A black and white portrait of Cartoonist Breena Nuñez next to an illustration of Breena by Breena. (Courtesy of Breena Nuñez )
Breena Nuñez is an Afro Guatemalan-Salvadoran cartoonist who grew up on the Bay Area’s peninsula. Now she lives in the East Bay.
Nuñez’s illustrations cover everything from satire on electoral politics to autobiographical comics about gender, sexuality and race.
African ancestry in Central America is a through-line in a lot of Nuñez’s work. Sometimes she explicitly brings it up in the captions, other times she subtly alludes to it through hairstyles or a character’s skin tone.
Additionally, just this month, the two got married.
This week on Rightnowish, we discuss ancestry, artwork, and more.
Below are lightly edited excerpts of my conversation with Breena Nuñez.
PEN: Your focus on African influence in Central America is something I want to learn more about. Why do you choose to explore that in your art?
BREENA: I think it was definitely out of seeing a deficit of Blackness being acknowledged in Central America, and specifically in El Salvador… I’m half Salvadoran and Guatemalan and even in Guatemala where there’s a large Black population of Garifuna people, it’s an ethnic group that is very Caribbean. So they are located not just in Guatemala, but in Honduras, Nicaragua and Belize. But for so many years, these populations have not been discussed or like even considered to be Central American or even Latin American.
BREENA: I’ve been racialized as Black as a kid and for the longest time, I felt like I was the only person that also had these curiosities, wondering if there was ever a Black presence or an African presence in El Salvador.
BREENA: I’m really happy that comics have kind of connected me to other people who have, if not similar, the same experiences as I had growing up and wondering, ‘why are we being called Colombians, Brazilians but nobody would think that we’re Salvadoran or we’re Central American?’… So using comics as a way to make people feel less alone, is what I realize at the end of the day is what I’m constantly doing with my work.
PEN: Was there a specific point in time, were you realized you wanted to do something about this?
BREENA: Yeah, now that I’m reflecting… I think it’s been this one comic: el Memín Pinguín, this character that is drawn in blackface. He’s a very popular comic book character from Mexico and through other parts of Latin America. He’s illustrated in ways and in storylines where I think he constantly just gets in trouble. And he’s depicted as a little boy. He is a little boy. And there’s just been moments, where I’ve seen some of the pages where he’s kind of drawn in like really sexually explicit positions. And I’m just feeling pretty triggered and just feeling, I don’t know, like a bodily biochemical reaction from seeing these images. Right. It just felt so, so debilitating to the spirit… I cannot make comics and not center what it is to exist as like an Afro descended person. I want somebody with nuance. And I guess that’s why I often gravitate to memoir too.
PEN: I have a small child. I watch comic-comics and illustration and cartoons all the time. Wondering from your perspective, what’s the power that comes from using illustrations to tell stories?
BREENA: For me, it’s understanding cultures. This can be used as — not only a form of entertainment — but as an educational platform and tool.
BREENA: …Persepolis has definitely been a huge inspiration for forming my philosophy. When it comes to creating comics like I want to do it with with dignity, but also like with a critical ethnic studies lens… I was introduced to the Sunday funnies, like the newspapers, my grandpa always left that section like on the table for me to read and I gravitated to Garfield immediately because I always was into talking animals and I think it was for a reason because I didn’t see any characters that, like, resonated with me besides him… I love eating food. And as somebody that was chubby, he taught me to love myself.
PEN: I’ve seen your work featured in major publications as well. How would you compare the feeling between publishing your own stuff and seeing stuff in well-known publications?
BREENA: I have so many like homies and comrades to thank and to acknowledge for bringing me into that world of zines and self-publishing. And I feel like there’s a lot of autonomy in that space. But it’s always like a trip to me to know that my art is sitting in the same physical space as some of my favorite comic heroes. And I never thought that I would be in a space like that at all in my lifetime.
PEN: So Breena, I actually found out about your work through my producer, Marisol. She brought your work on because it obviously spoke to her. So I’d actually rather her ask you this next question…
MARISOL: … So, I love how your comics are so personal, they feel like diary entries in that they capture these very tender moments of social awkwardness, self-love, and I would love to know: how do you translate something that happens in your personal life to putting pen on paper?
BREENA: For me, it’s always just like a gut feeling. There’s just something about drawing out any sort of thing that happened to me or anything that I considered to be funny or stressful. I just need to archive it or else like this idea is just going to keep buzzing in my head and I’m going to drive myself crazy. It just needs to be put out as, like, a comic.
BREENA: And I think how I translate like my awkwardness, all of these situations, all of these thoughts that I’m ruminating, I often think about, I guess how would Garfield the Cat deliver all of these scenarios?
Rightnowish is an arts and culture podcast produced at KQED. Listen to it wherever you get your podcasts or click the play button at the top of this page and subscribe to the show on NPR One, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, TuneIn, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.
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