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Imagine Otherwise: Karen Jaime on Queer Puerto Rican Slam Poetry

Imagine Otherwise: Karen Jaime on Queer Puerto Rican Slam Poetry

retro
April 5, 2017
Karen Jaime wearing a grey suit and white button-down shirt

How can poetry translate or disrupt political dialogue? In what way is classroom teaching a performance?

In episode 34 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach and guest Karen Jaime discuss the history of queer and trans* Puerto Rican poets in New York City, how professors can use the classroom as both an artistic and activist space, how poets paradoxically use language to bust through language barriers, poetry as consciousness raising, and why queer and trans artists of color turn to multimedia and transdisciplinary work to forge social justice movements.

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Guest: Karen Jaime

Karen Jaime is an assistant professor of performing and media arts and Latina/o studies at Cornell University.

Karen’s current book project, The Queer Loisaida: Performance Aesthetics at the Nuyorican Poets Café, reveals the world-renowned Nuyorican Poets Café as a historically queer space—both in terms of sexualities and performance practices.

Karen has published in the journals Women and Performance, e-Misférica, Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism, and TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly.

In addition to Karen’s critical writing and research, she is also an accomplished spoken word and performance artist. She served as the host and curator for the Friday Night Slam at the Nuyorican Poets Café, participated in the spoken word documentary film Spit!, and was featured in the Emmy-award winning CUNY-TV program Nueva York, a television show focusing on the different aspects of Latino culture in New York City.

Karen’s poetry is included in The Best of Panic! En Vivo From the East Village, Flicker and Spark: A Queer Anthology of Spoken Word and Poetry, and in a special issue of Sinister Wisdom: A Multicultural Lesbian Literary and Art Journal called “Out Latina Lesbians.” 

Karen Jaime wearing a grey suit and white button-down shirt. Text reads: I think of the classroom as another type of performance. How do you keep students engaged? How do you create a space where students are comfortable participating?

We chatted about

► How Karen entered the world of spoken-word poetry at the Nuyorican Poets Café (03:58)

► The political nature of Karen’s poetry and poetry more broadly (08:21)

► Ways to increase access to our messages through poetry and mixed-medium art forms (10:17)

► The classroom as an activist performance space (13:53)

► Karen’s particular mix of art, academia, and activism (19:38)

► Imagining otherwise (23:14)

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Takeaways

The political nature of Karen’s work

I think of a lot of my current work as a type of performed historiography where I engage with current events, social justice movements, and how the media covers that information.

The politics of poetry

[Poetry is] very much a populist performance genre, and a type of vernacular cultural production that allows direct dialogue with audiences, and it doesn’t require a lot of money to do it. So it allows for a different type of access.

How Karen pushes her art in new directions

Always trying to think of ways that you can reimagine art, so that you can reach these audiences, that wider dissemination of what you’re trying to articulate.

Why marginalized groups often turn to multimedia art forms

When you’ve always been relegated to the margins, it’s about trying to figure out ways to articulate your voice and have people listen to your reality.

How Karen’s identity informs her classroom teaching

I’m very clear as to what my gender presentation is. I’m very clear as to the fact that I am a queer Brown body that is masculine of center, standing in front of this classroom of students who may never have experienced this before.

Imagining otherwise

First I would like to live in a world where we have a different relationship to discussions about race, class, and sexuality.

More from Karen Jaime

Karen at Cornell University

Karen’s course about spoken word, hip-hop, and performance

Friday Night Slam at the Nuyorican Poetry Cafe

Projects and people discussed

Imagine Otherwise interview with Francisco Galarte, episode 32

José Esteban Muñoz

► The classroom as performance space

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds.

Imagine Otherwise is hosted by Cathy Hannabach and produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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    Transcript

    Cathy Hannabach [00:03]:

    Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects, bridging art, activism and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.

