Interview with Vicko Alvarez Vega Creator of ScholaR Comics
Vicko Alvarez Vega is the creator of the ScholaR comic strip series about a little nerd in the hood who puts the chola in Scholar. She currently obtaining her Masters in teaching History at the University of Illinois at Chicago and has been involved in community organizing since she was 18. She is currently involved with the For The People Artists Collective, a group that sustains a network of artists of color who wish to contribute their skills to community organizing. On January 19, 2016, Vicko was interviewed by the prominent online-based magazine Latina and is now getting support and attention to this rare chola character that we so need in our lives. Vicko brought her awesome self to be interviewed at anime complexium.
What can you tell me about yourself? How did your life experiences influence your creation of ScholaR?
Vicko: The currently released shorts on my website are basically my life experiences growing up poor in Texas. I’ve always liked doing art, but it wasn’t until this past year that I decided to prioritize it and incorporate my love of working people in it . Before taking my comics more seriously I use to organize with workers full time. Working class people of color have always been super important because of my organizing but especially because of my upbringing and my parents. Being poor was never anything they tried to sugar-coat so I was always pretty aware of it but didn’t understand as something that was unjust until I started organizing.
When I went away to college, I suddenly became disconnected from my neighborhood and really rejected the expectations put on me to speak differently, to act more respectable, and to forget where I came from in order to succeed. Organizing with workers who reminded me a lot of my own family kept me very grounded and even helped me get a better understanding of what it means to be poor and Latinx in this country. Poverty is an important element to my comics because to me it’s important to talk about if you’re going to talk about hood or chola culture. The chola in scholar first started off as kind of funny thing my friends and would joke about and then one day I thought it’d be dope to draw a character to go with the phrase. Eventually I attached personal stories to ScholaR, put them online not really knowing how people would react, and that’s just how it got started.
As I continue to make more I’m going to try to incorporate stories that are not specifically my experiences, like the experiences of my friends in Texas and my friends in Chicago. There’s lots of similarities in the Latinx hood communities in these two place but there are also major differences that I think would be really dope to explore further so that various people in our communities can continue to relate to the comic.
I think that is important I am someone who grew up watching a lot of cartoons and animation I think for me what resonated the most was that the medium allowed stories to be told in ways that are not possible in live action movies and most importantly these stories offered me possibilities of imagining something different. I really related to some of the shorts that you have shared with the world and I thank you for creating the comic. In the first question, you discussed the character ScholaR in detail and how so far the stories are about your experiences. You mentioned that you want to incorporate other stories, but as a character how is she different from you? And how will she continue to grow as a character?
Vicko: I think she is probably more of a badass than I was when I was little, to be honest. When I incorporate stories of my friends I’m hoping to specifically tell the story of a kid who will eventually get into some shit. Basically, she is going to get into the problems that hoods kids get into. She is going to get exposed to fights in school and fights at home, gang culture, money hustles, and all while still trying to remain the sweet kid that she is. I want to be able to touch on more serious subjects like alcoholism and violence, whether it’s emotional or physical, but from the perspective of a kid. All the things I just mentioned are a part of living in a low-income neighborhood and a lot of times people don’t want to talk about these realities.
When we do (or when others not from these neighborhoods talk about it) it’s always in a negative context without giving the everyday stories of people who have to live through the poverty and violence. ScholaR is a kid though, so their perspective doesn’t come with as much social shame or negativity but is instead just honest. With ScholaR Comics, I want to be able to tell these stories and provide a fuller picture of the hood struggle, the good and the bad. It’s like what were the lived realities of those of us who grew up with alcoholic parents? What is it about these neighborhoods that get us wrapped up in violence? In what ways is this affecting this young girl? But also, how do we stay resilient despite these struggles? ScholaR is gonna get into messes but she’s gonna make her way through it. She’s as tough as she is creative and as bossy as she is loving. The idea is to bring out these stories in more detail and not present it in a negative light, but in just a real light that occasionally carries with it a much-needed sense of humor.
What work has influenced you the most?
Vicko: I want to say the south side Chicago students I’ve worked with in the past years, the workers that I organized with when I was working for a labor union, and, of course, my parents. I used to be a teacher’s aid as part of my work-study while I was an undergraduate student. I use to work in a predominantly Black elementary school and while I was there so much of my own schooling growing up came back to me along with so much more that I was not expecting. For starters, kids were getting sent to alternative schools left and right and teachers were losing their tempers and throwing objects across the room. During my second year a teacher’s aide, one of my students got arrested in the middle of class and I just about broke down.
When I was a worker organizer I saw so many poor working people risk everything to try to fight for better-working conditions. Most of the time you don’t win your campaign but in the worst case scenario, I saw workers get fired from their $8 an hour jobs and go completely homeless, all because they decided to tell their stories and stand up for themselves. I just about broke down again being reminded of how often poor people are just fucked over trying to do good for themselves and for their families. My mom and dad couldn’t go to school past elementary and I’ve always hated how much they’ve had to strain themselves to make a living for a family of seven. A lot of stress led to a lot of anger and we never had the best family dynamics but we always had a deep respect for another and for my parents’ sacrifices. The students, the workers, and my parents all have stories that have to be told. They have to be told not just because we need to know the struggle of poor people but because we have to respect and admire them as intelligent and strong people who’s continued existence is the epitome of resistance. Right now I just happen to want to tell those stories and continue this resistance through comics.
