From her home in Austin, Texas, Mónica Teresa Ortiz writes prose that sounds like poetry and poetry that looks like prose. A first generation American, born and raised in the Texas panhandle, Ortiz’s genealogy evolved in the style of a border crossing: her grandparent’s generation grew up in México, her father on the border, while Ortiz’s own body was born into the United States, clearly bearing the signs of other places. Ortiz herself need not cross the border. She is an expert in crossing a different kind of boundary.
The places and spaces that she inhabits, just like the ones she might be barred from entering, inspire a work that is intimately tied up with geography and landscape, both literally and in their myriad ramifications. When asked how her background influences her work, Ortiz’s response orbits around the idea of origin and locations, saying, “I consider geography and space greatly influential in the way I think and relate to the world.” Ortiz goes on to recognize the inextricable connection between identity, the body, and that body’s location, knowing her own is both Texan and Mexican.
All that is not to say that there is any ease in the palimpsest of her identity. She stays in Texas, not for the politics of that place but rather for her urge to change them, diversify them, open them up for broader inclusivity. She notes how the conservatism of Texas is in constant conversation with some aspects of her identity (the Mexican, the child of the border) and in clear opposition to other aspects (her ideology, her queerness). If Texas has helped constitute Ortiz’s own identity, it is more so for how the place challenges her existence and the importance of her body than for how they are supported. In some measure, Ortiz mark is always her otherness.
The day she left, the gladiolus in the apple jug were dying. It had not yet been a week that we put them in there, half filled with water… but it doesn’t matter… the petals so dead and wilting, their corpses scatter across the table top. I guess they die so easily because they aren’t planted anymore, not growing and not rooted and not connected to the earth; disconnected from the soil, from the dirt.
When Ortiz writes about her cut gladiolus wilting out of existence, now rootless and unearthed, she is not really talking about flowers. As one of the premier Chicana writers of our time, Ortiz is particularly preoccupied with the distances that lie between nationality, race, ethnicity, location, sexuality, and gender. Especially living in her home state of Texas, she is interested in combing these threads away from each other, rather than trying to fit them under an umbrella. A gladiola is not always a gladiola.
Ortiz’s first objection, then, would be to my use of the word “Chicana.” which denotes an American-born Mexican person and is politically charged. Even though she is Mexican-American that isn’t all that she is. In her struggle against the heteropatriarchy of both her culture and her birthplace, Ortiz resists what she sees as the erasure of her gender and sexuality by a label that highlights only the color of her body but not what runs beneath.
Parsing out her layers further, Ortiz says, “I don’t identify with Chicanismo or Latinidad … I’m queer, and I’m Mexican, and I am from Texas, and I am from the panhandle … It’s very nuanced. I think Latinidad doesn’t quite explore those nuances.”Ortiz openly recognizes the racism and homophobia inherent in her home state, but she also feels love for it, always pining for a “queer futurity.”
In her first collection of poetry, muted blood, Ortiz is both “queer” and “mad,” and it isn’t clear whether she’s angry or driven to insanity by the clash between her queerness and Tejas, where it’s set.Back are the gladiolas that fell away, rotted, when the lover left in One Night in Chile, and the themes of death and rebirth she has been using since first publishing in Latino journals like Huizache and the queer Latino Raspa Magazine, which she also edited.
In these poems, death is prefigured as the the daily struggle, the crushing defeat under the force of xenophobia, the double suicide of lovers fallen out of love. Rebirth is the dream of a new Tejas, that rises up from the current dystopia of intolerance and fear. In Ortiz’s Tejas, the formerly marginalized are now visible again, it accepts brown people, is queer, reinserts indigineity and blackness back into a wider definition of Latino. The gladiolas won’t rot so long as they are firmly planted in the soil of Texas, nodding toward a future utopia after years of resilience against the violence of bigotry.
muted blood is peppered throughout with Spanish, but it’s used in diverse ways, sometimes a mark of identity, other times the shibboleth that gives Ortiz away. In On the Delta, the poet repeats the shared experience of viewing the amanecer (dawn) with her lover from their apartment window. The relationship eventually traps the poet, the lover becomes the warden. The poem quickly turns to the desperation of death as the last recourse, and the poet coaxes herself onto the ledge but the lover mirrors her, prepares to jump with her, relishing in the proximity of a graveyard. Now, the two share only the view of the passing portero (doorman) below and the only promise of the silence the poet seeks is in a coffin.
