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  • Dan Johnson

Embracing Diversity: Bodegas, Brownstones, and the Rich Tapestry of Our Latinidades

Updated: Jul 3


In Samuel Teer and Mar Julia’s recent YA graphic novel, Brownstone, 14-year-old Almudena is dropped off by her single mom to spend the summer with Xavier, the estranged Guatemalan father she never knew. The two spend their time together renovating an old brownstone building, but even the simple act of communication is a challenge; Xavier speaks mostly Spanish, with a very limited grasp of English, while Almudena speaks English, with an equally limited grasp of Spanish. Almudena is filled with questions she wishes she could ask the man who had been a missing piece in the puzzle of her life. Almudena gets to know the neighbors, a motley group of people whose stories and lives intersect with Xavier’s renovation project in surprising ways and in doing so, she learns about the effects of gentrification. As Xavier’s project comes closer to fruition, Almudena discovers a sense of community, or fitting in, that had previously eluded her.


The fact that Almudena is of mixed heritage, with a white mother and Latino father, definitely resonated with me as a Salvadoran with an Anglo name Johnson, a legacy of my Swedish side of the family and evidence that, as Latinx folks, we often don’t fit cleanly in one label or another.


While my language barriers were never so stark as Almudena’s and Xavier’s, I could absolutely remember events in my life, visits back to Central America and holiday church parties my family attended, where I realized my broken Spanish made me feel like an outsider within my own family. But much like Almudena, I also had experiences that validated my place with my primos and other extended family, recognizing that there is something that binds us together, no matter the distances and experiences that hold us apart. This was an incredibly hopeful and positive book, one in which teens will find an authentic tale of self-discovery and acceptance.


photo of artist with glasses and with art in background
Mar Julia
photo of author with beard and glasses
Samuel Teer

I had the absolute pleasure of speaking with Brownstone’s creators about their experience writing and drawing the book, a four-year-plus process that borrowed somewhat from both of their personal lives. In our conversation, we touched on subjects such as experiences with language barriers, cultural syncretism, “found family,” the effects of gentrification on communities of color, and dealing with homophobia.


Daniel Johnson: There’s a phrase, “ni de aquí, ni de allá—neither from here nor from there,” which often comes up with children of immigrants who don't feel American enough in the US and not Latino enough when they go visit family. This is doubly so for children of immigrants who are of mixed heritage. Samuel, I noticed in your acknowledgments in the author’s note at the back that you thank everyone who made you feel like you weren't brown enough or white enough. This one is for you. As a Salvadoran with the last name of Johnson, I can absolutely relate. Can you talk about this?

 

Samuel Teer: That is very much my personality; the “never fitting in.” I didn't fit in at school. I don't really fit in with my family, where I’ve always been the odd one out. The core nugget of Brownstone was when I was 15; I did not go live with my estranged father; he lived in the house with us. However, I did go meet my great-grandfather in Guatemala for three weeks. To teach himself English, I’d see him in his office transcribing books from Spanish into English; there were musical instruments, music and writing sheets piled up everywhere. Something about this space made me feel like I fit in. I built Brownstone around this foundational sense of discovering that place where you fit in.

 

DJ: Brownstone is very much about language and language barriers—about not being able to speak directly with family members due to language barriers. Almudena has a hard time understanding and being understood by Xavier. He speaks Spanish; she speaks English. Mar perhaps you can share about how the story gives shape to experiences of language?

 

Mar Julia: I had family members who spoke Spanish and English—or just Spanish. Growing up, I spoke Spanish with my grandmother when I was very young. Then we moved away, and I began to lose my Spanish. Today, I understand Spanish, but I have trouble responding. There are times with my Spanish-only speaking family when we hit a wall.  In Brownstone, Almudena also hits a wall when trying to communicate with her father.

 

DJ: There’s a sense in our community that one’s Latinidad is tied to Spanish fluency.


MJ: It’s odd to me that Spanish proficiency determines how Latino you are. I grew up in South Florida where you hear Spanish everywhere and where a lot of people like me understand Spanish but don't necessarily speak it. I recall that line from the Miami-set Jane the Virgin when Jane says to her grandmother, “I don't know how to say this to you in Spanish.” That's how I feel. When some family visited from out of town, they would ask me why I didn’t speak more Spanish. I did go through periods of trying to practice Spanish to be more Latino. Now I do it because my grandmother's old, and she's starting to forget English.

