For five days a year, Downtown San Diego transforms from a den of drunken bro-foonery where women lose shoes stumbling out of nightclubs and men puff their chests, challenging one another to come at them, to a metropolis of geeky fandom. The streets overflow with super fans, many dressed as anime characters, superheroes, zombies and everything in between, all slowly making their way to their nerd Mecca, the San Diego Convention Center, for Comic-Con. The annual convention, which began as a small gathering of comic book writers, artists and readers in 1970, has evolved into a massive gathering of fans and creators all crammed into one space to share in their unbridled love for pop culture. It is undoubtedly a geek's paradise and a claustrophobe's nightmare.
Just a few minutes east of downtown sits Barrio Logan, a neighborhood steeped in Chicano and Mexican history and culture. The predominantly Mexican and Mexican-American neighborhood was an early battleground for the Chicano movement. Its residents have fought tooth and nail to preserve its identity, especially as it has become San Diego's most vibrant and exciting arts district. Alternative gallery spaces have thrived, locally-owned restaurants and breweries have popped up and the demographics have become more diverse, all while its heart has been fervently protected in a movement similar to Boyle Heights' "gentefication," a play on the term "gentrification." Here and in Barrio Logan, the community's own gente, or people, have risen up to better the neighborhood as opposed to outsiders coming in to "fix" its problems.
Barrio Logan hosts art openings and events seemingly nightly, so when Comic-Con was set to roll into town once again, David Favela, owner of neighborhood brewery Border X Brewing had an idea that crystallized on Cinco de Mayo 2015.
"Some friends and I from the Barrio talked in a downtown restaurant. Comics are an integral part of popular culture and my personal connection was that I learned to read English using comics," he explained. "The talk turned to how close Comic-Con was to the Barrio, but how separate it was from the life of the average Barrio resident who may work at the Convention Center, downtown hotels, restaurants and bars. And then it occurred to us, why not bring the Comic-Con experience to the Barrio?"
From that moment, Favela and his friends worked to create their own Comic-Con, one that encompassed the rich Mexican/Chicano arts and culture found in Barrio Logan and provided comic books to kids. Chicano-Con came to be out of a belief that "art, literature and imagination are as vital and engaging to a child in the Barrio as it is to anyone else," as Favela put it. Not only that, the lack of diversity at Comic-Con and the comics industry as a whole added fuel to the fire.
Chicano-Con was celebrated over two weekends in July at Border X Brewing. The walls were covered with comic books and art featuring Mexi superheroes and pop culture icons like El Chapulín Colorado, Lucha Libre wrestlers and Cesar Chavez by artists that include Mario Chacon, Rosemary Hernandez and GMONIK. One anonymous donor came through early on, gifting more than 2,000 comic books all in plastic sleeves and good condition for children to keep.
Laughter and a mouth-watering scent filled the room as attendees made their own superhero arts and crafts, danced to live entertainment and watched or took part in a costume contest. In between, they sipped on Border X's special brews, concocted with ingredients that are meaningful to the Mexican community. Their Abuelita's Chocolate Stout for example, is made with Abuelita hot chocolate bricks, which can be found in any Latino pantry. Other nearby venues, including La Bodega gallery, also got in on the Chicano-Con action, hosting their own events.
"It was challenging to put together an event worthy of being called Chicano-Con. Our primary focus was the children first, so we came up with a the most basic objective: get comic books in the hands of kids!" said Favela. "Just as comics had changed my life, I knew that getting comics into the hands of kids who cannot afford or never experienced comics was our primary focus."
With everything in place, it was easy for the local Chicano and Mexican community to get on board, and for those visiting for Comic-Con to be exposed to a different side of San Diego.
"The genius of Chicano-Con is that it is local, organic, vibrant and, pardon the hyperbole, cosmic. What David Favela has done is create a parallel universe/event where regular folks can indulge their internal superhero without all the fuss and expense of Comic-Con, which is almost impossible for mere mortals to get into, and when they do, it's a cauldron of geeky humanity where fun is dodging all the sweaty fat guys in day-glo spandex!" said William "Memo" Nericcio, a Chicano-Con attendee and director of the MALAS interdisciplinary Master's program at San Diego State. "Barrio Logan is experiencing a renaissance right now and Chicano-Con is part of that percolating, evolving cultural arts revolution."
Comic-Con's lack of diversity has been called out many times. Lalo Alcaraz, creator of the first nationally-syndicated, political, Latino-themed comic strip "La Cucaracha," laments that his success as a Chicano artist as well as the success of other Latino artists in the industry has come so late or is still a far-off reality.
"American culture moves slowly, and the comics page is no different," he said. "Most cartoonists that have gotten through to syndication are white and male, so I'm pretty sure it's not easy to be female in comics either. Things are changing though. I'm used to being the guy who sticks his neck out, and gets bashed for it."
Alcaraz is currently a writer on the animated series "Bordertown," premiering on Fox in 2016. Executive produced by "Family Guy" creator Seth McFarlane, Alcaraz is one of five Latino writers on the series, a feat he calls "a world record." It will also be the first animated prime time series in which half the characters are Mexican and Chicano. As Latinos have become the majority demographic in California, this is another step forward in bringing those voices to the forefront and hopefully adding greater diversity to events like Comic-Con and the entertainment industry. The fact that Alcaraz assures it will be funny, edgy and satirize the cultural friction between Latino and whites without mocking Mexicans is also a plus.
"Anything that the local San Diego community can experience as an experience outside of Comic-Con is positive," he said. "But I hope that San Diego Comic-Con can be as inclusive as possible."
Until then, Chicano-Con will continue to give Mexican, Chicano and Latino artists an opportunity to share their work, connect with fans and find new ones.
"In future Chicano-Cons I'd really like to provide a central focus on Latin American Pop Culture and provide up-and-coming, independent writers, artists and publishers who are trying to get their stories out a platform; not easy to do in the cacophony of Comic-Con," Favela said. "Our stories are important; our unique perspective and struggles are important. I want to create a space for that to happen. By consolidating and providing a focused forum with Chicano-Con, I think Latino artists have a better chance of getting attention and connecting with fans regardless of background."