How comic books taught my immigrant mom to fly
When my mom discovered the Great American Superheroes as a kid from Puerto Rico, her life changed. Comic books helped her rise up from the back of the class and ultimately defeat a real-life villain.
During the Gilded Ages of Comic Books, our great superheroes were doing their very best to protect America from the ever-looming threat of “The Other.” It was the throes of the Cold War, both Superman and Batman made the leap from the page to the television and every kid in America could feel just a little bit safer with heroes to look up to. But for a child just emigrating to the US in the 1950s, there were no great defenders—the immigrant child fell into the realm of “The Other”, especially if they didn’t speak English. Like my mom.
My mother was five when her family left the countryside of Puerto Rico’s north coast for the sprawling metropolis of Chicago, counting itself among the first Puerto Ricans to leave the island in what would grow into what is now called “The Great Migration”. Despite her ability to slip right into her Boriqua costume during our family visits to the island, I’ve always known my mom as an American; her tall, light-skinned features do nothing to betray her 100% Caribbean heritage, and even when she speaks Spanish she makes the most ridiculous—albeit adorable—mistakes, like telling me the Spanish word for cinnamon is cinnamon… but with a Spanish accent. See-neh-mon. So listening to my mother speak about her years as a foreigner is equally foreign to me; as it turns out, we have those same great all-American, anti-Other comic book superheroes to thank for that.
Despite being a country of immigrants, there was a long learning curve in the American school system in terms of handling the education of non-English speaking students. At five years old and with no English comprehension skills whatsoever, she was placed in the first grade—apparently, she says, because she was taller than everyone else. My mother says that no one offered her help at school; her teacher never even pulled her aside to ask why she didn’t speak in class. So she did what any frightened five year old would do: she hid. She would sit at the back of the classroom trying to figure out what was happening, relying on facial expressions and gestures to interpret intention and hoping she didn’t get called on. But improvisation can only get you so far if you literally can’t read or write in the language used for teaching, and my mother inevitably failed her first year at school.
It was the summer after the Big Fail that my mom discovered comic books. Along the main strip of their neighborhood there was a record store that my grandmother would take my mom and her sister to religiously. That summer, by what can only be called happenstance in hindsight, a comic book store opened up right next to the record shop and they decided to pop in. My mom was immediately drawn in; until this moment, her entire world of entertainment existed in black and white, and comic books were bursting with color. While she couldn’t read the words, It was the first time ever my mom took an interest in turning the pages of a book.
Comic books are often dismissed as literary “fluff”—entertaining, sure, but by no means holding any educational value. So persists the trope of the oafish comic book nerd, or the tired routine sitcom act of a mother storming into her son’s bedroom because he’s up past his bedtime reading a comic book by flashlight. But to my grandmother, comic books meant the world because they could get my mom to read. Weekly visits to the comic book store became imperative; my mom became an unintentional collector as piles turned into stacks.
In comic books my mother found the same exaggerated actions and expressions that helped her with mild interpretation at school, except the dialogue could be read over and over again until she could sync the words with what was happening on the page. If Lois Lane teetered precariously along the edge of a building and screamed, my mother soon figured out that you use the word “HELP!” when you’re in trouble. She could correlate nefarious phrases with villains. And really, what better way to learn your adjectives than having Robin exclaim “I just punched another out of the air!” as he literally punches his opponent out of the air? By the time she finished her second year of school, she was not only fluent in English, but was determined to speak it better than her Italian-accented classmates.
Both Batman and Superman had their own TV shows at the time, but my mom only showed interest in following their narratives on the page where they could come to life in impossible ways. Playacting heroics on television was strictly earthbound, even with the help of ziplines and creative cinematography. But on the page, Superman flew through space across a stretch of vibrant squares, while Batman sprung from building to building in a metropolis not so different than the one outside her window as he thwarted Two-Face's mission to rob big-time gambler "Chicago Al" Garver. As "America's newest boyfriend," Archie Bunker helped my mom understand ideal American adolescence. Wonder Woman revealed her origin story as Wonder Girl, showing my mom that superheroes are grown, not made. Daring action spilled off the page and into playtime; instead of dolls and dress-up, my mom rough-and-tumbled her way up trees and over fences as a renegade tomboy.
It didn’t stop there; my mom credits her young fandom for her risk-taking attitude throughout life, separating her from “an era in which women don’t take risks.” I don’t know if it was her young imagination come to life or just a manifestation of that daring demeanor, but somehow it all makes sense that she decided to skip college for stewardess school...to pursue a career in which she could put on a costume every day and fly. In the 1970s, the stewardess was a superpower embodied: not just an icon of American pop culture, but endowed with the ability to convince an entire generation to trust flight technology and take to the skies. Stewardesses dealt with hijackings, enemy fire and lecherous men. They marched at the forefront of the fight for equitable pay and fair labor practices, using their celebrity status to lobby at cocktail parties and public events—all while serving tea with a smile.
The first time she got on a plane, my mom was flung back to her childhood, surrounded by non-stop action in completely unfamiliar territory. Movement was constant, and operations onboard matched the world as it flew by the little circular windows that dotted the aircraft. Comic books have informed air travel far beyond my mother’s singular experience; one look at passenger safety brochures—should passengers ever actually check them out—are prime examples of how illustration is used to inform across language barriers. And my mother soon learned that her job was more “superhero” than “glorified hostess”; as they are on the forefront of any number of potential crisis situations that could occur at 30,000 feet, flight attendants are trained by federal agents in methods of de-escalation and physical restraint so that they can fulfill their actual responsibility—passenger safety in the event of an emergency—if necessary.
Not long after she graduated from stewardess school my mother met her first true super villain since her struggle with English education; she didn’t know it at the time, but the man who was to become her first husband was a bona fide con artist with an appetite for gambling. She refuses to reveal his name, so I call him the Innominate Swindler: stealer of hearts and everything else. Of course there were signs; on a trip to the local electronics store, her husband-to-be greeted a man walking out carrying a large box. “See that man I just said hello to? He just swiped that television,” he casually told my mom. Still, like any good con artist he turned up the charm to eleven and took advantage of the fact that my mother’s job took her out of town more often than not to show off his best side and win her trust.
In the few years of their marriage, the Innominate Swindler ransacked their savings and ran up a gambling debt so deep that he started selling her valuables behind her back. He was such a good cheat that he made it seem like he was doing her a favor—taking her fur coats in for summer storage for instance, but making a detour to the pawn shop and dropping them off there instead. Flight after flight my mother would return to a little bit less, her husband’s routine lies sucking her back like quicksand into the same poverty she had worked so hard to escape. Fed up, she finally applied for a transfer to Los Angeles International Airport, hoping to have a reason to escape Chicago. Transfers often took up to a year, but she needed to fly away and the Innominate Swindler had stolen all her strength.
A month later, her transfer request was accepted. Unprepared for the expedited decision, my mom packed a bag and a toothbrush, threw it into her husband’s car and stole it while he was out so she could drive from Chicago to LA. She didn’t tell him she was going, and he never asked about the car; he just assumed the repo man had finally come to take everything away.