    Cathy Hannabach [00:22]:

    This episode is brought to you by our Grad School Rockstar Program and Dissertation Rockstar Bootcamp. If you or someone you know is an interdisciplinary grad student who wants to get serious about finishing their dissertation, having better work life balance, or building a career that lets your whole self thrive, come join us. You get a personal coach who knows your projects and is there to help every step of the way, activities and lessons to help you create sustainable habits for writing and self care, twice monthly webinars on topics like working with advisers and being an academic while parenting, as well as lifetime access to weekly office hours in our amazing community to help you rock your interdisciplinary career, wherever that might take you. You can go to ideasonfire.net for more information on how to enroll.

    Cathy Hannabach [01:11]:

    This is episode 34, and my guest today is Karen Jaime. Karen is an assistant professor of performing and media arts and Latina/Latino studies at Cornell University. Karen’s current book project The Queer Loisaida: Performance Aesthetics at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe reveals the world renowned Nuyorican Poets Cafe as a historically queer space, both in terms of sexualities as well as performance practices. Karen has published in the journals Women and Performance, e-Misferica, Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism, and TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly.

    Cathy Hannabach [01:47]:

    In addition to Karen’s critical writing and research, she’s also an accomplished spoken word and performance artist. She served as the hosting curator for the Friday Night Slam at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, participated in the spoken word documentary film Spit!, and was featured in the Emmy Award winning CUNY-TV program Nueva York, a television show focusing on different aspects of Latino culture in New York City.

    Cathy Hannabach [02:12]:

    Karen’s poetry is included in The Best of Panic!, En Vivo From the East Village, Flicker and Spark: A Queer Anthology of Spoken Word and Poetry, and in a special issue of Sinister Wisdom: A Multicultural Lesbian Literary and Art Journal, called Out Latina Lesbians. In our interview, Karen and I discussed the history of queer and trans Puerto Rican poets in New York City, how professors can use the classroom as both in artistic and activist space, how poets paradoxically use language to bust through language barriers, and why queer and trans artists of color turned to multimedia and transdisciplinary work to forge social justice movements. Thank you so much for being with us, Karen.

    Karen Jaime [02:53]:

    Thank you for the invitation. I’m really excited.

    Cathy Hannabach [02:56]:

    So you’re working on a fantastic forthcoming book about slam poetry in New York. Would you like to tell our listeners a little bit about what that book’s called, what it covers, and how you got interested in this topic?

    Karen Jaime [03:08]:

    Sure. The book is entitled The Queer Loisaida: Language and Performance at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, and it actually traces the queer history of the Nuyorican. Most of the literature, all of the literature that’s written documenting the space, the history of the space, the performers, tends to follow a particular narrative, very masculinist, heteronormative, heterosexist, narrative and lineage. And I’m really interested in excavating the work of artists who are queer and who’ve been performing in that space since its inception. So really re-imagining the space and recodifying the space as a queer space since the beginning, both in terms of sexualities but also in terms of the performance practices that emerge.

    Karen Jaime [03:56]:

    And I actually got started after taking a class at Cornell as an undergrad entitled Poetry and Politics in the Americas. So a shout out to Ben [inaudible], who’s a professor in Texas for starting me on this journey. I took that class and I started reading the work of poets, Latinx poets specifically, and I was really inspired, really, really incredibly inspired and started writing my own material. And after reading about the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, I vowed that I would perform there one day. And right after I graduated, one of the first things that I did, was go to the Nuyorican and attend a poetry slam.

    Cathy Hannabach [04:37]:

    Did you end up performing?

    Karen Jaime [04:39]:

    I did. I was chosen to be a judge that first night with a group of my friends, and I did not really enjoy one of the performances and gave the poet a really low score, actually a 3.25 and poets are judged on a scale of 1 to 10. So a 3.25 is very, very low. And the host actually came up to me at the end and asked me if I thought I could do better.

    Cathy Hannabach [05:04]:

    Ah, a challenge.

