Lactating on Stage

I was back on stage performing six months after my son was born. I had no business being on stage. I had had a two-year absence from dance at that point, and I was never a technically strong dancer to begin with, and I had no idea how to move my new body.

Plus, I did not have much time to recover. I had to return to work six weeks after giving birth. Adjunct Faculty at the UA did not have maternity leave, or benefits for that matter. And not only did I need the job to cover medical expenses, but I also needed the income to immigrate my husband.

So there I was, teaching six weeks after giving birth. Sleep deprived. Struggling with postpartum depression from all the large life transitions that happened to me in the span of a few months. My hubby was living in LA at the time and dealing with my brother-in-law’s bipolar manic episodes (although he was not diagnosed yet and we did not know what was happening). With my husband still living in another state, I was basically a single mother at this point in time. I depended on in-laws, such as my mother in law or my husband’s cousins, to watch my newborn child, or I would take him in with me when I had to teach because I could not afford childcare and living expenses on my measly adjunct salary. My few-months-old son attended my classes, and faculty and research meetings in his car seat carrier more than a few times. All of this drained me spiritually, emotionally, and financially.

So why on earth did I put myself on stage only six months after having a child and two years of not dancing at all? Because I was commissioned to create three pieces based on the experiences of undocumented students in the local community college. Not wanting the opportunity to pass me by, I said yes, figuring I could find a handful of dancers to work with me and I would not have to be on stage. I needed three dancers, preferably Latin@. I found one dancer, yet my husband, a recently retired professional folklόrico dancer, wouldn’t even commit to the project. No rehearsals every other weekend when he was in town. He just flat out said no. And I couldn’t find anyone else. I was so desperate for bodies, I put a visual artist on stage. And I felt I had no other choice: I needed to perform. Oh, a foreshadow of things to come…

The rehearsals, combined with work and mothering a nursing newborn, took a toll on my body. I came down with lactation mastitis, which is so incredibly painful, three times while breastfeeding. Feeding times often fell during class and rehearsals, I could feel myself leaking. The milk ducts were full, then they clogged, and I got the very painful infection. I felt like I had to suck it up and deal with it. Deal with the pain and the infections. I could not change my class schedule at the University. My schedule was at the mercy of sabbaticals and professors buying out classes. I had no agency to negotiate and I couldn’t breastfeed or pump as I lectured in front of 180 students. And for some reason, perhaps the exhaustion, the lack of a support system, or my inexperience as a mother, I did not even consider bringing my son to rehearsal and breast feeding him there when he needed it.

To add to the madness, the director who commissioned the piece had a hard time securing affordable rehearsal space…again a foreshadow of things to come…and got us free space 45 minutes across town. Which meant that it took 3 hours of travel time, round trip, to get to rehearsal (30-minute drive to my in-laws, 15-minute instruction time for the baby, 45-minute drive to rehearsal, then rinse and repeat to go home). There were hours away from my child that were physically painful.

I should not have done it but I did it anyway, and this performance was the catalyst for creating my company. (Read more about this here). Looking back, this performance was also the complete foreshadow of things to come. Seven years later, all these things — difficulty finding dancers, affordable rehearsal space, and child care — still plague both me and my organization. Seven years later, the same struggles, the same battles. Go figure!

All of this work, all of the physical pain I incurred, all the time away from my son, culminated with a one-night performance. I was standing on a table in black beginning the piece that was my solo. It was a small intimate theater with 120 seat house. Sold out. It was the first section of my piece. The beginning of the dance. My baby is in the audience, six months old. As soon as the lights start coming up, slow fade, I start to leak. I am lactating on stage before the dance piece even begins. I pray the pad in my nursing bra which has a sports bra on top, absorbs all of the milk and it doesn’t show. Prayers answered. It didn’t.

Birthing a Company (and a Baby): Part II

After quitting dance in Tucson, the grand plan was to save up for a year, move to L.A. and live with my friend “Chava” who was dancing with a touring folklόrico company based in the area. I was going to move to L.A. with my friend and dance. Oh how plans change.

On a trip to Southern CA for a cousin’s wedding in the summer of 2007, I drove down a few days early to visit my friend Chava. During that trip, we became more than friends and after a whirlwind 6-week long-distance romance, I was pregnant, we were married, and he was moving back to Tucson.

I never left town. At the time we married, my husband was undocumented and I needed to use my job at the University of Arizona and my income to immigrate him. And I needed to immigrate him, for the sake of my new family and unborn child. In 2007, the anti-immigrant sentiment in Arizona was at an all-time high, peaking right before the passage of SB 1070 in 2010. Chava drove through Maricopa county, home of the infamous Sheriff Aripaio, on his way home from L.A. to visit me every two weeks. I worried about him being stopped in Phoenix. I worried that if he was pulled over, had a flat tire, or the like, that the father of my unborn child could be deported. Staying in the desert to immigrate my husband was the most logical path, so I stayed and he returned, eventually.

Around two months after I gave birth to Buddy, my little firecracker, I was commissioned to create 3 pieces of choreography by the Fundaciόn Mexico and Durham University located in the United Kingdom. At Durham University, doctoral students of a certain department were paired with artists who interpret the research findings of the PhD candidate and help disseminate the findings back to the community. The commission came about because the partner of the Ph.D. candidate and choreography commissioner worked as an administrator in the Mexican American Studies Department where I taught. The Ph.D. candidate and his wife knew that I was a choreographer and that I had some experience(s) with the theme the dissertation explored, undocumented college students. Not only was I familiar with the academic research on the subject, my husband and his brother were undocumented students who graduated with a bachelors and masters respectively in engineering in the early 2000s and were unable to work in their fields at that time. Keep in mind this was in 2007, prior to the Dream Act/DACA. I was selected as one of approximately 10 artists on the bill. Given the fact that I was in the process of immigrating my husband and all of my new in-laws were still undocumented at this time, I threw myself into the project, creating three new dance pieces.

Opening (and closing) night came, and the one night only show was completely sold out! There was a line around the theater and one of my close friends was calling me asking me to sneak her in the back door of the venue. I thought about that former director of mine…whatever happened to “my” people not showing up to see contemporary art? Maybe they weren’t marketed to in the most culturally competent ways? Or perhaps they just wanted to see something relevant to their experiences on the stage?

Armed with the knowledge there was an audience for contemporary Latina@ performing arts, including dance, and stuck in Tucson with a modern dance community that had absolutely no space for me, I mulled over the idea of doing something.

After the death of a classmate from college about six weeks after the mix billed show, that idea evolved into “I am going to create my own company”. Although we did not get along that well due to ideological differences, I had respect for the woman who had a large impact on the youth and students in the Chicano community. Driving home from the services that afternoon, I thought to myself “Life is short. If I am going to do what I want, choreograph the pieces I see in my mind’s eye, I should do it now. Why not?” After picking my child up from my mother-in-law, I called two of my close friends – one a former folklόrico dancer who collaborated with me on “Estatus: Unsent” and experienced with me first hand all the microagressions of the Tucson modern dance scene, the other a friend who I did research with at the UA. I also called up a new dance acquaintance and in-law by marriage and another friend from college who had experience opening his own businesses. I asked all of them if they would be interested in starting a dance company with me.  All of them agreed.

On February 18, 2009, we gathered around a glass coffee table in the home of one of my best friends. A company was born. My son was 7 months old.