THE X FACTOR

an interview with Breena Nuñez

by Danielle Wright

ISSUE ELEVEN | FALL 2018

Breena Nuñez is an Afro Salvadoran/Guatemalan cartoonist based in Oakland, CA who aspires to use comics not only as a form of self-expression, but also as a platform to bring visibility to the Central American and Afrolatinx community. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Comics through California College of the Arts and is drafting her graphic memoir which will be based on her first time traveling to El Salvador to understand her family's culture and history. Nuñez will be exhibiting at the the upcoming Latino Comics Expo in Spring of 2019.

 Excerpt from "Happy Pride 2018." Courtesy of the artist

Danielle Wright: Tell me about growing up the in Bay Area.

 

Breena Nuñez: Most of my childhood was spent between San Bruno and South San Francisco. I didn’t really appreciate it until I got older and moved out to Oakland; it kind of reminded me that there are certain things I love about being from that part of the Bay Area. The quiet, that feeling of solitude. I realized that that was where I learned a lot about self-love (before the term became popular). Having access to nature and the beaches (which are always places of healing for me) made me feel grateful to be a part of those communities growing up. My older brother and I used to walk trails with my mom a lot. There was a time we also lived in Millbrae, too. It was interesting because that was my mom’s decision—putting us into schools like Taylor Middle School and Mills High School.

DW: I know where Mills is, my mom went there!

 

BN: Oh what! That’s so cool. I had an older cousin that went to Mills, so that influenced her to bring us out of schools in SSF and into the schools that had more of a reputation academically. She didn’t want us to experience what she saw other kids dive into when she was going to school and living in the Mission district (where my family migrated to from Central America). There were a lot of drugs and shootings happening in the Mission district in the 70’s. When I was kid I used to dream that I would live in the Mission and reclaim part of my family’s history by taking back that area and neighborhood, but home was being from those two towns, too. San Bruno and South San Francisco have made me into the person I am today, even though it might seem really boring to a lot of people. [laughter] Most of the Peninsula doesn’t seems like it’s poppin’ in comparison to San Francisco.

 

San Francisco used to be my escape when I needed a place to feel inspired. I still give love to the City because it’s where I knew I wanted to become an artist. It’s where I realized that this could be my life. In the third grade I went to a school called Sunshine Gardens. We went on a field trip to Davies Symphony Hall–I was excited just to see a live performance. Seeing the SF Symphony play and make music together hypnotized me. That made a huge impact on my little body and mind. The feeling was inexplicable to me as a kid, but I just knew that I wanted to make music and do something creative. Eventually, I hopped around different elementary schools in South City because I was in the Special Ed program. I was also diagnosed with Autism at a very early age because I didn’t speak until I was four years old. They said that I experienced processing issues and wasn’t able to form cohesive sentences, but it was mostly because the medical system fails to be culturally sensitive. I grew up in a bi-cultural, if not tri-cultural household, since there were different kinds of Spanish being spoken. My dad is from El Salvador and my mother is from Guatemala, so there was different slang being tossed around and I had to learn English. I think as a kid I just didn’t really care about languages in general. [laughter]

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"Belizean Butterfly." 2017. Courtesy of the artist

"SAN FRANCISCO USED TO BE MY ESCAPE WHEN I NEEDED A PLACE TO FEEL INSPIRED. I STILL GIVE LOVE TO THE CITY BECAUSE IT’S WHERE I KNEW I WANTED TO BECOME AN ARTIST. IT’S WHERE I REALIZED THAT THIS COULD BE MY LIFE."

DW: That’s a lot! I mean, that’s a lot for any brain to assimilate, switching back and forth in that way. I can’t even imagine a sweet little four year old dealing with all of that. I mean you must have just been like, “Fuck it guys, I’ma go color.”

