, and I run down the stairs and call my mom outside, and I was like, “Mom, I think I just got this email from Marvel Comics.” She starts yelling and screaming. My dad is like, “What’s going on?” It was this whole moment. She’s like, “Now, now, breathe. Whatever blessings are coming your way will come your way. Jump on it, it’s okay.” And then at this point, I also had an agent, not because I’d banged my head against the wall unsolicited, but again, somebody named Jo Volpe read my book when it was on one of those queer indie lists that one of my friends had written. Like no big name was recording Juliet at the time. And so the agent was like, “Oh, my God, let’s work together.” And she was super cool. She was the only agent type person that hit me up, that didn’t make me seem like I had to woo them or something.
BB: Right, right.
GR: I don’t chase… Listen, growing up in the Bronx, one of the things my mother always told me was, “You don’t run for the bus. There’s always another bus coming.” So I don’t chase, I follow my goal. I don’t chase people, I don’t chase money. So I had this sweet agent, Jo Volpe. She’s still my number one person, and she’s like, “Gabby, whatever you want to do, we can just talk to them, you don’t have to sign anything. You are not beholden. It’s exciting, but we want to make sure that you are protected, not exploited.” So again, good supportive teammates, good supportive family.
GR: And then there we were in touch with Marvel. And let me tell you something, I’ve spent my whole life hating superheroes, hating big hero movies because my parents love them, and so, of course, when you love… When your parents love something, you’re like, “Oh, I hate that! [laughter] I don’t want to watch Smallville!” You know what I mean?
GR: I’m a rebel! [laughter] So it was just this whole mental shift and because it’s like, you might not like superheroes, but you can’t ignore Marvel movies, right? And…
GR: How big Spiderman was and Iron Man. And so, you know the weight of what it could be to work with Marvel. And it was just so chill right from the beginning. Will Moss and the other editors on the team were super open and kind and they were like, “Just pitch a story. Nothing is set in stone. Just give us your best 12 episodes.” I had never written a comic before, and I was momentarily overwhelmed, but also it was like Trump had just been elected, so in my mind, I was like, “Well, if I take any inspiration from him, it’s that you don’t have to have any experience to do the thing that you want to do. He was never elected to office before he became president, so I’ve never written a comic before, I might as well go for it.” [chuckle]
BB: That’s right.
GR: And a lot of people that don’t have the qualifications, right? They’re just somebody’s nephew, so they get the job, so why should I hold myself back from this opportunity. I slapped that impostor syndrome so quick. [laughter]
BB: Just smacked it right down, didn’t you? Just…
GR: Yeah. And so I also asked Will Moss, I was like, “What are your best scripts? What are some templates that I can use? Not just the comics themselves, but what are real scripts that people submit?” I was literally learning on the goal, that was the most intense professional development. [chuckle]
BB: Oh, God, yes.
GR: It was awesome. And there I was writing comics and reading comics and like trying to navigate this whole new world.
BB: Tell me about inhabiting America. What did you want to make true for her? She’s not your normal superhero. I study vulnerability for a living, I would say she does vulnerability… She’s reluctant, but she does vulnerability.
GR: With America, once I finally kind of got in the zone with her, kind of at about Issue 7, which is one of my favorite issues, it’s her origin issue, I just had this idea of her being someone who has been displaced, who didn’t get to grow up with her moms, who didn’t get to grow up with the culture and the history of her people, and so I wanted to give her family. I wanted to give her untainted history. Our histories are always tainted. You’re either the colonized or the colonizer. The slave or the enslaver. And so, if I’m Puerto Rican, and I’m going to go through my history, so much pain has come from the United States. So much pain came from the Spanish occupation, right? So much pain has come from colonizers, and there was a part of me, wistfully, that was like, “Can America just have her own planet that is like, free? Can she at some point be able to witness the history of her people without erasure from a stronger military power or whatever it is, without anybody’s lies, without anybody’s violence, right? Can she just have the beautiful history of her people?”
GR: And so with America, like, I wanted to give her that, I wanted to give her mentorship. That’s why we brought Storm from the X-Men in on Issue 3, because without mentors from other women, especially other women of color, Black women, folks taking you under their wing, how do you evolve? I wanted to give her that, and I was like, “I’ve never seen that in a superhero comic.” So… [chuckle]
BB: Here we go!
