“We need to think about what’s wrong with the world and what we’re doing to change it, using the time we have and the gifts that we’re given.”
Carlow University was just what Rachel Fitzgerald was looking for: a big city school with an even bigger heart. At Carlow, this talented photographer from small-town Zelienople, Pa. would discover the world. She would also learn how to change it.
Fitzgerald transferred to Carlow her freshman year and quickly immersed herself in the Pittsburgh arts scene. She joined Artful Souls, a group of arts- and culture-seekers wishing to emphasize spirituality. She crawled through local galleries, observed at the Andy Warhol Museum (alongside adjunct art professor Nicole Dezelon), and filmed The Identity Project, sponsored by Carlow’s LGBT & Allies group.
She also traveled to Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic as part of Carlow’s “Never Again: A Holocaust Remembrance Tour.”
And as she grew as an artist and a student, her world view began to shift.
“I realized that I can utilize photography to help recognize the underserved population,” she says, “rather than to serve people who can afford to have their own portraits taken.”
During the summer of 2014, Fitzgerald enrolled in New York University’s annual Photography and Human Rights Program, a joint project of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and the Magnum Foundation, which encourages students to create documentary projects in pursuit of human rights.
As she ventured into the heart of New York City in search of stories, Fitzgerald fell in love with the residents of Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood, perched at the crossroads of slick gentrification and gritty inner-city life. It was there that she met Tony Gonzaga, a young victim of gang violence with an incredible story to tell.
Seven years ago, when Gonzaga was just 15, he was stabbed in the eye with an eight-inch blade while he was sitting on a city park bench. His attackers made off with his iPod, five dollars, and his bubble gum. Gonzaga was left partially paralyzed—and with astronomical medical bills.
To cope, Gonzaga became fascinated with superheroes like Spider Man. Though he’d lost use of his dominant hand, he taught himself to use the other hand, and began creating detailed drawings of his cartoon heroes. When Fitzgerald saw his creations, a lightbulb went off.
“Together, we can make him the hero of his own story,” she says.
Fitzgerald and Gonzaga worked to create a prototype digital comic book, a mixture of his illustrations, her photographs, and actual documents (like his x-rays). They’re calling it Bubblegum Libre—a title that pays homage to his survival and his Mexican-American heritage. Libre is Spanish for “free.”
Bubblegum Libre is a collaboration between Carlow alumna Rachel Fitzgerald and Tony Gonzaga.
“We want to make a comic book that can reach kids who have been victims of traumatic injuries,” says Fitzgerald, “to help them see that they are heroes, too.”
Fitzgerald graduated from Carlow in December 2014 and, though busy applying to graduate school, she continues to research the benefits of comic books and graphic novels in helping young victims like Gonzaga.
“We need to think about what’s wrong with the world and what we’re doing to change it, using the time we have and the gifts that we’re given,” she says. “It’s a challenge, and an amazing opportunity.”
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