 

BN: Yes [laughter], that’s what I did. I made little drawings and expressed how I was feeling. I wanted to be an artist, but then music became a large part of my identity as a kid as well. I started learning the flute in 5th grade with Mr. Sandoval, whom I’ll never forget. He was the first brown teacher I’d ever had. He taught me that, in addition to being a musician, I also had an identity that I should honor and never forget. I learned to play songs like “Las Mañanitas,” which I didn’t even know was the birthday song of our people. I played it for my grandmother the first time she came to visit us from El Salvador. I didn’t realize how proud and happy it would make her, and how it helped her feel at home, too. Mad love to Mr. Sandoval, wherever he is, because he influenced me as an educator and an artist.


I don’t know if that was your experience, but it felt like the culture that we needed to get—especially identifying as a person of color—was in the City. My family would take me to San Francisco to eat at pupuserias and to get Guatemalan bread for Christmas. There were always long-ass lines on Christmas morning ‘cause everyone’s doing stuff last-minute. [laughter]

DW: They probably had to because they were working, you know?

 

BN: Pretty much.

 

DW: l listed to and watched the interview you did for Taco Talk and I remember you telling the story about your teacher, Mr. Sandoval. It makes me think of the teachers that I’ve had that really influenced me and reminds me how important it is to have an educator reflect back some of your experiences as a young person. You kind of alluded to this already, but how and when and why did you start making art and why do you still make it?

 

BN: I think as children we always make it for ourselves. I just wanted to play. That was what the therapist (who observed me for the diagnosis) noticed. I was very content to play by myself and be in my own world. Sometimes that kind of behavior is seen as a “bad thing” from a teacher’s or speech therapist’s point of view—but like, just let me live my best life with these crayons and highlighters! [laughter] Growing up with comic strips like the Sunday Funnies and watching a lot of cartoons with my older brother, we both just kind of felt like this is something we wanted to do. To have your name attached to some kind of creative work is kind of amazing. We bonded over that. I wanted to make art that would make people feel good about themselves. There was also this unspoken want and need for agency as someone of Central American descent. As I kid, I wondered what it even meant to balance these cultures and why there wasn’t enough media out there that reflected our experiences. We didn’t feel seen! At that time being Latinx was synonymous with being Mexican so … [laughter] That was confusing to me even as a young person. As a kid, I remember asking my mom, “Mom, are we Mexican?” because everyone was brown and they were also speaking Spanish. She was so mad at me.

 

DW: Why?

 

BN: I grew up going to Guatemala! She thought I totally missed all of these educational moments about where our people are from. I wasn’t born and raised in Central America, in Guatemala, or El Salvador. I’m from here. It can be confusing figuring out how to refer to ourselves as people of Central American descent who are born and raised here as first or second generation kids. We don’t really belong anywhere, but we know what it feels like to be of Central American descent.

 

DW: It’s central in reading your comics and looking at your work that you identify as Afro-Latinx, so will you talk about what that means?

BN: Sure! The African descent is more on my El Salvadoran side. That’s a term that I didn’t know existed throughout my childhood. I didn’t see myself as Black at all, even though other people did. I remember playing on the playground with this little girl who identified as Mexican and Filipina. Apparently I “stole” that friend from a little white girl who yelled at the biracial girl, “I’m not going to be friends with you! You can keep playing with your little Black friend,” referring to me. I was stunned. I didn’t identify as Black, but also hearing someone say “Black” and intend for it to be offensive and degrading confused me. It stuck with me for a long time and made me speculate. I was always compared to the one other Black girl that I went to school with in middle and high school (since Millbrae doesn’t have a large Black population either). That same Black friend also lived in South City.

DW: I remember this story from your comic, “Colocha-head”; you wrote about that in the work and some other incidents as well.

BN: After I graduated from SF State, I wanted to work in social justice-minded non-profit. I was very comfortable saying that I identify as a person of color, so I would make that clear in my resume or CV. My mom would help me edit my applications and she would say, “Oh that makes you sound Black, identifying as a person of color,” but we are people of color. [laughter] Again there is this idea of Blackness being linked to being “lesser than.” It would hurt me that it’s not acceptable to identify as Afro-Latinx, though my community is becoming more open about the history of African presence in Central America (more so in El Salvador, historically). It’s a cultural movement that has emerged in the last few years where more Afro-Salvadorans are coming out and celebrating their culture. I’m glad that’s happening and feel more seen.


