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Why this comic book superhero — a Puerto Rican woman exploring the island’s history — isn’t just about hurricane relief

"I just want to thank you for writing this comic," said Siani Colon, a 19-year-old journalism student at Temple University. "After reading it, I decided to take a major in Latino studies."

Lucca Petrecca, 11, of Princeton reads the comic book "Ricanstruction," which author Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez just signed at Taller Puertorriqueno in Phila., Pa. on June 16, 2018.
Lucca Petrecca, 11, of Princeton reads the comic book "Ricanstruction," which author Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez just signed at Taller Puertorriqueno in Phila., Pa. on June 16, 2018.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

Yanez Perez remembers the moment a year ago when she first saw a copy of La Borinqueña, a comic book with an Afro Latina Puerto Rican woman as its superhero:

"I freaked out. I screamed. I cried. For the first time, I could actually relate to a character who is being idolized."

Perez, of Philadelphia, was eager to meet Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez, the New York creator of La Borinqueña, who came to Taller Puertorriqueño last weekend to talk about Ricanstruction: Reminiscing & Rebuilding Puerto Rico, an anthology his company Somos Arte published last month, with proceeds going to support relief efforts on the island after Hurricane Maria hit in September.

"The whole purpose of this project is not only to raise money and awareness, but to give the people on the island hope," he said at the North Philadelphia arts center known as El Corazón Cultural del Barrio.

Though much of the electric power has been restored, the hurricane's severe impact on Puerto Rico's infrastructure is still felt almost a year later on an island with a poverty rate near 50 percent. And last month, only days after Ricanstruction debuted, a Harvard study published in the New England Journal of Medicine estimated as many as 4,645 deaths could be linked to Maria and its aftermath. As hurricane season starts again, island residents live in fear of another storm, said Taller executive director Carmen Febo San Miguel, whose three sisters are on the island.

In Ricanstruction — on which Miranda-Rodriguez worked with more than 100 other comic book artists and celebrities, including Rosario Dawson, Rubén Blades, Reginald Hudlin, and Greg Pak  — La Borinqueña, the heroine created in 2016, is joined by Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Supergirl, and Green Lantern in the 67 stories that focus on the past, present, and future of Puerto Rico. One story has the bold, glasses-wearing mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, who sparred with President Trump, as the first Latina president of the United States. (The anthology is a collaboration with DC Comics, which gave Somos Arte permission to use the its characters.)

Though the anthology's mission is to raise money, it became clear at the Philadelphia gathering of about 100 that La Borinqueña's cultural and historical impact couldn't be underestimated.

It was not just the idea that a Puerto Rican woman was a superhero but that Miranda-Rodriguez, who grew up in New York, had woven into his stories the history, politics, and ancient lore of the island.

In the first La Borinqueña, readers follow along as Marisol, a 20-year-old environmental studies major from Columbia University, travels to Puerto Rico for a semester. She explores the caves on the island and finds five crystals that later give her superhero powers.

In that first book, Marisol, fortuitously as it turns out — it was released nine months before Maria hit — has to deal with a major hurricane.

Another La Borinqueña came out last week, and all three comic books deal with the island's history and how its residents still feel like second-class citizens 120 years after the U.S. took over. Federal laws such as the Jones Act, which requires all supplies to Puerto Rico to be delivered on American ships, inevitably means very expensive imports: Cars, for example, cost 40 percent more in Puerto Rico than in the States, CNN has reported.

For Perez, Miranda-Rodriguez's work offers an opportunity to talk about all this.

"He's opened up a platform to speak about everything that's going on in Puerto Rico," she said, noting that Puerto Ricans in Philadelphia have long been associated with poverty, and never with uplifting images. "People forget that Puerto Rico means "Rich Port." It was a huge asset to the economic wealth of America."

But it's the character of La Borinqueña, whose costume is Puerto Rico's original flag, with a white star and light-blue background, that Perez first fell in love with.

"Growing up, we had Barbie dolls," Perez said. "There were black dolls and white dolls. But I never had a doll with tan skin and curly hair. I never had a doll that looked like me. For the first time … someone of importance was being highlighted who resembled me or resembled people I knew."

Melvina King of Plymouth Meeting, who identifies as West African because her parents were born in Liberia, wanted to know why  Marisol is Afro Latina.

"I wanted her to be Afro Latina because quite often mainstream media perpetuates an image that Latinos are all homogeneous," Miranda-Rodriguez said. "We are an ethnic group, not a race, and we can also be of African and Asian heritage …. When I looked at my own family, my own family is very diverse, from very white to very black. That's just organic to who we are as a family."

Thomas Delfi, who last year brought to Philly the first Nerdtino Expo, a Latin comic book festival, said Latin American history is ripe for storytelling, which Miranda-Rodriguez cultivates in La Borinqueña. The myths of the Aztecs and Mayans, he said, "make Lord of the Rings pale in comparison."

As for Puerto Rico's current crisis, "It's a terrible time to be alive, but a great time to create," Delfi said. "We are in a terrible situation as a culture, but it's a great time to stop and build something really bigger than yourself."