Punch first, ask questions later. That’s Marvel Comics’ new superhero America Chavez’s modus operandi. She’s an 18-year-old portal-punching hard femme in sneakers and hoop earrings, who can punch through dimensions to go back in time and kick Hitler’s ass for us. In fact, she’s so genuine that when she stumbles upon veteran superhero Captain America she says to him in all honesty: “Chico, you look mad familiar,” leaving the man in stars and stripes straight up confused.
That Latina-sounding sass behind America Chavez is none other than the equally free spirited writer Gabby Rivera. She first gained indie darling fame for her critically acclaimed 2016 young adult novel, Juliet Takes a Breath, about a young Puerto Rican lesbian from the Bronx trying to answer questions about her identity and sexual background.
Today, Rivera is breaking mainstream barriers globally as Marvel’s first Latina lesbian writer for America Chavez, the one-liner dropping, thick browed-lipped-and-thigh-ed superhero, also breaking barriers as Marvel’s first comic series centered on a Latina superhero who also happens to likes girls. The pairing of the two was a marriage made in comic book heaven.
A Writer’s Fairytale Come True
Rivera describes the day the famous email from Marvel arrived. She was having a boring day at her nine to five day job, where she probably had been hanging at the water cooler too long, when she returned to her seat and discovered an email from a Marvel editor. She has said in interviews she was convinced it was spam because it sounded too unbelievable to be true. In fact she compared it to receiving a spam email from some prince in another country who has 43 million dollars and chickens to give her and it’s like, is this real? It turned out to be as legit as they come.
The Marvel editor, Wil Moss, who contacted her had read her young adult novel and loved the protagonist’s voice. He thought that the bouncy, honest voice of its protagonist Juliet would work perfectly for the America they envisioned.
Marvel wanted America to be nuanced and complex, and it seems Gabby Rivera has nailed it with critics having described her voice as “wholly genuine.” Teen Vogue wrote of the “America” series, “Like any teen, America has to deal with relationship woes, struggles with friends, and the discovery of who she wants to be while at college, even though she’s a superhero in charge of her own elite team. It’s this interweaving of her many layers that helps make America authentic and unforgettable. With top-notch art and storytelling.”
Rivera has said in interviews that she has a lot in common with America, and it seems it’s precisely that special bond between creator and character, that unapologetic queerness and authenticity of being a lesbian brown woman in an oppressed society, that critics and Marvel fans sense and are raving over.
When asked by Splinter if she sees herself in America, she said that there was a lot about her that will inform America’s character. “My queer brown chubby weirdo vibe works for America’s journey. She’s been so serious for so long, and she’ll still be serious but there’ll be so much room for her to be easy. America’s independent and aloof but also looking to make some deep connections with folks. Also, I like to have fun and build community and love on people, and those are the things I really want to focus on in America’s story.”
Chavez’s Coming Out Party
Chavez didn’t just materialize out of nowhere. She first made a name for herself in the pages of Marvel super-team titles such as the “Young Avengers” and “The Ultimates.” Since 2015, Chavez — aka the unmasked avenger “Miss America” — has added flair to Marvel’s super teams with her irreverent attitude and street style. In the pages of these titles this woman, gifted with superhuman strength and time traveling abilities, she also dons hoodies and sunglasses and a lot of patriotic gear with stars and stripes. When Marvel realized her potential as a standalone hero, they decided to launch Chavez as her own headliner in 2017 with Rivera’s creative input and with art by Joe Quinones.
In the first issue of “America,” Rivera describes her young character as goofy at times, not a word you’d expect to hear on a superhero’s resume. She told NPR that her superhero is someone who will have your back, and won’t get involved in the chisme or the B.S. and get the job done. But that America is having a moment that is focused on her right now. She’s taking a minute and wants to have fun after having been so serious for so long. To add to the realness, Rivera has her using the pan Latino cry of wepa! to express joy and is currently enrolled at Sotomayor University (yes, named after your favorite Boricua judge), which includes a Department of Radical Women & Intergalactic Indigenous Peoples.
As to where in the Americas the Marvel character descends from audiences won’t know just yet. Rivera told The Washington Post that the series “is definitely going to tackle America’s ancestry and ethnicity. But it won’t be as neat as some folks might want it to be. For me, being Latina is really damn complicated, especially when it comes to tracing my roots. America’s going to wonder where she really came from and who her people are. She’s going to explore what it means to be brown across the dimensions. And like many people who’ve had to leave home at a young age, she’s dealing with that feeling of disconnect, that you’re a foreigner here and out of place when you go ‘home’ type of feeling.”
The Making of a Comic Fan Girl
America Chavez was raised by two mothers who sacrificed themselves to protect her planet. So, America had to grow up tough and practically raise herself. Luckily, Rivera didn’t have it as hard. She had loving parents who were around and lots of community. Born in the Bronx to Puerto Rican parents, she currently lives in Brooklyn, where she holes herself up to write when she’s not working as an activist and youth mentor. And while she labels herself queer and brown on a regular basis, you’ll often hear her describe herself as simply a “nerd burger” for laughs.
Was She a Comic Book Geek All Her Life?
Rivera admits to not having read many comic books before she was tapped for the job. Although she currently has Marvel as the best research sidekick in the world (they send her whatever issue or comic books she wants to read to fuel her America Chavez writing machine), she has always preferred to read literature and poetry.
But comics were always around her she insists. She grew up with comic-book-reading parents who had been reading Marvel since the 1950s and her brother was also really into X Men. And thanks to her brother’s love of X Men, Rivera made Storm into a mentor for America Chavez in the series. Rivera’s mother was a teacher and Rivera says that thanks to her influence, she’s been writing stories since her mother taught her to read and write as a child.
“I’ve always dreamt up wild, powerful and carefree superheroes that look like me and my family,” Rivera told the Washington Post: “Thick, brown, goofy, beautiful.” In her TED talk, when comparing herself to Wonder Woman or Superman growing up, she remembers not feeling up to par with them and their physical and emotional perfection. “I never felt powerful. I was always just one big ball of nervous soft energy. And besides who needs superheroes when you surrounded by Puerto Rican women from the Bronx? My tias were cops and paramedics. My superheroes were sitting around the dinner table with me. …We’re also some of the greatest story tellers, wild rambunctious tales about navigating their lives in the Bronx. And I wanted to be like them so bad.”
While her family’s stories were full of life, she finds that narratives for Latinas are usually centered in trauma. That’s why she wanted her stories to be it centered in joy. “We’ve had enough drug stories, let us do something else now!? Can we be fairies?” she asks laughing in an NBC interview.
The Power of Marvel Creating a Queer Latina Superhero
Rivera thinks that it’s the visibility factor. For her having the legendary comic book brand launch a new superhero with America Chavez’s profile says to young Latinas that they matter, they exist, they can be anything. The Marvel stamp is a kind of mainstream acceptance, a stigma removed. This is undeniably good on all levels of politics and business, but for Rivera, it’s a matter of life and death. She’s aware that young Latinas have the highest rates of suicide in the U.S. and that LGBTQ community makes up 40% of the homeless population. America Chavez, a Marvel Latina superhero, means full on visibility. It was about time wasn’t it? It’s like, come on, if you can have giant blue beasts and mutants running around in the comic world, then there’s room for a little Latina punching through dimensions, thinks Rivera.