When people think comics, they often think Superman. Wonder Woman. Aquaman, even. But comics aren’t always about superheroes. For Kat Fajardo, a Colombian-Honduran indie comics creator based in New York, Marvel and D.C. never really resonated. She didn’t see much of herself in their characters or storylines, so when she began making comics, she set out to do something different: explore her Latinidad in comic form.
In 2015, she published a chunk of her autobiographical comic Gringa! about the pressures to assimilate she experienced as a second-generation Latina in the United States. She didn’t expect the piece to receive much attention, but thousands of people reblogged it. Waves of commenters from Latinx backgrounds told her how much it meant to them. The experience inspired her to continue exploring identity in her comics, and eventually to create La Raza Anthology: Unidos y Fuertes, a compilation of work examining identity by fellow Latinx artists.
The anthology received an Ignatz award nomination this year—one of the biggest honors in the world of comics, given by the Small Press Expo (SPX). Fajardo has also continued to create comics celebrating her heritage, like 2016’s Superstitions, which explains the Latinx superstitions passed down to her by family.
HelloGiggles chatted with Fajardo to discuss the comics scene in New York, creating art about identity, and the struggles many Latinx face in the U.S.
HelloGiggles (HG): What drew you to comics?
Kat Fajardo (KF): I didn’t really get into comics until high school because, like you said, when people think of comics they think of superheroes, mainstream. Which didn’t really appeal to me, until my older sister started buying Archie Digest books and I was like, this is really neat. I liked Archie, and Veronica, and all these characters and thought, okay, I can get into comics.
In high school, I started getting into manga, Japanese comics. I started spending my after-school time sitting in the aisles of Barnes and Nobles and reading through books and books of manga and eventually making my way to these Jaime Hernandez books, like The Education of Hopey Glass. He’s a big Latino indie comic artist, and from then on, he was my big inspiration for making comics of my own.
HG: Is there a strong indie comics scene in New York?
KF: I think going to SVA [the School of Visual Arts] definitely helped immerse me in that scene because people there would encourage you to attend events and go to indie comic festivals like SPX. That was held in Maryland, and they’d have club trips to those events. But in New York, it’s a very small scene, and to be honest, it’s more of a boys’ club, where you have to have the right connections. A lot of the big influencers in New York are just older, white men. There’s a small emerging community of queer and POC creators which is slowly making its way. They’re creating events that are getting more attention, like the Feminist Zinefest or New Latin Wave, which is a Latino zinefest.
HG: From my experience of American comics, a lot of the mainstream franchises have been written by white men. Is that true now, and do you think it’s changing?
KF: It’s definitely changing, for sure. I mean, this year at SPX—we have an award ceremony called the Ignatz, one of the most prestigious awards in the indie comics community, and most of the nominees and the people that won the award were queer and POC creators, which is a big change considering that before, almost everyone was white. It’s definitely an indicator that the industry is changing and people are realizing we need more diverse voices. It shows that SPX gives people the opportunity to emerge and raise their voices, like, “We matter and here we are,” basically. So yeah, I would say the industry is changing for the best.
HG: That makes me think of your early influences, like Jaime Hernandez who’s Latinx and then Archie Digest—which, admittedly, I know primarily because of the show that’s based off of it, Riverdale. I’m sure it’s quite different from the original comics—
KF: (Laughs.) It’s not the same, but it’ll do, I like it.
HG: But when you read The Education of Hopey Glass, did it serve as an introduction to expressing identity through comics?
KF: Oh, absolutely. Before reading that graphic novel, I hadn’t seen any Latinx characters in any of the comics I’d read. Not in Archie. I’d also looked at a couple mainstream things like Marvel and DC Comics and didn’t really see anyone that was like me or anyone I knew. But when I picked up more of Jaime’s work, I began to see Chicanx and even half-Colombian characters—and I identify as half-Colombian myself—so it was kind of mind-blowing to a 15-year-old me. It was like, oh, crap, you can basically write anything for comics based on your own experiences, based on people you know in your life. It just goes to show that representation really matters.
HG: Looking at your work, you often use this art form as a way of expressing identity or exploring it. Did you find yourself exploring identity through comics early on?
KF: In the beginning, when I graduated from SVA [in 2013], most of the work I was producing was short comic work that was kind of reminiscent of the homework I did, so I was mostly focusing on style and not so much the content itself. So I wasn’t really happy with what I was producing because I didn’t feel anything for it. I didn’t publish any of my diary comics because I was afraid of people knowing what I was thinking. It was a fear of being vulnerable in the public eye.
HG: By diary comics, do you mean comics you were making in a personal journal?
KF: Yeah. And I was going through my diary comics, and I saw these passages I did about my identity, experiences as a Latina in America, and experiences with assimilation, racism, and all these feelings I had documented over the years and was like, this really calls out to me. What if I make it into an eight-page mini comic?
At first I was afraid. I didn’t know if anyone would want to read it or would even pay attention to it or anything. But I was like, fuck it. I don’t care. I needed something new for this convention I was attending, anyway. So I made Gringa! and then I also posted it online, because I thought, alright, it’s already in my hand, I’m just going to post it online and forget about it. I didn’t realize it was going to kind of be a hit online, on Tumblr and Twitter. The reception that I got was just unexpected.
People were reblogging it and just saying how much it reminded them of them. It really called out to me like, oh, maybe I’m on to something. I felt a fire in me. Like, maybe I should continue with this feeling. From then on, I’ve been doing a lot autobiographical comics about my identity as a Latina and also as a queer person and going back to therapy, and with any raw emotion or feelings, I’ve learned to be out and open and vulnerable with people. People want to see the content that they identify with, you know? So in a way, it’s very therapeutic. I don’t feel any shame or any regret for any of the work I’ve done.