GR: You know, there was so much backlash about my run of America. There was so much venom and hate, and people were losing their minds. And it’s like, you know what, I don’t care. You wanted a chubby dyke writer with joy and wiggly-ness, who loves women, is pro-women, pro-gender queer folks, pro non-binary, pro-Black… You want radical queer shit? This is what it looks like. It comes with vulnerability. It comes with women in charge. It comes with compassion and historical exploration. It comes with fantasy, care, and tenderness. A lot of straight hetero white stories do as well, right? Like Star Wars, is so full of compassion, so full of love. And sometimes I get confused because I’m like, why is that version okay, but my version isn’t, when essentially the core components of both types of stories are compassion, community, joy, love?
BB: Does it come down to who wrote the story and what they look like?
GR: It’s that and who they choose to center, right? Even poor Rey, she’s like a skinny white girl, right? And she can’t even catch a break in these Star War movies, you know?
BB: No, yeah.
GR: If they’re going to hate anyway, I’m going to go for it. So we had America Chavez being mentored by Storm, and at first they’re sitting there trying to meditate and America Chavez is like, “I can’t do this, y’all. I’m a fighter. I can’t do this.” So they get up and they start practice fighting in the air, and Storm is blowing America away with the winds and trying to guide her as well. So it’s like, you can have all the corny gay stuff, like mentorship and compassion, and still kick butt and still it is physical and still it is super. You know?
BB: It is super. And you know, I think this was in your TED talk, which I have to say is one of the best TED talks, it is just so incredible. One of the things you said is, growing up in the Bronx was tough, and people were tough and you had to be tough. There’s a sentence in there that just reverberated for me. “Soft did not leave home.” So I want to ask you something, this is my researcher in me. The themes across your life, across Juliet’s life in the book, Juliet Takes a Breath, with America Chavez, our superhero. You have to leave to find yourself. Is that a theme for you?
GR: It is a theme to explore, right? It is something that has been kind of fed to us. Especially if you live in an urban environment or a rural environment. There’s this push. You’ve got to leave, you’ve got to go to the big city, you’ve got to do this. You have to get out of the hood. You have to get out of the trailer park. All of these places that are full of real life and struggle, and all these places that aren’t considered perfect places. We are being pushed out of them, right? And… [laughter] We could even talk about displacement, right?
GR: In Juliet and America, I definitely am exploring that. With America, she’s kind of casted out from her homeland, not of her own volition, but just she’s cast out because her mothers sacrificed themselves and she fell out of the worm hole or whatever the heck it is. And then with Juliet, she has to leave the Bronx, in her mind, to find queerness, to find feminism. And Juliet especially, what she realizes is that queerness and pride in being Puerto Rican and all of these things that she’s searching for are all within her family.
GR: And it isn’t a white savior that saves her. Yes, this white lady’s book was part of the powder keg, right? Like it just kind of exploded everything wide open for her, and that’s great, that happens a lot, but you don’t need to completely let go of yourself and your upbringing. And with America Chavez it’s the same thing. She is generic Latinx. Her original creators did not give her a country or an island of origin, and I also did not choose to give her Puerto Rican, Dominican, Colombian heritage. I wanted to do outer space Latinx. [chuckle] So she comes from Planeta Fuertona, which is basically slang for bad bitch planet.
GR: And she gets to see all of her history, unadulterated, uninhibited from her grandmother’s sharing, right? Her grandmother doesn’t tell her the story, but the grandma leads her to the ancestral plane, and then there it is, there’s all her history, there is everything she needs to know about this part of who she is.
BB: We’re exactly where we’re supposed to be going because we’re on this hero’s journey. So what I saw from both Juliet Takes a Breath and America Chavez is… And jump in. Juliet has this white feminist mentor that she goes to intern with over the summer in Portland. America has Storm, but in the end, just like in every hero’s journey, the mentor becomes imperfect and fallible and our heroes learn that they had what it took all along, in their hearts and in their souls and it is actually fueled by their ancestry and their origin. Is that true?
