Jessica Cruz is a high school student living in Coast City. She’s just gotten a museum fellowship and hopes to study the Aztec gods, her favorite exhibit. She doesn’t have time for parties or hanging out with her two best friends or her new friend from the museum fellowship, John Stewart – she’s got too much to do and too many expectations on her. Her parents are undocumented immigrants from Mexico, and Jessica herself is part of the D.A.C.A program – but that’s not common knowledge. She’s been keeping her head down ever since a popular mayoral candidate has been campaigning on making Coast City “safer” by advocating for a stronger I.C.E. presence. When Jessica’s Papá is arrested by I.C.E., she feels like she’s falling apart. As she isolates herself, bent on revenge, she dreams of two Aztec gods: one emphasizing hope and willpower, the other giving into her anger and destruction. How can she help her Papá if she can’t even help herself?
I cried at multiple points during the story. Jessica Cruz is a character near and dear to my heart, in part due to her Hispanic heritage. Spanish is well-executed in the dialogue, which lends an extra layer of authenticity to the story. I and many other readers will emphasize with her struggle to choose willpower or anger. The Aztec gods she dreams about are not only metaphors for these emotions, they represent the Green and Red Lanterns, respectively. John Stewart serves as a friend and mentor for her in the comics, and serves the same purpose here, as well as acting as a jumping-off point for conversations about intersectionality between Black and Mexican American experiences. Together, they choose where to focus their energies for the best outcome: in anger, or in hope?
The art is truly unique, and the most memorable I’ve seen in quite some time. The square figures evoke ancient Aztec and Mayan carvings. While greens and blues are the dominant colors, the backgrounds and background figures are often washed in one or two colors. Overall, the palette is desaturated pastels – but because it looks as if they were watercolors painted wet right over pencils. It has that distinctive gray tone. I LOVED it and lapped it up like water.
If the gorgeous art isn’t enough to wow you, the story of a teen desperate to settle a war within herself to help her family and community will definitely knock you out. This is going on my Best of 2022 list.
Rivera, Lilliam, and Steph C. Unearthed: A Jessica Cruz Story. 2021.