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Ambulatory Identities: Montijo’s Revision of Chicano/a Hybridity in Pablo’s Inferno

By Jorge Santos

In 1999 comic artist and children’s literature author Rhode Montijo self-published Pablo’s Inferno, the story of a young boy’s mad-cap adventures through Hell, thanks largely to a grant by the Xeric Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded by indie comics darling Peter Laird (co-creator of the wildly popular Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise). The five issue comic book series opens with the gruesome death of the eponymous young Pablo, a remarkably articulate toddler who awakens in Hell, doomed to languish for all eternity in a carnivalesque parody of Dante’s Inferno. In Pablo’s Inferno‘s short first issue, Pablo meanders through Hell, meeting drowned zombies, the ferryman of the River Achelon, and demonic clowns that simultaneously guide and torment the young boy. However, as Montijo tells Frederick Luis Aldama in an interview published in Your Brain on Latino Comics, a trip to Mexico prompted him to revise the project entirely before writing the second issue (218). What follows in Issue #2 is a whimsical exploration of Azteca mythology and history, as Pablo, the chosen one (there’s always a chosen one), embarks on a quest to discover his lost Azteca heritage. In a sense, the revision of the entire project mirrors its larger purpose, as Pablo’s Inferno hopes to educate its readers about the importance of Azteca cultural heritage in the lives of contemporary Mexican Americans.

With issue #2 the setting of the comic shifts from Hell to the Azteca afterlife where Pablo meets and frees Quetzal, an Azteca god imprisoned in Hell after his defeat at the hands of the Spanish Conquistadors. Quetzal serves Pablo as a sort of Virgil figure, guiding him through the Azteca afterlife to his eventual confrontation with the Devil who seeks the mythic lost gold of the Aztecs. As Montijo’s website describes it, the comic tells “the story of [an] innocent boy’s descent into Hell and the fantastic adventures that ensue when he encounters some of its oddball occupants” ( The majority of these “oddball occupants” are key figures of Azteca mythology, as Pablo must navigate a mystical Mexican landscape in order to restore Azteca presence and influence in the modern world. Allegorically the narrative functions as an identity quest or bildungsroman alongside the spiritual adventure of Pablo navigating his way through Hell. Additionally, through his graphic narrative, Montijo hopes to educate his readers about Azteca cultural history and its troubled relationship to the Catholic Church.

However, Pablo’s Inferno seeks to achieve more than simply rediscovering the obscured, even forgotten, elements of Azteca culture that inform contemporary Mexican American identities. The narrative also revisits the role of the Catholic Church in both the destruction and recording of Azteca culture. On the one hand, the narrative clearly chastises the Church for its role in the Spanish imperial mission, ultimately symbolized by Quetzal’s imprisonment in Hell. Yet, on the other, the narrative also praises the work of Catholic scribes like San Bernardino, who recorded and preserved what they could of Azteca culture before its attempted eradication at the hands of Spanish imperialists. This profound ambivalence fuels one of the key interventions of the comic. Namely, Montijo’s work identifies a troubling binary that pits European/Catholic and indigenous/Azteca cultural heritages against one another in the context of Mexican American resistance to cultural assimilation. In order to avoid re-inscribing this tension, Pablo’s Inferno jettisons such simple dichotomies that are ultimately too fraught with complicated, often contradictory, historical circumstances. Rather, Montijo favors a more complicated formation that operates through the interplay of often opposed, but not mutually exclusive, sources of Mexican and Mexican American cultural heritage, one comprised unevenly from Conquest Spanish, Aztec (and other tribes), and U.S. influences. Subsequently, the narrative also engages with notions of hybridity or mestizaje, of which Gloria Anzaldúa’s articulation of “mestiza consciousness” from her influential Borderlands/La Frontera (1987) is perhaps the best known1. However, Montijo stops short of endorsing hybridity entirely. As my reading of Pablo’s Inferno will demonstrate, Montijo’s narrative focuses on the ambivalence inherent on building a cultural identity from two sources marked by the oppressive, brutal, and uneven histories of imperialism that the parallelism implied by notions of hybridity might overlook. Embracing that ambivalence, Montijo resists rejecting such conceptions entirely. Rather, he offers instead a decentered and ambulatory orientation of the Mexican American spiritual landscape that must be navigated in multiple directions, through both time and space, often paradoxically.

My essay opens by outlining the way Montijo uses graphic narrative to depict his reconceptualization of the formation of Mexican American identity — Chicano/a or otherwise — over time. This genre allows him to say and show things from a traditional narrative format — a theme I will return to frequently. I will also outline how Montijo theorizes his own conception of Mexican American identity formation in relation to two existing paradigms and literary traditions. The first depicts Azteca and European (i.e. Spanish) cultural heritages as diametrically opposed in the context of the Chicano Movement’s resistance and opposition to Anglo (i.e. white) cultural assimilation. The second seeks to deploy notions of hybridity to resolve this potential dilemma. Montijo’s text finds these conceptions useful, but ultimately incomplete, favoring an ambulatory formulation, in that it cannot be neatly contained by reductive dichotomies or symbolic metaphors, which draws from previous formulations without being represented neatly by any of them. What Montijo offers instead is a revision of these historical scripts, one that maintains enough flexibility to be considered part of a literary tradition that links to the past without over-determining future revisions by authors and readers that may follow him.

Mexican American identity formation is “sort of like a comic!”

