‘Mexikid’ offers an illustrated view into a coming-of-age road trip story

Author Pedro Martín hopes to connect with all audiences who can remember being stuck on a classic family road trip.

By Kristen CabreraSeptember 7, 2023 3:20 pm, , ,

Many coming-of-age stories are timeless tales shared through literary memoirs. But author Pedro Martín took a road less traveled in a sense, when he decided to tell the story of a childhood cross-country trip through Mexico in a cramped motorhome. 

He’s written and  illustrated this tale in the new book “Mexikid: A Graphic Memoir.” Some critics are already calling it an instant classic.

Martín spoke with the Texas Standard on how his experience growing up in a Mexican-American household in the 1970s shaped him and how he chose to portray this story through comic panels. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: You had a big family, it sounds like.

Pedro Martín: Oh, my gosh. The biggest.

How many in all? I mean, when your family went on this cross-country trip, how many packed into that motorhome?

Well, there were 11 of us altogether, but we split the group – part of us in the motorhome, the Winnebago chieftain, and then some of us in the pickup truck.

Well, now I have to ask before we get into details of this story, but why did you decide to tell this story this way through, you know, a graphic novel?

Well, I had been kind of playing around with these stories for 27 years when I was working at Hallmark. I used to be a greeting card artist, and we had these 3×5 cards that were kind of like the intellectual currency of the company. Like they were just everywhere.

Every good idea started on a 3×5. Like even that the catch phrase, “when you care enough to send the very best.” That was written on a 3×5 card and thrown in someone’s desk. So they were just everywhere.

I was kind of just bored and I would just write these little stories from my childhood – one card, one panel kind of stories. And then I would tie them up in a rubber band and throw them in the lunchbox – I had an old Batman lunchbox.

And when I left Hallmark 27 years later and I was unpacking, I found that box and I’m like, “Oh, maybe now’s the time to kind of revisit this and try to put them together into some kind of shareable way.”

Well, tell us a little bit about how it starts. Your grandfather’s in Mexico. Your parents decided to go get him and bring him back to the U.S. to live with you all. And so you plus your parents, eight other brothers and sisters crammed into an old Winnebago and a pickup truck. I mean, this must have been so much. What an adventure for a kid.

I think I was 13 – 12 or 13. It was like the year after Star Wars came out, I think it was the time.

And tell us a little bit more about when you all set out. Did you know your grandfather that you were heading to pick up?

I met him years before. Like we had taken trips, you know, back and forth many times when I was a kid – really, really young – and I hadn’t met him just briefly, just not even a conversation with him. Just like, “that’s your grandfather over there.” So I really didn’t know him very well.

And then when this was kind of announced, there was a little bit more attention around it. Because I wasn’t paying attention, I really didn’t know what this trip was for. But when you’re, you know, a Mexican family – any big family – you just go when you’re told to go because there’s no individual right at this point. You know, you just go. And so all I really knew about it was like, “oh, we’re going to go visit him or get him or something.”

So it wasn’t until like as the trip goes on that it reveals itself that like, “Oh, no, he’s coming back with us and he’s going to live with us and he’s got stuff that he needs to complete before he can come back to live with us and we’re going to help him.” It’s just very vague for a kid.

And so, yeah, the book kind of plays that out where you start picking up clues like I did, you know, as the story went along.

You know, it’s interesting because there’s a lot of seventies here – even the color palette feels a little seventies. But there is a sort of throwback vibe that sort of recalls some of the comic strips of that era. Was that conscious on your part?

Yeah. You know, as a kid and I would hear stories and I was a big comic book fan and a big hero worship guy. Whenever I would hear a story, I would kind of put it in the context of how my brain conceived story, which was a comic books at the time.

And so when young Pedro was hearing stories about his grandfather, he starts to contextualize them as comic book adventures. And so I kind of like said, “Well, I’m going to do that. I’m going to have to go ahead and draw it up like a comic book in these specific sections.” And so I kind of challenged myself because really there’s not a lot of opportunity to draw fight scenes at Hallmark cards, you know. So I had to kind of teach myself a little bit more comic book parlance and try to figure out how to tell these little bits of my imagined stories about my grandfather in this kind of comic book way.

So yeah, so there’s bits of that in there and there’s bits of history kind of thrown in there too, that are drawn in different ways. So I kind of felt like that was really the only way I could tell the story – was by visually, you know, changing the vibe whenever a new kind of story happened.

What was it like reeling in the years there? Because, I mean, growing up Mexican-American in the seventies. How did how was that? What do you think sort of stood out to you as you thought about that period and what life was like then?

You know, because I have a perspective now living in the Midwest – I live in Kansas City – I didn’t realize how different things were in California – Mexican-American kids growing up that way. So once I got here, I kind of had a fresh perspective on how different and unique and wonderful that life is in kind of being a first generation kid, but also being one of the younger kids in the family who wasn’t even born in Mexico.

So I have older brothers and sisters who were born in Mexico and us younger kids were born in the U.S. and we kind of separate ourselves by saying like, “these were the hospital babies” and “they’re the barn babies,” because they were probably born in a barn. But so there was all these different layers of Mexicanity to the family.

