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Frederick Luis Aldama Against a (Capitalist) World: A Superhero’s Origin Story and the Endgame Behind Latinx Comics

By Melanie Romero

 

Collage Art by Ernesto Cuevas


For Frederick Aldama, books were not mere physical objects just for reading material, but rather his life’s blood: literary undertakings of global issues and themes foreshadowing Aldama’s future pathways as a professor, thinker, and author.

A photograph of Frederick Aldama as a child, wearing a Batman-luchador mascara


After moving from Mexico to California, Aldama struggled to fit into the suffocating air of Nowheresville, Califas—donned as “a tumbleweed-tossed” area of north central California where conservative rednecks created a power struggle with the settlement’s Mexican roots. So, as a mixed child considered as “other” by his own community, he found refuge at his local tiendita’s spin rack, littered with the softened magazines of X-Men, Hulk, and Fantastic Four comics. 

ZAP! CRASH! BOOM!

Pretzel-legged on the floor and sometimes with no money in his pockets, Aldama voraciously read comic after comic on his favorite superheroes. He stated that these comics “offered [him an] escape from a difficult life—single mamá paying bills, bullies at school, and a safe space for [him] to learn English by matching words with images and actions. [He] was magnetically drawn to the adventures of the Thing, Spidey, Professor X, Hulk—the save-the-day outcast or mutant superheroes who learn to embrace their ‘otherness.’” It wasn’t long until he picked up newer comics with superheroes that looked much like him, as well as other members of his family, that he knew superhero powers were attainable. His frequent journeys to the tiendita transitioned to a new experience: library check-outs, his punchcard saturated and his backpack heavy. His favorite genre consisted of sci-fi, such as the works of Ursula le Guin, Octavia Butler, Issac Asimov, Frank Herbert, Mary Shelly, Julio Cortázar, and Jorge Luis Borges; he also would later discover formation-of-misfit novels by the likes of García Márquez, Rushdie, and Günter Grass, which again fueled his positive view on “otherness.” The books he held and read offered a set of new perspectives, allowing him to “see more clearly the underbelly workings of [his] small slice of the world.” His love for superhero comics, followed by sci-fi novels, sprinkled in with classics and bildungsroman, paved the way for his desire to earn a living teaching literature; the very act of reading through his childhood and adolescence, succeeded by his adulthood, manifested his teachings on the voices of marginalized writers and his ability to empower his own students—once like himself—to shape their perspectives proactively and progressively.

A photograph of Frederick Aldama reading from one of his books


Nowadays, Aldama is reaping the rewards of being a bookworm: he is the Jacob & Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities at the University of Texas, Austin and holds an adjunct professor appointment at The Ohio State University. He affirmed that both placements have been a first and an honor, but the latter in a sense of being seen and valued in such a way that “universities have traditionally only seen and valued straight, white men.” Through these honorifics, Aldama received cultural capital and monetary means to manifest brand-new inclusive critical learning and exercise new modes of activism; at UT Austin, he kickstarted the Latinx Pop Lab, while, at OSU, he created (from scratch) legacy Latinx pipeline programs, such as LASER (Latinx Space for Enrichment Research), Latinx Studies (as a field of study on campus), and the Humanities & Cognitive Sciences High School Summer Institute. He’s immensely grateful for the opportunities, especially since these accolades represent his community and their goals, and he knows he and his community are not in a position to take them for granted. These programs were meant for the underserved and the misrepresented who had been traditionally unseen and now were finally on the radar.

A collage of photographs from Aldama’s Latinx Pop Lab


Far and wide, Aldama is known for his Latinx Pop Lab at the University of Texas at Austin. Revolving around Latinx and BIPOC comics, as well as theory books on comics and media and state-of-the-art digital technology, this maker-imaginarium—as coined by Aldama—doesn’t even consider the sky as the limit. As long as they can dream it, they can make it happen. The purpose of the laboratory isn’t just to share and exchange ideas, but also actively shape culture. He mentioned how the United States is at a point of eradicating co-learning spaces of innovation and imagination, especially with the country’s turn into a storyline of Fahrenheit 451, book-censoring and book-burning included. So, with the existence and continuance of the Latinx Pop Lab, it is out of an urgent need to keep up with leading-edge innovation in the media and storytelling of comics, animation, film, and video games, while keeping our souls, hearts, and minds fed with the exchange of ideas.

