On November 11th, the College of Arts and Letters was fortunate enough to host a performance by Amalia Ortiz—accomplished writer, actor, and activist—at the Broad Art Lab. Ortiz received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, and although she has resided in several places in the US, she currently lives and teaches in Texas.
Ortiz performed a collection of prose poems and poem songs at the reading, pulled from both of her books, Rant. Chant. Chisme. and The Canción Cannibal Cabaret. At the event, we also had the opportunity to watch several of her poem songs come to life in film. This multi-media, multi-dimensional reading was fascinating on many intellectual levels, incorporating music with spoken word and English with Spanish.
What I appreciated most about Ortiz’s performance was her decision to incorporate the background of each piece before she read it. An open conversation, Ortiz spoke at length about growing up on the American-Mexican border, and the various political and emotional tensions that were associated with her home. She also spoke about the divergence in culture and language, required to speak exclusively English in school while only hearing Spanish from her grandmother’s tongue at home. Hearing Ortiz’s personal history made listening to her poetry effortless, recognizing that the use of Spanglish was demonstrative of that cultural childhood struggle. She frequently went in and out of Spanish, the sentences standing as hyphens between the two languages rather than separators. It was beautiful.
From race, to language, to identity, and the idea of home, Ortiz covered many topics during her reading. As she detailed stories of her childhood, one that stuck out to me was how when she would visit her cousins in Mexico, they would view her as rich—despite not being so in the United States. Although her cousins lived just south of the bridge she lived north of, the difference in culture, economy, and livelihood proved immensely different. It was incredibly humbling to listen as she described the duality of her childhood.
Ortiz also shared heartbreaking testimony about the ongoing border crisis, having volunteered in assisting, feeding, and reassuring the recovering families—she told us it necessary to share her experience on the frontline. I agree.
This reading challenged me both intellectual and personally, forcing me to confront the ongoing political tensions and heartbreaking realities many families face each day. It was beautiful, purposeful, and meaningful, and I’m glad to have gotten to the opportunity to listen to such an accomplished writer and dedicated activist.
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