Montijo’s use of graphic narrative itself functions as a metaphor for how he reconceives the formation of Mexican American identity. Issue #4 of Pablo’s Inferno opens with Pablo and Quetzal reading the lost scrolls of San Bernardino (See Fig. 1). Kneeling in the shadowy remains of a Toltec temple, Quetzal instructs young Pablo about his history and heritage. Quetzal informs the young boy that the temple itself belonged to the predecessors of the Aztecs, the Toltecs, while the scrolls were created by Aztec scribes under San Bernardino de Sahagún, a Franciscan missionary dedicated to preserving the culture of the soon-to-be eradicated Azteca society. Quetzal tells Pablo that, originally, it was the policy of the Catholic Church to destroy all documents pertaining to Azteca culture, to be replaced with proto-anthropological documents written by Catholic missionaries with the intended purpose of making the Aztecs “easier to convert” (Inferno #4, 7). Quetzal discloses that San Bernardino later had a change of heart, and “realized the importance of documenting the Aztec culture… All these pictures tell a story” in Aztec post-conquest codices (Inferno #4, 7). Pablo, in all his childlike wonder, is depicted with his hands on his chin, his little feet kicking in the air, staring at the unrolled scroll before him. “Neat, sort of like a comic book!” Pablo exclaims (Inferno #4, 7).

Figure 1: (Inferno #4, 7)

This panel encapsulates Rhode Montijo’s entire project in Pablo’s Inferno. As Quetzal instructs Pablo on his Aztec heritage, the Toltec towers loom over them. The towers and their shadows stretch over the scene, far beyond the limits of the panel, symbolizing a longer history unavailable to the reader. The diagonal lines of the towers intersect the panel’s rectangular boundaries, disrupting the panel’s ability to neatly contain even that which can exist within its purview. This panel visualizes the key identity conflict that drives much of the narrative — namely, the urge to record one’s cultural heritage against the impossibility of containing such an expansive history on the page. Pablo’s innocent comparison between the ancient Bernardino scrolls and the graphic narrative he stars in places Pablo’s Inferno within a historical tradition that seeks to record (and narrativize) Mexican American heritage and culture. The scrolls themselves invoke the pictographic methods of Azteca documentation and language, which in turn makes Montijo’s use of the graphic narrative form all the more apropos. After all, Mesoamerican pictographic forms, such as those of the Aztecs, could be considered a predecessor to modern graphic narrative, perhaps most famously by Scott McCloud’s landmark Understanding Comics (10). Montijo’s use of the comics form, then, represents a cultural allegiance as much as an aesthetic choice. As Montijo’s comic hopes to recover Azteca influences and re-inscribe them in present formations of Mexican American identity, it also reaches back to the form in which that culture was recorded, albeit in an updated, modern mode (graphic narrative). Thus, Montijo locates Pablo’s Inferno within this tradition in order to create his own cultural artifact to place alongside those that inspired it; one that not only records history, but also transforms and transmits it.

However, the comic’s form offers Montijo more than just a culturally appropriate aesthetic mode. After all, its larger purpose, that of re-examining the historical processes that continually inform the present, reaches back into the past to expand present conceptions of Mexican American identity beyond limited, and temporal, national frames. Further, Montijo hopes to present the formation of such identities as non-teological, drawing unequally from multiple sources, and ultimately a discontinuous process in constant flux. As Thierry Groensteen notes in his influential study, The System of Comics (1999), graphic narrative’s ability to produce meaning on linear and non-linear vectors, in negotiation with the reading practices of the individual reader, makes it an ideal medium for this project (11). The form of the graphic narrative resists overly linear narrative interpretations, as readers must learn to navigate the book both vertically and horizontally, either at their own volition or at the urging of the writer/artist’s configuration of the panels on the page, and always at their own pace.

Groensteen writes that graphic narratives contain “a world that is portrayed as consistent, and it is the continuity attributed to the fictional world that allows me to effortlessly fill in the gaps of narration” (11). In terms of Chicano/a cultural heritage, Montijo’s comic interacts with notions of identity that may appear “consistent” at times, yet pushes his reader to discover the fragmented and decentered processes of these formations. In doing so, he urges his readers to fill in these “gaps of narration,” and actively revise our pre-conceptions regarding how the disparate sources of Mexican American identity have coalesced (or, perhaps, have failed to do so). Montijo draws from Mexican American literary traditions — specifically, Chicano/a — in order to revise the script concerning the interactions between the oft competing and dichotomized legacies of indigenous/Azteca mythology and European/Catholic heritage. While Montijo certainly records this cultural history, he simultaneously revises it by challenging traditional literary approaches to the interplay between the various indigenous and imperial sources (and forces) that informed Mexican American identity well into the twentieth century.

Specifically, Montijo’s comic complicates the relationship between Catholicism and Azteca religious mythology as depicted in these literary traditions, particularly those of the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Rather than set them up as either competing sources of identity or two mutually influential sources of hybridity, Quetzal reminds his readers that “most of the knowledge we have of the Aztecs was learned from books of those who came to conquer us” (Inferno #4, 7). According to Quetzal, the Azteca-inspired influences of Chicano/a identity, or “chicanismo” as Ignacio M. Garcia puts it in Chicanismo (1997), can, predominately, only be accessed through Catholicism, a dynamic that complicates any oppositional logic or easy notions of hybridity. However, Montijo does not reject either of these paradigms of Chicano/a identity formation outright. Rather, Pablo’s Inferno insists on a conception of Mexican American identity predicated on a constant process of recording and revision which draws from multiple sources while remembering the fraught historical processes that undergird such identity formations.

