We first encountered Viva Ruiz‘s performative advocacy during Milk and Night’s “Pervasive Feminisms” exhibition earlier this year. Her fiery spoken word infused with song circled around sex work and sisterhood, pleasure and power — she’s a true creatrix with a conscience. Vocalist of both DFA’s The Crystal Ark and electronic Latino art goth group Escandalo, Ruiz is a rare breed of feminist, whose queer, spirituality-infused radical convictions bridge the gap between body politics and belief. After hearing about her latest passion project, “The Joy of Abortion,” we interviewed the artist/activist about how she’s using limited edition, wearable designs to promote reproductive rights for all. Visit LadyFag’s PopSouk this Sunday to see her debut this project!
Your art is always infused with activism — how has your personal and professional background informed your creative choices?
Thank you for that generous reflection. What I can say for sure is that I have always been infused with anger at how things “are”, and what I make tends to reflect that. Even the ecstatic work that I’ve done as a dancer was borne out of a resistance, of a need to feel free and kick off the sticky pervasive programming dictating conformity, control. Being born into the confines of religion put me in a position of resistance from as far back as I could remember. It just didn’t make sense, the judgment that church people taught that I didn’t see at all in the actual Jesus story. That, combined with growing up in Queens at the epicenter of the crack epidemic aka the hood, left me with a feeling of desperation, of wanting out of any box. I couldn’t make sense of higher education. Instead I dove pretty immediately into exploring city life making music, performing, and also getting involved in sex work, where I found life long allies. I later found it very natural to write and direct telenovelas. Music came back again. Speaking Spanish in the films and music I make are important connections to my community, and using language in this way is an intentional action. If I am lucky to be one of the few in the world to get any kind of platform it makes me feel like I have a responsibility when I can to sway the dynamic away from the status quo default that is white supremacy, to shift that balance in the world any tiny infinitesimal way. I am also clear on the fact that I have a responsibility to amplify other voices that are not heard, as I’ve heard you call it quite nicely “passing the mic“.
I feel a connection to people in struggle, a kinship that comes from a feeling of shared heartbreak. Being very aware from the beginning, of a pointed and intentional separation in the world also motivates me to express myself the ways I have. Male domination colored so much of my experience growing up in Latino culture, brown and black community here in Queens. I lived how that domination is inflicted in families; it’s something that’s taught and passed on. In turn, I saw how the same men perpetrating the violence were themselves bowed by a system of racism, of subjugation that immigrants endure in this country. They were doing to me and other femme what was being done to them. I was taught by my own people that the brownness in me, the indigenous part of me, was not to be celebrated, but that the european roots definitely were. These are programmings that my people didn’t invent. These are centuries old learned responses to abandon self, and love the colonizer. This is not an ethereal idea. This programming leads to real and painful consequences and I’ve seen those close. I think I popped out in a stance of FUCK YOU to what this all energetically felt like, before I could put it together as concrete ideas in my head about what was going on — which brings me back to anger. When I first read that James Baldwin quote “To be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage” it resonated with me so hard because I knew that to be queer Latina and even semiconscious, has been consistently infuriating.
Short answer is that I’m responding to the reality of the world I live in, and from where I’m standing, I can see that a lot of people are in trouble. I know I am in kinship with all oppressed people and animals, and the earth. How can I help? This question crossed with a high priority requirement for pure fun and pleasure has been driving my creative output the whole time.
What are some of the issues you want to give voice to currently?
Well! Lots going on. Very important time to be laughing and dancing as much as possible, in between unmanageable stretches of rage and calm and purposed actions that strengthen us in a community of resistance. Self-care is what comes up, when we are working together so much to change so many things, yes I’ve been directed more and more to come inside and be good to the body, turn off the mind, and invite the spirit to rest. Very important, primary importance, but so difficult between all these machines that in one sense do bring us closer, but also can be a slippery, slimy time hole.
There are so many issues to talk about. People are organizing and showing great divine force in these days, the liberation movement of transgender women rising and the diversity of the many voices within the movement, it’s something that I am in awe of. The movement of #blacklivesmatter, started by black queer women, lots of strength on the part of the people. I’m learning a lot from current day heroes I’m blessed to be connected to.
