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  • Cristina Herrera

Frederick Luis Aldama Talks with Cristina Herrera: Misfits, Sonic Revolutions, Familial Reconciliations, & Craving More Fiction that Misfits Publishing Molds

Updated: May 22

Early 2024 proved a veritable bumper crop for Aldama. One after the other, he published the US/Mexico borderland-set YA braided graphic novel, Through Fences, the Latinx cli-fi graphic novel, Labyrinths Borne, and an 80s-set coming-of-age novel, The Absolutely (Almost) True Adventures of Max Rodriguez. Each brings to light and life of Latinx youth filled with hardship, fear, and trauma as well as creativity, courage, and hope.


While each publication in Aldama’s recent blitz significantly adds to and powerfully expands our Latinx narrative canon, it was the story of Max that swept me most into its gravitational pull. Like Max, I too was formatively shaped in small-town Califas and in a mid-1980s zeitgeist. Max and I listen to the same music, page-turn like-minded books, and ask similar life questions

about the self and life.

Image of book cover with Max Rodriguez on front cover and family on back of cover
Jacket Cover The Absolutely (Almost) True Adventures of Max Rodriguez

But there’s so much more to Max and their story. Max reads before they talk. Max is born with a rare congenital condition known as “ankyloglossia. Devouring comics, novels, and books on philosophy at an early age helps Max navigate their upside-down life as a 9th grader in Nowheresville, California. Max’s abuelita drives a Hulk-green muscle car, grows pot in her attic to pay bills, and has cut ties with Max’s self-styled John-Wayne-strutting Irish American grandpa. Max loves spending time with her wayward papá, talking Marx and Darwin and catching the latest flick. Max readily gives a hand to help her mamá who is handy with a hammer and an overworked, underpaid bilingual elementary school teacher. Max adores their taciturn older brother and compassionate tío, and college-going, activist prima.  And, finally, Max can be vulnerable with their wild and zany best friends, Rudy and Miguel.


I had the great pleasure of talking at length with Aldama about The Absolutely (Almost) True Adventures of Max Rodriguez.

You dedicate your book to misfits, botched-jobbers, and unapologetic originals, what I see as a love letter to queer Latinx youth within a very cool 1980s sociocultural context. I mean, Max and their friends dance to “Radio Ga Ga” by Queen. Hella rad. What is it about the 80s? Was this story always going to be set in this period, or did you consider a current timeframe?

Gosh, there’s so much to this question, Cristina. First, I was one of those misfits, botched-jobbers—rejects. I was gangly, geeky awkward, last pick for PE’s team games like dodgeball, and, when I wasn’t goofing around with my fellow BFF misfits, I was reading comics or at the library with my nose tucked deeply into the pages of a good novel. Speaking of library, I should mention that being geeky awkward didn’t mean that I didn’t get into trouble. I did, and mostly on purpose. Oddly, my teachers thought sending me to the library was punishment. For me, it was reward.


Of course, like many Latinx of my gen formatively shaped by 80s mainstream sights and sounds, it’s hard not to travel there in my storyworld building. Of course, I was living a watershed moment in mainstream culture’s representation of gender and sexuality. Where before we had a few musicians like T. Rex and Elton John challenging norms of masculinity, and of course, the magisterial David Bowie with his gender-fluid Ziggy, they were few and far between.


The 80s saw this magnificent outpouring of gender-fluid out and proud musicians and bands like Queen, Boy George, Soft Cell, Prince, Depeche Mode, Eurythmics, Grace Jones, Erasure. It was in this 80s sonicspace more than TV, film or even comics (Los Bros Hernandez and a few Marvel characters like She-Hulk and Dazzler were exceptions) that we began to see popular figures really grab and shake upside down existing toxic, binaristic models of gender and sexuality. It was music and these musicians among others like Diana Ross (her iconic “I’m Coming Out”) that helped many of us see ourselves less as rejects, and more as unapologetic originals.

Images of 80s gender bending musicians
Boy George, Annie Lennox, Andy Bell, Marc Almond, Grace Jones, Freddie Mercury, Prince
The 80s saw this magnificent outpouring of gender-fluid out and proud musicians and bands like Queen, Boy George, Soft Cell, Prince, Depeche Mode, Eurythmics, Grace Jones, Erasure.

Don’t get me wrong. This was a time when the media industrial complex continued to churn out toxic binaristic representations of gender and sexuality—as well as race and ethnicity. To wit: Miami Vice. Even Latinx created and socially progressive films like Zoot Suit and La Bamba entrenched deeper gendered binaries: the Latino machista vs. the fiery (or subservient) Latina.

But the music and artists of the 80s mentioned above, now that was the space of revelation. . .of revolution!

Max finds solace in books and words on the page and later embraces an emerging writerly voice. Can you tell us about why it matters that Max would be a writer considering the book’s subject matter?

A used Encyclopedia Britannica, library-borrowed philosophical tomes and novels become Max’s safe space as a child and tween. Later, Max discovers comic books, especially superhero comics like X-Men, Hulk, and Fantastic Four, that invite them into the co-creative space of the daydream. At Mendoza’s on Sundays Max and best pals Miguel and Rudy talk comics—and open up to share their respective vulnerabilities. Novels like Midnight’s Children and Dune feed Max’s imagination. Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and Marx’s Das Capital, among others, provide the concepts and compass direction for Max to navigate the ups and downs of teen life.


Drawing of Max with gigantic pen resting on shoulder,
Max Rodriguez with Pen & Notebook

However, as you rightly point out, Max Rodriguez ends with Max declaring, “I put pen to paper with the hopes that I can someday return the favor.” Max decides it’s time to strip down and reconstruct their book learning and life experiences to create something new in the world: fiction.

