“Graphic Reclamations: Barajas and Gonzo’s Tata Rambo as Co-Creative Journey that Sets the Historical Record Straight”
Guest Post By: Frederick Luis Aldama, aka Professor LatinX
Just the other day my kid asked: “how can the filmmaker of Hidden Figures have known the story of these three important African American women mathematicians and scientists if the history books never included them?”
I was quick to muddle through a response that amounted to something like this: “Someone had to do the work of sleuthing out their story. In this case, it was Margot Lee Shetterly. They had to dig into newspaper archives and personal records. They had to meet and talk with living relatives, friends—anyone who knew these incredible women.”
I was fast to respond because, well, this is a fact of life for those “hidden figures” of underrepresented peoples in the US. When I ask my college students if they know about the Young Lords, Dolores Huerta, Elena Ochoa, Cesar Chavez, many draw a blank. Latinx shapers of US history, culture, politics have been willfully dust-balled in K-12 education—and the mainstream media generally.
Fortunately, the work and will of Latinx intellectuals, teachers, activists, and comic book creators is changing this—radically and rapidly. I think readily here of Inverna Lockpez and Dean Haspiel’s Cuba My Revolution (2010), Christine Redfern and Caro Caron’s Who is Ana Mendieta? (2011), Lila Quintero Weaver’s Darkroom (2012), Wilfred Santiago’s 21: The Story of Roberto Clemente (2013), Julian Voloj and Claudia Ahlering’s Ghetto Brothers: Warrior to Peacekeeper (2015), and the many Latinx stories collected in my recently published, Tales from la Vida (2018).
With the publication of their latest comic book, La Voz De M.A.Y.O: TATA RAMBO, Henry Barajas and Jason “Gonzo” Gonzalez join these Latinx creators in setting the record straight.
TATA RAMBO brings to vibrant life the story of Tucson-based activist and Henry’s bisabuelo, Ramon Jaurigue. We learn of Ramon’s suffering from PTSD as a WWII vet along with his fight for the rights of the Pascua Yaqui tribe peoples. And, with Gonzo’s deft visual storytelling skills, we step into a world that comes vibrantly alive with every responsive inked line. We suffer Ramon’s PTSD. We stand aghast at the behind-closed-doors wheeling and dealing between city and government officials and greedy corporate capitalists who will do anything to turn a profit. We stand with Ramon and many others as they hold ground against gun-wielding, marauding police.
Along with those Latinx visual-verbal narrative creations mentioned above, I teach comics like Henry and Gonzo’s TATA RAMBO precisely because of their power to set records straight. I teach them so my students can do more than just whip through a Wiki page. So they can viscerally step into the shoes of a Ramon Jaurigue, a Chavez, a Huerta, a Guevara, among many others. These are powerful means for making visible our otherwise hidden figures: the struggles and lives lost by our parents, grandparents, tíos and tías who stood together in solidarity to fight for a better tomorrow.
I recently caught up with Henry and Gonzo, asking them to share some insights about their co-creative journey in setting the record straight.
Professor LatinX: With Tata Rambo you pulled off the impossible at quicksilver speed: dynamic comic book storytelling and the recuperation of an important Latinx shaper of history.
Henry: I guess you’re right. This story has been with me my whole life, but it wasn’t until four years ago I started to investigate and forge a narrative. I was very inpatient and eager to get this out of my head and body. There was a part of me that wanted to move on with my life, but I was afraid that I would have to say goodbye to my Tata Rambo.
Gonzo had to live with this for about 10 months. He really took on this project and gave my research and intentions justice. The editor, Claire Napier, helped me push past my fears and helped tell the best story possible. I planned on lettering the book, but, I needed to hand the reins to Bernardo Brice. Brice nearly lettered the whole Where We Live Anthology that Image Comics published to aid the Route 91 survivors under a tight deadline, and he turned my 30 pages in less than a week.
It didn’t feel like quicksilver speed. But looking back I can see how you think so.
Gonzo: I suppose that compared to the timeline of the story, this seems to have been done quickly. I personally broke a wrist and had to recover from it fully in the time between starting and finishing this first chapter of the story, so, to me, it seemed a lot longer. My perception of time is always wrong when I am drawing. However, infusing the story with as much dynamism as possible was my paramount concern – there is a lot of information coming at the reader and I wanted to ensure they were as engaged as possible. It is important to me that this story not get overlooked and I wanted to make sure the art made it undeniable.
Professor LatinX: Henry, at the end of the comic book you chose to include an “Additional Materials” section. Readers can see first-hand the actual activist articles printed La Voz M.A.Y.O.
Henry: So, I tried to attack this like a journalist and scientist. My thesis was that this part of history was buried or omitted. For whatever reason the Yaqui tribe doesn’t recognize this in their history books, and you will be hard press to find this in any text about indigenous people Tucson or Arizona. Thankfully, the people of M.A.YO. and my Tata were keen enough to recognize the importance of their work. They left bread crumbs in the daily newspaper and created their own newsletter that was self-distributed to the community. It was important for me to publish my findings and research. I believe in 100% transparency. I wanted to showcase my Tata’s writing abilities and bring his work back in print.
