National Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, is a federally recognized celebration of the culture and contributions Hispanic Americans have brought to this country. To help honor this time, each week The Proclaimer will shine a light on notable members of the community who are helping to promote the celebration of their heritage.
Kayden Phoenix got bored of working in marketing.
A third generation Chicana resident of Boyle Heights, Phoenix went to Loyola Marymount University on a full academic scholarship and graduated with a degree in Business Administration with an emphasis in Marketing. She worked in marketing for a few years but felt constrained in the field without a creative outlet.
“I was never really a novel reader but I love movies, so I decided I could write scripts,” Phoenix said. “I liked [changing careers] because it was new and [uses] a different part of your brain. Business was fun and I do like marketing because you just talk to people left and right… but there was no creative outlet to it. I just picked up books and looked online.”
Though she was never formally trained and never went to film school, Phoenix taught herself the basics of screenwriting and filmmaking through repeated practice. Looking back, she described her first scripts were “extremely horrible,” but got better as she continued to work at the craft. She soon took up directing and producing short films with her scripts because she wanted to see how her writing looked on screen.
“That’s how I was raised: the only way you’ll learn how to swim is you get thrown in the deep end,” she said. “You either sink or swim and that’s how I am with everything. Yes, I did my research, but I learned on set.”
Producer Jonathon Freeman-Anderson is Phoenix’s friend and frequent collaborator. After he read one of her scripts he knew he wanted to work with her. Following a screening of her film “Penance” at the Outfest film festival, Freeman-Anderson said that while Phoenix’s film was shorter than the others, her effective use of elements like color and theme left him wanting to discuss the film in ways that other festival entries did not.
“I read her script and I liked it so much that it inspired me to work out really hard because I thought I might be able to play this part,” he said. “I’ve read almost everything she has written, and she just keeps getting better and better, so it’s hard for me to look at other writers and tell them I want to produce their work.”
In 2019, Phoenix founded the Chicana Directors’ Initiative because she was frustrated by how little opportunity women and especially Latina women were given in the film industry, especially as explored in the “Inclusion in the DIrector’s Chair” report from USC and the Annenberg Foundation.
“I was mad at the blatant oppression of Latina directors and [directors of photography],” Phoenix said. “[I created the CDI] to show that we existed, to take away the lame ‘I can’t find a Latina’ excuse. No, you just didn’t try.”
The CDI is a nonprofit for Latina directors and Latina directors of photography based in Los Angeles and New York that creates a solid foundation to garner studio work. Starting with only 12 filmmakers, the CDI has now expanded to about 150 members. Though the organization has paused all activities in the face of the pandemic, previous events included monthly potluck meetings, producer mixers and table reads.
“As a filmmaker I see the trend right now focusing on empowering people who aren’t often given a lot of opportunities and with Kayden, you see that across the board,” Freeman-Anderson said. “If you talk to her, one of her core values is empowering others, making it possible for those that aren’t represented with equality and equity to have a chance to prove themselves. Whoever you think is already a good example of this, she has the real chance to do what people like [director] Robert Rodriguez wouldn’t do and give more marginalized people a shot. ”
Initially, Phoenix wanted to pursue a career in horror films with the goal of having some of her work featured by Crypt TV, and she has also made action and drama works. Unfortunately Crypt TV did not accept her horror films but with that practice under her belt, Phoenix began to pursue bolder projects.
“I was like, ‘If I could see anything on the big screen, what would it be?’ and my first thought was a Latina superhero, because I had never seen one,” she said. “Since I’m a writer I said I can do that, I can create my own world. And since I’m making one latina superhero, why not make five because that increases my chances that one of them would make it to the big screen.”
As a proof of concept, Phoenix wrote and directed a short film called “Jalisco” about a folklorico dancer who had knives hidden in her dress. Those who saw the film kept asking Phoenix if there was a comic book featuring the character. Phoenix told them no, but eventually she gave in and decided to create a comic book.
So Phoenix was back to researching, learning things like the difference between a graphic novel and a comic book, and the different types of artists needed to create a comic (“I cannot draw to save my life, but I can write”). Phoenix decided that a graphic novel format made the most sense for her on the distribution and sales fronts, as she relies on comics shops and conventions like the local store Brave New World Comics in Newhall and the Valley Comic Book Convention hosted at the Hyatt Regency Valencia for sales. She then took to social media to try to find artists.
She found an L.A.-based artist she wanted to work with, who declined to be Phoenix’s penciller but agreed to be the colorist and to send out a tweet to her thousands of followers to help source more artists for the project, all of whom were Latina.
The first book, “Jalisco” was based more on Phoenix’s original feature length film script rather than the short film of the same name, though all feature a folklorico-dancing heroine with blades in her dress.
Phoenix’s graphic novel series, “A La Brava,” also includes two books titled “Santa” and “Loquita” with pencils done by Eva Cabrera, who has worked on popular titles like “Betty & Veronica: Vixens” from Archie Comics, “Adventure Time” from Cartoon Network and “Lumberjanes” from BOOM! Studios. The next book, “Ruca” is slated for release in December and the final heroine book “Bandita” is set to release early 2022. Then, all five heroes will be featured in a team-up book also called “A La Brava,” also scheduled for a 2022 release.
