Lack of inclusivity and exclusion of Central American Afro-Latin(x)s and immigrant children are issues that a few scholars discuss through various academic forms. In hopes of reaching a broader audience using their creative minds, Pamela Chavez and Breena Nuñez, have used art to examine these issues regarding Afro-Latin(x)s and immigrant children. They present these issues through animation and comic books to show a glimpse into the lives of thousands of Afro-Latin(x)s and immigrant children, illustrating the issues of transnationalism and acceptance in identity. I discuss how artists like Chavez and Nuñez bring in representation to these groups, who are often overlooked and pushed aside, along with how it is necessary to discuss these inequities in order to bring change.
Central Americans are one of the many minority groups in the U.S. that have been continuously underrepresented and unacknowledged in today’s society. This group has often been categorized as “others” or even wrongfully labeled as Mexicans due to the lack of knowledge presented by the media in Latin America. Unfortunately, immigrant children and Afro-Latin(x)s groups are looked down upon even more, by both the U.S. and Central America. Not many are aware of the trauma these groups suppress coming from a different country or understand what it’s like to try to fit in in an unfamiliar environment with distinct social norms.
Nowadays, more Central Americans are bringing awareness to this issue through their work, whether it is filmmaking or drawing. Two artists who have brought forth this issue are Pamela Chavez through her short film Caracol Cruzando which tells the story of a family’s journey leaving their home in Costa Rica to go to the U.S. for a better life. The second artist Breena Nuñez has addressed this issue through their comic called “I Exist!” which discusses their own personal experience with trying to find their identity as an Afro-Latinx. Chavez and Nuñez have given their audiences a small glance into the lives of immigrant children and Afro-Latin(x)s through animation and cartoon-like stories; consequently, showcasing transnationalism and the struggles of trying to fit in the U.S.
Pamela Chavez is a Costa Rican woman, pursuing the role of an independent animation writer, director, and illustrator. She focuses her work on the Latin(x) and queer women of color experience. In her short film, Caracol Cruzando she tells the story of a Costa Rican family and their experience leaving their home country to live in the U.S. in hopes of a better life and more opportunities. This particular work of hers is unique because of the way the story is illustrated. It tells the family’s story through the eyes of their youngest daughter, Anahi, also known as “Caracol”. In the short film, the parents of Anahi are preparing her and her brother to cross from Costa Rica to the U.S. but tell them that there is a possibility of separation through their journey. This short story tells one of the many stories of immigrant children who leave their home–the process of crossing the border and how many do not get across due to how dangerous and risky it is.
On the other hand, the artist, Breena Nuñez, is a Salvadoran-Guatemalan cartoonist that centers their work on Blackness, queerness, and being Central American in the Bay Area. They also teach comics at California College of the Arts and San Francisco State University. In their cartoon called “I Exist!”, they portray their experience in trying to fit in as an Afro-Latin(x). In their cartoon, they also focus the story on answering this question, “Can Black people also come from El Salvador?” This cartoon tells one of the many stories about Afro-Salvadorans and their struggle with understanding their identities, as well as being accepted for having darker skin and different textured hair in the Central American community.
Subsequently, in Caracol Cruzando two claims that stood out to me as I watched the film were that Central American immigrant children have to face their fears and sacrifice considerable amounts early on in age. These children are not able to grow up around their cultural roots compared to a child that lives in their home country their whole life. Immigrant children have to sacrifice their friends, family members, places they liked visiting, their homes, as well as pets back in their homeland. These children endure what is known as the “push and pull identity”, having to pull what they remember and still have from their culture in the U.S., as well as pushing it away in order to fit into the rest of society. This is what many children with a transnational identity undergo. As children we are all afraid of things, whether it is the imaginary monster under our beds or folktales told to us.
These children endure what is known as the “push and pull identity”, having to pull what they remember and still have from their culture in the U.S., as well as pushing it away in order to fit into the rest of society.
This film also showed the fear that many immigrant children have and are forced to face very quickly–the fear of the border. Immigrant children are told by those who care after them, whether that is their parents or grandparents, that the border is very dangerous and that it has split up many families for years. They overcome this fear earlier than any other child’s fear. They know that wanting a better life and better opportunities comes with the risk of not making it over, being separated, as well as leaving behind the life they had back home. On the other hand, in the comic/cartoon, “I Exist!”, a claim that is expressed throughout the comic is how many Salvadorans do not acknowledge their Afro- Salvadoran community and how this underrepresentation affects the development of their identities. Breena Nuñez illustrates in her comic that a big part of this issue is how education and law have played into the idea that there are no Black Salvadorans in El Salvador and that there are not many Afro-Latin(x)s in the U.S., causing them to feel alone or like outsiders.
