At a virtual lecture earlier this month, Trinidad Escobar shared a running theme of the conversations she's had about Philippine culture over the last 15 years.
"I’ve come across people who can’t avoid telling me a scary story,” she said.
The cartoonist, musician, poet, and educator was the special guest at Evergreen Valley College’s event “Filipinx American Horror Folklore: Watch Party.” The program featured a screening of the first episode of the Netflix horror anime series "Trese" and a lecture by Escobar on the importance of oral storytelling traditions in Filipinx culture, particularly in the portrayal of horror figures known as the aswang.
"One of the understandings I have of the aswang is that the aswang is a transformation, a retelling, a repackaging, a rebranding of the babaylan," said Escobar during the lecture. She described the theory that scary stories were originally told by colonizers to sow mistrust in Filipina and femme spiritual leaders–babaylan–by reframing women and femmes as evil beings and doers.
"They try to use storytelling as a way to interrupt a centuries-long tradition of turning to women, having faith in women, trusting women," said Escobar.
But as oppressive as the stories intended to be towards all Filipina and femme Filipinx, they're also anchored in an acknowledgement that women and femmes had power in the community. Colonizers knew that villagers turned to the babaylan to help settle arguments, usher in life (as midwives), and bring people back from injury and death (as healers). To gain control of land and resources, colonizers told new stories to convince villagers to see the babaylan–not the newcomers–as out to harm.
“In short, horror figures in our folklore and spirituality are the answers to many questions about Filipino identity,” Escobar later told me over email. See beyond the colonial reframing, and you'll (re)connect with empowerment.
“Whatever the colonizer tells you to fear is what once saved you," said Escobar over email.
Born in the Philippines and raised and living in Milpitas, California, Escobar immerses herself in the art and understanding of shaping stories. As an educator, she practices oral storytelling in the leading of guest lectures, workshops, and college courses, and in giving readings.
As a visual artist and cartoonist, Escobar draws comics that explore hers and others' memories and experiences, (re)shape and (re)claim folklore, and make herself and others laugh. Her comics works have appeared in anthologies like "Be Gay, Do Comics" from IDW Publishing and "Drawing Power: Women's Stories of Sexual Violence, Harassment, and Survival" from Abrams Books, outlets like The Nib and The New Yorker, and in-person and virtual arts exhibits including the first-ever international "Women in Comics" exhibition in Italy and the Bulosan Center for Filipino Studies' virtual exhibit “Of Everywhere.” She also illustrates short comics works written by her son.
“My adoptive father has always clipped out comic strips from newspapers or saved the entire funnies section for me ever since I was a kid,” said Escobar over email.
Favorite works from her childhood include "The Far Side Gallery," "Boondocks," "Sailor Moon," "Calvin and Hobbes," "X-Men," and Jhonen Vasquez comics.
“I mostly liked horror and funnies,” she said.
As part of her art practice, Escobar self-publishes a folk horror comics series called “Little Cornfields” and shares sketches and comics pages of works in progress for Patreon subscribers. Most recently, she illustrated “Ode to Keisha,” an 18-page risograph-printed comic memoir written by Jamila Rowser and published by Rowser’s Black Josei Press.
“Jamila wrote a solid comics script. We edited it together before we made thumbnails,” said Escobar, who pencilled, inked, and lettered the pages. “Working with Jamila was a breeze because she’s a visionary, organized, and determined to finish projects."
Illustrated in black and white, "Ode to Keisha" follows a young Rowser as she and her friend Keisha navigate kindergarten at an international school in Amsterdam. Escobar referenced childhood photos of Rowser to draw the beautifully detailed and intimate story of a friendship made essential by Rowser's and Keisha's shared race and identity.
“I was a fan of Jamila and she was a fan of mine," said Escobar over email. "I am fortunate that she asked to work with me.”
Escobar always knew she'd consistently make art throughout her life. What she was unsure about was how she'd shape her practice into a sustainable career.
“I mostly had to defend it to myself,” said Escobar. “I simultaneously believed in myself and also believed no one else took me seriously. I can see how my decisions must look insane or irrational to some folks, but other artists get it.”
Forthcoming works include "Tryst" published by the Philippines-based Gantala Press, a young adult graphic novel called "Of Sea and Venom" published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux Books for Young Readers, and a collection of Queer erotica comics published by Black Josei Press called "Arrive in My Hands."
“Art feels scary when I am making horror or depicting stories that might garner a strong reaction. For instance, writing about Queerness from a Filipino lens or vice versa often brings about the biggest influx of hate mail," said Escobar over email. "Until this day, many conservative Filipinos practice suppressing women or silencing Queer experiences.”
It's why finding and maintaining a supportive network is essential to Escobar. She does this by tabling at comic conventions, book festivals, and other literary festivals including zine fests–her favorites being the East Bay Alternative Book & Zine Fest (EBABZ) and San Francisco Zine Fest (SFZF), both in Northern California's Bay Area.
“Community and finding my likeness in others, my weirdness in others, calms my nerves," said Escobar.
So does cartooning.
“In comics, you can simply make comics and share with folks around you," she said. "That is valid and all I want to do in my old age.”
“Ode to Keisha” is now available from Black Josei Press. “Arrive in My Hands” will be available in February 2022 by Black Josei Press. For more about Trinidad Escobar, including works for sale, visit TrinidadEscobar.com and follow @trinidaddyescobar on Instagram and Patreon.