Graphic Novels That Heal

Artist Jaime Cortez creates visual narratives about AIDS, gun violence and immigration.

By Christina Hernandez Jan 06, 2009

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, fearsome 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. There, Cortez said, he found an unusual comfort in being “forever foreign,” never feeling as if he should strive to become Japanese as he’d always wrestled with becoming American.

When he returned from Japan two years later, Cortez’s body had become thin and yellow from ulcerative colitis, an illness that causes fever, abdominal pains and diarrhea. When he was at the doctor for treatment, a nurse taking his medical history asked Cortez whether he had sex with men. “The moment I told her I was gay,” he said, “she literally took her hands off me.” Facing firsthand the terror and confusion surrounding HIV/AIDS, Cortez became a prevention activist.

What began as Cortez’s efforts to coordinate discussion groups where young, gay men could weigh in on issues such as dating across HIV status led to his part in organizing a 1994 summit on HIV prevention for gay men in Dallas. Borrowing the Chicano movement ideal that “culture heals,” Cortez started developing atypical wellness and prevention materials.

In 2004, AIDS Project Los Angeles published Cortez’s Sexile, a bilingual graphic novel that chronicles the life of a transgender immigrant who ventures to the United States during Cuba’s Mariel Boatlift. Aside from the foreword and introduction, the 120-page book does not mention AIDS directly, but as “crazy exotic cancers and infections” during a brief scene set in 1981. Yet Sexile is considered a visionary piece of HIV/AIDS prevention literature, one that has been sought by prisons, libraries, clinics and other groups that seek to expand prevention efforts beyond Sex-Ed 101, said Pato Hebert, associate director of education at AIDS Project Los Angeles. “He helps us understand the poetics, not just the mechanics” of sex, Hebert said.

Instead of preaching condom use, Sexile is a colorful account that takes readers into the intimate life of Adela Vazquez, who is casual about safe sex until a nurse tells her of a frightening disease that is killing “young queens.” From then on, even as she engages in drug use and prostitution, Vazquez uses condoms. “That queen was the only person in all the world who could convince me to use a condom,” Vazquez says in the book. “I listened, and it saved my life.”

By connecting readers to a real person enjoying sexual freedom while struggling with her identity and inner demons, Cortez portrays sexual health as attainable. The AIDS industry needs such work to complement sex-ed basics, Hebert said, or else prevention becomes “too sterile, and people become disconnected rather than connected.”

Since earning a Master’s of Fine Arts degree in visual arts from the University of California, Berkeley, Cortez has somewhat shifted his focus. With young people killing and being killed in startling numbers in Oakland and Richmond, California, Cortez is researching a new graphic novel on teen violence and its ramifications. He plans to explore the moment of violence, in which an angry 15-year-old might not blink at the long-term results of pulling a trigger. “They go from zero to 60 in one second,” Cortez said. “There’s no kind of speed bumps for it.”