Social justice themes are central to Phoenix’s work. In “Jalisco,” the heroine must rescue her mother who has been kidnapped by human traffickers. “Santa” is Phoenix’s “SJW superheroine” and “brawler” who must contend with racial tensions, an election, and ICE detention centers in a fictional Texas bordertown. “Loquita” is a “teen detective in the supernatural world” living in Miami who must contend with issues like mental health, teen suicide and school shootings.
“Social justice is a huge influence on me and it’s something I fight for in real life,” Phoenix said. “In comics I can say it in a more digestible form, but these are issues that are happening to us today and, for the most part, these are very female social issues like domestic violence, human trafficking or the foced histerectomies that these girls are being forced to get by ICE. If I could save these girls in real life I would, but at least I can save them in my comic books.”
After reading her stories, Freeman-Anderson said the social justice angle adds a layer of realism and relevance to the “A La Brava” universe. Issues like child trafficking and abuse may be represented by a colorful evil-doer in Phoenix’s work but, according to Freeman-Anderson, in tackling these issues and the difficult decisions ordinary people have to make in the face of them, Phoenix’s books have a sense of groundedness that many modern comics lack.
“When I read the scripts for the graphic novels, what I realized was these are real villains, possible people that have found ways to justify their existence by doing horrible things that have comparisons to evil people in reality,” he said. “Everybody knows that the comic book world is based on realistic characters in abnormal situations or unrealistic characters in ordinary situations. It’s really refreshing to read Kayden’s work because aside from the fact that her characters have powers, you could find real people who have to make similar decisions and the real heart of the issue that they are dealing with is what’s most in focus.”
Phoenix’s Latina culture and family are central to her personality and her work, and it takes center stage in the” A La Brava” universe aside from the theme of Latina superheroes. Jalisco is Phoenix’s most personally inspired heroine and the others are based on other aspects of her personality, while remaining distinct enough to stand alone and bring a unique talent to the table during the eventual team-up. For example, much of Santa’s story comes from Phoenix’s experiences visiting the border town of El Paso where her father used to live, while Loquita is inspired by her family’s tradition of telling ghost stories.
“When I was thinking about my superheroes, I was like ‘who is my superhero?’ My mom. What did my mom do? She danced folklorico,” Phoenix said, “With regards to location, [that book] is called ‘Jalisco’ because my grandma is from Jalisco, Mexico. With me it’s very familial, and that’s why that book is my favorite. I use the word Chicana because it’s stronger and has extra meaning behind it. I used to wear a cap that said “Chicano Power” and European-Americans would look up at the cap more than my face, and that’s amazing how much strength that word has.”
In addition to her superhero books, Phoenix is also working on a series on Latina princesses.
“Everyone looks up to superheroes. They don’t exist but everyone wants a savior,” she said. “Since my superheroes are a little on the darker tone because of the social justice issues, for the younger audience I made the princesses because no one dies, there is no social justice, it’s just cute coming-of-age stories.”
Growing up in the 1990s, she said the only depictions she ever saw of people of Hispanic heritage were the gangbanger, drug dealer or maid stereotypes. Though she said representation has improved since then, audiences are more familiar with and would rather see depictions of Hispanic people in shows like “Narcos” where they are drug dealers rather than in a wholesome family comedy like “One Day At a Time.”
“Kayden does an extraordinary job of bringing out the real spectrum of the Latin heritage,” Freeman-Anderson said. “[Hispanic culture] is always portrayed as this monoculture, but it’s not. As someone who is not from that culture, she really helped get a better understanding and immerse myself. There are so many different directions to explore that can be an inspiration for future generations.”
Though some fans and creators throughout the entertainment industry clamor for more diversity and positive representation of marginalized or otherwise underrepresented communities, other much louder voices tend to be resistant to anything deviating from the norm of the straight, white, male hero. As a proud and vocal self-described feminist, lesbian Latina comic book creator, Phoenix said that while she and her content would likely have been met with hostility in the 90’s, the reception has been nothing but welcoming.
“I’m very fortunate to be so well received and every comic convention I’ve been to I’ve been invited as a guest with a free table so I can focus on making money to pay my artists,” she said. “It’s a sign of the times and the climate has changed. If I had tried this in the 90’s, I probably would have a different career by now.”
To Phoenix, Hispanic Heritage Month represents a way to reclaim the Hispanic identity and combat the negative stereotypes with positive stories of role models and potential. By exposing the public to more stories of heroism and positive impact, Phoenix hopes that people will associate Hispanic citizens less with gangsters and drug dealers and more with superheroes and princesses. According to Phoenix, her books have even been used to teach collegiate Chicana/o studies courses.
“Storytelling reflects democracy and I’m very fortunate there are people before me who have lowered the glass ceiling. We’re moving forward because there are gamechangers,”she said. “I hope the takeaway from my work is that people can do [anything] if they believe in themselves. ‘A la brava’ means ‘without hesitation.’ All these girls have the odds stacked against them because they’re female and Latina, but they’re going to go all out regardless.
“Go all out.”
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