La Super Tortillera: An Interview with Awilda Rodriguez Lora – Indri Pasaribu

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On February 24, 2009, Agitate Ottawa – a queer indigenous women and women of colour collective in Ottawa – and Divergence Movie Night  co-presented the film ‘Still Black’ as part of a Black History Month celebration. Indri Pasaribu, an Agitate collective member, got the opportunity to have a conversation with Awilda Rodriguez, the producer of ‘Still Black’ and a multi-talented artist, about her involvement with the making of ‘Still Black’ and her present and future work.

Indri Pasaribu: Let’s start with who you are and how you would describe yourself.

Awilda Rodriguez Lora: I am a lover who creates and performs art, as a quest to better knowing myself and the things around all of us. I am mostly inspired by life’s queer moments and how they move/shape our identity. It is sometimes difficult to describe myself because I am constantly learning new things about me and I love it.

IB: Can you tell us about your work ‘I wanted to be a cheerleader but my cuntry didn’t have’?

ARL: In 2002 in NYC I had just finished my B.A. from Hunter College, and it was around this time that I really started to think about where I came from and who I wanted to be. At the time, I was collaborating with dancers who were also living in NYC and were away from their homelands. Because of that, they where going through the shit that I was dealing with. So it got me thinking about the reasons why we choose to leave home and how living in voluntary exile can shape and transform your identity. It wasn’t until 6 years later in Chicago that I developed and performed the solo as part of Links Hall’s Charged Bodies Mentorship Program with Tim Miller.

‘I wanted to…’ is a multimedia solo performance about the emotional and physical experiences I had after leaving my homeland, Puerto Rico, and moving to the United States. I explore my identity as a queer woman, my place in the world, and how I have arrived at the moment in time that I am at. The movement in the piece is based on the strained relationship I have with my parents, and the energy we are all putting into cultivating and nurturing our growth. It is also a recognition and celebration of my body and my sexuality. I am in the process of touring an excerpt of the piece, and I continue to seek funding to premiere the full evening performance in 2010.

IB: You are the producer of ‘Still Black’. What are your roles as a producer in the making of ‘Still Black’?

ARL: I consider the role of the producer as one who is there to help the director achieve their vision. Kortney Ryan Ziegler, Director of ‘Still Black: a portrait of black transmen,’ shared their vision with me and I was so inspired by not only their passion, but also by their beautiful portfolio of work. I am such a fan of KRZ’s work. So, I was ready to help and make ‘Still Black’ happen.

The role of an independent producer that works in a self-funded project is multifaceted. They do everything from being a PA for the Director to cooking lunch for the crew. I wore many hats during the production of the film. I really enjoyed the role of producer, because I find it to be a very creative role and it is beautiful to see how everything manifests itself as part of your work and dedication. I am very excited to continue producing work with Kortney Ryan Zielgler (Blackstarmedia.org) and other artists. It is in my nature to make things happen.

IB: How did the project come about / come to your attention?

ARL: It came from a sofa conversation with Kortney. They shared with me the idea and reason for why they were interested in making a film about black transmen. Kortney had been developing the project for almost two years prior to meeting me. I told Kortney, “Let’s not wait anymore and do it!” And that was how we started. A year later we finished our first feature-length experimental documentary.

I also understood the importance of creating a film that focuses on black transmen. In the past few years there has been a trend of trans films, but as most of us may know, they are mainly focused on the experiences of white transmen, leaving transmen of color as an afterthought. Because of this, it was important for both the director and myself to create a film that would place black transmen at the center of the film.

IB: The people you chose to be the subjects in the documentary are both poignant and quite diverse, in terms of their age, experiences, and their relationships with both their gender and sexuality. How did you choose the people you have in the documentary?

ARL: We made a call for subjects on listservs and bulletin boards around Chicago. Because of limited funding, we originally wanted to only have men that lived in the Chicago area, but as we started receiving inquiries from all around the U.S., we then decided to open the call to black transmen living outside of Chicago. We then had phone interviews with them to get to know each other better. We wanted to represent a diverse voice of men and luckily, those were the type of men that answered our casting call! We are so thankful to all the men that share their stories with us, and a special thanks to Louis, Carl, Kylar, Ethan, Jay and Nicholas for being part of the film and being their awesome selves.

IB: One Agitate member thought that one of the things that stuck with her after watching the documentary was when Louis Mitchell spoke about how choosing to become a man is his choice and his choice alone, and those were never the choices of his friends and family, so when he transitioned, he understood that it would take time for them to adjust to the choices that he makes, and how he can’t force them to adjust instantly, because it’s a journey they have to take on their own. For myself, I was struck with the vibrant personality of Jay Welch. What would you say is the one thing that really stayed with you after watching the documentary?