While Montijo never directly invokes the term “Chicano,” nor makes direct reference to literary production of the Chicano Movement, his text still functions as a dutiful response to the work of that movement. Pablo’s Inferno takes place circa 1980, just a decade after the height of the Chicano Movement of the late-1960s and 1970s.2 The Chicano Movement is well known for its appropriation (some might say recovery) of Azteca mythology in order to build its conception of heritage and identity. For the purposes of this study, I divide these traditions into two general approaches, based primarily on how these articulations are configured. The first is a primarily oppositional and binary one: Azteca mythology was specifically recovered and deployed to oppose assimilation and reject modes of cultural whiteness. As Garcia has noted, these sorts of oppositional politics were developed to directly oppose American mainstream hegemonic culture (read: white, or “Anglo”) (12). The second approach was primarily amalgamative: it sought to inform their existing conceptions of cultural identity with notions of indigenous Azteca heritage. This resulted in a model for Chicano/a identity based on hybridity, which sought to draw from two previously competing sources of heritage (i.e. European and indigenous) in order to build an alternative formation. Admittedly, the history of Chicano representations of cultural identity — based on Azteca, Catholicism, or otherwise — is much more complex than my description of these two approaches entails. Nor are the approaches necessarily mutually exclusive, as my distinction between the two might suggest. However, for my purposes here, it suffices to say that, generally, articulations of Chicano/a identity predicated on Azteca lore during the Chicano movement typically favored one of these two tendencies.3

Opposition and Ambivalence: Accessing Aztlán through the Catholic Church

This first approach often cast adoption or articulation of a Chicano/a ethnic consciousness as a method of resisting cultural assimilation into larger white society. As Armando Rendon’s Chicano Manifesto (1971) put it: “To be Chicano is to find out something about one’s self which has lain dormant, subverted, and nearly destroyed” (135). For Rendon, the discovery of one’s Chicano roots also meant escaping the trappings of a “colorless gringo society” (138). Going further, 1969’s First National Chicano Conference drafted “El Plan de Aztlán,” named after a poem by Chicano poet Alurista, which also became El Plan’s preamble. El Plan identifies “the northern land of Aztlán” in pre-Columbian Mexico as the land of their heritage, which they insist belongs to them and not to “foreign Europeans” (139). Luis Valdez’s 1971 essay “The Tale of the Raza” insists the Spanish conquest “shattered their Indian universe,” whose remnants lie beneath “the foundations of Spanish Culture” (143). These examples demonstrate a Chicano/a tendency to reduce any European/Christian influence to a foil to their budding Chicano/a consciousness, one built largely on indigenous (typically Azteca) influences in the context of a rejection of white cultural assimilation.4 And while Catholicism itself is rarely invoked directly, it is often implicated as part of a flexible, often inconsistent, system of codes for European-inflected conceptions of whiteness.

In contrast, Pablo’s Inferno moves the role of Catholicism in Spain’s imperial mission to the foreground. Of course, the comic does not counter the argument that the people of “Aztlán” had been historically abused, even eradicated, by European Imperialism or the Catholic Church’s role in the maintenance of the Spanish colonial empire (how could it?). In fact, the historical relationship between the indigenous peoples of Mexico and its conquest at the hands of Spanish conquistadors makes up much of the central drama of the narrative. Much of this history is explicated through the figure of Quetzal, Pablo’s guide through the afterlife, who seems to be modeled after the Azteca feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl. As the narrative progresses, we learn that Quetzal was charged with protecting the Aztecs from attack (Inferno #3, 9). He fails, his people are destroyed, and Quetzal is taken prisoner by the invading armies of Spain. Eventually, he dies in captivity and is sentenced to wait in Hell until the chosen one (Pablo) can free him.

Quetzal’s imprisonment represents the ultimate condemnation of the Spanish, and the Catholic Church by extension, in the text. When Pablo encounters Quetzal at the beginning of the second issue, he is tied down to the ground (Quetzal can fly), his mouth stitched close, and displayed as part of a carnival freak-show somewhere inside Hell (which I read as the Catholic version due to the allusions to Dante’s Inferno) (See Fig. 2)5. While it was the Spanish army that dispatched Quetzal’s people, Catholicism functions as the mythic institution that silenced, caged, and displayed him, much like the panel itself.6 In fact, Quetzal’s imprisonment is spiritual as much as it is physical. While his initial imprisonment may have come at the hands of the Spanish Army, it is Catholicism (here represented as Hell) that perpetuates it in much the same way as it has effectively silenced and contained much of Azteca mythology and history. Quetzal himself can only be redeemed by Pablo, whom the narrative makes clear is meant to represent a new generation of Mexican American subjects that must actively seek out the repressed cultural heritage that Quetzal embodies. Further, we learn in Issue #2 that Quetzal’s silence is perpetual and he can only communicate telepathically with Pablo who, in turn, speaks on Quetzal’s behalf, just as Azteca heritage can only be given voice through the generation Pablo represents.

Figure 2: (Inferno #2, 5)

Allegorically, Quetzal also represents the larger problem facing the recovery of Azteca identity. While the narrative never explains how Quetzal came to be in Hell in the first place, we do learn that he is the last surviving member of an Azteca tribe wiped out by the Spanish conquistadors (Issue #3, 9). He waits in Hell until the prophesied child, Pablo, arrives and releases him. In essence, the Azteca mythology or history that Quetzal represents is contained within the dark side of Catholicism (i.e., Hell). It is not until current generations seek it out that it can be recovered, and, even then, only through the pedagogical act of transmitting that history from one generation to the next. Only then can Azteca mythology be rescued from history and symbolically restore people to Aztlán’s true heritage, which, appropriately, is where the comic ends. Yet, access to Quetzal and the heritage he represents can only be gained by moving through the levels of Catholic Hell that contain him, much like access to Azteca history can only be reached through Catholic anthropological texts in the comic.

