In 1976, Marta Moreno Vega established the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute with the purpose of highlighting the far reaching influences of the African diaspora. Before that, Moreno Vega served as El Museo del Barrio’s second director. And in the 40 years since the start of the still thriving Caribbean Cultural Center, she has written books, co-produced a documentary titled When the Spirits Dance Mambo, and extensively researched Yoruba belief systems.
That is to say, Marta Moreno Vega has dedicated most of her life to elevating Latinos and Afro-descendants – a world Vega knows familiarly and eagerly discusses. The reason she’s stayed so motivated to do this work for so long is simple. “Because everyday I look in the mirror, and I’m Afro-Latina,” she told me. “And how am I not going to be passionate about what I represent?”
Whether or not she expected her message to resonate as much as it has, Morena Vega has become an important figure to Nuyoricans and Afro-Latinos nation wide. Miriam Jiménez Román and Juan Flores’ The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States credits her work in the late 1960s, along with that of the Young Lords and Sherezada “Chiqui” Vicioso, for showing the “transnational dimensions of this period of intense assertion of African diasporic connections.” Moreno Vega’s long list of accomplishments also includes receiving the Honoring Women in New York award in 2015.
“Everyday I look in the mirror, and I’m Afro-Latina.”
But perhaps one of her most personal achievements is inspiring the most important character from Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez’s debut issue for Marvel Comics. Miranda-Rodriguez teamed up with his Darryl Makes Comics partner Darryl “DMC” McDaniels (of Run DMC) for Guardians of Infinity #3, which follows the Loisaida-set conflict between Thing, aka Benjamin Grimm, and Groot. McDaniels infused Thing with his own personality, and Miranda-Rodriguez studied the alien, tree-like Groot and found similarities between the character and the ceiba trees from his Puerto Rican childhood.
When the gentle giant uncharacteristically turns evil, it is only Abuela Estela who pulls him out of a trance, reminding him that he comes from the ceiba tree – making her the true hero of the story. And right down to the headband, Abuela Estela is Marta Moreno Vega.
Of course, Moreno Vega is quick to point out that Abuela Estela is an amalgam of herself and Iris Morales, the first female member of the Young Lords. But when we spoke, Edgardo explained he owed Marta a lot.
“I’ve known Marta since I was about 19,” he said. “She has always supported me as a young professional. Marta planted a lot of seeds in my life that helped me grow professionally. That’s why I made her the abuela. The [idea] literally came from her mouth.”
Marta gave Edgardo his first professional contract, and the two have maintained a close friendship ever since. Marta explained that she has seen him advance in his life and his career.
As someone who eagerly rattled off a list of the powerful women who influenced her own life – her mother, her third grade teacher, and her high school guidance counselor – Marta believes it’s necessary to use her position of power to help others. And that’s how she ended up giving Edgardo his first opportunity.
“I think that all of us need to be compelled to see talent and nurture it, and Edgardo has always been a creative force,” she said. “When you see a creative force like that, especially young, I think it’s the responsibility of every elder or anyone who has access to opportunities, I think it’s our duty and our responsibility to help the next generation of creators grow.”