Edgardo Miranda-Rodríguez cares a lot — about his family, his homeland, and yes, about superheroes, too.
Born in New Jersey but raised between the Bronx and Puerto Rico, Miranda-Rodríguez saw firsthand the discrimination that Nuyoricans were subjected to in the Seventies and Eighties. He often turned to the escapism of comic books, which weren’t just a distraction from the inequity around him — they also provided a model of justice. ”’Superhero storytelling, from a very very traditional standpoint, are narratives centered around hope, centered around the best parts of our humanity and how we can better our society,” he tells Rolling Stone.
He took these experiences to Colgate University, where he became a student activist, crossing paths with figures such as Young Lords leader Iris Morales and Brooklyn community organizer Luis Garden Acosta. After college, he worked as an artistic director and graphic designer before founding his own studio called Somos Arte. Eventually, he met Joe Quesada, then the editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, and before he knew it, he was working for the same publisher that he’d spent so much time with as a kid.
After his experience with Marvel, Miranda-Rodríguez started his own project to bring together all his interests. Miranda-Rodríguez decided to create a powerful superhero who captured the vision of social justice and Puerto Rico he wanted to see. In 2016, he debuted La Borinqueña, the story of a Brooklyn-born student named Marisol Ríos De La Luz, who studies abroad in her parent’s homeland of Puerto Rico. After coming across five crystals that connect her to deities from the ancestral Taíno people, she’s given superhuman strength, the power of flight, and the ability to control storms, all which help her protect her fellow Puerto Ricans.
Miranda-Rodríguez has since produced five more volumes, including a collaboration with DC Comics called Ricanstruction, in which La Borinqueña teams up with heroes from the DC canon to help a ravaged Puerto Rico recover Hurricane María. Ricanstruction earned Miranda-Rodríguez the Bob Clampett Humanitarian Award at the 2019 Eisner’s. He also decided to put sales from Ricanstruction toward grants for non-profit organizations based in Puerto Rico. A year later, he and his partner Kyung Jeon-Miranda established La Borinqueña Grants Program, a key philanthropic arm of Somos Arte that supports organizations and community-led solutions in Puerto Rico.
This month, on Hurricane María’s fifth anniversary, Somos Arte reprinted the first and fifth volumes of La Borinqueña with new covers commemorating the tragedy. Inspired by two interlocking Spider-Man covers by John Byrne, they show La Borinqueña flying over a home during the storm both before and after reconstruction. The covers coincide with more difficulty in Puerto Rico: Over the weekend, Hurricane Fiona made landfall in the archipelago, knocking out the power and causing damage across the island. Miranda-Rodríguez spoke to Rolling Stone about his work, the philanthropic mission behind his art, and what the future holds for him and La Borinqueña.
(This interview has been condensed and edited.)
In the first volume, La Borinqueña protects Puerto Rico from a powerful tropical storm, a climax that was almost prophetic. Many of the other plot lines in the series feel like they come right from the headlines. Is it hard drawing from news coming out of Puerto Rico?
I had a conversation with my partner, Kyung [Jeon-Miranda], who is actually the founder of our grants program. Even though there is this power crisis, this political corruption, this corporatization, this gentrification, there still is a lot of love in Puerto Rico, and that’s what sometimes people don’t understand. When they think about the work that we’re doing, they think, “Oh my God, when you get to Puerto Rico it’s going to be a disaster.” No, chico! People are still singing, people are still cooking, people are still hanging out. When we protest we bring out the timbales, we bring out the panderetas. We’re able to find joy in life even in this darkness.
But for me, there’s always pressure because every time I put out a book, there’s prescience in the ink, in the processing, in the publishing of these stories. We published this collaboration with the Natural Resources Defense Council that revolved around blackouts. The book was in stores on April 6th, and what happens at 9 p.m. in Puerto Rico on April 6th? A blackout that lasts until Saturday. Whether I have been consciously avoiding or following the narrative, the reality always catches up to the storyline.
As a storyteller and creator, what is the most surprising thing you’ve discovered about your characters?
People want to keep reading their stories. I’m surprised that after the first book, six years later I’m having a conversation with you for Rolling Stone. That surprises me, that I’m still able to find these books in the mainstream media space without having the aggressive publishing schedule of mainstream publishers, without having a movie deal, without having a distribution deal. There’s still this interest, that there’s still people who want to have these conversations and help us promote this work. I also find it interesting that these characters are able to evolve. Six years ago was like a lifetime. My son, who’s 18 and he’s a freshman in college, was 12 in middle school six years ago.
You introduce a superteam called the Nitainos in one of the recent volumes. All of the team members are linked to Puerto Rico through their powers and costumes, inspired by the culture and indigenous fauna of the island. It reminded me of how, in the upcoming Black Panther sequel, the character of Namor is inspired by ancient Aztec and Meso-american culture.
It’s amazing they took that direction. I think that’s what I try to do with this because a lot of the stories that resonate most with POC in mainstream stories, whether it’s film, television, or graphic novels, unfortunately, are all in fictional places.
When you talk about Spider-Man, New York City was also a cast member. You couldn’t tell a Spider-Man story without New York; it was so important to that story. But the critique I always had of New York in comics and in film is that it was always Manhattan. It was never the Bronx, it was never Queens, and it wasn’t until the Tom Holland version of Spider-Man that they actually brought Spider-Man back to Queens. But I use that same model, saying Puerto Rico is a cast member: an archipelago of islands from Vieques to Culebra to the main island.
There’s one moment in the books where La Borinqueña and her friend Luz tackle a domestic violence situation. This was bold, but also necessary considering issues of domestic violence and femicides on the island. Are there other topics you want to tackle in the future?