    Karen Jaime [05:06]:

    A challenge, and I’m always one for challenges. So I said, “Yes, I think I can definitely do better.” And he’s like, “What’s your number? Why don’t you participate in the open mic?” And participated in the open mic and he called me the next week and he said, “Do you want to slam?”

    Cathy Hannabach [05:24]:

    What a great opportunity.

    Karen Jaime [05:26]:

    Yeah, it was. I mean it was kind of nerve wracking, but I was at that stage where I had just discovered slam poetry and was really trying to find my voice and was really angry about a lot of things; politics, what was going on on campus, I’m really early 20s and just moving out on my own, and what did that mean? And just becoming entirely self-aware about what it meant to be queer, Latinx, growing up really poor in an immigrant community on Long Island. What did all of these things mean? And how had I never noticed that the world around me was really messed up in a lot of ways? And that fueled my writing and I wanted to just have a place to be able to articulate that experience. And it was such a welcoming space for that. I wasn’t the only one feeling this way.

    Cathy Hannabach [06:26]:

    Does it have a kind of tradition of mentoring younger poets or folks who are thinking they might want to get into the practice?

    Karen Jaime [06:35]:

    Yeah, I mean I think that what I found there was a community, and there’s informal mentoring and there’s mentoring through particular youth poetry programs that host events there, like Youth Speaks and Urban Word. There’s always this relationship between older poets and younger poets and oftentimes, it’s very formal, such as in these youth poetry organizations. And oftentimes it’s informal. You have a poet that performs on stage that may be a little green, that may be new to it regardless of chronological age. And if people really relate to your message and find themselves inspired by your work, it’s not uncommon for someone to take someone aside and say, “I really like this. Have you thought about maybe phrasing it this way or maybe this person’s work,” in sort of welcoming them into this community.

    Karen Jaime [07:24]:

    There’s actually a poet and a writer who started this with a group of friends who started this LLatinx poetry reading that no longer exists in the Bronx. And he’s very sweet, he wrote a blog once and he thanked me. He’s like, “When I was up there writing garbage, you actually gave me a shot and put me on stage.” When I was hosting, because I ended up hosting at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. I ended up hosting the Friday Night Slam for three years.

    Cathy Hannabach [07:50]:

    Oh, that’s awesome.

    Karen Jaime [07:52]:

    So it sort of came full circle, and sometimes you have to sit through people through their growing stages in order for them to find their voice and be able to hone their craft.

    Cathy Hannabach [08:02]:

    So fast forward several years. And you’re an accomplished slam poet now yourself, you clearly got past that growing stage. What kind of poetry do you like to perform?

    Karen Jaime [08:14]:

    I really enjoy performing political poetry. I really enjoy performing political poetry, and I think of a lot of my current work as a type of performed historiography, where I engage with current events, social justice movements, and how the media sort of covers that information and puts them into dialogue with one another. So I went through a phase where I was just reading tons of newspapers and pulling out quotes and like synthesizing what was being said in the newspaper article, but putting it in poetic form. Because, I felt like that relayed the information to people who might not … Oftentimes I’m overwhelmed by the amount of information and trying to sift through what newspaper is actually saying something that’s true, especially right now. And which one is sort of just regurgitating stuff to make people feel good.

    Cathy Hannabach [09:09]:

    I’m curious if you see poetry more as a way to kind of translate the aims of social justice movements outwards, or if it’s kind of an internal, as you put it, consciousness raising, community building type of practice or maybe a combo, I don’t know.

    Karen Jaime [09:24]:

    I think it’s a combination of both things. I think that it serves as a form of consciousness raising and sort of translating these aims to a wider audience, because it’s very much codified as a populous performance genre. And one that poetry is that type of art and that type of vernacular cultural production that enables direct dialogue with audiences. And it doesn’t require a lot of money to do it.

    Karen Jaime [09:54]:

    So it allows for a different type of access. You can upload your YouTube clip, you can participate in this spoken word activity, you can participate in this type of protest performance. And it doesn’t require tools as if I was, “Okay, I’m going to create a painting. I need to buy paint, I need to buy brushes. I’m going to make a documentary. I need and to have film.” So it allows a different mode of transmission. But I also think that it very much serves as a function of creating community and allowing for marginalized voices to be articulated and expressed within themselves and then reaching out to broader audiences.