The text certainly condemns the brutality of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, as well as the Catholic Church’s role in the consequential subjugation and cultural violence enacted on the indigenous peoples of Mexico. Yet, the narrative avoids reducing the Catholic Church to a historical antagonist to be symbolically overcome, again through the figure of Quetzal. A key moment comes in Issue #3, when Pablo and Quetzal seek out the candle of San Bernardino as part of their mythic quest. Quetzal leads Pablo to a large, decrepit Spanish mission and tells him that:

There are bigger ones all over this country. Once the Spanish army conquered Mexico, they built their churches higher than our temples to show they were more powerful and more important. Sometimes they built them right on top of the temples and even used their stones. (Inferno #3, 4)

Quetzal’s lesson concerning how the early Spanish missions were often built on the remains of demolished Aztec temples looms visually in this scene as it does over the entire narrative (See Fig. 3). The panels are arranged in layers, one on top of the other, eliminating the gutter, one of Montijo’s favorite visual techniques. Our heroes enter the scene through a panel on the upper left, moving downwards to the larger scene underneath. Here, Quetzal delivers his history lesson that Catholic churches were strategically built atop Azteca ruins (quoted previously). However, rather than being contained in a word balloon, Quetzal’s lesson is itself superimposed on the wall of the church. The text itself is a ghostly white — unlike the black ink typically used throughout the comic — glowing through the shadows beneath the one shaft of light illuminating the travelers’ way through the church, and, eventually, underneath it. The font is thin and scratchy, seemingly etched into the walls of the church itself. This disembodied text hovers over the tiny silhouettes of Pablo and Quetzal as they enter the church, much like the history it tells hangs over their heads and lurks in the shadows, eager to be acknowledged.

Figure 3: (Inferno #3, 4)

As the story continues, however, Quetzal and Pablo access the caverns underneath the church through an opening covered by a statue of San Bernardino. Here, Quetzal uncovers Bernardino’s lost scrolls, which chronicle much about Azteca culture that Quetzal had feared lost (Inferno #3, 20). This church functions as a visual representation of Montijo’s conception of how Chicano/a identity itself has formed over time. While the opening sentences of Quetzal’s history lesson acknowledge the dynamics of power and conquest at play, Montijo refuses to reduce the Catholic Church to little more than a historical foil because of sympathetic figures like San Bernardino. Rather, Quetzal’s history lesson recognizes the fact that much of what is known of the Azteca culture can only be accessed through the work of these Catholic scribes via an active and mobile process that moves the individual through one to the other (much like the pair must actively choose to enter the church).

And while Montijo does highlight exemplary individuals such as San Bernardino that worked against the institutional Church, he also stops short of any direct condemnation of the church as a whole, but ambivalently admits to the reality of these historical circumstances. Montijo’s central point remains clear — without these Catholic missionaries and the Aztec creators of post-Conquest codices, much of Azteca mythology, or knowledge of “Aztlán,” would be lost, a victim of history. Accordingly, Montijo refuses to depict Catholicism and Azteca as no more than oppositional forces in the composition of Chicano/a identity. Rather, Montijo implies that one can only be read through the other, albeit in a context of power and conquest. Montijo seems to echo Ramón Saldívar in that his text is more interested in “demystifying the relations between minority cultures and the dominant culture” in order to disrupt a simple juxtaposition between the two (Saldívar 5).

Sympathy Through the Devil

While the narrative is certainly troubled by the loss of Azteca culture, the most intense distress in Montijo’s comic stems from the profound ambivalence towards the institution that not only threatened its erasure, but also makes its recovery possible. Montijo depicts this ambivalence through the use of competing narrators, a graphic narrative device Aldama breaks down in Your Brain on Latino Comics (27-28). Once Pablo and Quetzal recover the scrolls of San Bernardino, Montijo divides the readers’ attention between dual narrators — one visual and the other textual. The former depicts the spirit of El Calambre, the spirit of a renowned Mexican wrestler, or “luchador,” who serves as Pablo’s guardian angel, fighting off a rabid pack of werewolves sent by the Devil to prevent our heroes from reaching the scrolls (more on the Devil in a moment). El Calambre sacrifices himself so that Pablo and Quetzal can escape the church with the scrolls intact. As El Calambre fights off the ravenous horde, Quetzal reads from the final pages of San Bernardino’s diary before he is killed by the same werewolves El Calambre is about to face. San Bernardino’s words are overlaid in text boxes shaped like torn pages over the images of El Calambre preparing for his final battle (See Fig. 7). His voice haunts the page — the final line of San Bernardino’s journal reads:

There is no getting used to the howling that threatens death and misfortune. I am but one man of the cross against this new evil. I suspect that these demons have been sent from the depths of hell to… destroy the religion that we have brought to these Indians. Since our arrival to this land we have only brought death and disease, and a forced worship. Now the Devil has sent his creatures to recruit more souls to his service. (Inferno #3, 21)7

Now, it is unlikely that the actual Bernardino de Sahagún shared these sentiments. Yet, by giving voice to a fictionalized San Bernardino, Quetzal (who is voiceless) allows him to haunt the narrative, much in the way he, Pablo, and El Calambre haunt the church. By juxtaposing San Bernardino’s text boxes over the images of El Calambre as he meets the same fate, the comic equates one with the other. El Calambre gives his (after)life to protect Pablo just as Montijo’s fictionalized San Bernardino gives his own life to protect the preservation of Aztec culture. This arrangement asks us to mourn the coming destruction of El Calambre while concurrently mourning the death of San Bernardino centuries prior. Through his use of graphic narrative, Montijo successfully allows his readers to experience both these moments, separated by centuries of history, simultaneously.