It’s been a process–I didn’t identify as Afro-Latinx until my friend Alan asked me about it. It felt like I was, but I also wasn’t raised to believe that I was. That’s a part of the process, too; honoring the history that has been erased, especially from El Salvador. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I became curious and started looking at pictures of my family. I've heard that other Salvadorans experienced this same thing. It seems like our generation as a community is speculating all at the same time and realizing that this is a part of being El Salvadoran, too. We’re not just this racially ambiguous blend of whatever, this mixing pot. This history is something we’re reclaiming because it’s existed for thousands and thousands of years. There are some amazing Afro-Latinx people curating all of this wonderful research that they’ve managed to find and they’re making it more public.

In the Courtyard of Old House on May 4, 2017 (GIF of transit between front and back lighting) 

"Colocha-Head." 2018. Courtesy of the artist

DW: Will you tell me what the word “Colocha” means to you?

 

BN: Sure! “Colocha” literally means somebody that has curly, kinky hair. It’s also becoming more associated with Afro-Latinidad, too. I hear from some people that it wasn’t always a very endearing word because of Eurocentric beauty standards.  

DW: I want to ask you more about the incorrect diagnosis. When did folks realize that you had been misdiagnosed, and what was life like before, during, and after? How does that continue to influence who you are and how you move through the world?

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BN: I stopped going to speech therapy in the third or fourth grade. They realized I needed to be more challenged academically by the 5th grade. They would put me into regular ed classes, which is where I first got exposed to things like Jack London books. It kind of astonished me like, “Wow … we’re reading at this level?” I was sad about being labeled as a Special Ed kid and feeling the implications of being compared with other kids. I wasn’t getting challenged as much as some of my best friends in school. I would cry to my mom and confide in her how I felt “dumb” and that it made me feel incapable of learning. There was a lot of angry crying.

I know that was stressful for my Mom, especially because she essentially raised my brother and me on her own. I still appreciated her doing the work, but at the same time, it wasn’t easy. I definitely felt her frustration with me when I couldn’t understand things, especially simple requests. She told me I would sometimes go into a state of panic and shake a bit when I didn’t know what was happening. I wondered if other people were going through this, too. Is this something that other kids of color who come from multicultural backgrounds experience? That’s a comic that I want to work on; it’s on the to-do list of many comics that are going to be published in the future.

"THAT’S A PART OF THE PROCESS TOO, HONORING THE HISTORY THAT HAS BEEN ERASED . . ."

"Salvi Mujer." 2017. Courtesy of the artist

DW: I can’t wait to read it.

 

BN: Thank you! I’m looking forward to that project because it’s something that needs to be addressed but it’s not really talked about in our communities.

 

DW: I immediately think of all of the “othering” that happens. I’m thinking about queerness as well, and people holding you up against a standard that doesn’t make sense, you know? People want to define what is “normal” and judge how you deviate from that and conclude then that there’s something wrong with you. I’m seeing that there are multiple points of that in your story.

 

BN: Yeah.

 

DW: I want to get into another big question on my mind which is, why comics (as opposed to say painting, drawing, sculpture, printmaking, etc.)? I know you do music as well— you play saxophone with Las Sirenas?

 

BN: Yeah! You know, I didn’t realize comics were going to be a part of my life as far as a career until after graduating SF State. I thought maybe Illustration, but I always give credit to my family. On my mother’s side (the Guatemalan side), comics have always been a part of my experience, because that medium has helped me as somebody that really didn’t have the capacity to communicate with language. I felt visual communication with comics still gave me this sense of culture and relationship between myself and these characters. It’s a beautiful experience and I want to keep pursuing it for the rest of my life. It just makes sense.

 

Whenever I tell my grandparents that I’m studying comics at CCA (California College of the Arts), my grandma will circle back to memories of reading Donald Duck in Guatemala. My mom grew up on Archie comics and other titles from Latin America. I think there’s an unspoken desire to be a part of the arts on my mother’s side. My family likes to write like paragraphs of love on greeting cards for birthdays and other occasions, and she used to draw these goofy characters on them. I love that we’ve always been about appreciating each other, and I loved when my mom drew those silly little faces.