But, in nearly the same breath, Max also declares that “there’s still much adventuring for me to get to know the world, and me in it, just a little more.”  With this, Max not only empowers themselves to feel authorized to write and experience in a world that sees them as only a reject, but Max Rodriguez the novel role-models for all those readers who’ve felt like they don’t matter and that their stories aren’t legit to pick up pens and create and shape the lives of the unheard and unseen as well as to stride confidently in and actively transform the world.

Your previous work, such as Con Papá, features loving family members who accept their queer and nonbinary kin, and we see some of that here as well, from Tatabuela to Tío J. I appreciate your intentional way of reflecting loving family that runs counter to the stereotype of Latinx families as inherently homophobic and transphobic. Yet not all Latinx nonbinary, queer, and trans youth have supportive families. How did you strike this balance?

Max is such an extraordinary character. This isn’t too surprising, given that they are grow up in a non-traditional family that’s filled to the brim with compassion and honesty. Even when things get heated at Max’s Quince+ with estranged grandpa Logan’s surprise arrival, Max quotes Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina from memory, reminding everyone that they would rather know the family’s skeletons than “pretend they don’t exist, than pretend to be normal and like everyone else.” As dark as the skeletons in the closet and hard as the truths maybe, Max asks the family to find their way reconciliate and forgive.

Max is such an extraordinary character. This isn’t too surprising, given that they are grow up in a non-traditional family that’s filled to the brim with compassion and honesty.

At the same time that Max is wise beyond years in their response to grandpa Logan—and also their acceptance of their papá’s wayward, selfish ways—Max’s world is turned upside down when they learn from the local TV news that Vic is murdered. The newscaster spins this as a drug deal gone wrong, but Max knows deep down it’s a hate crime. Vic’s Guatemalteco-Latinx and non-binary. Sharing so much in common with Vic, this shakes Max to the core. It reminds Max that the world beyond their quirky and compassionate familia and best friends is filled with fear, hate, and violence.


I wanted Max Rodriguez to hit the hard truths but also, and overwhelmingly, to take readers to places of joy and compassion. As Latinx storytellers, we have all this and more to share, inviting Latinx (first) and all readers (second) to see the complexity and richness of life as Latinx in the U.S.

I wanted Max Rodriguez to hit the hard truths but also, and overwhelmingly, to take readers to places of joy and compassion.

Max admits that a major part of high school anxiety is the locker room for PE. In what ways were you trying to respond to anti-trans legislation that will harm young trans and nonbinary youth?

While I didn’t write about Max’s locker room and PE experience as a direct response to today’s anti-trans in sports legislation that’s blazing across the land, it’s a fact that PE and locker rooms are toxic. Somehow, it’s become a sanctioned space for body shaming and virulent banter around gender, sexuality, and race. It’s a repository of the worst of the worst of humanity. Imagine for many of us the locker room and PE is the closest we get to sports. Well, no wonder PE and sports culture generally triggers so much anxiety and fear in Max and many of us.


Of course, this also speaks to the corporatizing of sports. The more sports have become about greed and profiteering, the more divisive, exclusionary, and phobic a space it seems to have become. I’m not a sports historian nor an expert here by any means, but it does seem that the potential for PE and sports to be a welcoming space that promotes collective trust as well as physical and mental health—a place for fairness in diversity—has been obliviated by the recent anti-trans in sports movements and legislations.


And, of course, this all goes hand in hand with the regressive moves to obliterate gender neutral bathrooms from schools—and LGBTQ+ and women’s rights generally.  


There was a flash of a moment when the U.S. seemed to be moving in a more inclusive direction that would’ve eventually become the place where all the Maxs of the world would feel welcome. While this seems to be slipping from our grasp, we can’t give up.


La lucha continues, and with great necessity and urgency.


Your book addresses the reality of what it means to be a queer, nonbinary, or trans person, from the AIDS pandemic to the disproportionate violence against this community. Max tries to make sense of how their queerness is intimately connected to this violence. How did you strike a balance between Max’s “typical” teen life of friends and coveted Doc Marten’s shoes with the very real dangers that queer youth face?

I begin to answer this already in my comment about Max’s grappling with grief, fear, and anxiety when they learn of Vic’s murder. But let me add here that I wanted readers to feel the queerphobia and xenophobia ripping apart our social tissue through the perspective, thoughts, and emotions of a non-binary (avant la lettre), smart, and joyful teen like Max. There’s a lot of hate, negativity, and pessimism in the world. But so too is there a lot of love and compassion, and in the end, with Max Rodriguez I want to tip us toward the latter.


This isn’t to say that the Vics of our world shouldn’t have their stories. And, indeed, I do step in that direction with Through Fences.


Anything else you want to share with your readers?

As just mentioned, we need more of our YA stories out there. We need more variety of stories that share the richness and complexities of life as YA Latinx in the U.S. Unfortunately, what I’ve been seeing of late is a mainstream publishing that’s putting out more YA Latinx fiction, but that feels safe. I want more YA Latinx that takes chances and pushes hard on reader expectation. I want to read more YA Latinx fiction that has me squirming in my seat, out of unusually experienced jolts of joy and discomfort. I want to read more YA fiction that tells stories of unapologetic originals and that’s shaped in ways that mis-fit generic formula and reader expectation.

We need more variety of stories that share the richness and complexities of life as YA Latinx in the U.S.

Whatever tomorrow brings, I’m certain we will continue to complicate and innovate.  What an exciting time for Latinx storytellers, Cristina.




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