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Q&A: ‘Goddess on wheels’ Maria R. Palacios talks performance art and disability justice

Palacios is performing in a show focusing on the ways climate change is affecting marginalized communities.
Tina Vasquez October 21st, 2020
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When Prism spoke to poet, spoken word performer, and disability activist Maria R. Palacios, she was “nervous and excited” to film four original performance pieces as part of “We Love Like Barnacles: Crip Lives in Climate Chaos,” a show focusing on the ways that climate change is disproportionately affecting disabled people and other marginalized communities. Palacios is one of seven artists contributing performances using dance, song, storytelling, and poetry to show how the disabled community is surviving, thriving, and resisting injustice.

“We Love Like Barnacles” is being produced by Sins Invalid, the groundbreaking Bay Area disability justice performance project that centers people of color, queer, nonbinary, and trans people with disabilities. Sins Invalid has produced shows featuring performers with disabilities since 2006. Before the pandemic, these shows were done live in Bay Area venues, but this year the performances are pre-recorded and streaming online Oct.23-25.

Palacios has performed with Sins Invalid since 2007 and she calls the organization home—“an artistic home; a sexy advocacy home; a crip home; a disability justice home.” The performer spoke to Prism about her artistic process, the critical work of Sins Invalid, and the intersection of climate crisis and ableism. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.

Tina Vasquez: I’m going to start very simply and selfishly because as a shy person, I’m fascinated by performers and always curious to learn about someone’s process for becoming a performer. How did you realize you wanted to be a performer?

Maria R. Palacios: I've been a writer my entire life. I had polio when I was only nine months old and that experience of growing up disabled gave me my writer's wings. So I grew up really knowing how to express myself in writing, but the actual performing part did not come until my mid 20s and by pure accident. The first time I performed in public—it was like the thrill just grabbed me. That's when I realized the power of lifting my written word from the page into the spoken form and how that creates change that is palpable, that is visible, and that can be felt and heard. That experience became addicting.

Vasquez: How did you start performing?

Palacios: I started off at various venues here in Houston and around that time, I was also working the domestic violence scene, helping survivors of domestic violence and specifically focusing on the lives of disabled women. Even back then, I realized how marginalized we were as disabled women. That’s kind of where my name, “Goddess on Wheels,” came about. Men are given so much privilege and they just take it. As women, if we are assertive, we are considered bitches. So this goddess persona just emerged. I was a goddess who happened to be sitting on wheels. My involvement with Sins Invalid back in 2007 is what really cemented by persona as a stage performer.

Vasquez: Tell me more about that. You performed in Sins Invalid’s second ever show.

Palacios: It was the end of 2006 and we were all using MySpace and [Sins Invalid] co-founder Leroy Moore happened to find me and he sent me a little note that said, "Hey lady, your work seems right up our alley. Audition." I completely ignored him! We laugh about it now, but at the time he kept insisting and I kept giving him excuses. Eventually I gave in, but technology then was not what it is now. I didn’t have a cell phone to pick up and record myself. There was no YouTube that I was aware of. So auditioning meant having to record myself with a camera and it meant physically sending the video. I had this little camera that used those little tapes. I went to my garden and I filmed myself doing three pieces; two of them made it into the show. Honestly, I sent the audition just to shut him up. Weeks passed and I honestly forgot about it. When I received an email from [Sins Invalid co-founder] Patty Berne saying that I had been accepted into the show, I really could not believe it. It was one of the most exciting and terrifying artistic notices that I had ever received. So, I joined the 2007 show.

Vasquez: What do you remember about that first performance with Sins Invalid?

Palacios: It was November 2, 2007, Day of the Dead. I remember thinking, "Oh my God, here we are in San Francisco in the Mission District competing with Dia de los Muertos. Nobody's going to come to the show." But I was wrong. We sold out. We sell out every year. There was just so much excitement around the show and it’s been amazing to see what Sins Invalid has become, which is a platform of empowerment and advocacy. So much truth is told on stage by disabled people who have been marginalized and forgotten by society. We share and empower others with disabilities, and educate the non-disabled world about things that they wouldn't hear otherwise.

Vasquez: Did Sins Invalid immediately feel like a home for you and your artistic work?

Palacios: Absolutely. Sins Invalid is part of who I am artistically and I believe the reason why is because there's nothing else like it. It's because we have been so left out of the artistic scene, and if we have been invited to participate, it often happens in non-accessible spaces. In places that only utilize us to say that they’ve done it, but they don't really include us. Also because the narrative of artists with disabilities has been so forgotten. It’s left out on purpose, but sometimes I also believe it can be unintentional—just the way that ableism operates and runs the lives of society and the views of non-disabled people. It’s because of all of this and more that Sins Invalid is home to me; it’s an artistic home; a sexy advocacy home; a crip home; a disability justice home. It is the voice that allows me to speak up and say exactly what I need, and that's one of the most valuable lessons that I have learned from Sins: I have the right to demand and expect exactly what I need as a disabled artist and as a disabled person.

Vasquez: As a journalist, I spend a lot of time thinking about how rarely I report on the resilience of communities, even though I see resilience everywhere. I feel like we report on the trauma and don’t find the time to report on the power of communities. If I’m hearing correctly, that is a part of Sins’ work that really resonates with you—the emphasis on resilience.  

Palacios: I want you to know that it’s always important to focus on resilience because otherwise society would already have us killed. As disabled people, we need to remind one another that our lives are worth living. Our humanity is completely being ignored, discarded, thrown away. When we focus on resilience, we remind each other and the world that we are meant to be here. We remind one another that we are there for each other; that we need each other; and that needing each other is how we stay alive because that's what disability justice is about. So when we focus on resilience, we are sending the message that we deserve to be here; that this world also belongs to crippled people.

