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  • Luis Torres

Frederick Luis Aldama’s Pressing Passion to Portray & Proclaim Powerful Truths of Youth Surviving in the US-Mexico Borderlands: A Conversation

Updated: May 22

The first half of 2024 has proved an exhilarating time for award-winning author and scholar, Frederick Luis Aldama. One after the other, he’s dropped 2 graphic novels and a YA novel. The latter, The Absolutely (Almost) True Adventures of Max Rodriguez, follows a year in the life of a teen, Max Rodriguez. Born with ankyloglossia Max can't speak at an early age, so they dive into and devour comics, novels, and books on philosophy. As a fourteen-year-old, all this learning helps Max navigate the topsy-turvy life as a 9th grader in Nowheresville, California. Max’s adventures include encounters with their spirited abuelita, a self-styled John-Wayne-strutting Irish American grandpa, a fair-weather papá, a fiercely independent mamát, a quiet and cool older brother, a compassionate tío, and zany best friends, Rudy and Miguel. In Aldama’s near-future set graphic novel (illustrated by J Itzel), Labyrinths Borne, the future of humanity hangs in the balance as black ice emerges in summer and a mysterious disease wipes the older population from the planet. At the heart of Aldama’s sci-fi graphic novel lies the profound bond between Luna "Cassie" Cassandra Coatlique and Papá, a brilliant writer clinging to his final days, through a series of letters and journals giving insight to the darker legacies of our history—colonialism, patriarchy, and political authoritarianism. In Through Fences  (illustrated by Oscar Garza), a series of braided stories bring to life the perils of youth living on and passing through the US-Mexico borderlands.


I had the great pleasure of talking with Aldama about Through Fences.


Through Fences By Frederick Luis Aldama and Oscar Garza

Luis Torres: With Through Fences you recreate sorrowful splinters of the lives of your young protagonists, peeling back for readers the complex experiences and perspectives of what it means to be Latinx living in the US-Mexico borderlands.

Frederick Luis Aldama: With this first foray into young lives lived in the borderlands, it was important for me to create this kaleidoscopic view. I wanted to capture a wide spectrum of unique experiences. While the borderlands shape each protagonist differently, their individual stories thread together to form a greater tapestry that shows the everyday struggles of Latinx youth.

 

LT: Given the mainstream media’s stereotypical representations of Latinos and the US-Mexico border, these nuanced perspectives that humanize life in the borderlands are more urgent than ever.

FLA: Whether it's one of the dozens of Netflix narco shows, Breaking Bad, CBS’s foray with Coyote, films like Sicario, The Last Stand, and Traffic, or the mainstream media’s barrage of Latinx threat metaphors and imagery, there is a deleterious flattening of complex human experiences into monotonous portrayals—black & white monotones—that have nothing to do with the richly textured life in the borderlands.

 

LT: Once I picked up Through Fences, I couldn’t put it down till I turned its final pages. Yet throughout the book, I was shaken to my core by how each of these young lives was tragically interrupted.

FLA: The interrupted story—the story that’s cut short—that’s been our community’s experience, Luis. As Alberto, Rocky, La Maggie, Alfonso, Alicia, and others show, we haven’t been allowed the long narratives of life. Because of those push-out and lock-out systems that deny access to education and economic stability. Because of the phobias and ‘isms (ethno-racism, classism, hetero/sexism) that have metastasized through all aspects of the social fabric. Because of the physical and psychological violence our communities endure daily, our life stories are constantly and tragically interrupted. We are rarely given the privilege of the long story.

 

LT: There’s an overwhelming sense that your young protagonists are being suffocated by the watchful eyes of a world that constantly polices and surveils them.

Child in front of Immigration Judge and Immigration Officer

FLA: Whether it’s la Maggie or the toddler in “Dora,” judged criminal and held captive in ICE cages, or teens sharing schoolyards and homes with xenophobes and homophobes, the surveillance apparatus shuts down the free exploration of the imagination, curiosity, knowledge-seeking. Living with constant and extreme stressors paralyzes the mind and body. Surveillance is the obliteration of laughter, play, and a sense of safety humans need in order to thrive. That's why there’s a constant sense of surveillance Through Fences—as well as the felt vulnerability of its young protagonists.


LT: Through Fences powerfully reminds us that the proverbial American Dream is a construct.

FLA: It’s a way to hide the continued oppression and exploitation of the working poor and working classes, especially the most vulnerable who are forced to flee homelands like Mexico and Guatemala, which have been made unlivable through economic and political instability and are rife with gang violence.

 

Teen reading The Adventures of Chupacabra Charlie with Racist Dad in Backgroun

LT: In “Alberto” the teen protagonist lives with his racist Latino papá who is a migra officer. There’s a half-page panel that hit me hard. Oscar Garza draws the teen simultaneously reading a book (in a clever meta-move, it’s your kid's book, The Adventures of Chupacabra Charlie) at home and at the library. It’s as if no matter how violent home life is, the teen finds refuge in the wondrous world of books.

FLA: For many of us where home life is unstable, the library is our sanctuary. It’s that safe space where our hearts and souls can travel, explore, and grow expansively. The library literally saved my life, as it does for this teen protagonist.

