by Paolo Bicchieri
Promo art from the Steven Universe episode “Stranded” by Joe Johnston, Cartoon Network.
That’s how many families feel while journeying across the blistering hot and terrifyingly cold Jacumba Desert. It might be a persistent thought as they confront the countless dangers laying like traps in the night. And stranded they feel once they make it to the United States.
The isolation of the American Immigrant Crisis.
One cartoon is capturing the uniqueness of our cultural moment, our tragic pain and shame as a nation. Steven Universe, Cartoon Network’s first female and non-binary led cartoon, is giving viewers instructions on how to love. It is teaching audiences that nontraditional families from different places are heroic.
Steven Universe takes the disparate of our America and includes them into the storylines. Fathers who are peripheral, such as Greg, who lives in a van on the beach, are normal. Marrying your best friend, no matter who they are or where you both came from, is normal. Giving people a second chance is not only normal, it pretty much keeps Steven busy 24/7.
Being of color is normal in Steven Universe’s world. An elderly African immigrant is mayor of a sleepy beach town and nontraditional family dynamics rule the school. This is critical to the theme of our times, the American Immigrant Crisis.
Because we have one of those, you know.
Families risking their livelihoods to find a better world. Thousands of children are stolen from their families, where many are carted to far flung to parts of our enormous piecemeal country.
I remember in September 2016, when my uncle and his wife returned to her home South of the border, finally securing her identification papers for her chosen home in Chicago. As the election grew closer, the impossible slog of the American immigration system relentlessly kept pushing her away; our family was so worried. She cleared the last hoop in time to return home.
Things wouldn’t have gone as well if it had been my abuela. She immigrated from Mexico City in the 1950s when my great grandfather was assassinated due to political violence. Her journey to America pushed her through poverty, activism, and law as she became one of Milwaukee’s first women of color to serve as a judge.
There are so many people trying to make some difference. Ascendant politicians from the margins, battling activists swarming from the woodworks, and the rest of us doing our best from home, and from the intersection of our passions and ways we can combine them with community impact. What better way to engage in critical race theory and the black imagination than through pink lions and anthropomorphic gems?
The multi-talented, nontraditional, intersectional, and incredibly badass Rebecca Sugar is leading from the front. The span of her work, from features on Frontier Magazine to “Adventure Time” songs that break us in half, has centered on powerful folks from beautiful places. She has created this again in Steven Universe. A TV show where the wisest, funniest, and coolest characters are womxn in positions of power.
Blue Diamond, one of the leaders of the alien race. Hilary Florido, Cartoon Network.
Immigration and displacement are the epicenters of the Crystal Gems’ journey. Pink Diamond, an actual alien, from a fascist world travels to Earth, a place she is initially colonizing, but as she learns the beauty and joy, the way humans “can capture a single moment and make it last forever,” (2) she decides to fight for it against her oppressive peers.
The values we are teaching young people with this disruptive cartoon are monumental. Often hailed for queer and feminist representation, it’s worth noting how Sugar has intrinsically tied the entire premise of the show around sheltering refugees from fascist powers. The Crystal Gems, the name of the earthbound protectors, are aliens who in each episode prove why everyone is deserving of love and tolerance. Even those who can be the most politically deplorable.
In the Thanksgiving episode of Steven Universe, “Gem Harvest,” Steven meets his uncle, Andy. Andy is outraged and confused by the nontraditional ways that Greg Universe, Steven’s dad, has been using the family barn. He claims the barn is only for the family.
Andy goes so far as to blame Greg for housing “illegal alien refugees” in the barn. He complains about how they take anything they want for free. After a series of awkward celebration patterns all smooshed into one, Andy concedes his pig-headedness. Steven’s steadfastness in connecting his “traditionalist” uncle with his new family and the audience seeing Andy’s human side, despite his shortcomings, shows us how bridges work in an era of walls.
Societally, we have a hard time humanizing. It’s safe to say that being labeled with your political party, ethnic identity, or social standing can turn a friendly chat at the bar into a truly American horror show.
Steven and the Crystal Gems having courageous conversations. “Gem Harvest,” Cartoon Network.
Rebecca Sugar is not alone in her quest to dismantle ivory towers. Fantastic groups are doing this work all around the country. On the communal Latino Comics Expo in California showcases Chicano and Latinx creators from around the world. On the global Domee Shi, the first female director of a Pixar short, debuted Bao before The Incredibles, providing new narratives for the shifting “American family.”
The war for basic rights in this country goes on and on, and on. Within my life I have seen the power of being open-minded and flexible with folks who don’t come from the same place as me or my family. It’s a critical time to pay attention and to take action. It’s a wonderful time when sitting down to watch good TV with your friends, family and loved ones can be both.
1. “Stakes Part 2: Everything Stays” Adventure Time
2. “Reunited” Steven Universe
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