My mom would copy comics when she was a kid, too. It feels like something I’ve inherited, so I’m trying to manifest it into an actual career. I mean, I’m not trying, it’s happening! [laughter] Now is the time to be a comic book artist, especially in today’s ‘Murica with what’s going on within my community. When I say that, I’m talking about Afro-Latinx people and Central Americans who are going through it with this administration. We need a lot more representation in comics that captures narratives that are pertinent to us.

"I WANTED TO FIND MY VOICE IN DESIGN BUT IT JUST DIDN’T MAKE ANY SENSE. AS A DESIGNER, YOU’RE WORKING FOR SOMEBODY ELSE. I REALIZED THAT IF I WANT TO BE AN ART TEACHER, I WANT TO TEACH COMICS."

DW: Yeah, it needs to archived in a way so we all don’t keep making the same mistakes, right? So why California College of the Arts?

 

BN: I had the privilege of being a part of this group called Clínica Martín-Baró, a student-run clinic that’s a project between San Francisco State University students and medical students at the University of California, San Francisco. They provide free primary health care and therapy for folks who are undocumented and don’t speak English as a first language. It’s a very culturally accommodating space. I was glad to be there but I didn’t know what I was going to do with my degree in Graphic Design and double minor in Latina/o Studies and Art.

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Excerpt from "Spiritual And Different Issue 1." 2018. Courtesy of the artist

I knew that I wanted to create art for some sort of movement-building work. I thought that I might go to grad school for medical illustration. My friends were doing great work in medicine and therapy and I just wanted to do something healing for people. I looked at some portfolios and realized that I didn’t want to create illustrations for textbooks. I wanted my art to be seen by more people! I considered art therapy (as that’s still a kind of healing) but eventually stumbled onto the idea of being an educator in comics.


I stopped collecting comics while I was at SF State because I was really busy organizing. I was a part of that clinic and I was a member of both Useo/a, an El Salvadoran student organization and Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán or “M.E.Ch.A,” a Chicano organization. I tried to dip into a bunch of things to make sense of what I was going to do with my life. Then I started teaching comics to kids in an after-school program in the Outer Sunset district of San Francisco. It was fun making templates and making knowledge accessible to them. It was great to see them create their own work and to hear parents report that their kid was building a lot of confidence where they had been meek and shy before. That’s the biggest gift, seeing your students thrive at the end of the semester or workshop.

Looking back at my portfolio, I realized that not a lot of it spoke about what I wanted to say or presented stories that I wanted to share. I wanted to find my voice in design, but it just didn’t make any sense. As a designer, you’re working for somebody else. I realized that if I want to be an art teacher, I want to teach comics. Years later I found out about CCA’s program because they had a table at SF Zinefest. At that point, I had accepted that I might not go to grad school and was thinking I might just do my own thing. Just seeing that that was a possibility was exciting, though I was skeptical because tuition for art school is kind of crazy.

DW: Stupid expensive.

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"I WAS EXCITED ABOUT CLASSES LIKE THE RACE AND COMICS COURSE TAUGHT BY JOHN JENNINGS. THERE WAS A LOT OF CRYING IN THAT CLASS, BUT ALSO HEALING. JUST SEEING A BLACK COMIC BOOK ARTIST AND EDUCATOR MADE ME FEEL LIKE I WAS IN THE RIGHT PLACE."

BN: Yeah, and my older brother had a good experience, but he didn’t want to stay at Academy of Art University. I thought that AAU was the go-to school because they had all of those commercials. I assumed that it was the only art school that was available to us in the Bay. Eventually, I met the chair of CCA’s Comics Department, Matt Silady, at my old job. He gave me an anthology of all of their student work. I was surprised that there was a comic book school!