 

ST: To piggyback off Mar, growing up, my mom spoke English and Spanish, and my dad's deaf, so we used American Sign Language. When I was really young, we had an aunt and uncle come from Guatemala to live with us. Suddenly, there was a section of the house that only spoke Spanish and another that spoke English. ASL was thrown into the mix. Like Mar, I understand Spanish when my mom talks to me (especially when she’s upset), but I have no ability to speak it. Thankfully, because both my mom and aunt speak English very well, I can reply in English, and they get it. Meanwhile, I also translate into ASL so my dad can follow our conversations. In our house, nobody really misses a beat. With Brownstone, I wanted to show how eventually the language barrier between father and daughter erodes over time.

 

DJ: There's a point towards the end where Almudena and Xavier sit in silence, but it's no longer the uncomfortable silence they experience in the beginning.

ST: While I wrote this into the script, it’s Mar’s artworks that makes this moment sing.

 

DJ: One of the first ways that Almudena gets to know Xavier is when he shows her his altar, one which blends a crucifix from Catholic influences with the Guatemalan trickster deity, Maximón. Could you discuss the Guatemalan traditions of santos and ofrendas, and in this case, how they create a syncretic connection to Catholicism and pre-colonial beliefs.

Teen stands next to ofrenda with her dad
Almudena next to ofrenda with her dad Xavier

ST: While I grew up Catholic, and attended Catholic school for a number of years, the home-styled Catholicism came from my Guatemalan great grandfather. There's a room in his house with a hand-carved and painted, life size crucifix of Jesus. According to him, he doesn’t need a priest to talk to God, he can talk to God directly.  The Maximón element was a way to acknowledge our pre-colonial culture and belief systems. Bringing them together in Brownstone was a way to merge these two belief systems.

 

DJ: Brownstone accepts and celebrates the idea of “found family.” Love can transcend simple blood relationships, especially since as immigrants, we often cobble together families in the US from various nationalities, cultures, and histories. We see this with Almudena, who eventually forms powerful ties with those who populate Xavier’s brownstone, such as Idola and Beto, Queralt, Lorena, Tomaz. Could you speak to this?

 

MJ: I've always had a strong affinity for found family. Being gay, I have a strong network of friends who don’t all have strong biological family ties. I consider my found family as important as my “normal family.” If I form a connection with a someone, they can hold significant meaning in my life. I think this is why I gravitate toward stories that focus on found family dynamics. It’s why I wanted to centralize the aesthetics of Brownstone around the found family.

 

ST: I would like to create a “found family,” but unfortunately, the friendships I make tend to fall away. Fortunately, I'm very close with my biological family. I’m really close to my mom. Growing up I've always had aunts, uncles, and cousins around. So, I haven’t really looked to create family elsewhere.

 

Illustration showing young girl dancing at her quinceañera party
Almudena's Quinceañera

DJ: Can you talk about the importance of Almudena’s quinceañera as a celebration of making her transition from niña to joven?

 

ST: There are no girls in my family, just me and my brother, so I had to do research. The neighborhood I live in is heavily Latin American, with a store half a block away that sells quinceañera dresses. I asked them a lot of questions. This was also a great opportunity for me to showcase Almudena’s dancing as a strong emergence of her personality.

 

MJ: I never actually had a quince. My aunt wanted to throw me one, but didn't want to step on my mom's toes, so I never had one. But for Almudena, this showcases the pivotal moment when she finally feels comfortable in this new environment. The quinceañera chapter is a release of all the tension she’s felt up until this moment. She finally gets to have fun. 

 

DJ: I want to switch gears and talk about the character development. Each character is visually unique yet easily recognizable from page to page. Can you talk about the visuals used in developing the cast?