 

LT: You invite multiple interpretations with the poignantly suggestive title, Through Fences.

Border Fence that separates US from Mexico at the Pacific Ocean

FLA: On the Mexico side of the border, we look through fences (barriers of all kinds) to the U.S. It’s baffling. We’re standing on the same land, breathing the same air, and, in some cases, touching the same water.


Yet, movement across this shared space is controlled with guns, ‘cuffs, trucks, and drones. It’s the most militarized 2,000 miles in the world; the DMZ between North and South Korea’s only 155 miles long, and the one between India and Pakistan’s only 460 miles long. We look through the fences, asking ourselves how the accident of birth, if you will, disallows to-and-fro movement. Why am I not allowed to pass from south to north? And, of course, because of the American Dream propaganda machine, as we look through fences we’re trained to salivate dreams and desires of a make-believe life en el otro lado. With all sorts of real (visible and invisible) fences curtailing our movement as Latinxs in the U.S., we’re looking through fences everywhere.

 

Violence against gay Latino teenager

LT: How did you choose to work with Oscar Garza?

FLA: I knew Oscar and his work with Rolando Esquivel from their brilliant satirical comic, Mashbone & Grifty . It’s belly-ache funny—yet it bites with hard truths. Considering the hard truths of Through Fences, I knew I needed an illustrator who didn’t adhere too closely to a photographic realist comic book style. (Think: Alex Ross or Lee Bermejo.)  If it had been too realist, there’s no way readers would be able to engage at all with “El Celso,” for instance. I wanted the readers to enter the story and then empathically stitch themselves to the gay, Guatemalteco teen who meets a tragic and violent end.

 

LT: Can you share some of Oscar’s experience illustrating Through Fences?

FLA: With every chapter, he really pushed himself hard to stop and think about how to visually express and shape each of these very demanding of narratives. That’s why each story has its own unique visual narrative shape.

Signs warning of family running across freeway

For instance, with “La Maggie,” he purposefully pushes beyond the conventional comic book panel layout to show the story.

Instead, he uses those yellow street signs we typically see on freeways on the U.S. side of the border that warn of families crossing; they’ve become signifiers of immigrants as running, fleeing—having done something wrong.

Story of Tween crossing the US-Mexico Border Shaped by Road Signs--and not traditional panels

Here the same yellow signs become the panels (units of time/space) to shape the story of La Maggie. And, in so doing, he breathes human dimension into a sign that has been used to flatten and stereotype the complexities that lie behind the migrant experience. This brilliant inventiveness is characteristic of Oscar’s work throughout.

 



LT: Oscar gives each story its own unique visual shape in ways that intensify our meaning-making experience. I think of that dramatic shift that happens when we reach the “Alfonso” chapter. Suddenly, we’re snapped out of stories shaped by a full-color palette to a story shaped by stark black and white. It powerfully propels the narrative forward—and transforms us along with it. In content and form, we join Alfonso as he narrates from six feet under.

FLA: This is yet another example of Oscar’s extraordinary talent as a visual storyteller. He steps into the world I build with words, then sees the multiple ways that he can use visual shaping devices to reconstruct the story as a word-drawn narrative. I feel very lucky to have worked with Oscar on this. Rolando Esquivel advised on some of the visuals and text placement, so props to him, too.

 

LT: Through Fences was deeply personal for me, Frederick. It invited me to reflect on my childhood, also filled with constant surveillance, violence, and interruption. It brought up my childhood filled with tragic interruptions and tumultuous moments that all seemed to spin out of the adult world. My mom was deported twice. My dad died when I was young. He was in a cartel.

Story of young construction worker shot by cop and telling story from grave

FLA: In many ways, you’re my ideal reader, Luis, the one I had centrally in mind when creating Through Fences. It’s an invitation for readers like you to see and hear themselves in its pages. It’s also a reminder that while our stories are filled with surveillance, interruption, and tragedy, we’ve managed to make room for joy and justice. Alfonso ends his narration from the grave: “I guess I must be somewhere near the action ‘cause I can feel the pulsing and pounding beats of the people stomping above me. I can hear their shouts for justicia. For me? Maybe I did count for something.”


Unfortunately, we haven't had the luxury of taking joy and justice for granted. It’s always come at a tremendous human cost.

 

LT: You wrote a line about not having a crystal ball and not being able to see what is next… commenting this way on how our community has had to learn to be comfortable with constant uncertainty.

FLA: From the moment we wake to the moment we sleep, our lives are filled with uncertainty—and this, no matter how objectively successful we may seem. Because of the way society fences in Latinos, so to speak, we always have a very fragile hold on life. No matter how hard we work to succeed, someone is there to pull the rug from under us. More and more of us are blocked from realizing our full potential. More and more of us can never take for granted that we will have access to the long, rich, and continuous narrative of a full life lived.  

 

LT: As Through Fences unfolds, the focus becomes more on teens than young adult protagonists.

FLA: I give it this structure of chronological progression, moving from toddlers to tweens to teens and then young adults, Luis, to show just how the ripped-apart-social tissue affects us at different stages of our formative development as human beings.