God(s) told me a few months ago to make some work about reproductive rights. I got a very clear message, and finally in the last few weeks, some circumstances came together that made this the right time to birth this brand new project. The experience of being in protest — everything is impressive about sharing the space on the streets with people in united protest, it’s a powerful ritual to stand and march in solidarity — one of the aspects that’s been going over in my mind is how effective signage is. It touches me deeply to see how people make these, they mean so much. Protest signs are sacred and powerful objects, effective tools in creating shifts of consciousness. And somewhere that thought fused with my anger recently at how much these puritanical Christian extremists are getting away with restricting access to safe and legal abortion.
How can this be happening today, that it’s getting worse for women? It hasn’t been all through time that we’ve had to ask men for permission to decide when we wanted to have children, we have ancient historical records that prove how women have always had ways of self-determination, the taboo around abortion is largely a 19th century Christian white supremacy patriarchal invention. I caught myself cheering at Ireland the other day for the vote on gay marriage, YES that is incredible yes, and then I slowed down. It says a lot this Christian land can accept gay marriage but it’s still illegal to have an abortion? Why, I thought. Ohhh, because men are involved. In the US there was more access to abortion in the 80’s than there is today, and its getting worse. In South America women are jailed for abortion, jailed for even having miscarriages. When will we be united for women’s reproductive rights? When will a woman not be punished for being a sexual being? That any man would have any criticism of what a woman does with her body, wears on her body, anything with her body, is a brutality considering the reality of control and oppression of women’s’ bodies, here now everywhere today. I beseech my man friends to use their influence and power towards building women up, not tearing them down, in any way.
Who do you feel are most impacted by the current legal prohibitions on abortion?
As usual, it is poor women and women of color that are affected the most. They will be left to die from illegal abortions, or be forced to have children they don’t want, which I think makes the people getting rich off jails happy. We are being fed on, cannibalized. Rich women will always have access to safe abortions, legal or not, Christian or not, Republican or not. Meanwhile inhumane restrictions block access more and more, adding 3 day wait periods for the procedures so that women have to drive to a city where there is a clinic, and plan to spend 3 days there? Who could afford that? Clinics closed down due to hallway size changes, random license requirements. It’s effective harassment; it’s been closing clinics across the country and inhumane even by the globally accepted standards of the UN, which consider this torture.
More restrictions were put in place the last 5 years than the decade before it. This is a society that is becoming more puritanical, at least where the feminine is concerned. And these puritanical attitudes are very much in place in the queer liberal left. Technology has made sex for men even easier, even more shameless and free — how shitty is it that in very real ways it’s going the extreme other way for women. Who will fight for us, and with us? Women are dying. Can we share some space here? I’m upset that my man friends are not that concerned. We need muscle. We have muscle but we need your muscle too. Men, stand for us. Speak about this. Get angry about this. Show up for us too.
How does the mainstream feminist discourse on abortion that focuses on trauma and negativity differ from your experiences?
So what God(s) told me to talk about, and what I have been talking about with some queer friends and watched them gag about, is that it’s not necessarily a “big deal” to have an abortion. The spectrum of conversations that people have about abortions are so weighed towards the Christian “sin” concept aka the condemnation of the sexual being that a woman is, and then in liberal circles is weighted in the “trauma” concept. What I’m being called to do is shade in the way other side of the spectrum; we really need some range here. Yes I’ve had 2 abortions, me and probably every woman you know that has sex with men will eventually have 2 abortions. Here’s my point: What’s the big fucking deal. I read that Times article about people needing to change with the times and concede to the right more “gravitas” around this, as we beg for our BASIC HUMAN RIGHTS and no that’s not the space I’m occupying I want to go big the other way.
