A Conversation with Gabby Rivera: A Personal Revolution, Acceptance, and the Path to Joy

Gabby Rivera BELatina Latinx Interview
Photo Credit IG @quirkyrican

The name Gabby Rivera probably leads many to think of America Chavez, Juliet Takes a Breath, and the new generation of YA literature writers.

But to have a conversation with her is to go into the depths of identity, the deconstruction of social bounds, and the reconstruction of oneself in a path that is anything but straight.

Born in the Bronx, and the daughter of Pentecostal evangelicals, her passion for literature was always present, and thanks to her early exploration of poetry she has honed a sharp and mesmerizing pen, often self-referential, but always full of adventure.

In our call, I proposed that we go beyond her characters and talk about her experience in building identity as a queer/butch woman of color, and how that has shaped much of her work.

“It’s interesting to ask how has being yourself impacted what you love to do,” she says with a confident smile. “Because essentially that’s the baseline of the question. No one ever asks me how these differences in your identity have impacted your life… I want to say one thing though: It’s funny because I’m building a life where you are the ones that are going to be impacted by me. I’m not adjusting for you. This is not that. You should be asking yourselves how you have changed because you have experienced me, and my writing, and my work.”

“Not for us; not for people of color; not for other creatives. I mean specifically for the normative folks, the mainstream folks, the folks that are in power, the folks that are trying to control the media. What I’m doing isn’t about you; it isn’t necessarily even for you, and if you want to jump on this joy with me, you got to do it my way, and in my speed.”

“We are resisting. I am resisting all of this shit.”

It was precisely the tone of this sentence that would mark the rest of our conversation.

How do you introduce yourself?

I like considering myself as a butch “tía,” because if you’re going to talk about representation, and if we’re going to talk about my identity, the one thing that I really feel like I missed is that I don’t see other joyful, queer, chubby, Latinx, black folks in the media. We are completely stripped from conversations about queerness, about gayness. You know? We are not on Glee, we’re not in any of the hot gay shows…  and for me, to be a butch “tía” is a way of saying: “Hey, you are loved, and you can be loved from someone like me. I love myself, and I’m trying to heal myself. You are allowed to heal.”

 

Those are messages that we never get, really, anywhere. I’m not 40 yet, but I’m going to be 40 in two years and my purpose, for myself and for my writing, is to offer healing and offer joy as a radical revolution, and as a tool to reckon with injustice; a tool to name what harm has come to us and also the medium to find our true strength, and be a community, a spiritual power with each other.

That, to me, is what it means to be queer, Puerto Rican, and a rebel.

How do you do it through your stories? What is it in your stories that you think can project that?

Well, one of the projects I am working on right now that I love so much is a comic with BOOM Studios called b.b. free, and b.b. free takes place in 200 years in the future, after a plague so, I don’t know if you want to call me the second coming of Walter Mercado, but I was writing about a plague last year, a plague that wiped 60 percent of the population and it was a bacteria that ate greed, and so now b.b. rree lives in that post climate change future. She’s chubby, queer, Puerto Rican, and so is her best friend and now they’re in an adventure of a lifetime through the fractured states of America. And hopefully, when we get our second season, we will be going through the Caribbean, and travel to places like Puerto Rico also 200 years in the future.

To me, that’s a literal manifestation of what I just said. You know what I mean? We have the right to go on adventures, we have the right to exist, we have the right to disrupt all the systems that say that we must live in a certain way; that we must love in a certain way, that we must listen to them.

Gabby Rivera BELatina Latinx
Photo credit via Gabby Rivera

Something more tangible: Juliet Takes a Breath, my first novel that got republished by Penguin last September. That book is about a young girl from the Bronx, loving and owning her queerness, and also figuring out what it means to be a feminist. That book, also for me projects queer people, and preserves us in the now and in the future, because she’s allowed to choose herself, she chooses herself. Juliet doesn’t have to sacrifice herself in the way that a lot of us, and a lot of folks of older generations, had to sacrifice who they were — they had to stay in the closet. They had to conform to beauty standards, and they had to assimilate.

No, Juliet Milagros Pa’Lante, in name and in deed, is fighting for her truth and herself and moving from a place of love.

How long did it take you to accept yourself and start talking from a place of love?

I would say: I grew up Pentecostal/evangelical, Puerto Rican, and that was a literal interpretation of the Bible. Strict, strict everything, it was wild. And so, when I was turning 14 or 15, I started feeling different. I liked girls and boys; it was so much guilt, it was so much crying, so much “trying to pray the gay away.” And at some point, at 17, I remember I was like “You know what, God? I’ve been praying for this to go away for like two years, and if you’re all-powerful then you can do that and you have it and they say you make everybody at your image so I must be as you want me to be.”

And it was like “Bam!” The guilt of being gay… it was just gone.

That was automatically the path for me to be all about joy. I still have a lot of ups and downs to go through but I think now, like I said — that was 20 years ago, just about — and I think now, I want to have hope. I want to believe that there is better. I’m trying to really forge myself as a spiritual person. I’m trying to have hope and ancestors. If I need that, then I must live that.

How did you rebuild your faith after your experience?