 

MJ: We've been making Brownstone for at least four years, and designing the cast was one of the first tasks we undertook—even before working on the pitch. We talked a lot about their appearance. Samuel really wanted Xavier to wear a uniform, which led me to dress him workman's overalls. With Idola and Beto, I aimed for a similar look. With primos Mario and Jaime, I wanted them to have a different look, with Mario as Afro Latino. My mom says Almudena looks like me—she’s light-skinned, has my hair, and dresses with a hoodie and shorts, like I did in high school. I drew inspiration from my life and family. We're Dominican, and none of us look alike. I wanted to make a very quiet design-nod to acknowledge the diversity of races that make up Latino America. I also aimed for visual interest, creating contrasts between the characters. For instance, Violet is tall and lanky like a ballerina and Xavier is shorter and wider.

Example of Character Design

DJ: The brownstone and the bodega ground the story in what feels like a real neighborhood, a true place. Could you talk about the visual references you used to create the neighborhood?

image of a small corner shop
Neighborhood Bodega

MJ: We never explicitly state a city or even the state where the story takes place in. However, when I began drawing it, Samuel gave me the go-ahead to base it on my lived experience in the Northeast. My family is from New York—my dad grew up in Manhattan and moved to Queens in the ‘80s. I pull heavily from Queens and New York. And although I live in Maryland now, I have also lived in Philadelphia and Providence, Rhode Island. There's some general East-Coast-isms that I draw from, but its heart is truly in New York where my family lived, until they were priced out.

 

Teen Latina approaches hardware store with dad
Almudena with Xavier outside the hardware store

DJ: Brownstone explores the gentrification of neighborhoods historically safe spaces for people of color. The hardware store, owned by Spanish speaker, Guillermo, undergoes a change of ownership to a white-owned chain due to his hard-luck turn. Meanwhile, Queralt is practically living in her bodega because she can't find an affordable place to live.


ST: My grandfather, Guillermo, owned a hardware store, so including it in the book was a way to honor him. I also worked in a hardware store, which influenced the story. Ultimately, it speaks to an intrinsic part of being a brown person in America—we often face being priced out and displaced. I am a bleeding-heart socialist and strongly believe in taking care of all people. In Brownstone, addressing these issues was important without making it an overwhelming burden on the story.  That’s why Xavier renovates the brownstone—to give people a place to live. I wanted the story to offer a tangible solution, even if it's not perfect.

 

MJ: I mentioned before, my family is from New York. I’ve seen firsthand, as have others I know, the displacement caused by being priced out, including especially in places like the Bronx and Brooklyn. One day, the neighborhood looks a certain way, and six months later, it’s barely recognizable. Take Queralt, for example; she just can’t find any affordable housing.

 

DJ: Brownstone touches on the legacy of homophobia in Latino families. Queralt and Beto, both queer characters, face discrimination from friends and family. Could you discuss the origins of these story elements?

 

ST: When my aunt came out, my mom had a hard time with it. I spent months talking it through with her until she got to a place of acceptance. It was wild to me that you can love somebody who shares your DNA, your flesh and blood, yet reject them. Including themes like homophobia in Brownstone is my way of exploring and trying to understand this. Writing about it helps me process and understand.

 

young man in streets of Guatemalan town
Xavier's letter to Almudena that recounts his past

DJ: Mar, could you talk about your use of color, not only to depict different times of day, but also to identify the different flashbacks?

 

MJ: This is the work of the brilliant colorist and good friend, Afro-Latine Ashanti Fortson. They knocked it out of the park with those day-to-night shifts. Ashanti has a really subtle way with colors that’s beautiful. You can see in their portfolio how powerfully their work and colors are tied to emotions. I knew Ashanti would be a great fit for the book.


Teen latina cries as she reads a letter left to her from her dad
Almudena reads letter from her dad Xavier

As for the flashbacks, it was deliberate on my part. I asked for the sepia-toned flashback when Queralt talks to Almudena and Beto about her teenage years because I wanted it to feel like a significant moment that she’s sharing with them. I also wanted this entire chapter to be impactful, particularly as teenagers process things in a present way. I wanted it to feel connected to Almudena. The way that was structured in the script, with Samuel giving the letter its own dedicated chapter, helped create this connection. We also used the panel borders to guide readers to differentiate between Almudena’s reaction to the conversation and when it's related to the letter.

 

DJ: Any final thoughts you'd like to share?

 

MJ: I hope that Brownstone ends up in libraries. I want as many readers as possible to get their hands on it and see themselves somewhere in its pages.

 

ST: To everyone out there, please, tell your story. The world needs more of our stories.

 

 

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