Comic Books Tell Amnesty Story With a Little Humor

Associated Press

No super-heroes grace the pages of Javier Juarez’s comic books, no archvillains with maniacal plots to control the world, not a single “Pow!” “Zap!” or “Bam!”

Even so, the black-and-white adventures of Felipe and his friends, trying to conquer a mountain of bureaucratic obstacles to become legal U.S. residents, may be the most dog-eared literature in California.

Distributed free at employment offices, churches and social service agencies, the booklets are lessons in applying for residency under the complex 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, better known as the amnesty program.

“Amnistia” or “Amnesty,” about applying for temporary residency, was out of print soon after the release of 50,000 copies a year ago. “The Second Phase,” about permanent residency and avoiding disqualification, is in its second printing four months after distribution of the first 30,000 copies.


“We’ve never had this kind of response with any material before,” said Emily Goldfarb, executive director of the San Francisco-based Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and Services, which produced the books.

‘Terrifyingly Boring’

The potential audience in California exceeds 1.58 million, the number of applicants for residency status under the amnesty program.

“All this subject matter is deadly boring if you aren’t affected by it. If you are affected by it, it’s not deadly boring. It’s terrifyingly boring,” said Juarez, 39, a former Mexican government economist who got the idea after he married a U.S. citizen and moved from Mexico City to California.


So Juarez lightened it up, capitalizing on the gallows humor and love of storytelling he said is the heritage of Mexico, where political cartooning has enjoyed a long tradition and soap opera-style novellas are popular.

“Lots of people say, ‘Why a comic book? That’s for a kid or the mentally retarded.’ There’s nothing comic about the situations portrayed in the comic books. Actually, it’s a matter of life and death. It’s going to determine where they live and work. But there’s no reason to lose your sense of humor.”

When the characters discuss the difficulties of obtaining documents and witnesses’ sworn statements to prove they’ve been in the country since Jan. 1, 1982--the cutoff date for amnesty applications--Felipe laments: “Even my mother-in-law wanted to use the opportunity to get rid of me.”

Family Help

The idea was so good that the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which had said it could not afford to produce Juarez’s book, followed suit. The government version also proved popular, said Scott Nyborn, outreach coordinator with the INS in San Francisco. “I don’t think we have any left, actually.”

Juarez writes the scripts in Spanish, then translates them for English editions. A former student of dramatic arts, he gets help with illustrations from his media-wise family: His father works in advertising and his brother in film-making; his sister is a television director in Mexico.

He strives to write the scripts in the idioms of everyday Spanish, while accurately imparting information about the amnesty program, a task that can be a “nightmare” because experts frequently disagree on the complex law.

Goldfarb believes that people hang onto the comics and read them aloud to their families, reaching illiterate people who otherwise might be misinformed or exploited by swindlers.


“They’re fun to read,” she said. “The graphics and the conversations and the cultural aspects of it are things that people can identify with.”

“Amnistia” dealt with the first phase of the amnesty program, applying for residency. The application deadlines were May 5, 1988, for aliens here since 1982 and Nov. 30 for seasonal agriculture workers who had picked perishable crops at least 90 days between May, 1985, and May, 1986.

The second phase deals with permanent residency and problems like arrests, unemployment and welfare dependency that can make applicants ineligible.

Two more issues are in the works to address mandated tests for acquired immune deficiency syndrome; qualifying for government assistance, including free and reduced-price school lunches and prenatal and infant medical care, and meeting requirements for a basic understanding of English, American civics and history.

If the next issue wins a state grant, Goldfarb said, the Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition plans to print 70,000 copies for distribution by its 80 nonprofit member organizations in the San Francisco Bay area, then make it available to other organizations throughout the state to reprint.

Juarez said the widespread readership is its own reward and has inspired him to try producing as his next project an analytical Spanish-English language magazine for California’s rapidly growing Hispanic population.