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Why I Reign

Why I Reign

Performance artist Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz discusses her Reinas series and how she channels queens to unravel societal traumas and anxieties. 

Summer 2017 | By Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz

I am not your queen.

As the daughter of working-class Puerto Rican immigrants who were not afforded the opportunity of education, I am driven far more by reclamation than subjugation. My mother arrived in this country from Puerto Rico in the ’50s when she was 20 with one baby on her hip and another on the way. She was not allowed to learn how to read or write, since she was told that going to school was for boys. Somehow, my parents survived, dare I say, thrived, despite the odds. They bore seven successful, formally educated children. My mother’s stories, my family history, could not be documented by her own hand. Without her, there would be no me, no radical art, no queens, no court.

My mother always told me, “You aren’t better than anyone else, but no one is better than you, either.” Her words — undocumented, unrecorded — influence how I view the world and everything I do.

I am a Puerto Rican, American, academic, artist, troublemaker, observer, Bronx chick transplant. Part social experimenter, part shaman, part trickster, I am a storyteller of my own narratives. Yo soy una reina. I do not, however, claim to speak for anyone else. I simply share my truths, hoping to build bridges and fill gaps between the communities that I traverse.

This is why I transform myself into archetypal queens anchored in traumas and anxieties that I am pretty sure other people share. I am the Bargain Basement Sovereign, facing adversity with resilience and poise. Yo soy Guerrille Reina, a Warrior Queen, surviving domestic violence to become hyper-vigilant and defensive. Yo soy Porcela Reina, a Porcelain Queen, coming to terms with my own frailty during pregnancy. Yo soy Gringa Reina, the White-Girl Queen, grappling with stifling Eurocentric beauty standards. As all of these queens, I aim to unravel the nuances of these anxieties that, to a larger extent, affect the world in which we live.

In March, Raimundi-Ortiz performed Pietà at the Knowles Memorial Chapel at Rollins College.

As all of these queens, I aim to unravel the nuances of these anxieties that, to a larger extent, affect the world in which we live.

The royal court I’ve created is where I turn for wisdom, comfort, support and restoration. Here, too, is where I process, scrutinize and untangle those anxieties. It is (arguably) cheaper than therapy. I wear my anxieties like a crown, exposing myself and speaking my truths, hoping that my vulnerability connects with someone else and offers them, at the very least, some comfort that they are not alone. These concerns are not singular to me.

My biggest unease concerns my son, mi heredero. In this country, his brown skin makes him more vulnerable. His body becomes a target, something to be broken — his life something too easily stolen, like Trayvon, Sandra, Michael, Philandro, Tamir and the young people at Pulse. This violence keeps happening and happening and happening.

I do not want this unrest to be his only narrative. I want his story, as I want the stories of all the “other” people in America, to be his own. I want to shield him. I want to protect us. I know I cannot. I can, however, channel my fears and anxiety of losing a child to hatred into my work. As sovereign and artist, I can create a chance, if only for a little while, to grieve together for our bodies that are always at risk, simply for existing. Through my latest project, Pietà, I cradled 33 people of color in my arms, as Mary cradled the body of her dead son, Jesus. I can hold a mirror up to the inconsistency in our society that fuels unjust situations and yields unjustified repercussions.

Their lives will not be erased, nor will the lives of my son or mom. My reign is an extension of them, of us, and my presence ensures their continuation, even after I am gone. As queen, I am compelled to break the barrier between sovereign and subject. My sovereignty is over my story and the stories of my family who did not have the language or agency to write their own narratives.

Raimundi-Ortiz cradled 33 volunteers for 3 minutes and 33 seconds each.

Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz is an assistant professor of art at UCF and a nationally and internationally recognized, award-winning interdisciplinary visual and performance artist. Her recent Reinas project, Pietà, was featured at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery as part of the performance art series Identify.