Figure 4: (Inferno #3, 21)

Although, as readers, we are often reminded of the terror Quetzal and his people have faced at the hands of both the Spanish Conquistadors and the Catholic Church, Quetzal is depicted as having great appreciation, even admiration, for the work of the Catholic scribes that recorded his culture. By embracing this ambivalence, Montijo revises the script from one based primarily on these oppositional forces to one based more complex historical dynamic continuing to haunt the present. As Avery F. Gordon writes, “Haunting raises specters, and it alters the experience of being in time, the way we separate the past, the present, and the future” (xvi). With its ability to present the reader with these dual narrators, the graphic narrative medium not only alters the left-right, up-down linearity of how we experience the story, but presents it with multiple and simultaneous temporalities as well, offering Montijo a mode for representing how past histories can haunt and inform how we read and experience the present.

Of equal importance in the scene above is San Bernardino’s indictment of the Devil. By giving Pablo and San Bernardino a common enemy, Montijo hopes to break down any oppositional dichotomy between the two sympathetic figures. Strangely enough, it is through the Devil himself (by design the most inconsistent and incongruous figure of the entire narrative) that Montijo attempts to deconstruct the Catholic/Azteca binary. The narrative content of the character (by which I mean his characterization and dialogue) is fairly uninspired — he amounts to little more than a stock antagonist hoping to corrupt the hearts of man through temptation and gold. While the idea of the Devil is not an exclusively Catholic notion by any means, his very presence does draw immediate associations with Judeo-Christian traditions. This is true if for no other reason than the comic is an allusion to Dante’s Inferno, which is very much in line with Catholic traditions and mythologies. Therefore, including the Devil’s role as antagonist runs the risk of seeing the Catholic Church as little more than the spiritual opposition of Aztlán. While Pablo and Quetzal may owe figures such as San Bernardino a huge debt, they nonetheless must contend with the ultimate manifestation of the dark side of any form of Christianity, Catholicism or otherwise.

In an attempt to disconnect the figure of the Devil from potential Catholic associations and connect it to a larger, even universal, darkness, Montijo draws him differently in every panel. At times, the Devil is simply drawn monstrously, and does not immediately invoke any religious tradition. Yet, in other panels, his design clearly alludes to cultural and religious traditions from around the world, utilizing visual elements that could be traced back to India, China, Japan, or Spain (among others to be sure).8 It is not until Quetzal throws him into Azteca territory that his image becomes fixed into the last shape he has taken — the horned, goat-legged demon that he is often associated with (See Fig.3).

Figure 5: (Inferno #5, 38)

Montijo’s strategy seeks to disconnect the Devil from exclusively Judeo-Christian traditions in order to avoid a facile dichotomy of good and evil in which Catholicism represents the latter. His artwork attempts to universalize the Devil by drawing from multiple iconographies, which, in turn, suggests an underlying and unifying common experience between the cultural traditions he draws from. All religions and cultures, it would seem, carry within them the same potential for evil. This sentiment takes advantage of the potential of graphic narrative form to force the reader to negotiate a system of shifting signifiers. In doing so, Montijo violates one of the organizing principles of the comics form highlighted by Groensteen — that of iconic solidarity. Groensteen writes that comics can achieve meaning through the use of disconnected images “which are plastically and semantically over-determined by the fact of their coexistence in praesentia” (18). Typically these potentially disassociated images work together to enable the reader to cobble together a semblance of stable meaning through the consistency of the character’s design, motif, appearance, etc. By working against this grain, Montijo violates the principle in order to force the reader away from a simple reading of the Devil as representational of Catholicism and towards a potentially much richer and complex (visually at least) reading. While the implication that all human cultures are capable of evil and cruelty might strike some as banal, Montijo’s refusal to allow the reader to settle on a simplistic, if tacit, association with any one group does function as an application of the narrative’s desire to access cultural and literary traditions without being beholden to any of them.

Walking Away from Hybridity — Identity as an Ambulatory Process

While Montijo’s comic stresses the importance of deconstructing the dichotomy between indigenous/Azteca and European/Catholic heritages and legacies, it simultaneously avoids implying any sort of equivalency between them in the formation of Mexican American identity. As a result, the comic complicates the concept of hybridity, a well-documented tradition in Chicano/a studies, as a potential alternative to these dichotomies. The best known iteration of Chicano/a cultural hybridity lies in the work of Gloria Anzaldúa’s germinal Borderlands/La Frontera (1987), in which Anzaldúa describes Chicano/a identity as a mestiza consciousness that arises from the tension created in the cultural collision between “two self-consistent but habitually incompatible frames of reference” (99-100). For Anzaldúa, the process of hybridity is continuous and requires constant negotiation. As Theresa Delgadillo highlights, the production of this mestiza consciousness is part of continual, self-reflective “critical process” that is often couched in the spiritual language and modes (Delgadillo 7). As we shall see, Montijo does not reject the logic of hybridity, in that Chicano/a identity is born out of the conflict between two competing racial legacies. Rather, Montijo’s intervention focuses on how the process is configured, as well as how that symbolic spiritual landscape must be navigated.

In order to explicate her conception of Chicano/a hybridity, Anzaldúa goes on to represent these dual, typically opposed, sources of identity as two banks on the same river. “At some point,” Anzaldúa writes, “we will have to leave the opposite bank, the split between the two mortal combatants somehow healed so that we are on both shores at once” (100). The symbolic mapping of the spiritual landscape of Chicano/a identity is a widespread, longstanding tradition (one certainly not exclusive to Chicano literature), as Holly E. Martin has noted. She writes, “In contemporary ethnic literature of the southwestern United States, when a character in a novel is struggling to reconcile a bicultural heritage, landscape often plays a dynamic role in leading the character toward a self reconciliation” (131). In this sense, Pablo’s Inferno certainly adds itself to this tradition. The landscape is filled with both Azteca and Spanish sites of cultural memory, much like the church of San Bernardino featured prominently in Issue #3. We learn early that the Azteca afterlife Pablo must navigate is located somewhere in a mythological Mexico that is itself a product of the cultural collision Anzaldúa highlights.