    Cathy Hannabach [10:27]:

    So you mentioned film and painting. And I’m curious about that interaction between poetry as a medium and these other genres of art and of politicized art in particular. Does either in your own work or in the communities that you work with, do you see that kind of multimedia, transmedium, for lack of a better word, transgenre work happening, and what’s the power in that, do you think?

    Karen Jaime [10:55]:

    I do see that. I do see that type of work happening a lot. In particular, I think of the artists that I focus on in the book, all of whom are alive except for the first one who was one of the Nuyorican founders. But in the ways in which they take their work and include spoken word, but sort of not moved beyond it, because I think that that sort of places this position of progress and sort of a progression, it’s not like that. But utilize spoken word and creating and moving within other types of performance that utilize music, video, theater in a different way, like solo performances and different types of drag, right?

    Karen Jaime [11:31]:

    And I’m trying to move in that direction myself, because I think that it keeps the work really fresh and I think that it engages a broader audience. It allows your message to not just move within spoken word or slam poetry circles and communities, but within other sort of artistic communities and other communities in general. You may not like spoken word, but if I’m creating music alongside it, or I’m creating a multimedia exhibition with the text, you’re able to relate to that and grab to that. Especially when you’re dealing with multi-lingual audiences.

    Cathy Hannabach [12:04]:

    And it seems like the language issue seems key, right? For a medium that’s primarily about words, about language, but it’s also embodied.

    Karen Jaime [12:14]:

    Yes.

    Cathy Hannabach [12:14]:

    It seems like it provides an opportunity to, as you point out, speak to different audiences who might not speak the same language.

    Karen Jaime [12:21]:

    Yeah, it does. And that’s one of the things I’m always really interested in, how can you get your message out to an audience that may not speak the language that you do? And what would it look like to have sort of a video screen behind you with the translation, would that be distracting? So always trying to think about ways to reimagine the art and how you can reach these audiences. So that wider dissemination of what you’re trying to articulate.

    Cathy Hannabach [12:48]:

    It seems like queer and trans artists of color in particular, have been at the forefront of that kind of multimedia work and that translation work, pointing out the power and the pleasure, but also the politics of that. Why do you think that is?

    Karen Jaime [13:05]:

    Yeah, and I think that when you’ve always been sort of relegated to the margins, it’s about trying to figure out ways to articulate your voice and have people listen to your reality, right? So if we think of spoken word as a form of consciousness raising, how do you do that? Especially when people aren’t realizing or aren’t necessarily attuned to your particular experience.

    Cathy Hannabach [13:26]:

    Do you bring your performance work into the classroom? It seems like these issues of community formation and consciousness raising and putting skills to work that were forged in other contexts, this seems to have some real kind of significant ties to pedagogy, right. Do you find it’s useful in the classroom?

    Karen Jaime [13:44]:

    I think that it saves the day for me in the classroom. I totally do, because I always think of the classroom as just another type of performance. How do you keep students engaged? How do you create a space where students are comfortable participating? I think of it as trying to get, like when you have a very shy audience member who’s not necessarily willing to even look up and look you in the eye while you’re on stage or engage with your work in a more direct way, I think of that as just the classroom as an extension of that.

    Karen Jaime [14:19]:

    So creating group activities, having students talk amongst one another before they have to perform in small group. And then for the class, I find that that always helps. And I think of that as like, “Oh, I’m facilitating, I’m enabling you to perform.” This sort of informal mentorship that I find particularly useful in spoken word communities. I try to bring that into the classroom and ultimately students that take my classes are interested in performance. I teach a class on spoken word, slam poetry, and hip hop theater here at Cornell. And it’s totally tied into the relationship between these different mediums and social justice movements starting with the civil rights movement. So students tend to take the class wanting to talk about politics, but also trying to create political performance.