Professor LatinX: Gonzo, your visuals are not just stunning and the sequencing kinetic, but your color scheme distills and reconstructs the sight, sounds, smells, tastes, and touch of Latinx life in the Southwest, particularly Tucson. Can you talk about your visual choices: from layout to color palette to you name it?
Gonzo: I decide to curate a realty that was reflective of the world Ramon lived in – he occupies a place that is very much “home” to him, not just where he resides. I strove to make the Tucson of the late 60s look as warm and comfortable as possible, so I chose a palette that was era-appropriate yet warm. Ramon is also keenly aware of the faults and foibles of his home and so the art also reflects the rough-hewn edges of the city as the story reflects the rough-edges of Ramon. I also wanted to make sure there a variety of real people that populate the story—not everyone is idealized as some comics can be. I guess, overall, I was trying to evoke a feeling more than just convey a story.
Professor LatinX: We know from K-12 history books—all aspects of our education system, actually—that our significant contributions to the shaping of today and tomorrow have been willfully erased. By choosing to reconstruct Tata Ramon’s story we have more than just a familial connection. We have the resuscitation of one of many of our ancestors who fought to make a better place for us.
Henry: It bothered me that this was history wasn’t properly documented. I had a new question for every answer and revelation. I felt like I was driving myself mad with all the truths that were absent from the history books. Then I realized this was a common thing for brown people. I’ll never forget when Governor Jan Brewer signed HB 2281. I felt like she spat on my face. But that was just one example of this compulsion that oppressors have to keep the truth from the people that they feel it will empower.
My dream is to hear about a teacher using our comic as text to teach in their classrooms. My history teacher Mr. Johnson used Art Spiegelman’s Maus to teach me about the holocaust, so I want to pay it forward.
Gonzo: I felt a great sense of responsibility in working on this story for exactly that reason. I also admire that Henry made sure to paint a complete portrait of Ramon and didn’t seek to solely lionize or mythologize him. Henry presents the facts and insights and fleshes-out Ramon with warts and all—and I feel this is the story’s real power; the notion that you needn’t be perfect to create a positive change.
Professor LatinX: This is not just a Samson vs. Goliath story. It’s the story of how our parents, grandparents, and bisabuelos stood together in solidarity to fight corporate and government violence, oppression, and exploitation.
Henry: My memory of Ramon was he was a warrior. But at the end of his life he lived in a broken trailer that didn’t have hot water. He battled emphysema and he put up a fight. I wanted to honor his work. He inspired a community of people to go toe-to-toe with the City of Tucson to fight for their land. Sadly, there are a number of Natives that didn’t have that kind of champion in their corner.
Gonzo: I think those notions are just part of the story, but don’t sum it up in its totality. I feel the the fact that mythic notions of David vs Goliath fail to reflect the complexity of actual heroes and perhaps preclude us from becoming heroic ourselves – I don’t know – that’s probably a question for sociologists. I do know the emotional scope of this story is broad and deep and the real people involved did their best and accomplished a lot and that is worth celebrating.
Professor LatinX: In our reconstructions of our Latinx stories we sometimes forget to weave in our deep connection to our indigenous brothers and sisters.
Henry: We explore the more indigenous roots in the second issue. The Yaquis were drove out of Mexico because of their own government. I didn’t know about this bloody history until I did research for the book. But it didn’t surprise me they won the battle with the City of Tucson to curb its plans to build the Interstate 10 through their land. They’re off-springs of warriors.
Gonzo: I’ve always felt that there is complicated relationship between LatinX and Native peoples. My personal experience has been one of cultural guilt that perhaps allowed the LatinX community to thrive in ways that the Native community has not. It’s like cultural survivor’s guilt. I’m not sure how self-imposed this is or if it is the by-product of oppressive machinations (or maybe even both), but this story serves a reminder of our shared histories and is a small step in building better bridges between these two worlds.
Professor LatinX: Will we be seeing more Barajas/Gonzo comics that recuperate Latinx transformers of history, culture, society. . .?
Henry: We have two more issues to go with La Voz De M.A.Y.O. before it hits print as a trade paperback with Top Cow Productions. I’d love to keep telling stories with Gonzo, but he has stories he wants to tell, and I don’t want to get in his way. He loves telling stories about luchadores, and I want to keep pushing my slice-of-life narrative as long as folks keep read it.
Gonzo: Like Henry said, we have 2 more chapters in this story to do and then, I’m not sure what’s next. I’d love to work with Henry again, but I do have a lot of Luchador stories to shake from my head and onto the page. It is hard to find good creative partners, so I’m sure Henry and I will come together at some later point to do another project.