Conversation with Author José Alaniz: How His Work Challenges Narratives that Stereotype the RGV

Words by Sofia Treviño

Edited by Abigail Vela

A Hispanic man’s image drawn in a comic book form, popping out of the background of space and stars with his name, Jose Alaniz.
Illustration by Sara Barriera

As soon as he started reading comics in Edinburg as a kid, José Alaniz knew he wanted to make his own. He created adaptations of the Star Wars movies, sketched Sesame Street characters as superheroes, and even worked as a comic artist for his school newspaper at The University of Texas at Austin. Although Alaniz temporarily abandoned his hobby when he entered graduate school, he returned to writing and drawing once he moved to Seattle and found a supportive community of comic artists.


Away from his hometown of Edinburg while in Seattle, Alaniz grew to appreciate his roots in the Rio Grande Valley. In his work, Alaniz draws inspiration from growing up as a second-generation Mexican-American to incorporate Spanglish — switching between Spanish and English — into his writing and to highlight the Valley’s slang, food, and people.

His latest work, “Puro Pinche True Fictions: Prose and Comics,” published in September, presents an anthology of short stories and comic strips that blend personal narratives with science fiction elements. One comic strip featured in this collection recounts his self-loathing of his own identity growing up through a Star Wars metaphor. Stories featuring his visits to relatives across the border in Reynosa showcase access to Mexico and another culture that other parts of the U.S. don’t have. 


Following his reading of the anthology in Brownsville’s bookstore, Búho, in December, I interviewed José Alaniz (JA) about his experiences with storytelling in comics and highlighting the Valley’s unique perspective to outsiders. 

Illustration of a big black ant on the yellow ground, a title that reads “Puro Pinche True Fictions” in comic book style font on the left.
Cover of a copy of “Puro Pinche True Fictions” by José Alaniz. Photo credit: Sofia Treviño.

As both a cartoonist and writer, how do you decide what medium to tell a story in? 


JA: I wanted to emphasize the line between memory and imagination and how fiction and nonfiction are blurred. That’s why I tell them more than once. I tell the story in text and comics about getting bitten by a dog as a kid. The comic comes off funnier, and the text sounds more serious.


The last story in the book is about a suicide attempt. That one, I only tell as a comic. Comics don’t have to be funny. They just have that reputation. 


Before immigration laws at the Mexico border became more polarized, people used to cross more freely between the U.S. and Mexico. What was that like for you, and how did you reflect on growing up in the Valley in your writing? 


JA: As a little kid, I was thinking about Mexicans as enemy starships that I was shooting down like a video game. That didn’t last, but I thought it was being honest about what it was like going through that stage. I always wanted to leave and as soon as I graduated high school, I left the Valley. I’ve grown to appreciate the Valley. I don’t feel that way anymore. 


The Valley makes me sad for a different reason because I think it’s changing a lot. The border has become a lot more militarized and tense. A lot of people don’t go to Mexico anymore. 


When I was growing up, we would go all the time. In high school, we would go to Reynosa every weekend because there was no law against drinking at 16.  


Now, people are afraid to go, and that’s sad because it used to be a lot more of a binational culture. It’s still a binational culture, but it’s much more tense.

Comic showcasing a story about a young kid who got bit by a dog.
A comic page from “Puro Pinche True Fictions” by José Alaniz. Photo courtesy of Sofia Treviño.

Recent political elections, such as the upcoming presidential election between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, have exacerbated tensions at the border. Bills such as the most recent Texas Senate Bill 4 target Hispanic populations by permitting officers to arrest people they suspect of being in the country illegally and deport migrants to Mexico. As 94% of the Valley is Hispanic or Latinx, this bill could lead to racial profiling and wrongful arrests.


Beyond immigration narratives, why is it important to show a diverse range of stories about the Valley? 


JA: Chicano literature was originally about the immigrant experience. They’re wonderful stories that are evocative of the life of my own parents because they were migrant farmworkers. But it wasn’t my experience.


Maybe the hardest thing is to convey to people who are not from the Valley what it’s like to live there without going into stereotypes. I’m also very interested in looking at some of the problems in the Valley, for example, gay culture here. Drag shows are a lot more open, but there’s still a lot of resistance. 


Another problem is the way the Valley is growing. There’s a lot more people, even something as stupid as Elon Musk and Starbase. There are a lot of new influences changing the Valley in interesting ways.


