la borinquena chocolate cortes
Photo:Instagram/@Fundación Cortés
Culture

New La Borinqueña Exhibit in San Juan, Puerto Rico Aims to Educate & Unite the Diaspora

As soon as I stepped through the door of Chocobar Cortés late in June 2021, I was met by a wall plastered with an image of the indy superhero La Borinqueña, created by Nuyorican graphic novelist Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez, it was an image I’m quite familiar with, but did not expect to see in the bustling chocolate-themed restaurant. On a recent trip to the island organized by the tourism board’s website, Discover Puerto Rico, I visited Chocobar Cortés during a tour aimed at showcasing how the country has handled reopening to tourists in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. I also got to see a number of new attractions aimed at getting both locals and visitors to explore all that the popular Caribbean nation has to offer. The biggest surprise of which was the presence of La Borinqueña.

la borinquena hiplatina
Photo: Alejandra Benitez-Gutierrez via Shayne Rodriguez Thompson

Set against the bright yellow of the iconic Cortés logo, the superhero cut a bold image that we weren’t expecting. Chocolate Cortés founder Elaine Shehab, talked about the Fundación Cortés, an organization started by the nearly century-old chocolate company that is best known for its hot chocolate, which is a staple in many Puerto Rican homes.

According to the organization’s mission statement, it has pursued an “active commitment to education that uses the visual arts as an aid to raise awareness about our values, raise awareness about our identity as a people and instill feelings of trust that promote positive and strengthening changes in the spirit of the Puerto Rican and Caribbean community,” and the latest step in that commitment is a partnership with La Borinqueña, with an aim to “connect Puerto Rico with the diaspora,” Elaine explained.

For Puerto Ricans and those of Puerto Rican descent living in the United States, over the past several years, La Borinqueña has become a powerful symbol of our strength, culture, character and love for the island as well as a celebration of Afro-Latinx beauty and power. After Hurricane Maria ravaged the island in September 2017, Edgardo was inspired to use her image and popularity to do more to help. He explained that after an encounter with a DC Comics exec at New York Comic Con, he worked in conjunction with them to create the anthology, Ricanstruction: Reminiscing & Rebuilding Puerto Rico. Edgardo put the sales from the best-selling anthology toward grants that were disbursed to non-profit organizations based in Puerto Rico. He and his wife and business partner Kyung Jeon-Miranda then set out to officially form La Borinqueña Grants Program, to help fund the “rebuilding and revitalization” of the island they both hold dear.

Bringing this character to the island for the first time, was a logical next step for him. In yet another chance encounter, Edgardo who visits the island regularly, happened to be dining at Chocobar Cortés with his family one day and ended up meeting Adelisa González-Lugo, the executive director and lead educator of Fundación Cortés. At the time, Adelisa was inviting restaurant patrons to visit the Caribbean art exhibit the chocolate company features above the restaurant year-round, and she and Edgardo realized that they had a common mission.

“From that experience we mutually agreed there was something very unique to explore in regards to new opportunities to carry our visions and connect Puerto Rico with the diaspora,” Elaine said. The project was then handed over to Elaine’s son Carlos who worked with Edgardo throughout 2020 to turn the top floor of the Cortés building on Calle de San Francisco in Old San Juan into a powerful exhibit showcasing the Latinx and Afro-Boricua impact on the world of comics and the work the La Borinqueña Grants Program and Fundación Cortés are doing to promote their “shared values of family, social justice and the importance of long term sustainability and the protection of the environment,” Elaine explained.

Edgardo shared how important this collaboration is in the journey of La Borinqueña, whom he’s committed to maintaining as symbol of Afro-Boricua and indigenous Taino values. “My comic book series was created with the intention of uniting Los Boricuas in the diaspora with those on the island, conveying a central message of love. This alliance with Chocolate Cortés provides a unique opportunity for La Borinqueña to reach both groups simultaneously and on a large scale. My hope is that it will be an important step in sharing with the world the story of our people.”

“The La Borinqueña character represents similar values, utilizing social justice and the protection of the environment as its pillar to promote the preservation of the history of Puerto Rico, our people and ancestors, mixed races and traditions, and the magic that can happen when celebrating our music along with the diaspora,” Elaine shared with HipLatina.

In the 1950s and ’60s, Cortés actually included small comics in each package of their famous hot chocolate bars as an initiative to promote literacy on the island, and the new collaboration is also something of a modern homage to that time. And yes, a tiny La Borinqueña comic is printed on the inside of every classic Cortés chocolate bar wrapper for the duration of the collaboration.

“Since the first day we opened the new exhibit ‘La Borinqueña in San Juan,’ the sense of pride expressed by the visitors and their appreciation for our joint efforts to promote and preserve our history has been overwhelmingly positive. We extended our hours to open an additional day as to meet the demand and allow as many locals and visitors to enjoy the exhibits,” Elaine said.

Now, La Borinqueña will not only have played a part in Puerto Rico’s recovery after Hurricane Maria and it’s economic recovery amid an ongoing pandemic, but it will also undoubtedly make a lasting impact on locals who will now have the opportunity to see something of themselves in the powerful figure on their own island.

The La Borinqueña exhibit opened in June to the public and will run for a year.