Excerpt from "Colocha-Head." 2018. Courtesy of the artist

I thought if I would go out of state that I would want to live in a city; somewhere that I can find community. Diversity is important to me, and It’s a huge privilege to be born and raised here. I know people suggest that you should go out of state—or least out of your community—to get worldly experience. But I felt this social obligation to stay here and give back to the youth of color, so CCA seemed like the perfect fit. I was excited about classes like the Race and Comics course taught by John Jennings. There was a lot of crying in that class, but also healing. Just seeing a Black comic book artist and educator made me feel like I was in the right place. And to also hear that CCA has an educational component where they invite kids to come and take lessons from the graduate students made me even more juiced. They’re also pretty much are paying me to go to school.

 

DW: You're doing it right, then. Talking about CCA, was there more you wanted to say about being there? What are your plans? What do you want to do post-MFA?

BN: I plan to reach out to more schools. I would potentially want to teach in higher education as well, starting off as an adjunct professor at SF State since they have a minor in comics now.

 

DW: Oh, what!

 

BN: Yeah! I’m lightweight salty about it. I’m like, “Where was this when I needed it the most?!”

 

DW: [laughter]

 

BN: Well, to answer your question, definitely giving back to the youth and creating curriculum that’s very race-centered. I’m about creating safe space and safe learning environments for students of all ages who are excited about comics. We need to be out there to show young people that this isn’t an impossible field to get into, and that they also have a community of comic book creators of color who want to support them. There are amazing things happening in the Bay Area.

 

There are more folks of color out here creating their own content and self-publishing and just trying to help each other get the word out. Folks will be like, “Oh, you need some historical comics that depict an alternate future where the Aztecs drove off the Spanish and prevented their lands from being colonized? Well, here’s Daniel Parada from the Mission.” People are doing the work and it’s beautiful. So I’m definitely thinking of bringing more visibility to our friends in educational settings, and eventually creating a center or a school that’s just for comics. Sometimes in an arts organization or nonprofits that work with youth education, comics are not always taken seriously.

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Excerpt from "Why You Are Cachimbonx." 2018. Courtesy of the artist

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Excerpt from "Why You Are Cachimbonx." 2018. Courtesy of the artist

DW: Sure.

 

BN: The game is changing, though. There are more comics programs in art schools across the country, but we're still trying to “get there” in terms of youth education.

 

DW: I can imagine. So a couple things come up for me in viewing your work. This is a big question but tell me what it’s like trying to navigate the comics world as someone who is Brown, who is Guatemalan, Salvadoran, and Afro-Latinx. Connected to that, will you tell me who your work is for and what your work is about (it seems to me that these pieces are all related)?

 

BN: It’s a lot of emotional labor as someone who balances multiple identities but contains all of those things into one body. It’s beautiful, but I don’t always feel like I fit into one category. Sometimes it’s lonely because it’s always a little different than what other Latinx people might experience. Being Afro-Latinx involves a process of reclaiming but also realizing that we don’t have a lot of visibility either. There’s so much anti-Blackness as well throughout all parts of the Americas. It’s a struggle when you also identify as a woman and as a queer person within the Afro-Latinx diaspora. There’s even more invisibility when it comes with associating with both labels. I realize that that's part of the social obligation of being a comic book artist, too: to bring more visibility to those identities, starting with my personal story.

 

That’s something that I’ve been waiting to share for a while, being this socially awkward, shy Black/brown kid [laughter] … and also making my content for those shy Central Americans. We hear a lot about a lot of hyper-masculinity and a lot of toughness that comes with us being from that part of the Americas because of the trauma our families have experienced, especial with the civil wars. We needed to hear those stories. Sometimes our families don’t share them with us because our families don’t want to pass down that trauma to us, but it's inevitable that we inherit that same trauma.

 

But if we don’t know our history, how are we going to heal as a people? Now we’re seeing folks lift up those stories. We hear about state imprisonment, violent detention centers, the racism that Central Americans experience in Mexico when they’re migrating; the visibility of those experiences are very important. There are also other stories that we don’t get to talk about, like being a first generation kid and not really feeling like you belong anywhere.

 

DW: Yeah.