In Caracol Cruzando the background colors and camera angles set the emotional tone of the film. Two particular scenes from the film that stood out to me the most showcased how immigrant children have to sacrifice more than other children and have to overcome their fear to live in the U.S. One of the scenes at the beginning of the short film (when Anahi goes to say goodbye to the Ceiba tree) shows Anahi’s way of coping with having to leave her home behind. Additionally, Pamela Chavez uses personification of the Ceiba tree, such as a jaguar talking, which is symbolic in Central America. The Ceiba tree represents a cultural part of Costa Rica, it is a place where people gather as a community, family, and for Indigenous traditions. When Anahi says goodbye to the tree, the tree says, “I will always be with you.” This scene reflects how the home of an immigrant child will always be with them regardless of where they migrate to.
The second scene shows Anahi and her pet turtle Tiko floating in the ocean, on top of a small piece of land at night. They lay looking up at the bright white moon, which I believe represents hope and destiny. Anahi is split up from Tiko in the ocean, but then a whale appears and carries Anahi up across the midnight sky. Chavez uses characters to not only represent the imagination of a child but also as symbolic figures that show the sacrifices of immigrant children. Anahi losing her pet turtle represents the immigrants who were never able to make it over the border. The border in this case is symbolized by the whale that at first frightens Anahi but later ends up embracing, signifying the bittersweet moment where immigrant children lose their fear of the border.
In addition, in the cartoon/comic “I Exist!”, the artist uses color and drawings to highlight the issue of underrepresentation of Afro-Latin(x)s in El Salvador and other countries as well. The comic presents research regarding the migration of Black ancestry within El Salvador and also includes the author’s, Breena Nuñez (pronouns they/them), own personal growth and journey of accepting their Afro-Latin(x) identity. In one of their comic strips, they drew a map of Central America showing how all countries, except El Salvador, recognize the Afro-descendants living in their country. This signifies how El Salvador refused to acknowledge members of their own country, even with a proven history that African slaves were imported back in 1541 into El Salvador. Nuñez combined their art with the history behind the existence of Afro-Salvadorans, like in other countries, to educate their audience. They also included a drawing of the African slaves that were transported to El Salvador and explained the history behind the event. In this comic, Nuñez not only centers around her own work, but includes the work of other Afro-Latin(x) artists.
For example, Carlos Lara, a queer visual artist and LGBT activist in El Salvador who resists Eurocentric beauty standards by creating paintings and comics featuring Afro-Salvadorans. Nuñez specifically drew Carlos Lara painting Afro-Salvadorans. Through his art, Lara helps other Afro-Latin(x)s feel a sense of identity, just like Nuñez wants their work to help people not feel alone or like outsiders. They even include situations where Afro-Latin(x)s have been mistaken for other origins because of how underrepresented they are. Furthermore, within the media there are not many artists or actors who identify as Afro-Latin(x)s. In one comic strip, Nuñez is drawn talking to their younger self about their identity as a Black Salvadoran. This detail shows how we perceive ourselves when we’re younger compared to ourselves in the present day. Nuñez also shows how their younger self is angry at the claim her present self said about being Black. They said, “Black people are everywhere despite what they teach you at school.” This portrays the lack of education given to students regarding diversity and the history of Black people in other countries. Instead, the subject of history is mainly focused on the U.S.
All in all, Pamela Chavez’s Caracol Cruzando and Breena Nuñez’s “I Exist!” showcase the struggles with transnationalism and how it can affect the development of people’s identities. Both artists combined their skills as cartoonists and their own experiences to create a way to reach audiences, raise awareness, and allow those who identify with their art to feel represented. Furthermore, the artists want to educate those who are not aware of the experiences immigrant children face coming to the U.S. and the experiences of being Afro-Latin(x)s. No one truly understands these experiences unless we, ourselves, have undergone them. The work of Chavez and Nuñez allows us to get a glimpse as to what their experiences are like. It helps audiences understand how many of us take things for granted, like not having to leave family and friends back in a different country or struggling with being seen as different.
Everyone wants to be a part of a community and feel identified. Instead of choosing to write an article or other academic forms of expressing these unspoken issues, Chavez and Nuñez chose art and cartoons so that they could reach people of all ages. They want everyone to understand that these situations go on in everyday life and are oftentimes just overlooked. Immigrant children and Afro-Latin(x)s have unique stories living in the U.S., which is why they have in common the process of accepting who they are, dealing with the trauma caused by underrepresentation, and being treated differently from others in the U.S. The work of Chavez and Nuñez shows that what we are taught goes on to affect us all throughout our lives. These two artists are only a few examples of the many people who are also bringing awareness and change to this issue of underrepresentation and lack of knowledge that are not presented in the U.S. By doing what they are passionate about, Chavez and Nuñez are giving others the realization that it is okay to do what you want regardless of where you come from and how you look. Furthermore, they want the readers to understand there is always a community of people that share similar characteristics and beliefs. Looking in the right places and being open is all it takes to find that sense of belonging.