NYRican in LA: Becoming Mamita Mala

PHOTO: Ever the activist, radical mom, Mamita Mala with her two daughters at a rally in NYC.Maegan Mamita Mala Ortiz
Ever the activist, radical mom, Mamita Mala with her two daughters at a rally in NYC.

One afternoon at my "day job", some co-workers were asking about nicknames so I offered up my co-identity, Mamita Mala.

"That sounds like a stripper name," one woman reacted.

Oh, if they only knew. But I was "baptized" Mamita Mala, not when I was spinning round a pole for a year, but five years before that, when I was a barely out of my teens and juggling being a single mami and activist in New York City.

Pregnant at 19, and giving birth at 20, I was surrounded by strong mamas who supported me and were excellent examples of what it meant to be a bad ass while taking care of others. I met these mamas by accident when at age 16, while waiting for a boy I had a crush on, I stumbled upon a workshop on Puerto Rican identity at Muevete!, a youth conference at Colombia University. It was there that I learned that racial violence and police brutality was impacting people who looked like me and my family and that these things were happening in my neighborhood.

I felt compelled to do something, even if in the beginning that meant folding flyers for mailings or making popcorn for meetings. My own mother raised my sister and I on her own, providing not an easy childhood, but one rich in experiences. I also had the mothers I organized with, who in many ways took care of me as I worked with them in the name of their children.

I had been volunteering as the Coordinator of the Justice Committee of the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights after a few years working under former Young Lords teaching me about Puerto Rican history. I moved my way up from working security at rallies and marches to helping to create media, grassroots, and legal strategies for mothers. Mothers like Altagracia Mayi, whose 19-year-old son Manny was chased and beaten to death by a racist gang of Italian youth in Corona, Queens in 1991. Milta Calderon whose 21 year old unarmed son Anibal Carrasquillo was shot in the back and killed by New York Police Department Officer Marco Calderon in 1995. Lillian Flores whose son Frankie Arzuaga was only 15 when he was shot in the head by an NYPD officer. Margarita Rosario whose son, Anthony and nephew, Hilton Vega, were shot while face down a total of 28 times by cops who were former bodyguards of once NYC Mayor Giuliani. Iris Baez, whose son Anthony was choked to death by an officer mad that a football hit his patrol car.

They were more than cases I helped organized marches, rallies, vigils and press conferences for. They were extended family. I broke bread with them after long emotionally exhausting meetings. I attended birthday parties, baby showers, and even was a bridesmaid for one. They are prime examples of the complicated nature of Latina motherhood in the United States that calls for maternity to be caretaking of not just the individual but of a community.

I was 9 months pregnant the summer that Abner Louima was sexually assaulted by NYPD officers inside a Brooklyn precinct. I worked the entire summer as a voter registration coordinator and I volunteered with the mothers, even helping with security with my growing pipa. But when the Louima incident broke, everyone drew a line and no one more so than my mentor, Richie Perez. A former Young Lord and professor, Richie created a space for me to develop my skills as an organizer, a public speaker, and a leader. He practiced what he preached even when it wasn't popular because people were more comfortable with cults of personality that lifted men up into positions of respect. But when it came to my wanting to march across the Brooklyn Bridge with thousands of others, Richie and my mother weren't having it. I watched the Day of Outrage from home, sulking. A week later I gave birth to my first daughter, Carolina.

Carolina's first years were spent in the presence of Richie, his wife Martha, other young organizers of the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights, the mothers, and many other activists who welcomed her into our routines of meetings, marches and political education. Her first full sentence was, "no justice, no peace." Richie watched as I struggled with single mamihood including working, organizing, dating, and performing poetry, something I was just starting to share.

I had always written poems, mostly to myself kept in volumes of journals. But the spoken word movement opened up a new medium of merging words with actions. On my 18th birthday I first performed at the Nuyorican Poets Café and felt a new part of me grow. Plus, since I dropped out of college when I became pregnant in the middle of my sophomore year, poetry kept my mind fed. It was this role of poet that inspired Richie to come up with a nickname for me. The young NYRican poets of the late 90's and 2000s had names inspired by the NYC hip hop and salsa-fed atmosphere we grew up with. Among la Bruja, Bonafide, y Mariposa, Maegan just wasn't gonna cut it especially for a flyer we were making for a poetry fundraiser for Puerto Rican political prisoners. Richie would stand by the copy machine in his office as we prepared agendas for Justice Committee meetings and shoot out ideas.

The first name he suggested was Boricua Y.A.M.S. (Young Activist Mami Single.) I used this name in some of my early social media adventures like my Mi Gente page. But it didn't flow so he came up with Mamita Mala - la mala for short and the rest, as the saying goes, is history.

The name felt perfect like when I, at 16, heard Richie speak for the first time, defining Puerto Rican identity based on lived experiences, history and current struggles. I cried. Hearing Richie speak was akin to a religious experience. I felt all the pent up energy I held from the conflicting messages I received from my family growing up as NY-born Puerto Rican. Richie gave me the courage to claim my identity and more importantly fight for it.

Mamita for mother, but also a mami, a sexual being, a friend and mala, bad, imperfect but also at times badass, taking strength from other women in history and around me. It's about speaking the truth about experiences as a mami, a Rican, a woman of color even when that truth isn't what people want to hear or see because it doesn't fit an expected narrative. I have never been a great mother. I've made and continue to make mistakes but the bad part of me isn't that. It's about moving ahead, pa'lante, claiming my life work as valuable and sharing that so that hopefully my hijas and others will be malas themselves.