Maegan “La Mala” Ortiz is a Twitter OG—maybe the first person I ever followed on the platform. But we first met on radical feminist mama boards and then in real life after those communities succumbed to racism and flame wars. I was awed by her connection to and knowledge of the Young Lords through her mentors. At that point, Maegan was already a well-known poet and activist, documenting how her politics (and her moniker) evolved and shifted after her pregnancy at age 19. A blogger before the term caught on, she went on to create the site Vivir Latino, which was, in its brief time, a rare and necessary space for political conversations about Latinidad. Since then, Mala has moved from New York City to Los Angeles, gotten a fancy top-side day job at Instituto de Educación Popular del Sur de California (IDEPSCA) and become a public servant. She continues to inspire with her nakedly honest blogging (micro and otherwise). Here is who Maegan Ortiz thinks she is.
Who are you?
I am a Nuyorican living in Los Angeles. I’m born and bred in Queens, New York. I identify as a woman. I’m 42 years old and am mami to two daughters, one is 22, the other is 12. I have pretty bad scoliosis, so most of my life I was considered what we now call “disabled.” My current hustle is I’m the executive director of a nonprofit in Los Angeles that works with day laborers and household workers. I’m also a writer and I used to be a journalist. I like to dance. I’m a Taurus. Sexually, I’m all over the place, but I don’t use “queer” because most of my relationships have been with heterosexual cis men and I feel like it would be appropriative.
How do you identify racially?
I don’t think there’s a perfect racial definition. I’m a light-skinned Puerto Rican although sometimes I say I’m a White Puerto Rican.
My parents always had this big thing [about] pointing out the Spanish part of our family. But then there was also my great, great grandmother who was identified as [Taíno]. And then, other aunts, who identify as straight up Black.
I definitely didn’t have a White experience growing up. Thinking about this, my kids are phenotypically more Latino looking. My first daughter is half Indigenous—Mapuche. My other daughter is half Chilean. There’s no way they could like “pass” as anything else. [They’re clearly] Latin American with Indigenous roots. That has caused me to think a lot more about how I identify racially. My 12-year-old the other day was like, “I don’t know. I think you’re White. But not really!” We have conversations about that.
Have you ever filled out the Census? And if you have, how did you answer the question about race?
I remember filling it out for my mom and her saying, “Make sure you put I’m White.” And I was like, Okay. For myself, I definitely checked more [than one race]. For my kids, I put “White” and, even [though] the Indigenous categories are very kind of weird and fucked up and U.S.-centric, I definitely put “Indigenous.”
Are there other times or places that you’ve answered the question of, “What is your race” differently?
I did have a time when I totally bought in to my parents’ Eurocentric shit. In seventh and eighth grade, I went around telling people I was from Spain until a classmate of mine who was she was half Irish, half Black literally slapped me in the face. She was like, “You need to fucking stop!”
When I became politicized as a teenager, I bought into that whole thing that Puerto Ricans talk about, “Yes, we’re this beautiful mixture of three different races and everyone is Black and Indigenous.”
At the organization where I’m at, we’re having a conversation between the mostly Latino worker members and a Black worker center, specifically to talk about some of these issues. I’ve been thinking about this a lot too, especially as a light-skinned Puerto Rican. I think about my identities—visually, personally and politically. Part of the challenge is that all that shit is real, but it’s also fucking made up. It’s real in the way that history has been used specifically to dehumanize and the way that racism was used in the United States and in the Caribbean to create empire. But it was also completely made up in order to do that.
How will you answer the question on the 2020 Census?
This whole conflation of ethnicity and nationality makes it so frustrating. I don’t know how I’m going to answer that. For me that always raises the question like, What happens if I don’t answer that section? Is there a negative consequence?
What is your definition of Latino/Latina/Latinx?
For me, Latinidad has to do with a shared experience of colonialism and imperialism within that geographic region, really specific to the United States. The concept, even for Puerto Rico, I don’t think it translates really well outside of the United States context. I have always tended to use Latina in terms of a political experience.
How do you think the multiple—and maybe contested—definitions of Latino, Latina and Latinx impact efforts toward racial justice?
The issue is this conflation between racial identity, ethnic identity and political identity—which is why I struggle with Cancel Latinidad, because I don’t see Latinidad as a racial categorization. It’s always been more of a political designation about our shared political context. There is some value in having some sort of designation for people who have a shared experience of colonization and imperialism. Do we cancel Latinidad or do we push back to acknowledge that “Black” and “Latino” can and do exist at the same time and are connected in terms of the politics of colonialism and race? We still haven’t had a real fucking conversation about race. We haven’t.
What is the particular impact of Latinx racial identity on your work?
It’s every fucking day that the issue of race comes up in my household. It’s a constant in my work and in my writing. I am very conscious about, the way I present in the world, and especially working where I am lucky enough to work and understanding the deep privilege that I have. I try to be aware of ways that I’m taking up space and how I give space to other people. It feels like a constant dance to a song that I didn’t put on.
I try to be acutely aware of that while also holding the fact that I do consider myself a woman of color. It’s a constant dance because of my daughters and thinking about the ways that they are experiencing the world.
Rosana Cruz is a writer, parent, social justice movement leader and intersectional feminist. They have lived in New Orleans for over 20 years and in that time, worked closely with numerous organizations in the struggle for racial justice, LGBTQIA+ liberation and immigrant rights. They currently serve as a senior fellow at Race Forward, the national racial justice organization that publishes Colorlines. Essays by Cruz have been published in hipMama, Bridge the Gulf Project, Colorlines and the anthology Mamaphonic. Cruz is a 2017 VONA Voices Fellow. Short fiction by Cruz is forthcoming in the Spring 2020 issue of Black Warrior Review.