A comic graphic of Frederick Aldama designed by artist Miguel Hérnandez, his co-pilot on The Steampunkera Chronicles


Although Aldama’s love for books translates to his academic career, his passion for reading further aligns with his writing essence as an author. He was always curious about how stories are built and how they co-exist within an ever-growing world, and it was a natural instinct to begin writing. Growing up and identifying as Latinx, Aldama knew that his community’s voices were silenced, especially in literature. But, anyway, he claims that he’ll “go to the fiction of Yuri Herrera or Juan Pablo Villalobos who bring knowing and compassion to their Mexico-set storyworlds.” These types of narratives, these writers, leads him to why he writes fiction revolving around children’s books, novels, short stories, graphic novels, and, most importantly, comics; there is an intensity to get these stories, especially rooted in cultural context and technological innovation, in the same ways as Herrera and Villalobos, out of a sense of responsibility to the craft and genre. Aldama’s power in storytelling can be found in a few of his published narratives: Con Papá / With Papá; The Absolutely (Almost) True Adventures of Max Rodriguez; Through Fences; Labyrinths Borne. Con Papá / With Papá takes a twist on the stork-dropping-a-baby-on-the-front-door storyline; instead, it introduces children’s origin story at the hands of “a kind and joyous serpent god delivering a beautiful brown baby to the doorsteps of all sorts of guardians, single papás included.” Then, there is The Absolutely (Almost) True Adventures of Max Rodriguez, a story that recreates a fictional version of his Guatemalteco abuelita, who can be bluntly described as a badass who “drove a Hulk-green Chevy Nova with a V-8 that roared to life, modeled nude at the local community college, and grew mota to pay her bills.” However, the book centrally focuses on Max, born with a congenital condition, ankyloglossia, that impairs tongue movement and, in turn, speech due to the flap of the tongue being too short. Unbothered by his condition, which is discovered by name too late in his childhood, Max already has made friends out of his trusty fictional books. Aldama hoped that this book “opens Latinx readers primarily (and all others secondarily) to the creative space of the co-created daydream, the forward-looking, wish-fulfillment brain that creates new worlds and new worldviews.” On the other hand, his graphic novel, Through Fences, illustrated by Oscar Garaz, rotates through narratives from the points of view of children & adolescents surviving the U.S.-Mexico borderland. Aldama leans into the loss of innocence in these survivors whose niñez—defined by laughter, play, and safety—is obliterated by the harsh truths of broken political systems at odds with immigration, as well as the American Dream propaganda pipeline. He exclaims that “as we look through fences, we’re trained to salivate dreams and desires of a make-believe life en el otro lado.”

Images of Frederick Aldama’s book covers: Con Papá / With Papá, The Absolutely (Almost) True Adventures of Max Rodriguez, Through Fences, and Labyrinths Borne


Labyrinths Borne is Aldama’s most recent publication; he rushed a soft launch of the title earlier this year, just in time for BIPOC PoP 2024, a yearly makeshift home for extraordinary librarians, scholars, students, creatives, and industry people to come together and support ingenuity and creativity. Labyrinths Borne introduces readers to a world plagued by the disastrous consequences of climate change: black ice materializes in the summer and disease threatens flora & fauna. The planet’s survival is in the hands of Cassie, a young Latina, and her peers who depend on the subjects, like sciences, math, technology, and the humanities, to lead toward a sustainable future. This sci-fi graphic novel goes against the very formulaic and seen-before archetypes of a white-leading genre; Aldama purposely sets the novel in Mexico, instead of the mainstream destinations of Los Angeles or Manhattan, and also uses the issue of climate change to underlie our “current destructive patterns [towards that pessimistic end]: intersectional oppression and trauma, border patrolling, children caged, families ripped apart.” This book is Aldama’s advocacy for a better tomorrow, one that affirms new ways of protecting an already fragile world through intersectional identities and transformative spaces. Reading is already a sustainable avenue to a constantly changing world; Labyrinths Borne, an idea to publication conceived by thoughts, paper, and words, is one step closer to encouraging readers to be the superhero the world needs to retreat us from oblivion and toward new, sustainable beginnings.