Vasquez: You have described your spoken word pieces as “brutally honest” and you’ve said that your poetic storytelling and sexy and flirtatious stage presence have become hallmarks of your performances. How did you arrive at this style?

Palacios: I think that the most powerful thing that Sins does for performers is respect us and allow us to give from the very core of our crippleness with unashamed reality. There are a lot of spaces where even with non-disabled artists, the work gets tremendously edited. They get told what to say, how to say it. When Patty Berne directs the show, she simply allows us to flourish with all our thorns and all our imperfections, whichever twisted ways or words come to us, with our bodies and our scars.

My voice and performance developed simply because I have been allowed to flourish in my own terrain, on my own terms, without any shame and with acceptance and knowing that I deserve to be here. I think all of that helped me develop my style. But at the same time, I don't know how to answer that question. I really do believe that my work is simply born this way. It's born with this crippleness and these twisted metaphors and this weirdness. It just is. Like I simply am, like you simply are. 

Vasquez: In a way, it is a completely unanswerable question. Your style—everyone’s style—is distinctive because it’s uniquely theirs, which now makes me want to talk about your creative process. For a spoken word piece, for example, what is your writing process? How do you think through a piece?

Palacios: I love that question because it is different for every situation, but when it comes to working with Sins I'll tell you exactly how it is for me because it doesn't vary for some odd, wild reason. Every time that we have a show and Patty comes up with a theme or the group comes up with a theme, it is almost as if this electrical current just fills me and I automatically create my piece. I'm not exaggerating. With this particular show, “We Love Like Barnacles,” Patty sent us the final theme, I opened her email, I read it, and 15 minutes later I had given birth to the first piece in the show.

Vasquez: That’s astounding. Why do you think it happens this way every time?

Palacios: For me personally, Patty's energy it's kind of the fuel; that power; that engine. It's almost like I'm dormant artistically until Sins sticks the key in and it's like, "Okay, here's what we're doing. We Love Like Barnacles." So yeah, I wrote this one piece 15 minutes into finding out what the show was. The piece is called “Crip Prophecies” and it talks about some pretty harsh truths. I was talking to Patty about the delivery of the piece and she encouraged me to accentuate every word; to really let people sit with a pregnant pause before they get hit with the bomb of realities they're about to hear because chances are that many people have probably not heard these truths.

Vasquez: I imagine you don’t want to give too much away leading up to the show, but tell me how you want people to receive these truths.

Palacios: If you’re brand new to Sins, things are going to hit you. They're going to shock you. They're going to educate you, bring awareness, and you're going to leave feeling like you've just entered a world that you may have known existed, but never experienced. I like to call the work of Sins Invalid “artistic advocacy” because our work is not just art; it's advocacy at the very core of what advocacy looks like. It's life-changing; it's earth-shattering; it's mountain moving. It's powerful beyond my ability to even describe it.

Vasquez: “We Love Like Barnacles” focuses on the intersection of climate crisis and ableism. I can’t say that I’ve seen a great deal of work—artistic or otherwise—that focuses on this intersection.

Palacios: There’s even less out there that includes disabled people. When we think about social movements—whether it’s #MeToo or anything else—disabled people continue to be left behind. With COVID, how many people were left to die in nursing homes? A price is put on disabled lives. We are allowed to die during the pandemic or as part of climate chaos because our lives are considered less valuable. Sins Invalid is pushing this conversation just like it has been pushing disability justice for years. Chances are that without Sins Invalid, a lot of people—including disabled people—would not be speaking about ableism with the same honesty that we are now or with the same in your face attitude that says, "I deserve to be here, you ableist motherfuckers.”

Vasquez: And what can you say about “We Love Like Barnacles” itself, what can people expect from the show?

Palacios: I think that people need to know this year's show is emotionally difficult. It's going to be powerful in a way that is going to make people realize how fucked up the world really is, and yet how resilient and how powerful disabled people are. It's going to make them realize that we're not going away. That’s kind of my message in the “Crip Prophecies” piece. It's the realization that the world wants to get rid of us, but they can't. Everyone [performing] is bringing a piece of themselves to the table that has never been shared before.

I will also say that while making this year's show, we realized that disabled lives are in chaos. The world is falling apart around us, but that doesn't necessarily mean that people are lining up to save us. We have to recognize that we have to be there for each other in order to survive, and so this show is about survival.

Vasquez: You have multiple pieces in the show, right?

Palacios: I have four pieces in the show and I feel tremendously honored about that. Two of my pieces are spoken word pieces; one is “Crip Prophecies” and the other is about my personal experience going through Hurricane Harvey.

I’m also doing two flamenco pieces. Mind you, I'm not a dancer. Movement is not something that I necessarily consider natural, but I'm a performer and I'm passionate about these flamenco pieces because they show the central aspect of crippleness. I want to show how my disabled body can move even though my flamenco moves might not be non-disabled flamenco moves. They are what they are; they are the beauty reflected from my crippleness—and I love saying that word “crippleness” because it's been a word that the non-disabled society and the non-disabled world has used to demean us and make us feel less than. But when we say it, we say it with power. We say it with love. In my flamenco pieces I'm dancing to some beautiful gypsy music performed by another Sins Invalid performer, who is also disabled. I'm super excited about being able to project this energy of sexy in the midst of the world fucking falling apart around us.

We Love Like Barnacles: Crip Lives in Climate Chaos” will be streamed through San Francisco, California’s ODC Theater website Oct. 23-25. Tickets can be purchased online, though no one will be denied access to the show for lack of funds and discount codes are available.


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