When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico on September 2017, many living on the mainland struggled to connect with their loved ones. Power was knocked out across the entire island, making communication challenging. Even the hotline the Puerto Rican government set up to provide information to worried friends and family proved ineffective. People received a busy tone because of the sheer volume of callers. But as they desperately looked for news – many turning to social media, where others relayed the little information they knew – they were forced to carry on living their lives outside the island. That’s how Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez found himself at New York Comic Con two weeks after the storm, a time when folks still had no idea about the severity of the effects. While there to talk to fans about his work and his original comic book character, La Borinqueña, an Afro-Boricua superhero, his corner of Artist’s Alley turned into a sort of therapy session.
“There was a line of like 50 people waiting for me every day, the four days of the event,” Miranda-Rodriguez tells me on the telephone. “But more than anything, the space became a very special place for people to share, ’cause up until that point, many of us still had not heard from our family or friends or anyone from Puerto Rico. Not only were people not able to communicate with one another on the island, but we weren’t able to communicate from here to the island. So many people came to the table, they saw the image of La Borinqueña; it gave them a sense of optimism. But at the same time, many of them were overwhelmed emotionally, crying, asking me about my family. I cried; there was a lot of hugging happening.”
The tearful meetups also became the genesis of one of Edgardo’s most ambitious projects: Ricanstruction: Reminiscing and Rebuilding Puerto Rico, an anthology raising money for recovery efforts, which featured about 150 collaborators. The book made its debut on May 29, 2018, but it was at NYCC that set this 192-page anthology in motion. Dan DiDio – the co-publisher of DC Comics – and S.O. Leilani Ramos Lugo lined up to get a chance to speak to Edgardo. When Dan came face to face with Edgardo, the first thing the Nuyorican creative said was, “What are we going to do for Puerto Rico?” DiDio asked Miranda-Rodriguez to put together a proposal.
“As soon as he left – within minutes – I came up with the term Ricanstruction Reminiscing and Rebuilding Puerto Rico,” he adds. Soon after, he diligently worked to make this idea a reality.
One of the most noteworthy parts of Ricanstruction is the number of famous names attached to the project. Rosario Dawson, Sonia Manzano, Javier Munoz, Ruben Blades, and more created content for the book. Some, like Rosario Dawson, he persuaded to create a comic.
“I introduced her to a costume designer in Hollywood who helped her design a [La Borinqueña] costume literally within 24 hours, and in the midst of that conversation, I asked her, ‘Why don’t you do a story for the anthology?’” he says. “And her uncle – her uncle is Gustavo Vazquez … an accomplished illustrator in the comic book industry himself, having drawn for DC Comics recently their title Suicide Squad. So I said, ‘You know, this is a perfect opportunity for you and your uncle to collaborate on a story.’ And she responded within days and said, ‘Listen, I wanna do it, and I want my story to be on La Borinqueña.’”
Though published through Edgardo’s Somos Arte company, DC granted him permission to use a roster of their iconc characters in the pages of his book – a strategy he hoped would make the anthology more appealing to those not familiar with his work – but Rosario told him she identified with La Borinqueña.
“Too often we are treated like second-class citizens, but that isn’t who we are.”
Written by Dawson and David Atchison and illustrated by her tío, “¡Pa’Lante!” finds a sorrowful Borinqueña reflecting on how she couldn’t protect her people – a feeling that many must have felt in the aftermath of the storm. The heroine finds Puerto Ricans breaking into a heavily secured facility filled with boxes of supplies, including medicine. Frustrated by the lack of urgency, the men broke in to steal these provisions, but La Borinqueña reminds them that their actions will hurt others who also depend on these items. Offering to help them get the medicine they need, the strip ends with a powerful quote: “Too often we are treated like second-class citizens, but that isn’t who we are. Never has been. Never will be.”
Other collaborators, impressed with his work, asked to contribute. During one of his regular get togethers with John Leguizamo and Rubén Blades, Edgardo and Blades – as he explains it – nerded out about comics. The two ended up going on a walk, where they ended up discussing Ricanstruction. “In the midst of that walk, he said, ‘You know, I wanna do something for this anthology you’re working on. I have this idea for a story,’” Miranda-Rodriguez says. “And I was like, ‘Get out.’”
But his interest in the project isn’t surprising. In the months after the hurricane, attention on the island’s plight waned, despite the fact that Puerto Rico hadn’t received the help they needed and deserved. With this project, however, Edgardo hopes to not only financially back the victims of Hurricane Maria by donating 100 percent of the proceeds, it also aims to continue the dialogue. Even now – more than eight months after the storm – buzz around the comic book can remind people that Puerto Rico hasn’t fully recovered and the 2018 hurricane season is on the horizon.
Edgardo gave his collaborators creative license to represent the island in ways they best saw fit, but each of the stories fits into one of three categories: those drawing on hope, those reminiscing about the past, and those re-envisioning what Puerto Rico could look like in the future. In other words, the anthology is filled with happy memories, painful realities, and hope.
Just as with every other aspect of creating this anthology, distributing money for Puerto Rico is an intensive process. “We’re not simply raising this money, cutting a check, and moving on,” he says, explaining his team plans to award grants to groups that are putting in work for the island. “What we’re doing is consistently maintaining a campaign of awareness and advocacy to remind people that this work is happening. And this is gonna happen through hurricane season, because it isn’t just we’re done, let’s move onto something else. No, this is long-term reconstruction that needs to happen in Puerto Rico, and for too long, people like myself – who are part of the Puerto Rican diaspora, the six million of us who live here in the United States – have taken advantage of what it is to be Puerto Rican… But there’s a level of accountability and respect that needs to happen when you’re part of an island that has actually been subjugated and colonized for a hundred years.”