Yet rather than depicting the spiritual landscape of Mexican American identity as a river (which itself implies a destination and a corresponding teleology), Montijo depicts this landscape as layered and stratified; one that the individual subject must learn to navigate both horizontally and vertically. After all, the graphic novel itself is a parody, even an adaptation, of Dante’s Inferno, in which the titular character must move down through the levels of Hell. Similarly, Pablo must move down through the superimposed layers of identity and history in order to discover the process through which those layers were originally laid. As Pablo moves through these layers, he must also come to terms with the reality that some of the layers are only accessible directly through the ones that sought to overwrite them. Unavoidably, these layers must be read through each other, rather than alongside one another, unlike Anzaldúa’s metaphor of a river.

Taking advantage of the graphic narrative medium, Montijo’s artwork expresses visually many of the uneasy truths that trouble Pablo’s Inferno. When Pablo inadvertently frees Quetzal, the two are teleported through hell into a mythological Azteca landscape, located somewhere in Mexico, where Pablo will meet various figures of the Azteca pantheon (Inferno #2, 11). The page features only two panels — a large primary image of Quetzal, Pablo, and a god named Chacmool (See Fig. 4) and a small, superimposed panel on the upper left, which features only the word poof as Quetzal and Pablo disappear and reappear on the larger panel below. The small panel, where the pair exits Hell, is overlaid on the larger panel beneath. As a result, the gutter is eliminated. This panel arrangement prevents one from reading the page linearly, and instead asks the reader to move through one (Hell) to the larger scene underneath. Further, while the narrative never directly explains how Quetzal came to be in Hell in the first place (it is often implied that he was placed there by the Catholic Church), the fact remains that Quetzal and Pablo could only gain access to the mythic landscape of the comic by moving through it.

Figure 6: (Inferno #2, 11)

Montijo’s visual representations of this dynamic are not limited only to panel arrangement. In Issue #3, when Pablo, Quetzal, and El Calambre are barricading the doors of the mission from the invading werewolves, Pablo stumbles upon the entrance to a hidden chamber beneath the building by moving a statue of San Bernardino. Pablo and Quetzal then descend down through the panel into the next (See Fig. 6). In the subsequent panel, Pablo descends diagonally into San Bernardino’s secret catacomb, where they find his ancient scrolls that recorded Azteca culture. In contrast to the horizontal orientation of a flowing river, we see Pablo moving through these layers in multiple directions, vertically, horizontally, and diagonally, as he moves through the mythical Mexico of the comic to various sites collecting numerous tokens, a route which never seems to have a clear direction or established path. Nor can the movement be contained by the panels the way a river is contained by its banks, which itself implies a binary and teleology that can be traced back to a point of origin or a current that can be followed toward a fixed, even if unknown, destination.

For this reason, I refer to Montijo’s process of identity formation in Pablo’s Inferno as “ambulatory” — an active process of movement that may have an established (or hoped for) end point but does not offer a clear path. And while the narrative of the comic itself does complete its narrative objective when Pablo frees the imprisoned spirits of Quetzal’s vanquished Azteca tribe, this matters less than the process itself. As the word suggests, an ambulatory process implies movement without clear direction and the necessity to adapt or alter one’s route as circumstances dictate. In contrast to the image of the river, ambulatory movement permits, even insists, on changing direction. Since recovery is so key to Inferno‘s project, the ability to move backward or retrace one’s steps, or even someone else’s (in the case of San Bernardino), figures greatly in the negotiation of this spiritual landscape, which counters a river’s predominately forward momentum. Accordingly, Quetzal and Pablo wander through the spiritual terrain of Inferno randomly and by chance, each stop suggesting another without offering clear signals for how to reach it. Yes, much like models of hybridity, Inferno‘s own configuration of the Mexican American spiritual landscape does seek a metaphorical destination in the recovery of a lost heritage to be reincorporated into one’s conceptions of history and heritage. Where Inferno parts ways with such notions, however, is in how it envisions the metaphorical orientation of such metaphysical journeys — there is none. At times one must move horizontally (or, as in the scene above, diagonally), not unlike a river, towards a point where these layers intersect in meaningful ways. Other times, one must move vertically, down through history into layers of meaning and identity superimposed onto one another. Paradoxically, it would seem, one must also be prepared to do these simultaneously.9

Figure 7: (Inferno #3, 16)

The comic also frets over the possibility that cultural hybridity contains the potential for cultural violence, which can result in the loss of particular elements of a culture that one may have no active choice in selecting. This is perhaps best iterated in Issue #2, when Pablo and Quetzal meet Huehueteotl, the Aztec Fire God. Huehueteotl is surprised to see that Quetzal no longer speaks Nahuatl, his native tongue. Quetzal admits that his “native tongue of Nahuatl escaped me, after I was captured by the Spanish army long ago. Spanish was all I heard, ’till the day I died” (Inferno #2, 13). Although Quetzal and Pablo are on a journey to recover and restore what they can of Azteca culture, this scene invokes an invariable loss of a highly symbolic element of that culture that remains out of reach. And while Huehueteotl agrees to use Spanish for the remainder of his scene, Pablo struggles with his own comprehension of the language. To a certain extent, this embodies an unwilling sacrifice to what the loss of the Nahuatl language represents, elements of a cultural identity lost to the historical process that produces potentially hybridized figures such as Pablo. Despite the fact that Pablo is repeatedly referred to as the “chosen one” that can restore the land of Aztlán, he remains the furthest removed from the language of the Aztecs. And yet, he is burdened with the act of translating it, through multiple filters, for the other characters in the world, much like Montijo must translate, revise, and adapt Azteca history and mythology for his readers.

