Disabled Artist Naomi Ortiz Re-Imagining Worlds
By Emet Ezell
Naomi Ortiz is a disabled Mestiza artist living in the U.S./Mexico Borderlands. Born and raised in Tucson, AZ, she understands the wide array of her work to be a creative process in navigating the complexity of diverse realities. For Ortiz, claiming the contradictions in being mixed is crucial to her artistry and social justice work, allowing her to mediate between the chaos of travelling through multiple worlds.
When reflecting upon how her identities have impacted her work, she thinks back to moments of contact and dissonance. “I was really fortunate growing up [in Arizona], because I was also raised in Latinx culture, which has, to me, very different understandings of things like respect, and cultural rules. Going out in the world, and especially when I started working, I was suddenly hitting against different cultural ways of interacting. Other people didn’t understand that there were multiple ways of being in the world.”
Ortiz is honest about the difficulty in navigating competing cultural systems, and mentions the work of Gloria Anzaldúa as a grounding framework. “Anzaldúa’s mention of ‘Mestiza’ was the first time that I heard that word being used as something other than a slur,” she says. “Two of my grandparents are Native/Mexican, I have a grandparent who is Brazilian, and a grandparent who is white.” The depth of Ortiz’s ancestry leaves her searching for ways to translate herself through various cultures, travelling between different worlds. “Part of living in multiple worlds at once means that I don’t share all of those worlds with any one person, even people in my family. Honoring this, I still try and hold all of me together where I only partially fit.” Anzaldúa’s Mestiza concept functioned as an important doorway for Ortiz, allowing her to hold the confusing and often traumatic things that she experienced without having to collapse her complexity.
Yet, as a disabled artist, Ortiz has struggled to find an accessible container in her community. “I have a lot of challenges interacting in Latinx spaces,” Ortiz confesses. “[Disabled Latinx folks] are always the last in the room–we’re somebody’s cousin who gets to be there, but we’re rarely seen as a significant contributor to the social environment, the party, the art. It’s not just that we are tolerated, it’s more than that–we’re invisible.” If it’s a Latinx organized event, she expresses that she can rarely get in the door, and that “there’s hardly any understanding around disability.” Ortiz’s work is a strong integration of disability justice and Latinx perspectives.
Despite the gaps she encounters in Latinx spaces, she continues to bridge worlds through art, creating a new space for healing. “I’m a painter, I work in oils and acrylics. I write and I mend. And all of that is art.” Her latest book, Sustaining Spirit: Self-Care and Social Justice, is a deep dive into the spiritual practice of care, rooted in her reflections on land, interdependence, and intuition.
Ortiz is committed to re-imagining care, particularly in relationship to art and justice work. She is adamant that caring about the world should not burn us out. Ortiz articulates how a fear of disability is really a fear of vulnerability. “There is strength in understanding the many ways people ask you to hold their fear. Whether it’s a refusal to acknowledge you as part of the community, hateful words directed at you, and/or excuses listed to erase the trials you face, having a political context to understand these responses helps me to survive.” Ortiz writes that art and social justice work serve as a means to articulate with clarity these fears through words and images. Ableism, racism, queerphobia–these terms translate the emotions felt into their connection with systematic exclusion and colonial violence.
Ortiz’s artwork and writing bring vulnerability to the center, moving at a pace that accommodates her body. “It took me seven years to write this book,” she says, “because I go slow. It’s due to disability, and my personality.” Growing up, Ortiz was denied the opportunity to write because of her disability. For most of her life, she believed herself incapable of writing. Yet, writing would not let go of her: it came to her in a dream. “In my dream, I was overhearing all of these people talking about me: ‘She thinks she can’t write,’ they were saying. But they were also saying, ‘What?! She writes all the time!’ Ultimately, I had to teach myself how to write.”
Ortiz wrote her book with a technology called Dragon Dictate. She talks into the receiver, and then the words come out on the page. “It’s a frustrating software,” she says, “It’s a lot of correcting, and going back, and the technology is relatively new.” Writing is a risk; however, for Ortiz, the greater risk is not writing. “I was super fascinated by self-care and activism, and so I said ‘I’m going to do this!’ and I did, but I knew I had to do it from a spiritually grounded place.”
Ortiz offers that being spiritually grounded means returning again and again to her body and to land. The nonhuman realm is critical to her artistic practice, helping her ask the question: who are my helpers that are nonhuman? Whether it’s the technology of Dragon Dictate, the acrylic paint, or the cilantro in her garden, this question is consistent in her exploration of care. Ortiz writes and paints about her relationships of support with the plants, the seasons, and the desert landscape around her. Her work is dependent upon these non-human relationships, forging new pathways to a grounded spiritual state. “There is a safety that I feel with land that I don’t always feel with people,” she says. “Land is honest, but it can feel chaotic, too.” As she expresses through her writing and artwork, spiritual care work widens the frame for what might be relationally possible.
Being in such a deep relationship with land and care has allowed Ortiz to focus on the role of small shifts. She understands the anti-extreme as a decolonial act, where effort is measured by longevity rather than quantity. Colonial capitalism tells us we need to make a big change–that it needs to be fast, complete, and it needs to happen now. We’ve come to value big change as the only change worth doing, despite the fact that it is entirely unsustainable, especially from a disability justice perspective. “Wouldn’t it be so much more helpful if there were art and writing around the little bitty shifts we make in our lives,” she said.
“I’m tired of the big leap stories, because they don’t actually work.” Ortiz’ artistic experience has highlighted this phenomenon. Writing about self-care has continually challenged her to adapt her desires for change with the realities of what will last. “At the end of the book,” she says, “I talk about the process as being like a rubber band–we continually get pulled back into the shape that’s comfortable. But when we make smaller changes, smaller shifts, these actually stick and helps us shift into new patterns, albeit slower.”
Ortiz remarked that the biggest lesson for her in writing the book was in getting clear. “The practice of art and writing are clarifying practices,” she says, “but that’s never as fast as I want it to be! I’d often have to stop, and tune into my body, which is the biggest indicator I have of if something feels okay or not. And all of that is slow work.”
Living in the multiple worlds of Latinx and Disability Justice, Ortiz is committed to creating art with her whole body. As she refuses to comply with colonial time frames, she reminds us that the non-human realm is always with us, offering support, inspiration, and spiritual sustenance. Ortiz’s projects are crucial to the work of re-imaging a supportive and justice-centered Latinx community. Whether through poetry or painting, Ortiz is bringing about new possibilities that center interdependence: both for herself and the Latinx community.
Learn more about Naomi Ortiz’s work at www.naomiortiz.com.