There are, but what I’m careful about not making the books message-heavy. I want to balance it because I don’t want to have monologuing. I want the storylines to be organic. In issue number three, they make reference to the 1930s sterilization experiments on Puerto Rican women. known as La Operación. I am constantly trying to entice people to say, “What’s that? Let me Google that.”
One character, Sofía, has an interesting arc. At the beginning, she was dismissive of activists. Two volumes later, she becomes one of the leaders of the protest groups. I think that’s reflective of the arc some young people have had the last four or five years on the island.
I’m so glad that you caught that. She, to me, is an entry-level character for many readers. What I’m showing in that character is that her evolution is a byproduct of her environment. If you look at more and more young people in Puerto Rico, Zoomers — not even millennials, but Gen Z — they’re becoming more and more savvy, and social media helps them to access and share information. Sofía is very reflective of young people today.
Some comic book companies have begun to embrace an inclusive lineup of superheroes in their rosters. Do you feel optimistic about future young readers seeing more representation in the stories they pick up?
The diversification is sometimes reactionary, it’s not always organic. The reality is that this question should be asked in five to 10 years from now, to see if these characters and these storylines are sustainable, because these corporations always look at the bottom line. A USC Annenberg study shows very real numbers that as Latine people in the United States, we are close to 30 percent of the consumption of popular culture, be it film, TV, streaming, and there’s less than 1 percent of content actually reflecting us. There has to be an investment in storytelling. If it’s good stories, at the end of the day, people will keep buying the books. People will be supporting it.
How protective do you think you’d be if La Borinqueña was adapted to another type of media?
Very protective. It has to be an Afro-Latina [actress]. It has to be a Puerto Rican. The only thing I think I would compromise on the casting is [whether] she’s from Puerto Rico or from the diaspora, because as long as she can nail a Brooklyn accent, then she gets the part. But the reality is that, if I get to that point, it depends on the contract I get, because what say will I have? I’m the creator but I’m not the executive producer, I’m not the director, I’m not the studio head. And when the studio comes in, they come in with their resources and their millions, they see it as theirs. But I will never let this be a property that misrepresents Puerto Rico.
The other thing that always, always, always has to remain is the philanthropic component. I would not want this project to move in any other medium if it was created in for-profit space without actually giving back.
You’ve said these books reflect the evolution of Puerto Rican activism that has been going on for over a century now. What have you seen recently from activists both in and outside the island that has impressed you?
One of the most impressive groups in Puerto Rico is La Colectiva Feminista, which is this coalition of women journalists from Puerto Rico who played a key role denouncing the administration of Ricardo Rossello. I’m also inspired by a lot of the organizations we support through our grants. One of them is El Departamento de la Comida, led by Tara Rodríguez Besosa. Her bisabuela (great-grandmother) is Mimi Besosa, who was the original designer and creator of the Puerto Rican flag here in New York City back in 1895. What Tara Besosa is doing with sustainable farming, tool sharing, and seed exchanges is incredibly important because it goes against the colonized mentality of not embracing agriculture in Puerto Rico.
I’m also very much inspired by Dr. Maricruz Clemente Rivera and Dr. Marta Moreno Vega and what they’re doing in Loíza with Corredor Afro, in the space of our Afro-Puerto Rican heritage, by hosting international events and locally fighting for environmental justice. It’s very uplifting. Those are the movements that truly inspire us.
Just as you released your new commemorative covers, which picture a tropical storm, Hurricane Fiona hit, knocking out the power, causing destruction and flooding, and continuing the theme of prescience in your books. What should people be doing to help and what do you see as the mission of Somos Arte during a crisis like this?
It’s important immediately after a disaster for aid to be given directly to organizations that are working with people on the ground. These are organizations that are free from bureaucracy and corruption, and they’re incredibly in tune with what is needed. Some of these — La Brigada Solidaria del Oeste, Corporación Piñones Integra, El Departamento de la Comida — are listed on our website, and we’ve vetted them during the last five years since María.
However, what we’re invested in is long-term, sustainable philanthropic work. Oftentimes, in times of crisis, there’s an immediate call to action and for humanitarian aid. But this fades in time: Collective consciousness experiences a level of amnesia and people forget that there are people still struggling. Five years after Hurricane Maria, before this weekend, people were talking about this anniversary on the 20th and how many parts of Puerto Rico were struggling with this power criss, with an unstable power grid, with a corrupt government and administration that’s lining the pockets of newly formed corporations. There are many homes still in the process of rebuilding, and hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans who have relocated to U.S. Hurricane Fiona left a disastrous impact on the southern coast, in towns of Puerto Rico. Power outages are being felt throughout the entire island, but they were being felt last weekend because of the unstable services provided by the private energy company Luma. This new commemorative book was created to raise awareness and get people to remember Puerto Rico was still recovering after Maria.
What’s next for La Borinqueña and Somos Arte?
We want to release the next volume in April 2023, for Puerto Rico Comic Con. Now we have this whole corillo of superheroes in the Neotaínos. Beyond that, our hope is that we can continue to find partnerships that will further this mission. That perhaps this corporation, or this foundation, or this cultural institution sees the value in our storytelling. Through the model we’ve created with La Borinqueña, we bring the book directly to the market. We go to Puerto Rico Comic Con, we go to the New York City Comic Con, we speak at universities across the US, at libraries. We find these spaces for ourselves because we don’t have the resources that Marvel and DC have, yet we’ve found a way to keep ourselves sustainable. Copies of La Borinqueña volumes are available for purchase here.