GR: Yes, that is 100% true. That is why Juliet ends with a letter to herself. There’s like a poem, it is like a rallying cry, it is the embodiment of her last name, Palante, which is literally a Puerto Rican rallying cry made especially famous by the Young Lords, “Palante Siempre Palante.” We always move forward. We are always together. Yes. And she found that in herself. And in her family, with Juliet, in her family, in her understandings of what it means to be Puerto Rican through learning about Lolita Lebrón, exploring other queer women in the research component of what she’s doing in Portland, it’s not just about queerness, it is about understanding why certain women have been erased and how you stay present and how you continue to hunt and search for what you need, for your history.
GR: But with America Chavez, her journey for me, like when you go through the whole book at the very end she is in a position where she can inflict pain on people, on a certain alien race that has taken over her home planet, or she can find an alternative. And America Chavez finds that alternative and finds that compassion and a way to keep that peace and make an offering to both her people and that other group of folks that have landed where they live. And to me, that is also part of finding your power and your identity and your ethnicity, that doesn’t mean that you become the dominant force. That was like again, like my grandmother said, “Where we fit, we can all fit. Where there’s ten, we can fit eleven.” You know what’s really funny about America, is that there are moments when I was writing America where my editors were like, “Gabby, at some point, she has to fight people.”
GR: And I would be like, “Well, what if she’s invested in restorative justice, you guys?”
GR: What if she just wanted to talk to Arcade, and figure out where his pain comes from, you know?
GR: Like, no.
GR: No. So she… [laughter]
BB: She can punch in portals. I mean, that’s like… That’s her thing.
GR: Yeah, oh, my God. Portals into other dimensions, so…
BB: What if… [laughter] I wish I could have been a fly on the wall when you were like, “Okay, so the superhero that I am writing for Marvel,” it’s like, this is not a small thing, “is into restorative justice. So there will be no pow, boom. There is just going to be talking and understanding…
GR: Lots of talking.
BB: And meditating. [chuckle] Okay, this is why we love you. Okay. Speaking of how joyful this podcast has been for me to do with you, you have a podcast called Joy Revolution. And tell me about why joy is important to you.
GR: You know, you don’t come with the easy questions, do you? [laughter]
BB: No, ma’am. That’s my super power.
GR: Okay, with Joy Revolution, for the longest time, I allowed a lot of other things to get in the way of me being connected to my joy. I wanted to be like other people, believe it or not. I wanted to be cool, I wanted other people to like me, I was insecure in who I was. In your TED Talk, right, if we’re going to do this… [chuckle] In your TED Talk where you talk about how someone has to believe that they’re worthy of compassion and care in order for them to give it and receive it. There was definitely a big point in my life where I did not think I was worthy any of that stuff, and a lot of people in my world were proving that to me with different forms of neglect and abuse and… When you run with destruction in your heart, you find yourself in minefields all the time. Again, this is where you study, right? I’m going to tell you my sadness. [chuckle]
BB: I’m going to receive it.
GR: Yeah, you asked me about joy…
BB: Yeah, yeah.
GR: And I’m like, joy comes from having been crushed and having been practically stomped out. When I was 29, my best friend died in a very public way, and it was something that was in the news for so many months, and it just absolutely obliterated everything I ever knew and everything I knew of myself. It’s like when you intentionally burn down a forest and then you’re just the ash, that’s what I was for so long. And through much healing and much love and folks reminding me that I deserve to be here and much healing, I realized that I must honor my joy, I must survive, I must thrive. I have overcome certain things, but also this friend of mine, my best friend, she lived her life with so much love and so much joy and so much giggly giddiness. And in her passing, I was like, “I have to honor her.” And not just live for her, but live with her and live with that energy and that spirit.
GR: And at first I didn’t even know that it was joy that I was looking for. And when I found that word and when I found that it was a word that a lot of people weren’t connected to. Maybe you talk about joy in church, but then that is a joy that comes after you’re dead, right? [chuckle]
GR: You know, heaven? I was like, this is what I’m going to… I have to hold on to this. No one has ever told me my joy is important, so it must be the most important thing. It must be something that people are actively trying to keep us from. It must be something that I honor and cherish and protect and show up for. It is the thing that heals me, right? It is the thing that got me out of bed when I had no hope left. The simple small joys, combined with the intentional healing and the joy in that healing, that has kept me alive and kept me together, and has allowed me to be so full that I can offer and share.