ARL: I was the interviewer, so I must say that the one thing that really stayed with me is how they where so comfortable and open to share their stories with us. I really appreciate the fact that they trusted us and were so honest. They inspired me to really investigate and recognize who I was and to always be myself where ever I am. But you did ask me about who really stayed with me after viewing the documentary. I will say Ethan ‘cause I, too, have a love for tattoos and piercings, and it was great to connect with someone else who appreciates the spirituality involved in tattoos and piercing. I love tattoos and I can’t wait to get more.

IB: What were the hardships/challenges that you had to face in making ‘Still Black’?

ARL: Of course not enough money can always be a challenge. But we took the challenge and thought creatively as to how can we make this film happen without all the fancy film equipment, and we made it work. Something that was, and continues to be, a challenge is time. Both the director and myself are graduate students, and managing both our school and production life can sometimes be stressful and tiresome.

IB: Considering of all the awards that this documentary has garnered, you must have received positive feedback from the viewers. How do people from different communities receive this film? And what are their reactions that surprise you the most?

ARL: I really love being in the room while the screening is happening, ‘cause I love to hear and feel people’s reactions and I love being surprised by how they react to different sections in the film. But what I really enjoy is how these men inspire people. And it’s really great that all different shapes of identities are being inspired through this film to really be who they want to be and to celebrate their individuality.

IB: Talking about your other work, I know that you are quite an accomplished dancer and visual artist. What do you find to be fulfilling as a dancer that is quite different from your work with film?

ARL: Dance is growth and movement. How we navigate space and time is with our bodies, and even though creating visual art has been truly a powerful tool for me, I express my vision through the kinetic experience of dance. It is continuously dynamic, even when you are still, and I love it. I also come from a Puerto Rican hippie family that loves to dance, hug and kiss, and our bodies are always flowing together. Dance for me comes from within and the experience is personal, and the function of movement is to communicate that thing that is internal to make external. That is why I started exploring experimental video performance. The form allows me to combine my two loves: dance and visual art.

IB: One queer Canadian artist I like is Rosalie Favell, a Métis artist. One of her photography works is of her transforming into Xena. She talked about how she found a hero in Xena, but that as she grew older, she realized she could be her own hero, and did so by making her very own Xena costume. If you could be any superhero, who would it be and why?

ARL: I would be La Super Tortillera. I’d fly around with my multicolored super apron and whenever I see someone worrying too much about what people think of them, I’d throw a tortilla at their faces. My magic tortillas would make them recognize that who they are is beautiful, and fuck what people think.

IB: Can you tell us about anything that we could look forward to seeing from you?

ARL: Well I just finished editing an experimental video performance for the School of Art Institute in Chicago, and I would love to continue collaborating with all kinds of artists to continue making cultural productions that show our multiplicity of people. I am also currently in NY collaborating with Baraka de Soleil and the collective D Underbelly in a new dance/performance piece titled S’kin Deep that will be presented in May at the Dixon Place in NYC.

I am always making art no matter where I am. I draw and write in my journal everyday because it is my performance space where I can be naked and discover myself. I also have a website and blog where I publish my work and collaborations all the time, so definitely check it out at: laperformera.org.

And of course I want to continue collaborating artistically with my partner, my lover, the amazing filmmaker Kortney Ryan Ziegler, because they always inspire me and challenge me to make more and more amore and more art. Gracias mi amor.

Indri Pasaribu is a queer currently living in Ottawa, Canada. She is also a community educator, having done work for such organizations as Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women, Sierra Youth Coalition, and Agitate, a collective for queer Indigenous women and women of colour in Ottawa. Her main influences are Prince, Homi Bhabha, David Bowie, and mythological character Puss-in-boots

Awilda Rodriguez Lora is a performance artist, producer, activist, yogi, improviser, lover and traveler. She was born in Veracruz, Mexico and raised in Puerto Rico. She has been producing, creating and performing her own work for almost 10 years. For her, the development of performance art is a personal therapy session where she constantly challenges and celebrates her body, identity, sexuality and gender. Rodriguez Lora understands the importance of artistic collaboration and has made it a point to collaborate with other artists that are committed to producing art that ignite progressive dialogues around race, gender and sexuality. She has had the opportunity to work with artists from New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Puerto Rico producing work with Kortney Ryan Ziegler, Baraka de Soleil, Nequi Gonzalez, Darrell Jones and Tim Miller. She is currently the Executive Producer for the award-winning experimental documentary “STILL BLACK: a portrait of black transmen” and is also touring her new solo piece titled “i wanted to be a cheerleader but my cuntry didn’t have it.” For more aventuras visit http://www.laperformera.org