The real story for me is that the first time I was pregnant I found out maybe 2 months in and ended up having a miscarriage but only because it happened before I could get to it myself LOL. I’m sorry, but that just made me laugh, right now, out loud. This could be the beginning of my new abortion stand up routine. Ok so that first time was awful but not for the reasons everyone talks about, but because I was having a miscarriage and was left on a stretcher in St Vincent’s for hours just outside the ER room on a heavy traffic day. I had contractions and it fucking hurt for so long — physical, not emotional trauma. I appreciated the whole experience. I thought for the couple weeks that I knew I was pregnant beforehand, that it was cool to witness how even though I knew I wasn’t going to keep it, my body was trying to trick me into keeping it. My body did feel hijacked in a really intoxicating way, I did feel like an animal, I remember being pregnant felt really good. But it just wasn’t me, and maybe that’s why it volunteered out of the game. Eventually a kind young Dr., shocked that I was in pain for so long. yelled at everyone, rushed me into a room, put me under and it was over. When I woke up, he was kindly looking at me and said, “I don’t want you to worry, you will definitely be able to have children another time,” like I was worried about it. It took me a little while to understand what he meant, and that kindness completely left his face the same time the thought “I don’t care” groggily crystallized in my mind. Asking him for a doggie bag of painkillers was the final straw (I didn’t get it).
Second time was a breeze. Abortion, standard, no more than 15 minutes, cramps. Fine.
Yes I was in long-term relationships both times. No, I didn’t want to make kids. I still to this day don’t. I thought that would change but it didn’t. I don’t think every woman needs to love kids, but I happen to really, really love kids. I love them even more the older I get. Kids rule, and I want every single one I meet to really know that I see how special they are, because they are, and I work at that. Kids need to be loved, I’ve seen what happens when there not. I want to be a force in that cause as well, and I am.
I want to say here that I know the trauma is real for many women, I’m not discounting that. In fact I just heard about abortion doulas. Wow! I’d be happy to go hold someone’s hand if they needed to do this. What I’m saying is that there are different perspectives, and we definitely need to come towards my end of the spectrum to help take the steam out of the stigma.
I am a very spiritual person. It was perfect. It’s just my story but it’s a story that I don’t see too much out there, although lately there have been some cool women stepping out to demystify this whole natural and good process. I want to be part of that wave. God(s) really is cool with all of it. I did one time have a dream where I was walking with 2 little boys on either side of me, their hands in mine. I felt total peace and agreement and love in that dream. We’re cool.
What inspired your current project, “The Joy of Abortion”?
Part of what inspired this project is the shock I’d see on some of my sluttiest (that’s a compliment of course) man friends faces when I told them what the voices were telling me to say about abortion. That felt like a green light. If men could be pregnant I seriously seriously doubt this whole thing would be so sanctimonious. Question your inner puritanical pilgrims. Women are dying, for lack of basic human rights, for something that should be free and legal — and it’s getting worse. Who will fight for us? Who will fight with us?
What aesthetic components have you designed to convey your message of moving beyond trauma?
I am Catholically imprinted through and through. The symbology of the dove is so beautiful. I borrowed that from the church for the freedom and sense of lightness it has always brought me, and by association to attach that feeling to abortion. I love Jesus, so he showed up too. One of the concepts was based on a favorite childhood painting, the antiwar “war is not healthy for children and other living things”, I painted that big on my bedroom wall when I was a kid, and I remembered it when I was thinking of protest signs that really worked. My good friend the actor/writer/artist Alessandro Magania translated it using my twist on the language. I love it. Let the sun shine in.
God(s) told me that it would be useful to see people walking around with this messaging, used the way protest signs work so I’m silk screening t-shirts for the first time, personally handcrafted by me (thanks to experts Michael Magnan/ House of Ladosha and Nacona Pxlpop/Gowanus Print Lab for midwifing the project!). My favorite lady mogul Ladyfag invited me to premiere them at her annual market place POP SOUK this weekend, I’ll be selling them cheap there and sharing a table with like-hearted artists Bunny Michael and Amber Iberreche who will be selling their crafts as well. Come hang out with us. Afterwards I’ll offer t-shirts online, but some of these will be posters or just images I made to inject into the swirl of the internet and pull the energy that way. Also I am maniacally putting together last minute my first fanzine based on the concept of the most incredible book of all time, This Bridge Called My Back, centering on voices of WOC feminists — come get that too. These as always, love based offerings for the good of all.
Images: Viva Ruiz by Marie Tomanova; The Joy of Abortion by Viva Ruiz