GR: And with Joy Revolution, that was the give back, because I had been so healed and because I had been so loved and cared for during the worst times in my life, I was like, I want to offer some of that back. And also Joy Revolution to me was a push against a violent white media. Trump was just elected, and all of these really intelligent media folks like Wolf Blitzer, Anderson Cooper, all these people who can comment on the state of things, aren’t pissed off enough to stop everything and change it. So we get to just play along, and one station wants us afraid, one station wants us to hate our neighbors, one station wants to just talk about the riches and the wealth of the Trump family.
GR: So this white supremacist media is pummeling us on a daily basis, and I am tired of it. And why not just talk to queer and trans people of color and allies about how we are preserving joy, and have a space where I’m not trying to tweak your flight-or-fight response, where I am not trying to pit you against your neighbor, where actually we’re doing this to help each other be vibrant, gorgeous humans who love each other and who are fighting every day to make this world the better place we know it can be. I don’t have time to have my spirit impacted by Fox News. Keep it. You want that in your life? You just go for it. [chuckle]
GR: It’s right there, but for me, I need soft language, I need gentle language, I need compassionate spaces, and I need the type of joy that reckons with the world around it, the type of joy that is marching for reparations, is marching for Black trans women. I need joy that is holding the world accountable without trying to pummel everyone down.
BB: When I hear you describe it, the first thing that comes to my mind is real true joy as a form of resistance.
GR: That’s the hope. That is the goal. That’s all I got. [chuckle]
BB: But we desperately need it, because joylessness, it’s its own pandemic right now, and it creates pain and then we discharge pain on each other.
GR: And that’s all I see when I look around. I think this is the most I’ve ever talked about Trump, and I normally try not to ever say his name, but let me tell you something, people look at that man and his family as this epitome of wealth and da da da. And I just see a bunch of really hurt people. I’m like, “Who hurt you all? What utter pain and abuse did y’all experience as little kids that have turned you into these people who just don’t care about anybody?” And that doesn’t mean that I’m putting sympathy for them above my compassion for everyone else. No, not even a little bit, [chuckle] because everyone’s an adult and everyone can go to therapy.
GR: As people of color we learn that it’s not our job to educate white people on racism and compassion. And that I adhere to, but I do have a lot of room for the little white kids, the little queer white kids, the little five-year-old, six-year-old white kids in the classrooms, because they got that good spirit, they want to love each other, they want to be loved, they want fairness, it’s grown-ups that come in and violate, take away the joy, take away the compassion and the neighborly love and the affection, even, from a lot of kids.
GR: Joy Revolution is the place where we’re like, “No, we come in with love, we are going to love on you, we are going to talk about this joy, we are going to show you that it is necessary and vital to cherish it and to manifest it all together.”
BB: Yeah. And that is resistance. I mean, that’s love. Not unicorn, rainbow love, but gritty, real get shit done love.
GR: Yeah, literally! [laughter]
BB: Yeah, yeah. Alright, you ready for a rapid fire?
GR: Yes, I love this stuff. I play that game Taboo, I can give you the clues, the hints.
BB: Oh, my God, we would crush it, because I am so good at that.
BB: We need to go on like a road tour, we just like play people for money. Okay, are you ready? Fill in the blank. Vulnerability is…
GR: A blessing.
BB: Number two, you’re called to be brave, but your fear that you’re experiencing is real, you can feel it in your throat. What’s the very first thing you do?
GR: Throw up.
BB: Three. Something that people often get wrong about you.
GR: That my outward appearance makes people really uncomfortable, and I’m just like a big softie.
BB: What people get wrong is they think you’re soft or they think you’re not soft?
GR: I think they look at me and… You know, people think dykes are scary, you know what I mean? They’re like, “Oh, shaved head, tattoos.” You know? I’m like…
BB: Got it.
GR: And people don’t sit next to me on the bus, people don’t want you teaching their kids. But butch dykes, man, we’re the softest babes out in the whole land.
BB: In the whole planet system. Okay. The last thing that you binged and loved on television.
GR: It has to be The Great British Baking Show, I just love that show so much. [laughter]
BB: It’s so damn good. Okay, give me one of your favorite movies.
BB: A concert that you’ll never forget.
GR: Oh, my God, Mariah Carey, 1994. Her first ever concert at Madison Square Garden. I was like 12 years old, living my best life.