Image of BIPOC PoP 2024


Aldama deems the action-mission of LibroMobile comparable to his own, as both strive “to proactively shape vibrant spaces of learning, exploring, imagining, and creating for our Latinx and BIPOC communities.” During BIPOC PoP 2024, Sarah, Manny, and their extraordinary LibroMobile’s Crear Studio team sizzled with unwavering curiosity, ingenuity, and electricity. Aldama noticed the parallel workings between his own work, such as that of the Latinx Pop Lab, to that of LibroMobile as they both collectively forge life-changing mentoring and outreach programs empowering Latinc and BIPOC communities. Both programs leave their doors wide open and also break down barriers along the way; their missions to change the world across the humanities and to energize new bodies of knowledge inches closer to changing lives, saving lives.

Images of Frederick Aldama’s book covers: The Steampunkera Chronicles and Mac & Quo


Professor Aldama doesn’t bear to think in terms of milestones. Rather, he sees a day of hard work as getting closer to his goals. With several books under his belt and more classes on his schedule, Aldama is going nowhere but up. He is now bubbling with excitement about his Steampunkera multiverse getting closer to becoming a reality! Set in mid-nineteenth-century Mexico, this series follows the adventures of a group of Latina social justice warriors, all who are deeply educated in the arts, literature, and the sciences and travel to numerous parts of the hemispheric Americas. As well, he recently wrapped Mac & Quo, a Latinx comics adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, but with queer Latinas as the central protagonists. Moreover, Aldama sees a partnership with LibroMobile, hoping to lean into artificial intelligence and virtual reality to augment storytelling modes in the sector of Latinx and BIPOC narratives.


In truth, Aldama doesn’t seem like he’ll be slowing down anytime soon. Within him, there is an innate drive and a willful desire to continue discovering, researching, writing, and publishing stories on the Latinx experience. Of course, writing books—whether academic or fictional—takes a mental and physical toll on his body, especially since he spends months analyzing, note-taking, and synthesizing. But, he wouldn’t change it for the world… His love for writing is transparent in the way he unearths new ways to reconstruct the world we live in; there is always joy in the payoff, the publication, but most importantly in the way it will continue to invoke readers to keep thinking, keep asking, keep discovering.

Image of Frederick Aldama lecturing while wearing a Captain America t-shirt


Aldama exclaimed: “Our stories are our superpowers!” And, this is a genuine statement—a full circle—coming directly from the once little boy who spent hours after hours reading superhero comics to feed his curiosity. That little boy is now a beloved professor, a prolific thinker, and a passionate author saving the cultural integrity of our communities that are now more seen than ever.


Read more about Frederick Aldama and all his (super)heroic accomplishments here.

 

Melanie Romero is a trilingual writer born and raised in Orange, CA. It was during childhood weekend trips to Randy’s $1-a-book stall at the OC Market Place that she discovered a passion for reading and, eventually, writing. Today, she serves as Editor at Lil’ Libros and has written two children’s books, Amor de colores and J is for Janucá under the publisher. In her free time, she can be found indulging in challah and getting lost among the shelves of independent bookstores.

 

Starting February 2023, #OffThePage is featuring Melanie Romero as our monthly columnist. Our Arts & Culture column was initially founded by local journalist Gabriel San Román in May 2020. Since then we have collaboratively featured over 25 stories and paid nearly 10 contributors from our community. Pitch Melanie a story or email us for more information!

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