 

BN: That’s something that I want to hear about from other Central American creators. There’s a myth that we haven’t been a part of the United States as much as our Mexican brothers and sisters, but we have. The history is just not very well-known. But yeah, it’s kind of a lonely journey. That’s something I also want to share about, how I might not be the very stereotypical "in-your-face" Latinx person. I’m in my head, I’m weird, and I’m awkward. [laughter] I like to make fun of myself and find humor in situations. I’m inspired by Insecure and Issa Rae’s writing. I like the fact that she portrays people who are very flawed.

"THERE ARE ALSO OTHER STORIES THAT WE DON’T GET TO TALK ABOUT, LIKE BEING A FIRST-GENERATION KID AND NOT REALLY FEELING LIKE YOU BELONG ANYWHERE."

DW: I made a note to myself to talk about the humor in your work . . .

 

BN: Oh yeah? [laughter]

 

DW: … which I really respond to. Also, what you mean when you refer to yourself as a “bad Salvi?”

 

BN: When I say “bad Salvi,” I mean I’m not a typical Salvadoran. In my family, Salvadorans are very blunt and open, and they’re very loud. Not to say that those things are bad or negative, I just don’t fit the tropes that are associated with Salvadoran-ness. I love being Salvadoran but I’m also very shy. [laughter] I was sometimes seen as “the quiet one” in family gatherings with my Salvi side. When the time comes to be with my extendeds in El Salvador, I’m still very weird and awkward. That’s also because my Spanish is bad. [laughter]

"My Head is Always in the Clouds." 2018. Courtesy of the artist

I’m not very confident or fluent. El Salvadoran Spanish is just so different and I don’t get to hear it often! Luckily, I had the privilege of being with more Salvadorans at SF State where I learned more of the slang and more of the accents. Funny thing, when I went to Guatemala one year for Christmas with my mom and my step dad, she noticed that I was sounding more El Salvadoran. She was all [plaintive voice], “You’re sounding more like your dad.” And I’m like, “I can’t win!” [laughter] Damned if I do and damned if I don’t.

 

DW: Oh no. [laughter] That sounds frustrating. Well, since we’ve got this space, who are some other artists that you want to lift up?

 

BN: Tanna Tucker, Dustin Garcia, Daniel Parada, Salvadorian comic book artist Trinidad Escobar, and Liz Mayorga who used to organize San Francisco Zine Fest.  SF Zine Fest is where it is today because of her organizing efforts to spotlight zinesters of color! Channing Kennedy as well. He’s been a great ally for creatives of color in the zine scene. He genuinely wants to make sure that we’re seen and heard. Other people that I’ve met through Black and brown spaces like Kat Fajardo, a Colombian and Honduran comic book artist. Her work brings me so much joy! The work is similar to what I do and inspires how I write and create comics about identity and self-care. She does incredibly vulnerable work. Steph Rodriguez, a Dominican cartoonist, is amazing. Alan Pelaez holds it down for Afro-Latinx folks, especially for Black migrants because their stories don’t get talked about enough, particularly in academic spaces. Sonia Guinansaca, they really helped me with gaining more visibility as a cartoonist. Lourdes [Rivas] wrote a forthcoming children’s book, “They Call Me Mix,” that I illustrated. It’s a bilingual (English/Spanish) children’s book about non-binary trans Latinx youth. Shoutout to Lourdes and all the work they do to make their students—especially their trans and non-binary students—feel seen and heard.

DW: I also want to ask you about being queer and Latinx. We’ve talked about ethnicity, but I want to hear more of your thoughts on gender and the comic book world.