Since bringing SpaceX to Brownsville’s Boca Chica Beach in 2014, Elon Musk named the area “Starbase” and uses the space to manufacture and launch Starship rockets. Negative impacts from the launches, such as debris, endangerment to local wildlife, and rising housing costs, have led organizations across the Valley to protest against SpaceX’s presence in the city.


Your work blends science fiction elements with your Mexican-American background. How did you steer away from stereotypical portrayals of Mexican-Americans and write something true to your experiences?


JA: I’m a second-generation Chicano, and my mother is from Mexico. I grew up with a pretty standard 1970s childhood. Even though we would cross the border to Reynosa and grew up speaking Spanish, I’m also very assimilated. I love science fiction, Star Trek and Star Wars. My work is a mixture of all that.


The short story Genoveva is a lot of what I recorded my grandfather saying. I often don’t translate it because it didn’t feel right. It’s a way to respect him to leave it the way it was.


“Genoveva” snapshots a grandfather’s stern personality, one where he tells life stories for the narrator to learn from. Alaniz said he used his own grandfather as inspiration.


With only 7% of authors and writers in the U.S. being Hispanic or Latinx, it’s important to highlight those who can accurately write about their culture. How did you decide not to change your writing in Spanglish to fit into the publishing industry? 


I think things have really changed a lot because I wrote a lot of this stuff a long time ago, in fact, even when I was still at UT Austin, and I held on to it. In the last couple of years, you’ve had a lot more smaller presses owned by Mexican-Americans that are open to Chicano literature and comics. FlowerSong Press is based in McAllen, and they were totally open to this material because they’re from the Valley. 


They understood the value of this and how it gathers people that would read it. Part of it was having patience and waiting for the landscape to change. I was at a publisher that was very comfortable with using Spanglish and saw the value in it.

A comic book panel depicting a Hispanic man staring at a blue river while a full moon shines brightly.
Illustration by Sara Barriera

Alaniz recently took part in literary events to connect his work to local readers. After presenting “Puro Pinche True Fictions” at Búho, he spoke at UTRGV’s Festival of International Books and Arts (FESTIBA), which promotes literacy and arts in the Valley. 


For those who may only encounter the RGV through news, what would you like them to take away from your work?


JA: For people who don’t live there, I want them to know about the Valley. I’m doing another book that deals with how the wall has impacted the culture. I started writing that because I got angry that so much reporting about the Valley was that it’s a bad place where they put little kids in cages. It’s a lot more than that.


The only time the Valley gets national attention is when there’s a disaster or a crisis. Those problems are all real, but people only see the Valley as a sacrifice zone. We need someone who’s from the Valley who could write about the Valley in a way that’s not exoticizing it and, instead, a place full of regular people.


I want those from the Valley to feel that somebody sees them and that their experiences and lives are worth representing in literature and media. I hope that we can all write about the Valley the way we would write about New York, Los Angeles or anyplace else. It’s a place that has its own culture that’s worth celebrating and critiquing.

Comic showcasing a story about a young kid who felt like a superhero after he stopped a car from running him over.
A page from “Puro Pinche True Fictions” by José Alaniz. Photo courtesy of Sofia Treviño.

Redefining Representation in Media

As the media landscape progresses, publishing companies and creatives like Alaniz pave the way for more Mexican-American representation in literature, where people from the Valley can see their lives shown accurately. 


The publisher of “Puro Pinche True Fictions,” FlowerSong Press, uplifts minority voices and stories, helping to increase the small percentage of Hispanic writers in the industry. Meanwhile, others like filmmakers Ronnie Garza and Gabriel Sanchez, currently working on a documentary on queer history in the Valley, or author Andrea Mosqueda, whose queer coming-of-age book takes place in San Benito, show real-life situations in the Valley that don’t often grab the attention of news outlets. While immigration stories and border concerns are of importance, a more well-rounded representation of the Rio Grande Valley is necessary to help combat the false narratives often portrayed by larger media conglomerates.

The Rio Grande Valley boasts a rich culture. Events like MXLAN, McAllen’s summer arts and music festival celebrating Latinx culture, and programs like FESTIBA highlight our cultural heritage. Through their work, people like Alaniz offer insights into the everyday lives in the Valley, deserving of more recognition in the media.

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