What’s your favorite comic book (or animation) past or present that have also influenced you?
Vicko: Three just came to mind: X-Men, Boondocks, and American Born Chinese. When people ask me how I got into comics I think I have a similar story as you and maybe other women. I was always around different animation mediums like comics or TV cartoons, but rarely saw myself represented in it. Whenever I did happen to see women it was always this exaggerated depiction of a white or light skin woman giant boobs and just overly sexualized. My older brother used to collect DC and Marvel comics and occasionally I’d check them out but the only thing I got into was X-Men. I think I liked that it had so many female superheroes like you cannot ignore how many female superheroes are in X-Men. I got pretty obsessed with Rogue and it wasn’t until recently that I realized it was probably because she was southern and was always trying to hide her powers, even though she was pretty powerful. I use to be pretty shy as a kid but also pretty damn smart so maybe that was why?
Boondocks I feel is an obvious inspiration because you have these two bad ass little Black kids who are socially aware in super different ways. The premise of that whole comic and show is super smart and has pretty clear connections to what I hope to accomplish in my comics. A graphic novel I read most recently that I really liked, especially since I am working with my afterschool program is American-Born Chinese. I really like how it touches on issues of identity also from the perspective of a kid. I love the art and the storytelling style throughout the book and how easy it is to read. I’m planning on putting it into my curriculum eventually especially since I realized a couple of my students have already read it and really love it.
I’m so happy you mentioned the Boondocks because like your comic it also started out as short comic strips and somehow the anime gods came together and made it into an animated series, which became so successful. I pray to the anime gods that this happens to you as well because I feel your narrative would be a wonderful addition to anime series and be such a wonderful role model for Latinx people. This segues into my next question even though there are a few comic strips about ScholaR she is an interesting girl and its so rare to see characters like her in comics and animation because often times I feel the protagonist is a hetero male and its rare for the main leads to be characters of color. So my question is have you found that people been able to relate to ScholaR? What has the response been from the community?
Vicko: Definitely, people have been able to relate to it a lot especially the most recent one where she goes to the welfare office on a weekend and then has to make up a story in class about what she did on that weekend. That was the one that got the most views. People have been sharing it on facebook and have given me some feedback on why they related to that story. Some folks could relate to having to translate for your parents, while a lot of people could relate to making up stories about what you did because the reality is that when you’re young and your life is not that eventful because you’re poor, you kind of just have to make something up. Other people more generally related to having similar schooling experiences where teachers who could not relate to their poor students of color would critique assignments in needlessly harsh ways.
Still other people could relate to the comic because of the way ScholaR’s mother speaks to her and does not give ScholaR any explanations for anything. If you grew up with these sorts of moms you know that they aren’t just mean, but they are strapped for time, or they’re full of serious concerns for the safety of their kids and they realistically cannot let them out of the house. It’s just real. I feel like I intentionally put in certain themes, but I also try to leave it open enough so that different people can relate to the comic.
What hopes do you have for ScholaR in the future? Do you hope to see it become an animated series in the future or a comic book series? Our head creator at anime complexium has interviewed several creators of color and so far what their interviews tell me that creators of color do not get support from big animate companies and often have to use indiegogo and gofundme sites to gain funding for their projects. I definitely acknowledge that these things are expensive and needed in order to move forward.
Vicko: My immediate hope that I am trying to prioritize is that more people start talking about comics in education. I’m studying to be a history teacher right now I’m actually doing some research on how comics can be helpful in a classroom setting. I definitely hope to connect with other educators across the country who may be doing similar programs and research. I have connected with a few folks in New York because of the Latina magazine article who are using comics as an educational tool for newly arrived immigrant students which is really cool. That is definitely my biggest priority, but other opportunities have come to turn ScholaR into a short video series like a two-minute type videos. I’m also hoping to eventually have enough material to create a published book and have been getting some support on that as well. I would love for ScholaR to go as far it can possibly go, but it’s definitely going to be a gradual process and I will be seizing all the opportunities that come my way. No matter what happens, I want to make sure ScholaR stays true to her character and that people keep enjoying the comics.
Aside from interacting with adult characters are there any new characters in her age range that you hope will come into the narrative and create a conversation amongst kids in the series? In a lot of shows there almost never conversations amongst children about serious issues and I’m curious to see how ScholaR will engage in these types of conversations.
Vicko: I just introduced a new character, Rosita, who is new to the school and new to the country. I’m hoping to tell lots of stories about the immigrant experience through Rosita and contrast it with ScholaR’s first-generation experience. I plan on introducing more characters in the future but it’s still in the works. I always joke with my friends that I will turn them into ScholaR’s friends so I’m definitely still brainstorming her squad.
What else can fans expect from you in the future? It does not have to be related to ScholaR, it can be related to other projects as well.
So aside from the comic I also make art for friends who do activism work in Chicago. I’m not sure if you have seen this yet on my website, but there is another character I have been using more in my activist art that is like a grown version of ScholaR and I call her Cholativist. Although there are no explicit ties to both characters I have been using this character more and more in my movement art. I really love the Cholactivist character because I feel like it shows that even though folks did grow up in the hood you’re not ignorant to the injustices around you. In ScholaR’s case, she is still young and still learning what is going on around her while Cholactivist is very aware of the bullshit and doing something about it. Altogether, I’m hoping to challenge stereotypes of hood folk being lazy and ignorant I want to show that we are doing something about the bullshit that happens around us.