"Being Half Guatemalan." 2018. Courtesy of the artist

BN: I’m still learning how to navigate that as someone who identifies as Afro-Latinx. We barely have any visibility, but it’s been easy for us to connect with each other because it’s such a small community. It’s also reassuring that there are artists like Loso (Carlos "Loso" Perez), the founder of Prime Vice Studios. I got to meet him at SÕL-CON, the Black and brown comic book festival. He’s Dominican and from the East coast, and he’s also using comics to talk about his culture and the nuances that come with it. The Spanish that he decides to use in his comics is Spanish that I don't even know because it’s Dominican and very specific to his culture. But I get excited when I don’t know what I’m reading even though its “Spanish.” Those instances that should remind people that we’re so complex as a culture. There’s no one nation-state that represents Afro-Latinidad or Latinx-ness. It’s so many countries, so many different Indigenous people, Black people, Afro-Indigenous people in all of the nation-states in the Americas. Our languages make us very unique in our way of storytelling and highlighting the diaspora. Sometimes (mostly in academia), people would associate themselves mostly with the Latinx community because of their Spanish surname, and because there is more accessibility to a certain kind of networking. There’s a kind of anti-Blackness in academia. I’m not really sure what that looks like in comics. We’re just trying to create our own space still. It’s a beautiful thing and there still a lot of work to be done, but that doesn't mean that we’re alone in this either.

DW: I’m particularly curious about choosing an “x” and what that means to you. Why does that feel right and why is it important?


BN: I’ve recently become more vocal about being non-binary as well. I’m questioning what it means to have a gender, and what “gender fluid” means. I’m curious about what it means to be okay with presenting as femme and being proud of femininity, but not feeling femme all of the time. The “x” is something that is important for trans folks, and intersex and non-binary people. Being a youth educator, I think about safety too. Younger kids are coming out as people not wanting to be a part of the binary anymore. I think about creating a safe space for kids of color as well as for those queer kids who are questioning and being very vocal about it. Sometimes people feel our language is being attacked by the “x.” We mostly experience this with cis men, but sometimes women, too. There’s so much violence happening across this country and in the rest of the Americas towards people in the trans and intersex community or who are also non-binary. For me, it’s about creating safety for those folks. It also reinforces the idea that there’s no one way to look when it comes to gender. It should all be celebrated and accepted. Some people feel like they’re being forced to use the “x” and forced beyond the binary, but everybody has a sense of agency. I think that is what the “x” is doing, giving everybody that sense of agency in terms of how they want to identify. Nobody is making up the rules other than yourself.

DW: Right. And who or what would you say are your biggest influences and why?

BN: Friends who are becoming professors, drag queens, writers, graphic designers, and illustrators.

"I THINK THAT IS WHAT THE 'X' IS DOING, GIVING EVERYBODY THAT SENSE OF AGENCY IN TERMS OF HOW THEY WANT TO IDENTIFY."

DW: Cool.

 

BN: I have a wonderful best friend who is studying in Texas right now to become a therapist. I know other people who are doing that kind of work in LA. Within this network of chosen family, we inspire each other and continue to be a community. I’m always influenced by their radness. I want to give a shout out again to teachers like Mr. Sandoval, who inspired me to be an educator. Always make room for culture in your curriculum. I feel like he gave me my first dose of critical thinking as well as critical and ethnic studies within public school.

Lawrence Lindell is also an influence, too. He does amazing work using comics as this wonderful accessible platform for people, especially regarding hard-hitting issues and experiences when it comes to being Black and dealing with mental health and with queerness. I definitely want to do that for Afro-Latinx people who are also of Central American descent. I also have to give a big shout out to a former professor of mine, Maya Chinchilla, who was my first Guatemalan teacher. To have a teacher who was an artist was also important to me. Knowing that she’s a poet as well and that she’s still doing so much great work in higher education holding it down for Central Americans gives me hope that there’s something to look forward to in those sorts of institutions (as problematic as they are). My educator friends remind me that we have to take up as much space as we can, and that the act of taking up space is very important.

Excerpt from "From Here to There." 2018. Courtesy of the artist

Shout out to my best friend Yvette Rico. She’s one of the reasons that I create art and comics for people within the diaspora who are sensitive and who have also dealt with navigating educational systems with learning differences. We don’t get to hear a lot of stories like that or be with other people who hold space for you to be in your feelings and be vulnerable. We come from very strong migrant parents. I can only imagine it’s been a challenge for people like my parents to have time to breathe as migrants of color in America. My best friend Yvette reminds me that it’s O.K. to be in your feelings.

DW: That’s the truth.

