Interviews

Puerto Rican Illustrator Rosa Colón on Her Ode to Leaving Home, 'Goodbye for Now'

Matt Minich
(Soda Pop Comics)

Reminiscent of the short, simple stories of Adrian Tomine, Goodbye for Now shows the personal side of Puerto Rico’s ongoing economic crisis.


Goodbye for Now

Publisher: Soda Pop Comics
Author: Carla Rodriguez, Rosa Colón (Illustrator)
Publication date: 2016-08-01
Amazon

Reminiscent of the short, simple stories of Adrian Tomine, Goodbye for Now shows the personal side of Puerto Rico's ongoing economic crisis.

I met illustrator Rosa Colón in the food court of Guaynabo's San Patricio Plaza. Just nine days after Hurricane Maria upended all life in Puerto Rico, the mall was one of the few places near San Juan that had reopened for business. Diesel generators power its lights and air conditioning, and its fast food restaurants offer partial menus to long lines of customers. People crowd around the building's power outlets to charge cell phones and power banks. They look tired.

Our interview isn't supposed to go like this, and this article isn't supposed to be a hurricane story. But in Puerto Rico today, pretty much every story is a hurricane story -- including the story in this 2016 comic I'd met with Colon to discuss.

Goodbye for Now is a slim English-language book that Colón produced in collaboration with writer Carla Rodriguez. Self-published through Colón and Rodriguez's indie comic studio, Soda Pop Comics, it so far gone mostly unnoticed by the US media, and that's a shame, as Goodbye for Now is a gem; it exhibits a commitment to narrative and a clarity of purpose that are rare in the often anarchic world of indie comics, and it sheds light on an issue that's even more relevant now than when it was published a year ago.

Over 23 pages, Goodbye for Now tells the story of two young women, Sofia and Mari, as they say goodbye. Sofia is leaving Puerto Rico for a new job in Chicago. Mari is staying. Before they part ways, they take a short road trip around the island's pastoral west side and talk about their home, the people who have left, and the inevitable change coming for their friendship.


In both look and feel, the comic is reminiscent of Adrian Tomine's Optic Nerve vignettes. Colon draws her characters and their settings in a clean, ligne Claire style, and Rodriguez's narrative finds a sense of consequence within a deliberately constrained plot. Emotions run deep, but they are invoked with gentle nudges; in the words of creative writing teachers everywhere, they are shown, not told. One panel shows the girls' hands resting just beside each other, conspicuous in their not touching. The last page puts Mari alone in her car, affirming that this story's goodbye portends a finality that either character can admit.

Goodbye for Now is at once intimate and removed, and it succeeds without question as a slice of life. But what makes it a truly notable work is its ability to hint at social commentary without preaching or politicizing. Sofia and Mari's story not just a personal one -- it's the story of Puerto Rico's modern economic reality, in which hundreds of thousands are leaving the island in search of better economic opportunities.

Between 2005 and 2015, The Pew Research Center estimates that more than 445,000 Puerto Ricans left for the US mainland -- that's about 12 percent of the island's population. Most left to flee a decade-long economic recession that, due in part to US-imposed austerity measures, seems likely to soon become a full-blown depression.

That was before Hurricane Maria left regions of the island virtually uninhabitable. With power and running water unavailable for months in many parts of Puerto Rico, experts estimate as many as 35,000 more could leave for the US by December. Many will not return.

The hurricane's impact on the creative community has been immediate, Colón said. Faced with an island-wide curfew and alcohol ban, DJs, drag queens, and other nightlife figures have already begun moving to New York, Miami and other major US cities. They may soon be followed by everyone whose employment depends on an internet connection.

As an instructor at Guaynabo's Atlantic University College, Colón has long seen budding creatives faced with this choice between community and career. Students in creative fields like art, animation, or video game design have always had to grapple with Puerto Rico's low professional ceiling. For many of her most promising students, she said, departure for the mainland is the only realistic option.

“You get the sense that we're training people to leave," she said of the university. “The creative community is moving, so there's no one to lead by example."

Colón is among the holdouts. In addition to her role at Soda Pop, she's the co-founder and co-organizer of Tintero, an annual comics art festival that draws dozens of artists and hundreds of attendees. The event has become a must-attend among San Juan creatives, but Colón said exhibitors' booths are starting to go empty.

“I always joke that there's not gonna be enough artists on the island to do Tintero next year," she said. “That joke has started to come true." In that sense, Goodbye for Now is autobiographical. The conversations had between Sofia and Mari on their farewell road trip echo those Colón said she has had with friends, family, and even her partner.

“It helped to put our words into other people's faces."

Like the character Mari, Colón has long strived to find a way to continue living on the island. But as Puerto Rico's economy continues to crumble and people continue to leave, she says even she has started to seriously consider a life on the US mainland or in Europe.

So Goodbye for Now is partly the presentation of an inner dialogue. Like its creators, the comics characters are at a crossroads, torn between the life they've built at home and the lure of a brighter future abroad. As much as it revolves around a departure from Puerto Rico, the comic is also a sort of love letter to the island itself.

“It was big step forward [for Soda Pop]. We were trying to write more about Puerto Rico, but without being preachy or precious. We didn't want to just show Old San Juan. We didn't want to just show the beach."

At the moment, Colón said she doesn't have any plans to leave Puerto Rico. But if she does choose to make a life elsewhere, even for a while, she said she knows her relationship with the island will change forever. She's seen it happen before -- after a move to the mainland, lifelong friends become occasional visitors. They come back, but only for hectic holiday trips packed with a series of hurried “catching-ups".

“Goodbye for now,' that's the phrase we hear the most. But even if they do come back, it's not the same."

As of this writing, more than 170 flights are departing each day from San Juan's Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport. All of them are full.

The reasons their passengers have for leaving are well documented -- journalists and policymakers alike have been adamant about spreading the news of Puerto Rico's devastated communities and battered infrastructure. The stories of struggle and loss, from both the hurricane and the economic crisis that preceded it, have been well told and at length.

But no English-language outlet has successfully captured the emotional toll of this exodus as well as Soda Pop Comics. With Goodbye for Now, Colon and Rodriguez remind us that in the months (and probably years) after Hurricane Maria, the island will continue to host a series of personal disasters. That with each departure, goodbyes will be left half-said, friendships will be left to languish, and girls like Mari will be left at home alone.

Goodbye for Now is available for $5 through Gumroad. For the next few weeks, shipping delays are likely.

Matt Minich is a freelance journalist, editor, and media researcher.

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