Jessica Cruz has a lot to be anxious about. Her life with her Mexican parents in Coast City could be upended at any moment if their status as undocumented immigrants is revealed. She knows this because she sees Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents take people away, never to be seen again. She has a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) renewal application to complete, but she is losing hope for her future. The local mayoral race includes candidate Francesca Villamontes, whose platform includes harsh rhetoric against undocumented immigrants. “I’m tired of pretending everything is okay when it’s not. I’m tired of dealing with people who live with blinders on,” Jessica laments.

There are reasons to hold on, though. Jessica and her classmates begin a club at school about immigrant rights, including having an immigration lawyer visit to discuss student rights. Her aunt Melody is a calming, mature influence. Her school’s guidance counselor helps her talk through her feelings, too. Jessica has friends in her neighborhood with whom she can freely swap between English and Spanish. A student internship at the museum alongside cool classmate John Stewart provides purpose and perspective. Things take a turn for the supernatural when a couple of Aztec gods on display at the museum speak to her in visions, not unlike an angel and devil on her shoulder. Chalchiuhtlicue, Goddess of the Jade Skirt, offers encouragement, telling Jessica to reach out to her friends and share her truth so that she can find support. By contrast, Tezcatlipoca, God of the Smoking Mirror, explains that anger and outwardly wielding power are the only ways to make things right in the world.

Maybe this sounds like a whole lot of story, but writer Lilliam Rivera and artist Steph C. find a winning balance through most of the book. The color palette signals Jessica’s alternating states, with green representing moments of calm and confidence while yellow represents anxiety and fear, as well as red for outright anger. These patterns of color are especially effective during a scene in which Jessica’s father is detained by ICE—her house and father are initially bathed in green, but in his absence, yellow light takes over the house while Jessica finds fleeting comfort in her mother and neighbor. Likewise, Jessica’s attitude towards her friends influences the color scheme, as comfortable bonds can turn to suspicion and anger during a microaggression or display of privilege. Jessica’s surreal visions of the Aztec gods influence whether she confides her vulnerability to them or simply concludes that “they will never understand” her fear and anxiety.

Wait a minute! Aren’t Jessica Cruz and John Stewart Green Lanterns, the colorfully cosmic guardians of the cosmos? When do they get their rings, already? Alas, this is not Green Lantern: Legacy, and the willpower-based feats are more metaphorical and driven by personal effort instead of bestowed by an external source. Jessica does find her father’s green ring, though again, it’s more a source of personal strength in the context of the story. The closest this book gets to ordinary superheroics is how many characters are drawn with uncommonly broad shoulders, plus a scene of trapping and outfoxing a malevolent ICE agent. A rather hasty ending sees a brief attempt to lend depth to Villamontes and the ICE agent, though the core message of choosing how one responds to adversity shines through.

Hand this to fans of Rivera’s previous works such as Goldie Vance and prose novel The Education of Margot Sanchez, as well as Green Lantern: Legacy and Nubia: Real One. DC’s standalone graphic novels for younger readers have been averaging more hits than misses in my book. The tilt toward real-life issues in the YA books in particular has been a welcome hook when booktalking. Jessica Cruz is a great character within DC’s pantheon of heroes, and this is a great introduction to her for new readers and a fresh take for anyone familiar.

Unearthed: A Jessica Cruz Story Vol.
By Lilliam Rivera
Art by  Steph C.
DC, 2021
ISBN: 9781779500519

Publisher Age Rating: T

NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation:  Mexican, Puerto Rican-American
Character Representation: Mexican, Mexican-American,  Anxiety

  • Thomas

    | He/Him Teen Services Librarian, Richland Library

    Features Writer

    Thomas is a teen services librarian at Richland Library in Columbia, South Carolina. While studying for his MLIS at the University of South Carolina, he won an award from Thomas Cooper Library for his curation of the works of “God of Manga” Osamu Tezuka. He has spoken about manga, graphic novels, teen programming, and podcasting at NashiCon, DragonCon, ColaCon, New York Comic Con, and American Library Association conferences. He has been on on YALSA’s Great Graphic Novels For Teens selection committee, written articles for Public Libraries, The Hub, Book Riot, and Library Trends, and reviews for School Library Journal and Kirkus.

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