There is no manual to get us through today’s complex map of racial, national, and linguistic identity.
But Portland comics artist Terry Blas made a pocket guide to part of it.
Born to a Mormon family (his dad’s a white guy from Utah, his mom from a town in Mexico’s panhandle), Blas grew up bilingual. He says he always felt more connected to his mom’s heritage.
“When I was young, we had started going to Mexico before I even remember,” Blas said. “We went down all the time. By the time I was 16, I was living in Mexico with my parents. I know several cities in Mexico far better than I do the States.”
As he grew up, he used the terms “Latino” and “Hispanic” interchangeably. But these days he doesn’t. And this month he published a mini-comic on Vox.com called “You Say Latino”, explaining the difference. It’s getting hundreds of thousands of shares.
“Somebody had asked me how I knew Spanish, and I’d responded, ‘I’m Mexican.’ And my mom was joking with me and responded, ‘No, you’re not’. I must have been about eleven or twelve.” Blas, in fact, was born in California.
He said he remembers being surprised. “But it did kind of stay with me. It did make me think. But I did feel shocked.”
Blas is an artist and illustrator — part of the Periscope collective in Portland. He draws a web series called Briar Hollow, and co-hosts the Gnerd podcast — pop culture talk from a gay nerd perspective.
“You Say Latino” ushers readers into Blas’ inner monologue , differentiating language identity from land of origin.
The range of reactions have varied widely. “The comic is largely about identity,” Blas said, “and nobody wants to be told how to identify.”
While he was making the comic, he said, he realized the words were very simplified definitions to terms people feel differently about.
“One of the comments I got was, ‘This is a very American perspective’. Well, yeah, I’m American,” he laughed. “It’s also a comic about how I feel about myself.”
Blas says the visual style was inspired by one of his colleagues at Periscope, Erika Moen. “She does a lot of educational and informational comics,” Blas said, “while also being very fun.
I wanted the style to look pretty simple and simplified. A lot of the colors in it are purple and yellow, this easy complementary scheme.”
Given that he was tackling a somewhat loaded subject, he said, “combining that with a cartoony visual style was the way to go.”
Listen for the full story on this week’s State of Wonder, Saturday at noon.