 

BN: Shoutout to my older brother. He made me feel safe to be a nerd and showed me that I could grow into being a creative person. We shared these moments as kids where we would dream openly together about what was possible. Shoutout to him for being there to protect me and to ground me when I feel down and out about life and relationships. He reminds me that I’m a grown ass person that has agency and that there’s nothing wrong with advocating for myself. Shoutout to my mom for taking care of us when it was just us three and for always supporting our craziest, wildest dreams. And shoutout to my pops, too for sharing his stories with me. It makes me feel proud to be Salvadoran and directed me to this path of claiming more of my Salvadoran-ness, even though he didn’t raise me.

 

There’s so much to appreciate about our identity. There’s so much beauty in it, especially whenever my dad talks about the land where he comes from. Seeing it for the first time when I was 16, I couldn’t believe that was where we were from. I’m just happy to be surrounded by people who make me proud of my weirdness but also the cultural heritage that I claim and own.

DW: That’s cool, thank you. Speaking of pride, what piece or pieces (or parts of your work) are you the proudest of and why?

 

BN: Lately, it’s been what I’ve produced for my master’s thesis which is a sort of preview of my graphic novel Morena. We had our student show at CCA for the second-year class. It was the first time I showed the original pages of my thesis. It’s about the complicated relationship I had with being half-Salvadoran when I was 16 and feeling very, very afraid of this country. It centers around waiting at San Francisco International Airport for that the plane to take me to El Salvador to begin this journey to reclaim my roots and that side of my heritage.

 

I’m proud of that piece, even though it’s still a work in progress. I’m exploring something that’s complicated that I think many other half-Salvadorans are experiencing, too. It’s not always an easy thing to talk about, so I’m glad that I have the strength and capacity to do so. Another piece is my latest mini-comic where I talk about being half-Guatemalan. I love the panel of me and Lawrence being by the flowers.

Excerpt from "Being Half Guatemalan." 2018. Courtesy of the artist

Excerpt from "Being Half Guatemalan." 2018. Courtesy of the artist

Excerpt from "Being Half Guatemalan." 2018. Courtesy of the artist

DW: Me too.

 

BN: It’s one of my favorite things. For me, it’s always been a part of what it means to be half-Guatemalan or even of Guatemalan descent. That experience of going back to such a green, lush country, and being surrounded by rainforest and jungle, you learn to appreciate the flowers in a different way than when you’re here [in the U.S.]. That’s something my grandparents have passed down to me. They love to garden. I also love that everyone is responding to the illustration I did of the chow mein …

 

DW: The noodles! Ah, I love that one so much! [laughter]

 

BN: Overall, I’m just happy about how people are responding to the works in progress. Going back to the thesis, it’s also validating to hear responses from people who are half-Guatemalan and half-Salvadoran who reach out to say, “I know what you’re going through.” This one gentleman approached me and told me he identifies similarly and said, “Your work is necessary. It’s going to make a lot of people feel good.” That’s something I’ve been wanting to hear, to make sure I’ve been doing right by my community, ever since I was little. Now it’s manifesting into reality. Whenever I have those types of responses from people that have been supporting my work, it’s something that never ceases to amaze me. It makes me realize this was something I was meant to do, so I’m going to keep doing it.

Breena Nuñez is an Afro-Salvadoran/Guatemalan cartoonist based in Oakland, CA who aspires to use comics as not just only a form of self-expression, but as a platform to bring visibility to the Central American and Afro-Latinx community. Her first time exploring the idea of self-publishing her own work was through attending San Francisco Zine Fest and via student activism at San Francisco State University. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Comics through California College of the Arts and is drafting her graphic memoir based on her first time traveling to El Salvador to understand her family's culture and history.

Danielle Wright is a visual artist based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She earned a B.A. in Visual Arts with an emphasis in Fine Arts at the University of San Francisco in 2007. Her work investigates the language of materials and the delineation between artist and viewer/participant. In addition to her studio practice, she teaches at Creativity Explored, a not-for-profit art gallery and studio in the Mission District of San Francisco.

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