Through their diary comics, Breena Nuñez explores everything from the awkwardness of racism to growing up as a queer Afrodescendiente in the Bay Area. As an Afro-Guatemalan-Salvadoran cartoonist, Breena’s work takes up space and expresses their personal stories in a realm that has too long been dominated by white cis men.
Breena’s work is featured in All Bodies Deserve: Creating the Future of Us a coloring book produced with the Center for Cultural Power through our Culture Change Fund. We are celebrating and spotlighting artists and creatives taking up space and helping us imagine a reality brimming with beauty, vitality, and gender justice.
Through each sketch, we can get a little closer to our feminist future. Bia Vieira sat down with Breena to discuss identity, belonging, and her role in producing All Bodies Deserve – our coloring book.
Below is a transcript of their conversation that’s been edited for clarity.
Vieira: So, in fact, I love your image and it’s on the cover! (laughs)
Nuñez: I was surprised that it was gonna be on the cover. (laughing)
Vieira: It’s lovely. I love it….We’ve gotten such fantastic feedback on the book. We’ve shared it with a lot of our community partners so that they can share with their folks. And it has been really wonderful response. So, thank you!
Nuñez: It’s been a really fun project. I do freelance and I also teach, but whenever there comes a project like this – it reminds me why I’m doing the work that I do. It’s not only just representational of who I am as a person, but I just love getting lost in the process. It was really therapeutic too.
Vieira: Oh wow! How was it therapeutic?
Nuñez: I think for me it’s therapeutic because I was able to imagine myself, as somebody nonbinary and in a relationship with my partner who’s also gender queer, experiencing life as a family in natural spaces. I think also because the pandemic made me really miss a lot of our chosen family – I wanted to live vicariously through these characters I was drawing.
To start things off with the image of the book cover. To be honest, I’ve been missing being with a furry animal. So, I wanted to just draw somebody super enjoying the company of a cuddly companion dog friend family member.
It just made me realize how much I miss being with animals. The only dog that I ever got to live with was Siberian Husky, who I was totally afraid of but my brother was insistent on adopting. That guy really changed my life and made me realize how much there’s a strong kinship that people can form with a pet.
I just also wanted to draw bodies that were different shapes and sizes and just melanated our skins. There was just a lot going on last year – experiencing and internalizing a lot of sadness and anger from all of the anti-Blackness that we’ve been seeing on the news and things that we’re learning more about all this anti-Blackness throughout different parts of the Bay Area as well.
I guess for the most part, I wanted to imagine what a safe world would look like.
Vieira: Do you wanna talk a little bit about who you are? You do include a lot of your personal experiences and feelings in your art. Particularly, last year was really horrible, but the last four years were like…on top of, on top of, on top of things, you know?
Nuñez: It’s been unavoidable to create stories and narratives around my life because with this last administration, it really reminded me a lot of xenophobia for being half Salvadoran specifically.
And it’s something that I’ve also come to learn through the pandemic. Really giving voice to my younger self who really didn’t know how to express who she was. She was always curious about “What am I like? Who am I? What does it mean to be somebody who’s Afro-decediente?”
But we don’t also talk about anti-Blackness in Central America either.
Vieira: Or Latin America as well!
Nuñez: I feel like I’ve come to really embody a lot of memories and feelings that I have been realizing for the last couple of years but being in quarantine, I think it’s just inevitable to face all of these things that you were ruminating on for years.
I’m hoping that all of that can be manifested through art and mostly comics. I think for me, as somebody who enjoys reading autobio memoir comics, it’s therapeutic for me to read another person’s story because I’m also learning so much about how people can exist in multiple ways.
It just reaffirms that there’s no one right way to be like a human being.
Vieira: You did some work for the elections around voting by mail – you wrote a short comic about it. Why did you do that?
Nuñez: It’s easier for me to express myself through comics more than even just making written diary entries. I’ve come to recognize that I’m mostly a visual learner. We want to vote out Trump via the elections! Whatever administration comes our way there are still gonna be plenty of moments of injustice that are still going to manifest in multiple ways.