This dynamic might be affirmed even further by the fact that the entire comic is printed in English, despite the fact that we are told (in small explicatory panels) that the majority of the characters are actually speaking Spanish.10 Much like Azteca in general must necessarily be read through Catholicism’s recording of their history, so must all culture be read in Pablo’s Inferno — Toltec through Aztec, Aztec through Spanish, and finally, Spanish through English (or, perhaps, American). This layering does not allow a parallel reading of cultures that come together at a distant point of hybridity and while this may not link back explicitly to the Catholic Church and the recording of Aztec history, it nonetheless still reflects the central paradox (even trauma) of the narrative. On the one hand, the desire to record and explicate history drives Quetzal to instruct and protect young Pablo. On the other hand, Pablo himself represents the practical limitations that are the result of uneven histories of power and conquest, which threaten the success of such endeavors in the first place.

Conclusion — A Line in the Sand

In Issue #5, Pablo finally reaches the foot of the “double mountain” where Tlaloc, the Azteca rain god, waits for the chosen one. Here, Pablo is confronted by the Devil who seeks the lost gold of the Aztecs so that he might use it to “tempt living man to do my bidding” (Inferno #5, 9). Recalling a warning from Huehueteotl in Issue #2, Pablo remembers that the Devil cannot enter the realm of the Aztec gods without diminishing his own power. Pablo realizes that the Devil must be standing at the boundary of his own territory and immediately draws a line in the sand at his feet to mark the border between the two realms (Inferno #5, 10) (See Fig. 7). Eventually, Quetzal forces the Devil over the line where he is weakened and eventually defeated.

Figure 8: (Inferno #5, 10)

So what are we, as readers, to make of this line in the sand? A generous reader may interpret the ambiguous meaning of Pablo’s line in the sand as a concise iteration of Montijo’s refusal to adhere to preconceived notions of Mexican American identity — his own line in the sand, if you will. Yes, the line implies clear distinctions between Azteca and Catholic legacies and even suggests an oppositional dichotomy between the two, a relationship the comic has worked to unsettle. However, the boundary itself is somewhat artificial — it only exists because of Pablo’s deliberate attempt to mark where the realms meet, suggesting that the division itself the product of arbitrary, deliberate distinctions written onto the world. Even if one points out that Pablo marks the boundary but does not create it, the boundary itself is traversable — figures belonging to either mythological pantheon may cross it freely, albeit at a cost. However, lest we read this passable boundary as adhering to the logics of hybridity, one must recall that for any of the mythological figures to cross into another realm diminishes their power, as the Devil discovers at the end of the narrative when he is forced into the realm of the Aztecs and is subsequently defeated (Inferno #5, 46).

Pablo’s challenge to the Devil — “Go on, cross this line, I dare you!” — implicates his readers as well. Both in form and content, Pablo’s Inferno urges readers to view history in much the same way by actively engaging in a process of recovery and revision that acknowledges the active and subjective role of the reader in reconstructing this history for themselves. Specifically, Montijo asks his readers to move beyond viewing the past through simple oppositional dichotomies (in this case, between Catholics and Aztecs), or viewing them as parallel influences. Rather, Montijo urges his reader to navigate multiple (and hierarchical) levels of narration, information, and juxtaposition in order to create meaning, much like Pablo must traverse a history fraught with ambivalence and contradiction in order to negotiate his own understanding of his heritage. Often these multiple registers function harmoniously, at other times incongruously, forcing readers to wander through a potentially meandering and ambulatory process to the complex, and often frustrating, histories that lie underneath. In doing so, Montijo pushes his reader to discover the fragmented and decentered process of these formations. When engaging with Pablo’s Inferno, the reader must undertake the vertical, horizontal, and ambulatory practices of both reinventing and reimagining the interrelated scripts of the past, present, and future. As a result, Montijo invites us to develop ambulatory reading practices that actively revise, even as we record, our conceptions of history and of ourselves: “Sort of like a comic!”


[1] Of course, the Anzaldúa was certainly not the first to conceive the language of hybridity of mestizaje, or the ideas that underwrite it. It has intellectual roots in Latin America in the early part of the 20th century and has had continuous resonance as a relevant metaphor in political and literary circles well into the contemporary moment. Yet, both popular associations with Anzaldúa and hybridity or mestizaje in regards to Chicano/a identity and her particular iteration of its incumbent language factor heavily into my reading of Montijo’s revision of that paradigm.

[2] Pablo’s Inferno never directly dates itself. However, in Issue #3, when Pablo meets the spirit of El Calambre, a famous Mexican wrestler based on the luchador “El Santo,” he reminisces about attending his funeral (Inferno #3, 11). On the previous page, a small panel to the left contains El Calambre’s tombstone, and lists “1979” as the year of his death. Given Pablo’s age (he is depicted as an older toddler), this must have happened very recently for Pablo to be able to recall it so clearly.

[3] Furthermore, it does not account for writers such as Nash Candelaria that rejected the use of either religious heritage to build Chicano identity (a label he also rejected). Nevertheless, the shaky paradigm does suit my purposes here.

