On Sept. 24, Adelante, Kenyon’s Latinx student organization, hosted Gabby Rivera as the keynote speaker for Latinx Heritage month. Rivera is a queer Puerto Rican-American author, and the author behind Marvel’s America comic and the novel Juliet Takes a Breath. In her keynote address delivered over Zoom, Rivera spoke about her experience as a queer Latinx writer and her path to authorship.
Betania Escobar, co-presidenta of Adelante and a moderator of the event, spoke about the experience of bringing Rivera to campus. “I felt so lucky, honestly, to just be in that virtual space with her and to get to co-moderate with her as well,” she said. “It was just so cool and I felt very at home.”
In 2016, Rivera published Juliet Takes a Breath, which imagines the experience of a 19-year-old Puerto Rican girl learning to “love her queerness,” and “discovering a deeper connection to her Puerto Rican identity,” according to Rivera. While writing the novel, Rivera rejected literary tropes common for novels by featuring woman-identifying, gender noncomforming and plus-sized protagonists. “It starts with this idea that you got to hate yourself and wish that you were not like this. I’m not doing that,” Rivera said.
After the success of her first novel, Rivera was invited by Marvel comics to write the storyline for America, which premiered the first queer Latinx superhero in a Marvel series: America Chavez. “She is one of the strongest characters in the Marvel Universe,” Rivera said. “She punches portals into other dimensions, meaning that she can go anywhere. For so many Black and brown women and just people in general, there are borders in our way … but America Chavez shows us how we can go wherever we want.”
Growing up in the 1990s in the Bronx, Rivera noted that she lacked examples of queer joy. “There is no media that shows happy gay people,” she said. “There are no television shows with gay people and families. We do not survive the end of the movie.” Rivera decided to put her feelings into words, and started her career as a writer at the age of 17.
Rivera’s discussion of Latinx identity in her work resonated with Escobar as someone who identifies as both queer and Mexicana-Salvadoreña.
“I appreciate that she is making these stories about loving yourself and every single part of your identity, even if it contradicts other parts,” said Escobar. “She centered her talk around these three words: queer Latinx joy. … I remember that she said queerness is her power, and we see that in her artwork.”
Escobar also discussed how colorism and the erasure of Black and Indigenous ancestry — central themes in Rivera’s talk — have also arisen in discussion among members of Adelante.
“I appreciated that in her talk she complicated the term Latinx, and made sure to bring up, ‘Who is ‘Latinx’ for?’ Is it for people who identify as Latinx who are lighter-skinned, that present as heteronormative, that come from specific countries? Who does it not serve?”
Rivera’s presence also reaffirmed Escobar’s commitment for Adelante to be an inclusive space for all Latinx students.
“I really wish for Adelante to be a place of comfort for Latinx students on campus, and a place where all different parts of our identities can be celebrated, and talked about openly,” said Escobar. “That’s why it’s so important to have [Latinx Heritage Month]. … It’s so important to have these moments of joy and community with one another.”
Another recurring theme in Rivera’s talk was looking toward the future. “Puerto-Rican queer kids deserve to be in the future,” said Rivera about her character BB Free from her ongoing comic series. “I want to see big happy brown babes making magic from here and forever.”
Escobar emphasized the importance of recognizing intersecting identities, and promoting a campus that actively supports students who identify as queer, Latinx and non-white.
“It’s important to mention that we don’t have a Latinx counselor in the [Cox Health and] Counseling Center,” said Escobar. “I’ve heard members talk about, ‘Where’s our Latina counselor?’” she said. “Kenyon needs to do more work on supporting students of color as a whole: Latinx students, Black students, indigenous students, queer students … not only to have these wonderful events where we try to center our community, but where we are making sure that we’re taking care of everybody that’s in those communities year-round.”