Vieira: As we’re moving through a different phase of the pandemic, what’s driving you? What’s inspiring you? What’s worrying you?
Nuñez: Oh my god! I feel like a lot of things worry me. From the very superficial level like, “Oh my god! How am I going to talk to people when everything is “normal”? I also worry about how we will tend to our needs and our self worth.
As people who are artists, who are writers, who are creative people and in whatever place they’re working right now, I worry about how we might continue to like uphold these kind of unhealthy expectations of people to be very productive, to power through any sort of crisis that you might be going through, to meet the status quo at the end of the day.
I hope that people really take into account how being gentle is very necessary for our survival. Childhood is inspiring me – humor. I feel like I’ve been able to laugh a little bit more.
I am realizing that my younger self was also really strong and giving her a lot of credit for trying things that are sometimes beyond her comfort level when she was growing up and defying expectations that have been planted on her. I think people were worried about me not being able to succeed like but just to survive.
Vieira: Oh that’s really beautiful. One of the things that we are really trying to do is to connect the world of the advocates and the policy folks with the artists and the creatives. As an artist, you have this ability to really envision something. Not that advocates don’t have that ability, but we do spend a lot of time fighting against things as advocates.
But what are we fighting for? Sometimes that gets missed a little bit. I don’t know if you have any thoughts about that in terms of the relationship between making change, being creative and having a vision and all of that. No pressure. (laughing)
Nuñez: Right? (laughing) No pressure at all! I think about that every now and then because I feel like the advocacy work is really important and I sometimes even grapple with like…Moments when people will label me as an artist or activist, because I feel like I’m not really doing like that labour that comes with making policies that create change on the state or national scale. I am a storyteller and I still would consider that to be political work.
Because I come from an education background, I feel like everybody, especially people in those organizing spaces should also be given the opportunity to understand that they’re storytellers and they have a narrative that’s really important.
I’m also just personally curious what makes people so driven to fight for the things that they believe in?
I feel like that also comes from a very intimate place where it’s coming from that younger self who wanted to be able to have the confidence to create things. She has slowly gained that over time because of certain people, like certain teachers who have really believed in talents and either just saw something and wanted to guide me. Like, “You know how to do this thing, you’re very capable.”
The possibility of being an artist or being a writer, like it’s not far from anyone’s reach no matter what type of work you do. I feel like it’s meant for everybody. You don’t need the MFA or a fancy degree to validate your position as “a creative person.”
Vieira: Like how did you get to cartoon? How did you think, “Oh this is what I want to do!”
Nuñez: Art was always more of a hobby and I didn’t really envision myself creating comics or illustrations as a job. But there came a point where I realized, “Well this is something I wanted to do for a while and I’ll give it a whack.” And I was an undergraduate at San Francisco State and I fell in love with comics all over again when I went to school.
Comics have been pretty present in my life. I read comic strips, a lot of cartoons, and I was just fascinated. I thought any other kind of media that wasn’t a cartoon or animated cartoon…it’s boring. It’s like a waste of my time. I just couldn’t. It’s a part of my growth as a person. And living vicariously through comic book characters is really fun.
Vieira: So what’s your favorite place to live vicariously?
Nuñez: Oh my god, it’s been… I always kind of tell people it’s been Garfield, the cat
Vieira: The best! Oh again with the animals! What did you like about Garfield?
Nuñez: He was sassy and I was a really shy kid, very quiet. I was experiencing body issues throughout all of the middle school things as you can imagine. I was able to just find solace through those comic strips and even though I was really hard on myself already.
I love that he just loved eating food and was anti-diet culture. I think also just representationally I just saw him like it’s like a non-white guy and I really wanted somebody that wasn’t a superhero (laughing).
Vieira: That’s so great. Did I read that you also like Keno?