 

Rocky, a teenager who blacks out under extreme stress, keeps to himself at High School and likes Marissa

LT: Can you take a moment to talk about your white teen protagonist, Rocky?

FLA: Rocky has moved to Calexico, and his machista dad trades his police blues for migra greens. His stepmom works at an ICE detention center. Rocky’s a loner, likes to spend a lot of time in internet chat rooms, has a history of being bullied, and suffers from inexplicable blackouts.


The twist is, that he doesn’t stand up to Ben and Ed, kids he plays videogames with, when they violently bully a Latino teen, Miguel. Ben and Ed hate that Miguel’s super smart—and by chance Mormon. The violence triggers a blackout. Later, Rocky learns that Miguel’s in the intensive care unit fighting for his life—and to the mainstream news announcement that this was the result of Miguel being in a gang. Of course, I leave it to the reader’s interpretation, but I do build in signposts to guide us to see how toxic masculinity and violence are damaging to all youth, white or brown; that Rocky’s blackouts result from living in this kind of environment. And, of course, how not standing up to bullies and violence seen with Rocky’s silent complicity is itself an act of violence.

Latino Immigration Officer

LT: The migra green uniform is a running motif in Through Fences.

FLA: Just like the blue worn by cops, the forest green color of the migra outfits has become associated with surveillance, violence, trauma, and incarceration. It’s like those flashing red and blues. The second we see these colors, we fill with fear, thinking we’ve done something wrong. Unfortunately, as in the case with the papá in “Alfonso,” we have family members who take these jobs—and sometimes not out of necessity but because they themselves are xenophobes.

 

LT: “Dora” opens with the Bang Bang of a migra officer waking the children in the detention center: “The bang. They clang. They scare.” Why begin Through Fences with “Dora”?

FLA: The inhuman treatment of people forced to leave their homelands and cross the border is most brutal and traumatic for these little ones. Imagine you’re 3 or 4 years old. You’re violently separated from family. Remember, the ICE cages are segregated by gender and age. You don’t understand the language. You aren’t allowed to hug or be hugged. Imagine the long-term psychological damage to generations of little ones.

 

Child in detention center trying to fin comfort with plastic Dora doll

It was important for me and Oscar that the visuals and text that shape “Dora” are all from the perspective of the little one. Readers need to feel just how brutal this is for a little person. This is not theoretical. This is happening to children every minute of every day.

 

LT: The migra officer gives the toddler a Dora doll.

FLA: It’s not one of those soft, cuddly ones. It’s a hard, plastic Dora doll, reminding readers just how desperate the little one is to find any form of comfort: “I prayed. I scooted into bed.” I pulled the scratchy blanket over my tummy. Abracé con cariño a esta muñeca, named Dora.”

 

LT: While the dominant language is English, you also include untranslated Spanish.

FLA: Latinx communities live in and across English and Spanish. Whether one is monolingual English or Spanish, the community at large is a confluence of both languages. It’s important for our narratives to express this fluidity not only as a marker of our culture but also as an important shaper of the stories we tell. There are feelings, experiences, and thoughts that are better expressed in Spanish. Certain rhythms and images work better aesthetically in Spanish. Ultimately, being able to have the choice to shape our stories in and across both languages reflects our community and expands the aesthetic options for our narratives—graphic or otherwise.

 

LT: Major influences?

FLA: As mentioned earlier, the library saved my life. It was here that, with the gentle guidance of the librarian, I discovered the wondrous world of literature: from Frank Herbert to Charles Dickens to Tolstoy to Faulkner. But the biggest influence in my life was my mamá. Guatemalan Irish-American from East LA. When she turned 18, she got on a bus from Califas to Guatemala. She stopped off in Mexico City and fell in love, first with the city, then with my papá Luis. I was born and raised as a tyke in Mexico City but things didn't work out with my dad. She was fiercely independent. She didn’t stick around. She piled us on a bus and returned to Califas. On my first day of school, I was told not to speak that “dirty Mexican.” I arrived home crying, asking my mamá all sorts of questions. She was furious, of course. In addition to calling the teacher out, she decided she could make a difference. She put herself through Sacramento State’s bilingual education program so she could get into the schools to make a difference for all the kids like me. It’s her learning-doing approach to life continues to be my biggest inspiration.

 

LT: How much of you is in Through Fences?

FLA: For all fiction writers, there's always a little or a lot of our truths in our fiction. No matter how distant the fiction is from my biographical lived experience, there’s always a part of me in it.


LT: As I wrap this up, Frederick, do you have any questions for me?

FLA: Would it have been the same experience if Through Fences had been only shaped by text, and not visuals?

 

LT: I can’t imagine that it would have the same deep visceral impact if it were only shaped by words. And, that each story follows its unique visual logic is also important; none of the stories follow the conventional 6-panel comic book layout. In both form and content, they all possess their unique dynamism. Each turn of the page triggers new sets of perspectives, feelings, and thoughts. Remarkable!

 

FLA: Beautiful, Luis.

LT: It’s been a huge pleasure sharing and learning with you, Frederick. Thank you.



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