Pace and place: disability politics at desert speeds

An interview with Naomi Ortiz

A white Mestiza woman stands in the desert wearing a purple top and blue bandana
Naomi Ortiz

From belly button to umbilical cord to roots, Naomi Ortiz traces the relationships between body and place in her work. In the opening of Sustaining Spirit, Ortiz asks: “¿y donde esta tu ombligo? Where are you centered or rooted? How does your body connect with where you are right now?[1] She asks readers to conceive of themselves as interconnected with their communities and their material world. Ortiz herself is rooted in the desert and in the disability justice community. Having been the director of the national Kids As Self Advocates project and the Southern Arizona chapter of Help Increase the Peace, among many others, she highlights the relationship between acts of self-care, acts of community care, and the ecologies these acts take place in.[2]

As a site-specific author, Ortiz writes from her connection to the desert of Arizona. She describes how where she is shapes what she writes. Her method is one “about … sitting and developing relationships with the spot of land that I am on. There’s so much that the desert gives me through attention and observation. It’s reciprocal. I think that it appreciates being seen.”[3] While popular nature writers have historically emphasized Man against the elements narratives, Ortiz’s take on nature writing is impacted by access to trails her scooter can travel down and is situated near people (whether she wants them around or not). She says of herself as a nature writer, “my relationship with nature … it’s not going to be taking a four-day hike, backpacking in the middle of nowhere. It’ll be sitting in the parking lot at a trail head, trying to find a spot that doesn’t have a lot of people.”[4] Ortiz’s nature is not a space separate from questions of politics; rather, it is entwined with them. 

Disability justice and animal rights activist Sunaura Taylor turns to the water and desert of Arizona to discuss the nature of disability justice politics. In her lecture, Disabled Ecologies: Living with Impaired Landscapes, Taylor writes about the impacts of the Hughes Aircraft company’s production operations in Tucson. Discussing the company’s release of chemicals into the groundwater, Taylor “suggest[s] that metaphors of health are arguably some of the most ubiquitous and impactful ways of talking about environmental harm, and [asks] what critical disability perspectives can make of this.”[5] To that end, Taylor speculates on the possibilities of bringing these so-called disabled ecologies into the disability community. Taylor pushes us to “follow and build off of these various ways of thinking with ecological health as a material reality and take seriously the possibility that processes of the ecosystem impairment, illness, and mutation are not mere metaphors, but rather could be generatively understood as part of the disability experience.”[6] Linking the toxins released into Arizona’s groundwater, the military industrial complex that requisitions aircraft, and those poisoned, bombed, or otherwise disabled by these connections, Taylor extends the frame of disability to aquifers and ecologies, showing the material impacts and potentials of disability metaphors taken seriously.  

Like Taylor, Ortiz demonstrates how disability politics are entwined with environmental as well as social possibilities. This interview with Naomi Ortiz, conducted in the fall of 2019, offers thoughts on care for places and people in the disability community.

Cover of Sustaining Spirit by Naomi Ortiz; a painting of a Mestiza woman holding a cactusNaomi Ortiz is a writer, poet, facilitator, and visual artist whose work focuses on self-care for activists, disability justice and living in multiple worlds (intersectionality). She is a Disabled Mestiza (Indigenous/Latina/white) who was raised in Latinx culture and lives with her partner in the US/Mexico borderlands. Ortiz is a highly acclaimed speaker and facilitator, conducting workshops exploring self-care tools and strategies for diverse communities. Her book, Sustaining Spirit: Self-Care for Social Justice invites readers to balance activism with self-care by guiding readers to sink into metaphor and examine their relationship to self, community, and place. [7]


Jessica Suzanne Stokes: How does your experience of disability impact how you write? In what ways does it inform and shape your methodology?

Naomi Ortiz: Disability affects everything. It’s often the lens I look through in terms of the world that I write about. I integrate a lot of nature into my writing. My relationship with nature … it’s not going to be taking a four-day hike, backpacking in the middle of nowhere. It’ll be sitting in the parking lot at a trail head, trying to find a spot that doesn’t have a lot of people; an opportunity to imagine me and be with what I’m surrounded by. It has really taught me a lot about how to be a writer in terms of pacing. I go a lot slower than a lot of writers. It’s humbling in that sense. I don’t just write, I also paint. I go even slower with that. There was a period when I got done with the book [Sustaining Spirit], and that was my anchor for the years that I was working on it. When I got done with it, both writing and editing and in-betweenness, every week I would try to go out into the desert. In the summer, it’s brutally hot, but I tried to go out for as long as I could. Just asking the universe what I should be doing. Continuously I kept getting that I need to be writing and doing poetry and painting. I keep asking, “what am I doing? Why am I going so slow?”

Stokes: Does slowness change your attention to language?

Ortiz: I think going slower … I definitely integrate those three things (paint/poetry/writing) [more] than if I went faster. I try to capture the essence of what I am writing about. I’m looking at a lot of visual art in my poetry or poetry in my visual art, I don’t know. I think going slower makes me see how things connect. I don’t want to use “better,” but in a deeper way.

