Graphic Novels That Heal: Artist Jaime Cortez Creates Visual Narratives about AIDS, Gun Violence and Immigration

Article excerpt

ON A SUMMER DAY in the mid-1970s, a young Jaime Cortez was working in the garlic fields of Gilroy, California, with his mother, father and older sister. An Immigration and Naturalization Service van roared onto the site, and suddenly workers were scrambling for cover. The Cortez family was not undocumented, but that didn't matter to Jaime Cortez, the child of Mexican immigrants who felt--and continues to feel--like an outsider.


"I wanted to run," Cortez recalled. "I felt like we should be running."

That anecdote, along with others that defined Cortez's childhood, is part of his semi-autobiographical anthology of short stories, The Jesus Donut (Suspect Thoughts Press) tentatively set for publication this year. The collection uses humor to tell the childhood tales of a gay, Latino man who never quite found his identity, and it will be the latest in a string of creative works that Cortez has developed as a writer, editor, visual artist and performer in which he uses his own feelings of alienation to connect others on the fringes. "I see that as my tribe in a lot of ways," he said. "I'm always a little on the outside, which is great place from which to observe."

Cortez, 43, is perhaps best known nationally for his HIV/AIDS prevention work, which includes short stories and the graphic novel Sexile. The story of a transgender Cuban immigrant navigating a new culture, Sexile has become what one advocate calls "cutting edge" in the field of HIV/AIDS prevention literature. Cortez, whose art has been part of exhibitions in New York and California, was also a member of Latin Hustle, a comedy group that in the late 1990s performed skits about rejection and objectification of queer Latinos. He recently received a grant from the San Francisco Foundation to research and develop an anti-violence graphic novel aimed at middle school-aged youth.

Through a combination of humor, sensuality and realism, Cortez hopes to demystify his complex and, at times, fear-some subjects. "Taking action doesn't just empower you. I also think it gives you a sense of peace," he said. "You can ... make the problem feel less monolithic and less overwhelming."

Raised in California's San Juan Bautista, an agricultural town 30 miles south of San Jose, Cortez spent his early life attending school and working as a summer farm laborer in the United States, while frequently visiting Mexico with his immigrant parents. Cortez struggled with "the dislocation of shifting back and forth .... You're made acutely aware that you don't belong in either place, even though you belong in both."


As an 8-year-old, Cortez lifted money from his mother's pocketbook to buy his first sketchpad, which he filled with comic book-like images and mimics of telephone book advertisements for women's beauty salons. His work later graduated to a form of self-expression recently realized in a series of five large-format, photo-realistic drawings of ordinary men who, in the privacy of their own homes--and imaginations--are transformed into superheroes.

After receiving a bachelor's degree in communications from the University of Pennsylvania in 1987, Cortez traveled to Japan, where he taught English for two years. …