In Ortiz’s practice, on the other hand, the poet camouflages both her language and her gender offering her place of origin in a rehearsed Anglo accent, internally reciting the quasi-mantra, “never forget that to pronunciate and to imitate is to survive.” The smiling boss expects the brown girl to speak Spanish but she doesn’t really, at least not like her dead Mexican friend who refused to hide his Latinidad. The narrator instead pronounces “Texas” like the white kids from grammar school, “high and long.” “We could have been brothers,” she tells the boss, thinking, “It was true. Babel separated us.” The poet might speak Spanish, but she chooses not to.
It’s perhaps Soledad Part I that reveals the moment the tower of Babel falls for Ortiz. In the poem, the reaction of the mother to the daughter coming out as queer is to wish her dead before the time anyone else might know this. The narrator then vows to “cleave her tongue off” like the “garden snake” the mother killed with a shovel. Ortiz, who must have lived it, is reminded of the tongue incapable of expressing her grief in Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis. I, who am only reading it, imagine this as one of Ortiz’s “new mythologies,”a reinvention of the snake in the Garden of Eden, though now it’s having a female lover that qualifies as original sin. The tongue is like the one in Psalm 137 that says “if I forget you, oh Israel, may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth…” meaning that to forget oneself is to lose one’s language, like cutting the gladiola causes her to die. By the last line, all that’s left of her mother tongue is ossified into “…the Spanish tile of your kitchen.”
Always straddling borders, linguistic and otherwise, Ortiz suffers a bifurcation not unlike that of many poets and writers, especially multicultural ones. She invokes Borges in a poem entitled burials as public spectacles, who recognized deep into his writing career that “The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to.” In “Borges and I”, he goes on to attribute some of his traits to the public persona, the man of renown, the writer, and other he keeps for his innermost self. Like someone refracting the myriad layers of the culture and language that compose them, the analysis makes the head spin, concluding for Borges in not knowing “which of us has written this page”.
But Ortiz bifurcation is not only metaphoric The loss of real, flesh-and-blood bodies and our need for memorials and remembrance to combat their erasure is a central theme in her work. burials as public spaces remembers the borderlands where poet’s “ancestors bleached by the sun rot in unmarked graves segregated by skin,” calling up the more recent racially motivated deaths, like the shooting of Michael Brown. Many of the poems in muted blood, which was published in 2018, explore prison culture, surveillance, and the ways in which law enforcement and people of color have been forced into an adversarial relationship.
In engaging with the ways in which bodies of color are imprisoned and abused, Ortiz offers a few recourses: death, exile, or sanctuary. The latter is of special interest to her and a year after families that were separated at the border are still not reunited, living in ersatz prisons thrown together haphazardly into the desert, Ortiz’s investigations into who should receive sanctuary and the enduring of what sort of violence merits it are uncannily prescient. Her poem lorca imagines the climax of the racial tension without sanctuary, the end of empathy, the dystopia that results in the violence disappearing us all.
In her most recent book, coming on the heels of muted blood, is a series of crónicas entitled autobiography of semi romantic anarchist, centers more around the issue of gender and sexual identities. Ortiz proposes the work that would emerge “from the ashes” of the one we are in the process of burning down, the queer utopia she wills upon the future. Ortiz returns to her parents prayer that she die rather than be queer, turning the curse on its head and taking it as her chance at an afterlife. Queerness alone then becomes powerful enough to interrupt the relentless heteronormativity of our culture, panacea against the controlling and colonizing state.
Ortiz, one of our most powerful voices in the Latino community would not want to be called that. At the very least, Latinx is a somewhat more adequate tag, for revealing at least two of the elements of culture at work in Ortiz’s reading of the world. Always encompassing at least two cultures, two languages, two genres, her poetry is as lyrical as it is political. Firmly rooted in Texas, Ortiz is more a cactus than a gladiola in this second half of her life — autonomous, resilient, firmly grounded, thick-skinned, well-defended, and organically connected to her birthplace.