Ceiba pentandra is the scientific name for a plant commonly known in the English-speaking world as the kapok. But across Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean Sea, the ceiba (as the tree is known in Latin America) embodies the spiritual identities of nations whose connection to the land traces back thousands of years, to when the first human beings crossed from Siberia into Alaska during the last ice age and migrated down the continent. The Maya believed a giant ceiba called Ya’axche connected the realm of the living to the underworld and the heavens. In fact, according to the Maya, it was massive ceibas, not Atlas, that held up the sky.
Hernán Cortés had the last Aztec emperor, Cuauhtémoc, hung from a ceiba in 1525. It was under a ceiba now known as the “Tree of Peace” that General José Toral y Vázquez surrendered to U.S. forces in July 1898, effectively ending the Spanish-American war in Cuba. The city of Ponce, Puerto Rico has a park dedicated to a large ceiba said to be well over 500 years old, and indigenous artifacts predating the arrival of the conquistadors have been discovered around the tree, suggesting it was the tree was considered sacred to the native Taíno people. The ceiba is one of the official symbols of both Guatemala and Puerto Rico. There are also towns in Honduras and Puerto Rico named after the ceiba, and the word ceiba itself is the Taíno name for the tree. The ceiba holds as much significance for the Yoruba people of West Africa, the ancestors of whom were brought to Puerto Rico as slaves, whereupon Yoruba culture began mixing with that of the Taíno and the Spanish, giving rise to puertorriqueñidad.
Groot of Marvel Comics isn’t a ceiba, but a tree-like alien from a distant planet. You probably recognize him as the inarticulate superhero in Guardians of the Galaxy, the 2014 film in which actor Vin Diesel came up with dozens of ways to say “I am Groot.” Yet, in Guardians of Infinity #3 (released this week), Groot is mistaken for a ceiba by Abuela Estela, an Afro-Puerto Rican living in New York’s Lower East Side. The neighborhood is home turf for Ben Grim, a member of the Fantastic Four better known as “the Thing,” born on Yancy Street. While Grim gives Groot the grand tour, the two cross paths with a vine monster wreaking havoc in “Loisaida” (a nickname for the predominantly Puerto Rican and Dominican neighborhood). The ensuing battle incidentally unfolds in front of Abuela Estela’s restaurant, giving her and her grandson Kian a front-row seat to the destruction. Kian tries to convince his grandmother that one of the creatures outside isn’t the ceiba from her childhood, but Abuela Estela knows better. She insists Groot is one of the sacred trees which hold the spirits of her ancestors.
It’s refreshing to see hip hop and Latin American culture combined so matter-of-factly in a comic book. Abuela Estela has dark skin and an afro, her grandson has much lighter skin and straight hair, the Thing sports a pair of Adidas Originals as he tells his admirers to “Keep it 100,” and all of these groundbreaking details are presented as merely part of the superheroes’ millieu. Even something as esoteric as Taíno mythology doesn’t seem like a bit of pandering that’s been crowbarred into a story. Then again, perhaps to a person without firsthand knowledge of the culture, such details do seem misplaced. Maybe they don’t seem out of place to me, since I myself am Puerto Rican, and have been infused with the island’s thick heritage.
The seamlessness has everything to do with the fact that this section of Guardians of Infinity #3 was written by Darryl “DMC” McDaniels of legendary hip-hop group Run DMC and art director Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez, with artwork by longtime Marvel artist Nelson DeCastro. DMC and Edgardo recently launched an independent comic book imprint, Darryl Makes Comics, where DMC is in charge of story and Edgardo is editor-in-chief. Together the two are making a conscientious effort to make sure comic book readers of color are well represented in the pages.
“Young people of color, especially of Latino and African descent in the United States, represent a very large market share as consumers,” Edgardo told me last October. “We already buy more movie tickets and products than any other group. When we see ourselves in our products, it speaks to us on a granular level. It’s in our core, our very essence to feel the need to be represented.”
Both DMC and Edgardo are lifelong comic book readers themselves, which is why you would never know that Guardians of Infinity #3 is their first project with Marvel. I doubt it’ll be the last.
Guardians of Infinity #3
Story by Dan Abnett, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels and Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez
Art by Carlo Barberi and Nelson DeCastro
Cover by Gary Choo
Marvel Comics: 30 pages, Rated T
Hector Luis Alamo is a Chicago-based writer and the deputy editor at Latino Rebels. You can connect with him @HectorLuisAlamo.
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