    Cathy Hannabach [15:08]:

    On one of the previous episodes of the podcast, I was talking with Francisco Gallarte, and he was saying something very similar about the classroom as this performative space, right? And how students often aren’t used to seeing different kinds of bodies in front of a classroom. And having the opportunity, in his case, he’s a trans Latino man. Having an opportunity to demonstrate to students that not only be professors at major universities, but also can have fun with it, right? And can use that space politically and in kind of interesting ways.

    Karen Jaime [15:42]:

    Yes, I totally agree. I really like my job. I really like what I do and I like working with students. And I like sharing what I work on with students. And in an ideal world, I would do this for every class, but the reality is is that semesters long, and there’s a lot of other work going on, but I try to bring that joy into the classroom. And I’m very clear as to what my gender presentation is. I’m very clear as to the fact that I am a queer brown body that is masculine of center standing in front of this classroom of students, who may never have experienced this before, and who see me as very young as their peer.

    Karen Jaime [16:31]:

    So they’re navigating a lot of points of not knowing, but who in many ways are also really drawn to that, drawn to particular aspects of that queerness. A lot of my students are queer, drawn to my ethnicity, and feeling like, “Finally I have a professor standing in front of me who actually knows what I’m talking about when I mentioned particular cultural situations. When I mentioned what it’s like to get off the subway in New York City, and what it feels like to be worried about paying tuition. This is someone who can actually relate to my experience in a very real and tangible way.” And I think that that helps me engage with students and gain their trust in the classroom. It doesn’t hurt that I’m also an alum of the institution where I teach.

    Cathy Hannabach [17:20]:

    So you’re intimately familiar with the kind of inner workings of the school. That helps.

    Karen Jaime [17:24]:

    Yeah, and I try to be the type of professor that I would have wanted when I was an undergrad.

    Cathy Hannabach [17:29]:

    Oh, that’s a great tradition.

    Karen Jaime [17:30]:

    So when I step into the classroom, I’m like, who would I have … And that’s how I think about my pedagogy. What type of books do I want to read? What type of communities do I want to see represented? What type of work is not being done, in terms of bringing forth the realities of different marginalized communities, that’s not sort of ethnographic or cultural tourism, but that’s really doing the work that’s being done in these communities justice in the spoken word community in queer nightlife? Who’s doing that type of work, and thinking about my own personal experiences as a member of these communities? And how can I create texts and bring that joy and knowledge into the classroom in order to engage with students and let them know that the ideas that they have and the ways in which they’re thinking about it, is just as valid as all of these sort of quote unquote canonical scholars that they’re reading.

    Karen Jaime [18:27]:

    Just because they’re different doesn’t mean ortho are always positioned as sort of like minoritarian, it doesn’t mean that their experiences and that their knowledge production and that their particular pedagogy isn’t as valid and isn’t as important. So I think of it as paying it forward and I always put that impetus on my students like, “Okay, I’m sharing this with you, now it’s your responsibility to share it with someone else.”

    Cathy Hannabach [18:52]:

    It seems like your pedagogical work as well as your performance, your scholarship is in many ways the quintessential example of what this podcast focuses on.

    Karen Jaime [19:02]:

    Yay.

    Cathy Hannabach [19:03]:

    Which is a combination of activism, of art and academia. And it’s not a braid that’s for everybody for sure. And you can do great work and not combine those things, but it seems like the richest work happens at that nexus and in many ways your work is exemplary of that. I’m curious, what drew you to that combination? Was it just happenstance, like you happened to like poetry and you wanted to be a professor and you liked social justice activism? Or were they more intertwined for you?

    Karen Jaime [19:35]:

    They were very intertwined. I did not think that I wanted to be a professor until a little bit later. I took four years off after I graduated from Cornell. And I thought that I was going to be a corporate lawyer.

    Cathy Hannabach [19:50]:

    Oh wow. That’s a big difference.