Even within our family, we were kind of finding ourselves separated by those ideas. But all in all, it was just a big jumble of fun and cultural diversity. Because we’re such a big family in ages, you know, the older kids had a different… they were they were the Beatles and we were disco. And it was just like this whole microcosm of differences happening all at once.

You know, I’m thinking that there are going to be a lot of Texans who, if they haven’t discovered it yet, this is really going to resonate with their own experiences. But you don’t have to be Mexican-American to feel that. I mean, I think it appeals to a lot of folks. I wonder, when you were writing it, how were you thinking about the audience and representation in particular? 

Well, first of all, I mean, I really was telling a story about my family, but as I was kind of going through it, my editor was asking me questions that I had just already subconsciously figured it out for myself.

But just that whole idea, because the first question she asked me, she goes, “Oh, do you want to be addressed as Pedro or Peter?” Because I’d gone by both. And I was like, “Oh, this is a really great question because a lot of kids, especially first generation kids, have to figure out what name they’re going to go by and what what side of the border they’re going to represent and and how much American are they going to be and how much Mexican are they going to be.” And it becomes like this kind of grand thing.

And I think everybody being Mexican-American or anything else kind of comes across that question at some point. Like “how do you identify?” How much of one thing do you need to be? And so without me knowing that that’s what I was doing as I was writing the story, it started to become a question I had for myself as I wrote the story. Like, what am I? What am I representing? Who am I?

So through the story, I kind of figure it out myself in real life, in real time. So by the end, by the time I got to the end of the writing process, I’m like, “Oh, I’m enough.” You know, I’m both and I’m enough. I don’t have to be more. I could just be always enjoying both sides as much as I possibly can kind of thing.

So I think for other people who read the book, especially kids, I hope they find that kind of message floating around in there.

Well, I love what you just said because, you know, you think about how a lot of people think about graphic novels as sort of a genre that appeals to kids and teens. But just hearing how you kind of went on your own journey in putting the book together and it’s been a while since you were a teenager. This seems to be a growing category. In fact, I think I’ve heard the argument that the traditional memoir is such a Westernized idea in a sense. Are we seeing more of this approach to storytelling, do you think?

I think so and I hope so.

As much as I like, you know, fiction and biography, I like the memoir thing because it kind of is a super engaging way to experience a story because you’re getting a visceral kind of telling from a very personal point of view. And these things happened, you know, to this person.

So you can kind of feel for that person and engage more with that person than thinking like, “oh, it’s just Superman and he’s having a bad day.” You know, this is like a kid who just like you is going through these things. And then later on when you watch a movie that’s a memoir or a biography and you want to find out more about that person, you can actually go find, you know, “how did Pedro die?”

Well, I’m not dead, but you know it becomes super personal and you have a really nice connection with the author and their life. And hopefully it builds a deeper story.

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You know, I hate to ask questions that authors are often asked because it’s so easy to prepare an answer, but I don’t think you’ve probably got a prepared answer for this. What would you like your readers to leave this book thinking about, or have you even given that thought?

I would like to think, or I would like to hope, that people understand a little bit more about Mexican-American firsthand or maybe even more first generation kids and how big families everywhere are very, very similar. We all go through the same kind of thing.

And I think that idea that you’re maybe four and you’re getting in the van and you’re going somewhere, you’re going to have very similar problems to what I had as a kid however many years ago going to Mexico. There’s just universal specifics that are just everywhere and that hopefully brings people together a little bit more and saying like, “we’re not all different.”

Pedro, have your parents seen this book? I wonder how their memories square with yours? 

Yes, they’ve seen it. And actually, I let my dad look at it a couple of months ago and he kind of opened it up and he’s like, “yeah, this is going to take about a month to read.” And then he put it down to the side.

And then later on we were sitting outside and he was singing a song. He’s just singing the song off the top of his head. And he said, “You know, this was your grandfather’s favorite song – “Prieta Linda.” And I said, “Oh, yeah, I know that. It’s in the book.” He’s like, “Which book?” “Like the book I just wrote, Dad, come on.” And so I went, grabbed it, and I showed it to him. And then he became fully engaged.

And then he had more stories to add on to the story. And to this day, the stories do not stop coming. Like he calls me every few days, you know, to give me another story. But now that it’s a book, he’s telling me how much this story is worth.

So he called and he said, “I got a story for you.” I said, “Oh, great.” He’s like, “No, this is a good one. This is like a $10,000 story” And he’s like, Oh, hold on a second. Your mom’s calling me. I got to go. I’ll call you back.” And this happened, like, for a wee solid. Like, where’s this $10,000 story pop? And he’s like, “What are you talking about? What, $10,000?” I was like, “Oh, my God. Two days ago, you had a $10,000 story, dad.”

It sounds like you’ve got some material here. Are you thinking volume two?

Oh, definitely. I’m deep into writing number two. So my family, we’re sharecroppers. Well, we were a sharecropper family, so there’s a lot of material there in our days on the farm picking strawberries. So we’ll get back to it.

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