Anarchy in the Archives: Zine Project Brings Punks of Color to the Academy

A new project is working to make sure that zines by people of color are easy to find and share.

By Nia King Jan 29, 2013

In the beginning, Daniela Capistrano had no idea zines weren’t just for people of color.

"In the late ’90s, when I was a teenager, I met a Mexican lesbian punk," she says. "She was the first lesbian I ever met, and she had a bunch of zines in her studio. Almost all of them were by people of color. Since I had never encountered zines before, I thought that zines were mostly a POC thing.

"At that point I didn’t know anything about riot grrrl, I didn’t know much about punk culture; I was really naïve. As I became more involved in DIY-punk-feminist communities — not only making my own zines, but trading with people and trying to be a part of zine communities — white folks with a lot of privilege issues made it really difficult for me to be a part of those communities."

Zines (the word comes from ‘magazines’) can be thought of both as the punk ethos’ no-budget answer to the publishing industry — and, also, as a form of shareable ‘viral content’ that predates online social media by decades. Often accomplished with little more than a typewriter or computer, scissors, a glue stick, and a copy machine, zines open self-publishing to everyone.

But because zine culture is so closely correlated with punk, a predominantly white subculture that’s more inclusive in theory than in practice, zine communities in many cities are also predominantly white. As a punk of color growing up in Boston, zines gave me a place to process what it meant to be mixed race when I knew few other mixed people. Through zines, I was able to connect with other mixed folks struggling in isolation. But finding zines by other mixed writers was not initially easy; though Boston had a zine library, its ‘race’ section was limited, and most of the zines in it were by white folks, oddly enough.

That’s why Daniela Capistrano founded the POC Zine Project, which celebrated its three year anniversary this week. "The mission of the POC Zine Project is to make zines by people of color easy to find, distribute and share," she says, "but behind that we’re about liberation, and we’re about revolution, we’re about connecting people of color and helping them feel empowered to share their stories."

Capistrano, a queer Chicana self-taught media professional, has worked at MTV News and Current TV. Having worked her way up from the world of unpaid internships, she’s now supporting other writers of color with her time, love, and money: curating traveling zine exhibitions, establishing an archive of zines by people of color, and providing grants, tools and events to POC zinesters. I sat down with Daniela shortly after the conclusion of the POC Zine Project’s 2012 ‘Meet Me at the Race Riot’ tour to find out what role zines can play in increasing people of color’s political power.

"In each of the fourteen cities, we kept hearing similar messages," she says. "’This needed to happen,’ and ‘I’ve been looking for something like this.’ What they’re talking about isn’t about the zines, it’s about community. It’s about finding spaces where you don’t feel silenced, where your thoughts and feelings matter.

"Sharing your thoughts in writing, and the process of even writing it down, is so cathartic and so healing. Making zines is kind of like giving art therapy to yourself for free if you can’t afford a therapist."

Capistrano isn’t the only one working to give zinesters of color the legitimacy that they deserve. Last year, the University of Arizona’s Dr. Adela C. Licona published Zines in Third Space: Radical Cooperation and Borderlands Rhetoric, the first and only book about zines by people of color. As a queer first-generation Chicana educator in a state where Ethnic Studies has been banned, Dr. Licona has a special appreciation for the significance of people of color’s stories.

"The more I come to deeply understand the crisis in education," she says, "the more I come to be inspired by what I see in paper zines. In a way, what goes on technologically can’t compare to the potential of paper zines to circulate and fall into the hands of people for whom they may not be exclusively written. I think zines circulate purposely, and also in kind of serendipitous ways." Though most major US cities now have a zine library, zines still spread primarily from friend to friend within anarchist, punk, and DIY communities, but sometimes they end up in unexpected places. Lately, due to increased interest from the academy, more and more zines have been ending up at universities.

"I stumbled upon zines by zinesters of color while I was at the Duke University archive," Licona says, "and they resonated with me so powerfully. I was in my mid-thirties and I was reading zines by really young people, as well as people my age and older. The power in them struck me and I thought, ‘Why have I not heard these voices before?’

"Before I knew it, I was reading through stacks of zines by feminists and queers of color and realizing they were doing so much of what I valued, which is speaking up and out: telling our stories, knowing that we have a right to be heard, a right — and a responsibility, in a way."

Licona’s dissertation, recently published by SUNY Press, uses zines by people of color to shed light on why ‘progressive’ movements are often not as inclusive as they’d like to believe. Since it’s a long way from your average basement punk show to the archives at Duke University, I asked Licona why she felt that it was important to bring knowledge from these sweaty basements to the academy. "The knowledge from those sweaty basements is the stuff that you can’t create in the academy," she says. "The way that I use the privilege of formal education is to use the classroom space to value what I think are de-legitimized voices that are excluded or considered ‘not knowing.’"

After connecting through this interview, Capistrano and Licona have plans to collaborate on POC Zine Project’s upcoming Legacy Series, a mapping project celebrating independent publications by people of color from the 1700s through the 1990s.

Capistrano says she was partly inspired to start the POC Zine Project by coming across the online Queer Zine Archive Project. And while the POC Zine Project is making it so you don’t have to ‘know somebody’ to find zines by people of color, the site is explicit that it’s not there to be a vending machine for tokens; white allies who write in looking for submissions or signal-boosts are asked to show that they’re serious about the work of inclusion.

And beyond the site, archive, and upcoming new tours, Capistrano has greater ambitions. "I would really like to start a residency for women of color who want to self-publish and need the resources to do that — where they can get away from their lives, but in a way that’s practical," she says. "It’s not just enough to offer someone a residency. If they have kids, who’s going to watch them, how are they going to pay for a sitter? How are they going to fly there? How are they going to eat? I want to be able to address those needs, and one day I will do that."

"Never underestimate the power of your words and of your ideas and what happens when you share them," concludes Capistrano. "You have all these great ideas. Write them down and share them with the world, and you never know what could happen."

Nia King is’s new media intern. A filmmaker and illustrator, her zine How I Became an Ex-Punk was recently published in Women and Performance: a journal of feminist theory.