SUSTENTO: Awilda Rodríguez Lora Dances in Dark Times

Paloma Martínez-Cruz

Nov 30, 2020

Movement artist Awilda Rodriguez Lora lies on the floor of her home La Rosario in Puerto Rico, her knees bent and her back arched with her left hip lifted off the floor so she's facing away from the camera

...exponer lo privado a lo público, lo cotidiano performativo, la precariedad como oportunidad y la presencia de la cuerpa de la mujer afrocaribeña queer en el arte contemporáneo... exhibit the private in the public sphere, the performativity of the day-to-day, precarity as opportunity, and the presence of the Afro-Caribbean woman's queer body in contemporary art...

—Awilda Rodríguez Lora, SUSTENTO

What does sustento (sustenance) mean to you? I first heard performance choreographer Awilda Rodríguez Lora pose this question in her March 2019 residency in Columbus, Ohio to a rapt audience gathered for her artist's talk in the Wexner Center's Film/Video Theater. Her body wove through the space as she invited audience-participants to enjoy a sip from the flask of "sustento" she carried with her. We did not know what the bottle contained, but willing volunteers raised their hands to share what sustento meant to them before tipping their heads back to receive a pour from the artist's flask. Individual voices offered diverse ideas about sustento: food, community, family, water, art, work, culture. The theater was transformed into an intimate expression of gratitude for a matrix of elements that make our lives and our joy possible. 

Sustento. I know that my community of fellow Latina artists is what sustains me, which is why for seven years I've worked to coordinate Onda Latina Ohio, a performance project that features Latina expressive culture throughout the region. I consistently describe us as "swing state" Latinas, a gesture that hones in on our right to vote in a place where electoral politics are subject to wide shifts, and Latinx communities struggle for dialogue and visibility. In our last Onda Latina event, I stated: "We are not bad hombres, no. We are dangerous mujeres. We vote."

Rodríguez Lora's latest residency with the Wex took place from September 14–25, 2020. Her SUSTENTO Virtual Residency consisted of a two-week series of talks and performances in which the performera broadcast conversations and choreographies from La Rosario, her shared queer feminist collaborative home in Puerto Rico. Three live movement sessions and guided tours of her shared home and work environment convinced me that Rodríguez Lora shares a unique ability to create spaces of what I refer to as "radical authenticity." Her candid and open sharing of her intimate choreographies and personal space gifted us with an opportunity to see how art making is not just for museums and auditoriums, but takes place in significant ways in our daily lives.  

The SUSTENTO Virtual Residency concluded with a conversation with Rodríguez Lora, Sugeily Rodríguez Lebrón (organizer of AgitArte and program coordinator of Casa Taller Cangrejera), Guisela Latorre (Ohio State professor of Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies) and myself. Titled "SUSTENTO Virtual Residency Closing Conversation," our dialogue was conceived as a conclusion to the artist's series of actions based in La Rosario, but it also served as an opening. Foremost, the conversation quickly took the shape of a celebration of community—the core of our sustento in times of social isolation. Secondly, it was clear that hemispheric, Latina feminist performance actions have the capacity not only to signal resistance in a politically precarious moment, but to transform what we think of as a space for artistic incubation and exhibition. Finally, the virtual gathering provided a portal through which I was able to intimately access the conditions that shape Puerto Rican reality.

If many of the community members that contribute to Onda Latina Ohio have the prospect of participating in the electoral process, not all Latina citizens of the United States have access to the sustento of enfranchisement. Rodríguez Lora's residency has provided an intimate way to peer into the Puerto Rican experience of coloniality, where 3.2 million US citizens are deprived the right to vote in general elections unless they move to the mainland.[1]  Enter Hurricane María, leaving over 3000 dead and an estimated $43 billion economic impact on an already beleaguered infrastructure. A history of corruption along with a series of natural disasters on an island deprived of the right to govern itself have created a situation in which Puerto Rico's US citizens remain subject to over 500 years of unbroken colonial rule since the arrival of the Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de León in 1508.

Rodríguez Lora's residencies offered a forum for cross-disciplinary dialogues regarding Puerto Rico's colonial legacy. As Ohio makes significant decisions about where this nation is headed, my thoughts go to her performances of resilience, and how her radical spatialization of the feminist, Afro-Caribbean queer body at home can be understood as a choreography of conceptual enfranchisement. In September, I entered La Rosario through the lens of a camera that not only captured a kitchen, a dog, and a cadre of feminist and queer artists, but also opened a space for critical reflection on how democracy moves unevenly around the hemisphere, with no guarantee of its durability.


About the author

Paloma Martinez Cruz

Paloma Martinez-Cruz is an associate professor of Latinx Cultural Studies at The Ohio State University, and author of two monographs: Food Fight! Millennial Mestizaje Meets the Culinary Marketplace (University of Arizona Press, 2019) and Women and Knowledge in Mesoamerica: From East L.A. to Anahuac (University of Arizona Press, 2011). She is the editor of A Handbook for the Rebel Artist in a Post-Democratic Society by Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Saúl García-López 2020). Her poetry and fiction have appeared in PALABRA, About Place Journal, Ariel Journal, and other publications. Martinez-Cruz is the coordinator of Onda Latina Ohio, an arts initiative promoting Latinx performance in the Midwest.

For more about Onda Latina Ohio, join the artists here.

[1] Puerto Rico, the Northern Mariana Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and American Somoa are U.S. territories whose U.S.-born residents do not have voting representation in the United States Congress or electoral votes for president.  

Top of page: Awilda Rodriguze Lora, Residencia Virtual SUSTENTO/SUSTENTO Virtual Residency; photo: Tania Gabriela

Paloma Martinez-Cruz photo courtesy of the author

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