BB: Favorite meal.
GR: Oh, my gosh, my cousin Gloria’s arroz con gandules and pernil with plátanos and tostones.
BB: Okay, translate for us.
BB: Like it makes me hungry right now, so but tell us what that is, tell us what that plate would look like.
GR: Okay. Puerto Rican flavor… My cousin Gloria is an incredible cook, so it’s her rice with gandules, which are like pigeon peas. Pernil is roasted pork with just… Ah, just so crisp and juicy, and then plátanos are plantain, you can fry them soft like maduros, Dominican style, or you can make them crispy tostones, Puerto Rican style. I mean, you know, yeah, either way, they’re delicious.
BB: Okay, what’s on your nightstand right now?
GR: Oh, my gosh, oh, my gosh, this is perfect. On my nightstand right now is Maria Hinojosa’s book Once I Was You. Maria, I love you so much. What a… She’s also one of my mentors.
BB: Got it, okay. A snapshot of an ordinary moment in your life that brings you real joy.
GR: For the first time in five years, I’m dating someone who is kind and lovely and generous, so during the pandemic, we just had no information, we were even scared to look out the window at each other. She brought me a care package with soup and oranges and a little stuffed bear.
BB: I have goosebumps. Okay, that’s good. Tell me one thing you’re deeply grateful for right now.
BB: My mother’s unconditional love.
GR: Right on. Okay, we asked you for five songs you can’t live without. You gave us “Ain’t Nobody,” by Chaka Khan, “Just a Girl,” by No Doubt, “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” by Otis Redding, “Toxicity,” by the System of a Down, and “U.N.I.T.Y.,” by Queen Latifah. In one sentence, what does this mini mix tape say about you?
BB: I’m a bad bitch.
BB: Okay. I think we just have to leave it there because Gabby Rivera, you are indeed amazing. And I’m so grateful for this conversation and the really important, joyful, thought-provoking work that you are putting in the world.
GR: Thank you so much, I really appreciate it. What a pleasure to be here with you.
BB: Thank you.
BB: Is that just the biggest breath of fresh air ever? I just love this conversation. I hadn’t read a comic book in so long, I loved reading America Chavez, I loved Juliet Takes a Breath. A bunch of people on my team read it, it’s incredible. I’m so glad y’all got to know Gabby because she’s incredible. You can follow her on Instagram at quirkyrican. It’s just Q-U-I-R-K-Y-R-I-C-A-N. Same on Twitter, podcast Joy Revolution lives wherever podcasts are found, wherever you listen to yours. Her website is gabbyrivera.com.
BB: And I have to say that joy as a revolutionary act is something that we are seeing every day right now in real life, real time, right now. Taking joy to the polls, taking joy the streets. Joy as a radical act. And I love this quote, I love how she says, “No one ever told me my joy is important, so it must be the most important thing.” And I have to say that after talking to her about the joy of her family gatherings and the food, I’m so hungry, just hearing about her cousin Gloria’s cooking… Oh, my God, starving. I also love this thing, as we think about Thanksgiving coming up, her grandmother saying, “If we can feed and fit 10, we can feed and fit 11 and 12 and 13, and so on, there’s always room for more, there’s always an extra plate, and we all make enough space at our tables.” Gabby Rivera, y’all, just so good.
BB: Alright, housekeeping. Do I call this housekeeping? I don’t know, but let’s start calling it that, housekeeping. We could call it organizing and buying extra office supplies whether we need them or not, we’ll call it that section. This week on the Dare to Lead podcast, I’m talking with Aiko Bethea about diversity, inclusivity, equity, having hard conversations. We do this amazing role play around empathy, that was so real and so hard, but I think you’ll love it. So that’s on Dare to Lead, which is on Spotify, and it’s free. I think that’s all I’ve got for y’all right now.
BB: It is a weird and hard and important time, so I will end where I always end, which the best advice for a tough time is stay awkward, brave, and kind. And I’ll see you next week. Thank you so much for listening. You may have just been treated to the pitter patter of my dog coming in. Weird Lucy says “Hello.” Unlocking Us is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown. It’s produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden, by Weird Lucy productions, and by Cadence13. Sound design is by Kristen Acevedo, and music is by Carrie Rodriguez and Gina Chavez.
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