JUANA MEDINA is one of America’s most gifted talents in a rising generation of cartoonist-illustrators, having fulfilled much of the promise that her peers in the National Cartoonists Society first saw eight years ago — well before it was certain whether she would even be able to remain in America.
In 2008, while a college artist, Medina received the professional organization’s memorial scholarship. And this week, Medina received a Silver Reuben nomination from that same group for illustrating the 2015 book “Smick.”
But what even many of her colleagues don’t know, however, is her trying, decade-long struggle to work and stay in the United States after arriving from her native Colombia. But now, the D.C.-based Medina has depicted her ordeal, though in a highly engaging manner, in an online comic for Fusion — titled, “I Juana Live in America,” and headlined: “A decade in immigration purgatory: My struggle to become an American citizen.”
In the comic, Medina acknowledges how fortunate she’s been, even as she has worked her way through a maze of professional and official obstacles and setbacks that didn’t always make sense, and sometimes left her in a precarious state.
Comic Riffs caught up with Medina to delve deeper into her story. Here’s what she says.
MICHAEL CAVNA: Congratulations on such a textured and evocative [graphic essay] piece. Is this a story you wanted to tell for a while, and what prompted you to tell it now?
JUANA MEDINA: This has been a story many have told me I should share. But it was such a difficult experience. It made it hard to review, retell and relive a time that had caused me a lot of stress.
I have been thinking for a while now about the possibility of working on a memoir, all in the abstract. But some months back, [cartoonist and Fusion editor] Jen Sorensen contacted me, asking if I’d be willing to work on a story, sharing a bit about my experience as an immigrant, and the time felt right. I’ve had now some time to let things fall into place… and how could I let go of a chance to work with Jen Sorensen as my editor!
MC: Part of what I love about this comic is that you use art itself to show how it helped transform your life within this larger, decade-long experience. Did that aspect feel very organic here — could you talk some about your role as an artist within this?
JM: That’s true. Some things would have taken a lot of prose to be conveyed, that’s when — luckily! — I could rely on illustration to get the message across. It was, indeed, a very organic process. I feel rather fortunate to be able to draw and write — it’s almost as if this was a bilingual exercise, where one language picks up where the other falls short. This has been something, that as you point out, I’ve been learning to do while living in the United States, and as I explore it more and more, it has increasingly allowed for me to explain myself better in many opportunities.
MC: Comics storytelling obviously requires such reduction, truncation and some abstraction. Are there any particular aspects or events here that were even more intense, difficult or harrowing than we might surmise from the comic?
JM: Absolutely. Some of the most intense and impossible moments to convey in a condensed form for this piece have been the death of loved ones.
While waiting for a visa, I wasn’t able to leave the country, even being here legally. Because I had switched from one visa to another, applying from the United States, the moment I left the country, I’d have to reapply for a visa from Colombia, at the U.S. Embassy. The chances for a gay woman in her late 20s, whose ties to Colombia were intangible, to get a visa approved, were rather slim. This would have not only meant I wouldn’t be able to come back into the United States; it would have meant I’d limit greatly the possibilities of seeing my parents or sisters, who live here, ever again. So, in the end, I had to choose between seeing my grandfather one last time or continuing my life in the United States. With his blessing, I stayed here.
Then this happened again with my dear grandmother, and was repeated again and again with the loss of some close friends. Having to choose between my personal freedom and seeing close ones for the last time were decisions I wish I’d never had to make. Some might say it was selfish of me — I struggle with that — but I know the friends and family members I lost would have told me to stay here and keep working hard.
Also, an aunt who was kidnapped in Colombia, was released after seven years in captivity. As much as I wish to have been there to support my cousins in the long and torturous journey through to their mother’s return, I felt stuck here.
These are just a few pointed examples of a very tough decade or so. That’s why I know I better make my day to day count. I can’t take my life for granted.
MC: When I first met you [about six years ago], I believe you were at RISD [the Rhode Island School of Design], and you had won the National Cartoonists Society’s Jay Kennedy prize for college cartoonists. In what specific ways were some arts and cartooning communities supportive of your efforts to be and stay here?
JM: That’s right. … I had the privilege of receiving the first Jay Kennedy Memorial Scholarship. It was an honor not only to be the first recipient of this wonderful award, but a great introduction to the NCS and its members. Since then, I’ve been fortunate to find friendship, support, and mentorship from talented members of this organization. The award and being all of a sudden welcomed and encouraged by fabulous cartoonists to keep on going, was of great validation during a very difficult time.
I must highlight in particular [“Rhymes With Orange" creator] Hilary Price’s support — I was her intern, and have since remained in touch. From her, I have been able to learn invaluable lessons not just pertaining to cartooning. She has been a role model not only as an artist, but as a woman, lesbian and ultimately, highly generous — and funny! — human being. As I said in the piece, I’m lucky.
MC: How do you feel as an immigrant about the current political climate? And any thoughts on the immigration stances of current presidential candidates?
JM: I wish I could vote! I still have to wait two more years to apply for citizenship.
During the 2011 election cycle, I worked creating political ads. Throughout that same time, I was anxiously waiting for a response on my visa application. I couldn’t help but think how ironic it was, to be persuading — from a little basement office in Georgetown — American citizens to vote, while I couldn’t, and still can’t, vote.
In regards to current presidential candidates, I hope for someone wise enough to know, respect and celebrate the value of a pluralistic society, to be the next president of the United States of America.
MC: What sort of feedback and reader reaction have you received so far to your Fusion essay? And any idea whether the comic’s been seen back in Colombia?
JM: Most feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve been humbled by the messages I’ve received from fellow immigrants, telling me about their remarkable journeys. Despite the struggles I’ve found, I’ve had it easy compared to many others. I’ve also heard from a number of immigration lawyers, asking if they can use this piece as a tool to encourage their staff or to share with their clients. I’ve been delighted to receive these messages, because they speak highly about those who are committed to delivering great work and serving communities that need tremendous support.
I have heard from fellow Colombians, mostly friends or relatives, sending encouraging messages. I’m proud to be Colombian, but that doesn’t take away from how hard it is to come to terms with how the war has affected us all. Perhaps it’s ambitious of me, but I hope this piece, and my work overall, will raise opportunities to start conversations around subjects that need to be addressed, both here and in my homeland.