Why Gabby Rivera Centers Queer Latinx Joy in Her Storytelling

·6 min read

Once a year, the U.S. acknowledges the egregious pay gap in which Latinas earn just 55 cents for every dollar a non-Latinx white man makes. It’s time we interrogate this fact year-round. The L-Suite examines the diverse ways in which Latinx professionals have built their careers, how they’ve navigated notoriously disruptive roadblocks, and how they’re attempting to dismantle these obstacles for the rest of their communities. This month, we’re talking with author Gabby Rivera about overcoming self-doubt, the power of telling our own stories, and creating joy.

Before Gabby Rivera became a celebrated young adult author, she was a spoken word poet, a production assistant, a teaching artist, and a youth programs manager at a nonprofit. According to the queer Puerto Rican writer, being a self-described chubby dyke made it difficult to acquire and hold a gig in a fatphobic heteropatriarchy. But throughout her job shuffles, there remained one constant: Juliet Takes a Breath, the short story-turned-novel she wrote, edited, self-published, and promoted until it catapulted her literary career.

“I always had my book,” the Bronx-born, Sacramento-based author tells Refinery29 Somos. “At times, this was all I had, me and my words, and I believed that I was going to be a writer and that I already was a writer.”

Her hunch was right. Juliet Takes a Breath, a coming of age novel about a young Puerto Rican lesbian wrestling with family disapproval and white feminism, saw widespread success. Roxane Gay called it “fucking outstanding,” Penguin Random House released a hardcover in 2019, and Rivera is currently adapting it into a screenplay.

In 2017, the novel also caught the attention of Marvel Comics, which enlisted Rivera to write “America,” the imprint’s solo series on its first Latina LGBTQ superhero America Chavez. A first-time comic writer, Rivera was swiftly introduced to the ugly parts of the industry—#comicsgate, an online harassment campaign that takes aim at the comic world’s efforts to be more inclusive of marginalized characters—but she also found herself leaning into a writing style she hadn’t always considered. Following “America,” Rivera published a graphic novel adaptation of Juliet Takes a Breath through Boom! Studios and created “b.b. free,” a dystopian original comic book series that she describes as a love letter to queer youth.

We spoke with Rivera about her buzzing writing career. Through her story about pursuing literary paths she wasn’t formally trained in, finding power in telling queer narratives, and creating joy in her creative and personal life, she offers invaluable lessons and advice to Latina and Latinx writers.

Ask for help and find support within your communities.

Whether lugging an actor’s wardrobe to a TV set or teaching art to young people, Rivera always knew one thing: She’s a poet. So when she had to write a full-length novel, a comic series, and a screenplay—writing styles she wasn’t experienced in—imposter syndrome kicked in and told her she did not have the training or skill set to take on the new projects. But instead of rejecting these opportunities or enrolling in an expensive MFA program, she tapped into her community.

America Chavez was my first comic book, and I was scared to death. But in that moment, I realized that I have as much right to have that opportunity, to run with that opportunity, and I can also just ask for help,” she says. As the adage goes, ask and it shall be given you. At Marvel, she reached out to editors and asked them to send her pitch and script submissions they receive so that she could study and learn from them. They did. “They gave me all the professional development I needed and then some. That’s now an approach I’m taking with me as I write the script for Juliet Takes a Breath to be a screenplay. I’m asking to read submitted screenplays, and I’m studying them.” Similarly, when she was targeted by #comicsgate and beginning to question her place in the comic world, she leaned on comic creators like Mariko Tamaki, Trinidad Escobar, and G. Willow Wilson who reminded her that she’s actually exactly where she needs to be. “I learned that I have the right to do this. These creators told me, ‘screw what those haters say—they’re going to hate you no matter what—and you deserve to be here,’” she remembers. “That helped me realize that I can do this and that I enjoy doing this. It’s so much fun.”

Find power in telling your own stories.

Regardless of the medium, Rivera writes for the young, chubby, queer people who don’t usually see themselves as heroes, heroines, or herothems. “Who am I going to write a story about,” she asks, laughing joyously. “I’m going to put my chubby ass in a story.” With few narratives centering on “baby dykes” or masculine women, she says she’s making room for herself—because she can and because she needs to. It’s a matter of life and death. “As an LGBTQ person, when I was growing up, so many of my role models and ancestors died. We were killed in the movies. We died of HIV/AIDs. A whole generation of folk were wiped out,” she says. “For me, writing queer girls and queer kids of color is like future-casting. I’m saying: You are here now, you will always be here, you deserve to have fun, you deserve to be loved, and you deserve to go on adventures.”

For some, like the #comicsgate detractors or the brands that have canceled gigs after reading more of her work, Rivera’s storytelling is too much—too queer, too non-white, and too empowering for marginalized people. For Rivera, that’s too bad, for them. “I’m not playing by their rules or trying to go after those opportunities that have never served me. I’m not thirsting or desperate for anyone’s gigs, money, or attention,” she says. “My pivot, what has brought me the most professional success and peace of spirit, is saying, ‘I’m going to do what works for me, on my timeline, with people who are excited to see my face and read my words.’”

Create joy wherever and however you can.

When Rivera isn’t writing novels, comics, and screenplays, she’s rewriting media’s sad queer girl scripts in her personal life by creating and highlighting queer joy. As the host of the Joy Uprising podcast, she interviews queer friends and colleagues about how they honor joy through chaos and offers listeners experiences and best practices to build and heal through abundant joy. “Joy is something they can’t ever take from us. It’s something they cannot replicate when queer people are together, when Indigenous people are together, when Black people are together, or when a bunch of wacky nerdy Latinas are together. There is this indescribable joy that we have when we come together in our communities,” she says.

Rivera launched the podcast during the pandemic, when she, like so many others, was struggling to get out of bed to bake bread, plant a garden, or perform any of the feel-good activities trending during quarantine. Struggling to find and maintain joy, she sought out the laughter, triumphs, and elation of her friends. Their felicity became a panacea. “Through the suffering, through the grief, through the marches, through the funerals, through the outrage—in the middle of it all—we must heal and we must take time to be joyful,” she says. Rivera finds joy through community, and she has dedicated her life’s work to inciting joy in others. “If I can’t offer joy to young people or anybody, then what am I doing?”

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