    Karen Jaime [19:52]:

    That is a big difference. Funnily enough, my first job as a corporate legal assistant was that a law firm on 57th on the corner of 57th and Madison, right next to Trump Plaza. That is ironic. I sat in that lobby and had my lunch pretty much on a daily basis, so it’s pretty scary.

    Cathy Hannabach [20:13]:

    Yeah, surreal.

    Karen Jaime [20:15]:

    And it’s all like gilded gold, even the escalators.

    Cathy Hannabach [20:19]:

    Of course.

    Karen Jaime [20:19]:

    Really, really scary. Yeah, really cold and antiseptic. So I worked there as a corporate legal assistant for about four months. But I had started performing already and I found this incredible disconnect between what I was doing and how I was feeling about the world. Not that you can’t do both, but for me, I didn’t like the way that I felt. I didn’t like the people that I was working with. And I didn’t feel like I was necessarily doing anything that honored the politics that I was developing and that I was trying to live by.

    Karen Jaime [20:51]:

    And I had a series of different jobs and I tried to perform full time for a couple of months. And having just moved to New York, I found that incredibly difficult, I hadn’t established an artistic community yet. So I had a number of different jobs and I performed on the side. And finally, I decided I needed to go to grad school. I wanted to go to grad school and I wanted to sort of think about performance, and I wanted to hone that craft. I started out at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, and so you’re able to combine different fields of study and devise your own major. And as artistic as I can be, I need a lot of structure. I can impose my own structure now, but I needed a little bit more structure. And I also realized that I was really invested not just in artistic practice but in the theory of it all.

    Karen Jaime [21:52]:

    And so I moved into NYU’s Department of Performance Studies and I really found the space for me that combined all of the things that I wanted to do, the artistic practice, the theoretical component of it. And I knew what my politics were, right? And it was thinking about what type of performances really informed those politics and what I’m trying to create both on the page and on the stage.

    Cathy Hannabach [22:22]:

    So I think this is a good transition to my favorite question that I get to ask folks. And it gets at the kind of the heart of the podcast, which is that version of imagining otherwise that you do when you step in front of a classroom, when you step on the stage at one of your events, that world that you’re working towards. So I’ll ask you, what kind of world are you working towards? What kind of world do you want?

    Karen Jaime [22:51]:

    I had to think a lot about this.

    Cathy Hannabach [22:53]:

    It’s a giant question, but it’s my favorite.

    Karen Jaime [22:55]:

    It’s a giant question, which totally makes me think of one of my mentors at NYU who passed away, José Muñoz, and thinking about, “Am I being utopic? What does queer futurity look like, and do we belong there?” Well first, I would like to live in a world where we have a different president, I need to say that right off the bat. And we have a different relationship to discussions about race, class, sexuality, sort of a more radical way of being.

    Karen Jaime [23:25]:

    I think that for a long time there, we were living in, especially under Obama, under this guise of feeling very post, post race, post gender, post a lot of things, which automatically presupposes a moment of arrival. And I don’t feel like we ever arrived at the place where we were having those hard conversations, which allowed us to live in a more just society, to think of ourselves as global citizens rather than individuals living in this country that aren’t necessarily working together.

    Karen Jaime [23:55]:

    I mean, people are still debating whether or not there’s such a thing as global warming and climate change. We need to move past these sort of conversations and get to, “Well that exists. Now, what can we do to save the planet?” Just as an example.

    Cathy Hannabach [24:12]:

    Well, thank you so much for being with us and sharing how you teach your students how to imagine otherwise, and how you bring together academia, art and activism to do that.

    Karen Jaime [24:22]:

    Thank you so much. I really had a great time.

    Cathy Hannabach [24:29]:

    Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Check out our website at ideasonfire.net to listen to full episodes, read show notes, and see links to the people, books and projects discussed on the show. While you’re there, be sure to sign up for our newsletter to find out when new episodes are released, and to get tips to help you rock your interdisciplinary career.

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