Nuñez: My mom grew up on Keno’s comics Mafanta. Because spanish came much later in my life, I was forced to speak English I didn’t really understand what was being communicated for the most part but I just loved just the illustrations alone. They already did enough storytelling within themselves. And I think that’s also what’s beautiful about comics, even if you’re reading in a different language there’s still a way of depicting these characters really shows. I still understood her personality as being very independent, very vocal – just in your face, unfiltered.
Vieira: You did not speak Spanish growing up, your parents decided not to do that?
Nuñez: It was more like a prescription from a doctor.
I spoke pretty late when I was like four years old. My family was concerned about my development so a doctor told my father to only speak English to me and I’m always upset about that. Just considering how multilingual this country is already, it really speaks to how very colonial things tend to be to keep this narrative “Americans only speak English in order to survive here.”
Vieira: That’s very painful. What’s your relationship now with Central America?
Nuñez: Sometimes I feel like it’s been me mostly reflecting on memories and moments when I traveled to Guatemala and El Salvador and through other Central Americans who are born and raised here in California (and because of the internet, other places as well).
Last year I feel like more Afro-Salvadorans have actually been connecting with each other. There’s a celebration called Dia de la Afro-decendencia in El Salvador -it’s been happening since 2014 and it’s community-run.
It was really cool just to see this organization called AFROOS – Yeah, like afros! They’ve just been doing a lot of advocacy work over there to pressure the government to recognize Afro-salvadorans as an official ethnic group.
Vieira: How are these different parts of yourself as an Afro-Latina showing up in your art and also in the world as you move through it? I’m saying “Afro-Latina” – you didn’t say that.
For the art, it’s mostly been through like the auto-bio comics. I always fall back to that way of expressing myself because it just makes a lot more sense for me to draw all these feelings – these moments where there’s cultural tension and how to talk about it. And also addressing the moments where I feel like I was able to embrace Blackness – it just makes a lot of sense to do it through comics.
It’s like years and years of me thinking about all of these things like how the world might think my identity might be very contradictory or where I have to negate certain parts of my identity to feel like I belong. It’s been a challenge for me to especially accept Blackness a lot. And I feel like it’s come to a point where I feel more affirmed in it and very seen through other friends who are afro-indigenous or afro-decendiente from other parts of Latin America wherever they are in the world.
There’s a lot of validation for being who I am. Learning about other afro-indigenous people that come from El Salvador specifically and realizing, “Oh this is why so many of us have had these curiosities about our identity for so many years!’ Here is all of this research on how africans were transported into Latin America.
And without black people and indigenous people as well we wouldn’t be standing where we are today.
Vieira: In closing, what would you like to share about art and people power?
Nuñez: It’s such a process for me to come to a place where I am not self critical of my work and my overall person. Sometimes I think back to being this kid that doesn’t know what they’re doing or if they’re making this comic, right? But there’s always room for people to explore like this medium.
It’s definitely one of my favorite things to relish in and just participate in because it’s gratifying. I feel like it brings people together and helps people to build not only empathy across race, class and gender, but it builds empathy between the relationship that you have with yourself.
Anybody can do it. I’m always like, “You can make a comic, you have no prerequisites to participate.” It’s for everybody.
About Breena Nuñez
An Afro Guatemalan-Salvadoran cartoonist living in San Francisco, CA, Breena Nuñez creates diary comics that often explore themes surrounding the awkwardness of racism, being a queer Afrodescendiente from the Bay Area, and understanding what it means to be Central American from the US. Their hope as a cartoonist & educator is to help BIPOC folks give themselves permission to express their personal stories through the language of comics.
Breena’s comics are primarily self-published as zines, but you will also find some comics in other publications such as The New Yorker: Daily Shouts and The Nib, as well as anthologies like Tales From La Vida: A Latinx Comics Anthology, Drawing Power (Eisner Award Winner 2020), and Be Gay, Do Comics! (Ignatz Award Winner 2020).
Check out more of Breena’s work at breenache.com