If you’re in a little bit about what I’ve said the last couple of years you’ll see that I talk a lot about the death of my best friend, about my experience in a really abusive relationship for years. I might have even mentioned on different occasions that I have been a stranger to my father’s family because of a lot of stuff. But in my early 30s I have had to kind of choose myself. I had to think I would not be abused. I will not be neglected. I will not give up. I will not let society and my family dictate how I survived this. At that time it was like they didn’t want me to survive. It was just a lot. It was too much.

How do I heal myself?

When I talk to other Latinas, we agree that there’s this pressure to always put your family first and to always put the needs of others  —especially as a woman, as a firstborn daughter — and even me, as someone who is also gender queer and that had all of those experiences, those pressures of what it means to be a woman, I put it on me.

And I was like: “Fuck this. You can’t abuse me.” You say to the world: “If you don’t want to hire me, if you think I’m a threat because I’m a dyke, if you think I’m a criminal, if you’re going to follow me around the stores because I’m a brown skinned woman, then I am going to forge my own way.” I have to. And the only one — besides my mom — that will look out for me is me. No one is going to come and pay my bills, nobody is looking out for me, so I have to love me; I had to learn to love myself. I had to go to therapy, I started to get on medication to balance out all the brain stuff — like anxiety, depression, you know, chemical imbalance.

Connecting with folks, talking about it, not feeling ashamed that I was like trying to heal myself… all of that helped me find my way. But I had to heal myself first. And I’m still in the process.

How has your experience with the LGBTQ community been?

Okay, so, like, to me there’s the LGBTQ community, the gay community… there’s like the gays and then there are the queers. And to me, I always mean people of color. Unless I expressly say white people, I am always talking about people of color, and even within us there are the gays and there are the queers.

And the gays, I feel like, are pretty happily kind of assimilating along a heteronormative path.  They don’t want to get too messy in the politics; they like their nuclear home, they like the idea of a “two mommies and a baby” kind of thing.

But the appeal of heteronormativity… A lot of times I feel that the gay community body shames, that is obsessed with mimicking the worst parts of fashion culture and body appreciation and misogyny.

 

And then, to me there’s queer communities of color, where we are like: “Let your titties out, let your belly out, let your body hair grow.” It’s like: “Yes, connect to the ancestors; yes, grow a garden and do your cards, and love hard, and be accountable for your shit, and work on your vulnerability.”

So yeah, queer women, queer people of color, queer non-binary folks of color have helped me heal, and keep helping me heal in my life. And I get that community through deep friendships, Instagram, text messages, care packages…

You talk a lot about grossophobia, and body shaming, especially for us, coming from Latin America. How do you cope with that? How did you reach this point of body positiveness?

You know, I’ve got to say, I feel very less in that area. I mean I have body issues, but I have way less body issues than I could have. Something happened at 17. I developed, my tetas came in, my body got a little bit curvy, and I was like “Oh, I love this. If nobody loves this, I love this shit.” And I realized that when people wanted to hook up with me I also didn’t have any body shame because I thought, “You came this close to me, you know what you’re getting into.” I’m not going to be like “Oh no guess what, I’m fat.” You are already at the party!

And I also realized that people want to fuck fat people, and that it is their own shame and their own bullshit that makes this all weird. And once I understood that, I was like: “You’re not ready for all this.”

And women, oh my God, women have always accepted and loved my body. And that constant “encouragement” to dress more feminine or lose some weight, that shit at a certain point I had to actually find my words and be like, “Mom, you cannot comment on my body. If you comment on my body, I’m going to turn around and go home. Mom, I never come in on your body, you have body issues, and you would feel so hurt if I said those things to you.” And she’s a loving woman, my mom is a loving ass woman, but those concerns are so deep rooted that even a loving mom is going to ask why your hair is so short.

So I just had to start sticking up for myself.

 

How does that translate in your work?

When my gender presentation started to change in my early 20s from like female to more masculine, I saw that there were a lot of employment opportunities just shrinking. I realized, one, I didn’t necessarily have a plan but I had some principles and my principles were: You cannot be somewhere where you have to hide who you are. You cannot be somewhere where they’re going to force you to dress in a certain way, because every day that I was being pushed in this business woman’s clothes thing… it was killing me, and I didn’t have the words to describe what that feeling was. 

So I was like: You can’t hide, you get to dress the way you want, and you’re going to have a job that lets you smoke weed. Those were my only principles, and along that I found gigs in the TV/film industry, and I was a teaching artist, and I found my way, and now I think, in a similar fashion, I don’t have a specific trajectory on where I want my writing career to go to or look like in the next ten years, but what I do want to continue doing is writing fun, bouncing, wild adventure stories for queer kids of color. That’s literally the joy of my life, that’s what I get to do. That’s what I want to keep doing, whether that includes writing workshops or working with youth in different sets of things, I just want to continue doing the storytelling thing. That is the stuff that fills my heart, that’s what keeps me going, that’s what started all of this. 

And to talk to folks about joy. 

With the Joy Revolution podcast that I have right now, if all of my characters and work are a representation of me, if I can fill up queer Latinos with joy an abundance, then the Joy Revolution podcast also means me doing that in a real-life way, where it’s not through necessarily stories, maybe you just want to hear two people who love and respect each other talking about how they prioritize joy.

To me, that is healing, that is reckoning, that is revolution.