[4] Much of this comes as a reaction to a previous history of attempting to articulate a European/white sensibility concerning Mexican American identity (particularly in middle class circles) in the United States in order to achieve first-class citizenship status. For more, see John Nieto-Phillips Language of Blood (2008).

[5] The title of the comic is, of course, a reference to Dante’s Inferno, confirmed by a visual reference in issue #1 to the sign on the door to hell that reads “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” Inferno was part of The Divine Comedy, which, in turn, means the hellacious carnival in level one of Pablo’s Inferno must be an irreverent visual pun. However, Hell cannot be understood as exclusively Catholic as it also references the ferryman of the river Echelon from Greek mythology. Charon’s presence might be best explained as a holdover from issue #1, before Montijo decided to explore the relationship between the indigenous peoples of Mexico and the Catholic Church.

[6] In many ways, Quetzal’s imprisonment and display could be considered a visual allusion to Gabriel García Márquez’s classic 1968 short story, “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.”

[7] The entire scene is reminiscent of a similar scene in J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy epic The Fellowship of the Ring (1954) when the Fellowship fights off the same orcs that killed Gimli’s cousin Balin as Gandalf reads from the final pages of Balin’s journal. This should not be surprising, considering the inter-textual nature of the project (not to mention the medium) itself.

[8] The entire narrative is very inter-textual, with allusions to popular culture, religion, and even film. A study into these references and their influence on the shape of the text could prove fascinating and illuminating.

[9] Given that the Spanish Mission where our heroes discover San Bernardino’s scrolls was built from (and atop) the remains of an Azteca temple, the narrative implies that Chicano/a identity might best be understood as a palimpsest, something Daniel Cooper Alarcón has also noted. A palimpsest, where the original text of a manuscript has been removed and overwritten, implies a vertical process that reaches underneath the superimposed layers of text to the retrieve the obscured layers of meaning and history hidden underneath. Of course, Pablo’s Inferno operates under similar logic, as Pablo must move through layers of history, meaning, and symbolic terrain throughout the comic. Similarly, the surface layers of a palimpsest cannot simply be removed, lest the document be destroyed. Any information that lies beneath must necessarily be read through these surface layers if they are to be read at all, echoing Quetzal’s lesson concerning the knowledge of the Aztecs and the scribes that documented their history and culture. The metaphor of the palimpsest operates primarily on a stationary vertical axis, as one must look through (or past) to reach what lies beneath. Like hybridity, it implies a process and an orientation, even if the information underneath is necessarily fragmented and incomplete. Yes, Montijo cedes, at times one must move vertically, down through history into layers of meaning and identity superimposed onto one another. Still, the notion of the palimpsest alone cannot account for ambulatory nature of Pablo’s journey.

[10] For more on the trope of translation and its corresponding cultural politics, see Martha Cutter’s Lost and Found in Translation: Contemporary Ethnic American Writing and the Politics of Language Diversity (2005).

Works Cited

Alarcón, Daniel Cooper. “The Aztec Palimpsest: Toward A New Understanding Of Aztlán, Cultural Identity, and History.” Aztlan: A Journal Of Chicano Studies 19.2 (1988): 33-68. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 8 July 2013.

Aldama, Frederick Luis. Your Brain on Latino Comics: From Gus Arriola to Los Bros Hernandez. Austin, TX: U of Texas P, 2009. Print.

Alighieri, Dante. Inferno. Norton Critical Edition. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2002. Print.

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. 3rd Edition. San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Books, 2007. Print.

Delgadillo, Theresa. Spiritual Mestizaje: Religion, Gender, Race, and Nation in Contemporary Chicana Narrative. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2011. Print.

Garcia, Ignacio M. Chicanismo: The Forging of a Militant Ethos among Mexican Americans. Tuscon, AZ: U of Arizona P, 1997. Print.

Gordon, Avery. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Social Imagination. 2nd Edition. Minneapolis, MN: New U of Minnesota P, 2008. Print.

Groensteen, Theirry. The System of Comics. Trans. Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen. Jackson, MS: U of Mississippi P, 1999. Print.

Márquez, Gabriel García. “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings.” Collected Stories. Trans. Gregory Rabassa and J.S. Bernstein. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, 1999. Print.

Martin, Holly E. “Hybrid Landscapes as Catalysts for Cultural Reconciliation in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony and Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima.” Atenea 26.1 (2006): 131-149. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 8 July 2013.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York, NY: Kitchen Sink Press, 1993. Print.

Montijo, Rhode. Pablo’s Inferno. 5 vols. Stockton, CA: ABISMO, 1999-2000. Print.

Nieto-Phillips, John. The Language of Blood: The Making of Spanish-American Identity in New Mexico, 1880s-1930s. Albuquerque, NM: U of New Mexico P, 2008. Print.

Rendon, Armando B. “Chicano Manifesto.” Takin’ It to the Streets: A Sixties Reader. 2nd Edition. Eds. Alexander Bloom and Wini Breines. New York, NY: Oxford UP, 2003. 135-138. Print.

Saldívar, Ramón. Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference. Madison, WS: U of Wisconsin P, 1990. Print.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings: One-Volume Edition. Great Britain: Harper Collins Publishers, 1994. Print.

Valdez, Luis. “El Plan de Aztlán.” Takin’ It to the Streets: A Sixties Reader. 2nd Edition. Eds. Alexander Bloom and Wini Breines. New York, NY: Oxford UP, 2003. 138-141. Print.

—. “The Tale of the Raza [César Chávez and the Farm Worker’s Movement].” Takin’ It to the Streets: A Sixties Reader. 2nd Edition. Eds. Alexander Bloom and Wini Breines. New York, NY: Oxford UP, 2003. 142-145. Print.

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