HG: Gringa! really explores the cultural divide between your “American” self and your Latina self. Since you mentioned that comic being therapeutic, what role do you feel it played in figuring that part of yourself out?
KF: I feel like ever since I’ve done that comic, I’ve embraced my identity and culture a little more. In high school, I was a little ashamed and would hide that part of myself to the point that I’d dye my hair blonde or just pop on green contacts and pretend I wasn’t Latina. I felt very distant from that part of myself, even though my mom only speaks Spanish and she’s super proud of her heritage to the point where she drove it into you every time you saw her. I just felt like it was a responsibility or duty that I had to embrace that once again.
HG: You mentioned your series Superstitions. In this comic, you focused on explaining Latinx superstitions, and from my reading, it’s a continuation of that past work that focuses on parts of your identity that outsiders might poke fun at with a response of celebration. How does this play a part in your understanding of Latinx identity?
KF:It’s like when you go visit a friend with a similar background and you’re like, “Hey, did you do that thing that your parents made you do?” That kind of question and attitude, that’s what the whole series of Superstitions is about: “This is the stuff I grew up with in my family. Anyone else deal with this kind of thing?” And I think the most shocking revelation I had from that comic was people from non-Latinx backgrounds said, “We totally do that too.” I had people from the Phillipines say, “Oh yeah, I totally do this with my family,” and that was crazy. It was like everyone else banding together with you under the same concept, even without the same background. I think these identities are also related: When you look at history and Catholic takeover and colonialism, it makes sense, but it’s also really cool that you’re connecting over one thing with someone else across the world.
HG: Speaking of that multitude of identities, in La Raza Anthology, you made a conscious decision to include Latinx authors from a variety of backgrounds, roping in queer artists, black and brown artists, first-gen Latinx, and others born outside of the U.S. Was that intentional, and if so, how did you go about creating that?
KF: After Gringa!, I was kind of on this search for more. Coming from a community in New York that was mostly just white cartoonists, I didn’t necessarily find such things, you know? So I thought, might as well just make an anthology and gather everyone on the internet and see if they have any cool stories they could contribute. I had a call for submissions online on Tumblr and Twitter. I thought I’d send it out to the internet and see if anyone would respond—and again, I wasn’t really expecting a lot, but the result was massive. I had originally thought that I wouldn’t turn anyone away, and it was so sad, I had to turn away a lot of good art and choose a limited number of people. It was overwhelming, but it was great. I got people from Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, all over.
HG: Had you met many Latinx comic artists before the anthology?
KF: I’d met a couple, not comic artists but zinesters—I feel there are more Latinx, maybe queer and POC creators in the zine community because it’s much more accessible. It’s more welcoming than comics. And so yeah, I met Suzy X—she’s a writer for Rolling Stone. The show that I debuted Gringa! at, she was there and that’s when I came across one of her zines. She did one zine called Malcriadas, and it’s about her experiences, similar to mine, with assimilation and growing up with Latinx family and all that. She also did a zine diary about her trip to Belize to visit family. She’s one of the first Latina comic artists I met.
And after La Raza came out, I started meeting more and more. I feel this project kind of united a lot of people, and I started meeting some contributors. I created a Facebook group called “Latinx in Comics,” which has over 300 members, and I keep including more. Just as a motivation and a desire to meet more people like me, which is still there.
HG: I saw that some comics in the anthology were written in Spanish and English. I’ve long been fascinated by bilingual media, which seems to specifically be reaching out to audiences that are typically ignored. Is this a form of art you see a lot or you see more of now?
KF: I would say the first time I came across a bilingual comic was when I read one of Inés Estrada’s comics before, because the way it’s printed out, it has English or Spanish translations at the very bottom of the page. I think it was easier for Inés to sell books in multiple countries in that way. That’s what I was hoping for in the anthology as well, because I wanted it to be accessible to everyone. I did what I could with a short time span. But yeah, that’s what I aim to do after La Raza; I have a couple projects coming up that I hope to make accessible for everyone who speaks Spanish or English. Not all Latinx can speak Spanish or English—there’s people who speak Portuguese or French or stuff like that, and I wanted to make it accessible to everyone.
HG: I saw reference to a potential Volume 2 of La Raza on the anthology’s Kickstarter, so are there plans for that?
KF: I’m definitely hoping to expand into a second volume. I feel like the first project was this whirlwind of craziness. It was my first Kickstarter, my first big project, and I came across these issues with shipping and money and stuff like that, so there was a learning curve. It really prepared me for the next book. Kind of taking a break from that—for now, at least.
Right now, I’m kind of on a convention tour. I also have a graphic novel I’m working on, at thumbnail stage right now, so the beginning beginning. It’s going to be a semi-autobiographical graphic novel for young adults. It’s basically a love letter to my summer vacations in Honduras, a coming-of-age story with a lot of shenanigans dealing with people back in the motherland.
HG: In general, do you feel like comics are particularly powerful in exploring representation and identity?
KF: When I started editing La Raza and going through submissions, I can’t tell you how many times I cried. I was so moved by people’s stories and struggles. It really is powerful. I don’t understand people who don’t consider comics an art form. I’ll be at conventions selling La Raza copies, and people come up to me and tell me, “This contributor changed my life.” In the indie comics community, you didn’t have stuff like La Raza in the past. Now I’m starting to see more and more, which is exciting and I love it. But yeah, it’s something that many readers haven’t experienced before, seeing people they know in book form. And again, representation matters.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.