Stokes: The desert is clearly very important to you and your writing. As is the body. You begin your book, Sustaining Spirit: “y donde esta tu ombligo? How do you understand the relationship between land and body in your work?

Ortiz: I think I am incredibly privileged to live in a place that has not been destroyed and then rebuilt or regrown. I live in a place where it still is as it has been for hundreds and hundreds of years. The plants actually live longer than humans. They live for hundreds of years. The second thing is, going to the desert, I could never be the person to go HIKE. That’s not how I enjoy the natural environment. It’s not through moving through it at a pace, from making it to a summit and then coming back down. My relationship with the desert is really about going and sitting and developing relationships with the spot of land that I am on. There’s so much that the desert gives me through attention and observation. It’s reciprocal. I think that it appreciates being seen. I try to leave some water as offering. So I think that we care for each other in some ways. The desert is profoundly powerful. I think it teaches a lot.

Stokes: I just recently reread Eli Clare’s Exile and Pride and there’s a section on the mountain and the metaphor for the mountain in peoples’ lives about having to climb or overcome it. For you, that’s never really been a goal. Or did you ever have a time where you had to climb a mountain and feel the frustration of not being able to?

Ortiz: Growing up here, I had such a connection to the land, but how it was framed for me by other people was: “if you have such a connection to the land you should be able to go and be active.” There’s something called Buffalo grass here which is a huge issue. It’s a nonnative grass that burns really fast and at high temperatures, and they said “you should be able to be part of active restoration or hike and if you don’t you can’t appreciate the desert.” I’m lucky one of my parents is a scientist and she always kind of approached my disability as an exercise in problem solving. For better or worse. I just needed the right assistive technology to figure out how to (clean the bathroom, for example). Having a parent around who was willing to figure out “okay, you want to go camping. What might that look like? How do we do that in the most accessible way?” That was a supportive thing that happened. I had to define my own relationship to the desert. I had to find my own relationship with the desert and figure out how to have connections with the place that I live in ways that aren’t seen. It really helped me to develop a very authentic bond.

Stokes: You’ve done work in disability for much of your life and you identify as a Mestiza. There are many critiques of racism in the disability community, and I wonder how you’ve navigated those relationships from your positionality?

Ortiz: That’s a huge question. Racism is of course (something) in disability communities. Oftentimes, I think credibility is given to folks who look white, folks who can speak and be clearly understood. Where their disability is equated with one aspect of who they are instead of integral and affecting a lot of things and making them be unpredictable. I have light skin privilege definitely, and that has gotten me some opportunities to get in the door. But once I’m in there, I haven’t understood how to act because I don’t understand the rules. In my book Sustaining Spirit, I talked about rule-bearers. Those are the folks that know and create and understand the rules. I didn’t understand any of the rules about how to interact. In white culture politeness is often seen as basically lying. Like agreeing with somebody or humoring someone: that’s politeness. Whereas in other cultures politeness is being honest. If someone asks you a direct question, you give them an honest answer. That’s respectful. So, at the time I had no idea why I was offending people or why the ways I was interacting with people were not seen as respectful. My partner is a white male. What we generally call “disability pretty” which is to say he’s disabled in ways that people aren’t threatened by. He’ll say something and people will automatically believe him and I’ll say something and people will automatically not believe my experience. And it’s not just the disability community.

What I dream for is ways that we can have these conversations … it’s hard. You don’t know what you don’t know, yet at the same time to understand that lived experience is really challenging. I think one of the questions I’m really curious about is, “what does the way forward look like?” A lot of people talk about people of color being in positions of leadership in the disability community. I think that would be awesome. There needs to be more of a whole-body answer versus a “you just need to understand” answer. I think that it’s a little scary because it’s so tender for people. I think it’s a little scary to put something out that might be dreaming for the future, but at the same time it’s very necessary. 

I think that’s what being mixed has really taught me. I have two Mexican grandparents that are Indigenous, one grandparent who is white and disabled, one born and raised in Brazil. So I’m technically Latina. But I like to embrace the Indigenous aspect, even though my family has a lot of internalized shame around that. I never learned whiteness as whiteness. I learned disabled whiteness; which is different I think. But being mixed — embodying that, I think that those of us who are mixed do have some answers when it comes to how we find connection and respect and expectation of difference versus the need to intellectualize everything.

1.  Naomi Ortiz, Sustaining Spirit (Berkeley, CA: Reclamation Press, 2018), 3.

2. Naomi Ortiz, About

3. Naomi Ortiz, personal correspondence (October 1, 2019).

4. Ortiz, correspondence.

5. Sunaura Taylor, Disabled Ecologies: Living with Impaired Landscapes (lecture, The Othering and Belonging Institute/HAAS institute, Berkeley, CA, March 5, 2019).

6. Taylor, Disabled Ecologies.

7. Reclamation Press, Naomi Ortiz