From “Cripping BorderLore,” a special edition. Read an introduction here.
During the first year of the pandemic, I spent way more time online than I care to admit. Little did I know that the simple act of “liking” a painting of a panda playing the guitar someone posted on Facebook would lead me to the person who is now my closest disabled friend.
Technology, particularly for those socially marginalized, is a powerful tool that brings us together, when we can access it. Since many disabled people lack a cohesive community in our everyday lives, we search for fragments of a disability culture, often without having the language to express this pursuit.
The person who painted that guitar-playing panda was Raul Pizarro, an artist in Montclair, California. Chatting with him online, I recognized the intersections of our cultural identities, a similar dark humor, and the coraje to live sin vergüenza. I knew this queer, Mexicano, immigrant, crip artist was someone I had to meet in person.
I use “crip” in lieu of disabled; it signifies that I, as a disabled person, know my history and have reclaimed the word “cripple,” which historically was used to demean people whose body-minds transgress traditional standards of “normal.” When it’s used now by non-disabled people, it can still carry negative connotations. But for those of us who are disabled, it’s ours.
Nine months into our online friendship, I drove from Tucson with a friend to meet Pizarro. When we arrived at his house, located in a predominantly Latine neighborhood, we were greeted first by Choco and Flor, two spry doggos, who clambered for our attention. Then Pizarro rolled out wearing a flannel shirt and jeans, his signature tortoise-shell glasses, hair combed and parted on one side. Reposed atop his wheelchair’s footrests were his feet, sandaled in huaraches. Raul has muscular dystrophy, which weakens all of the body’s muscles over time.
We followed him into a beautiful patio filled with citrus, succulents, and flores, and soon a woman popped outside, greeting us the only way a Mexicana mama can: “Ustedes necesitan algo a tomar o comer?” Pizarro’s mom, Juanita, also lives on the property.
We sat outside, basking in the crisp Cali air, and dove right into homie chisme though we both were slightly in shock to be with each other in the flesh. We speculated about what would happen if he and I, two physically disabled people, one a full-time powerchair user and the other a full-time crutch user with gnarly beautiful scars, went out in public together? I then asked Pizarro if he’d ever been interviewed by another disabled person.
“No,” he said with a smile. “Society doesn’t see us as artists ‘cause the art world is not accessible.” By “us” he meant disabled people.
Once, a few years ago, Pizarro told me, he had a solo show but barely made it into the building because the main entrance was only accessible by stairs. The curator, who knew Pizarro uses a wheelchair, still overlooked this detail. Luckily, Pizarro’s brother backed his van up to a loading dock behind the building so Pizarro could make his appearance.
Crip ingenuity coupled with Mexican know-how is pure magic, I commented. Then Pizarro gave me permission to write whatever I wanted about him. Trust.
We moved inside when the warmth of the spring sun faded. His casita, which doubles as his art studio, was undergoing accessibility renovations and looked different from what I remembered from his virtual art show, which I attended on Facebook Live last summer.
At that event, my first experience of Pizarro, he was showcasing for his followers a series of vibrant, colorful works, like the “Lucha Libre Panda” series, featuring cuddly pandas in luchador masks. One of the pandas honored his late father’s favorite luchador, Diamante Azul; another wore a corona de rosas. As children, Pizarro told viewers, his brother enjoyed wrestling like their father, while Raulito was more interested in flowers.
During that presentation, Pizarro wheeled back and forth in his studio, his electric wheelchair squeaking audibly. “If anyone has some WD40, come on over,” he joked. And later, “If I fall out of my chair, please call 911 for me.”
While these snarky crip jokes or “cripisms” may have been confusing to some, I was busting up laughing at his coraje to be authentically himself.
But it wasn’t just amusing to me. It was affirming. Pizarro exists at the crossroads of multiple marginalized identities—immigrant, disabled, queer, goth, brown. Here, amidst these sites of distinction and overlap, is where he finds his true community and where his art is born.
Most of the panda paintings and works I’d seen that evening on screen were now gone, Pizarro said. Sold. But there were plenty of new works to look at. Right away, I recalled something I read on Pizarro’s website: “I paint every day knowing that every ounce of strength I put into applying each brush stroke is the measure of life. My muscles aren’t vanishing, they are transforming into permanent echoes on canvas.” His studio is filled with proof that his muscles are metamorphosing into art.
Inside Pizarro’s casita, a painting of a woman, her hair high inside a wrap, her skin a green hue immediately caught my eye—Eryka Badu, one of his first large paintings.
As we moved through Pizarro’s house, I was struck by the bright lighting and large window in his art space. On the walls were paintings of bodies, mostly nudes, in darker palettes of black, brown, forest green, and sometimes with explosions of color. These early works, he told me, focused largely on his identity as a queer disabled person and explored “what my body meant in different spaces.”
“Noche De Ronda” from 2007, for example, features a human figure against a black background, head down, one arm covering the area between their legs; a single moth hovers to the left of the body in the dark. Another shows a reclining nude, gray-blue in skin tone, set amidst a green hollow exploding with vibrant red flowers.
At one point, Pizarro’s evangelical mom assumed any visitor to his studio had come to pose naked, he told me. But these paintings are significant because they coincided with a slow change of Pizarro’s health, both mental and physical.
“I wasn’t able to drive anymore. I didn’t realize I was getting really depressed because it sunk in slowly,” he said. “I’ve always been a little on the darker side emotionally, a little melancholic … I realized I was super depressed when I didn’t want to work on any of my art.”
When Pizarro’s nephew was born in 2008, things began to change, he said. For the first three years of life, his nephew was nonverbal. “He would only eat if I fed him,” Pizarro said, “which helped me feel like I could give back.”
Every morning the boy would visit Pizarro, asking for a drawing, usually of sleeping bears or reading elephants, Pizarro said.
“…with every question, my nephew’s singular words became two, then three, slowly morphing into full sentences,” Pizarro wrote on his website. “As he started to flourish, a new awakening inside me did too. His voice blossomed and so did mine.” Perhaps unknowingly, Pizarro perfectly captured interdependence between a nonverbal sobrino and his tío with muscular dystrophy.
Pizarro began to paint the bears his nephew was requesting, which gave him a new perspective on his own life. “I realized how much of my life I had been an observer, not fully present. These paintings are based on those moments discovering a broader spectrum of existence, one that encompasses joy, fear and enlightenment,” Pizarro wrote in the website notes for his series, “Feral Allegories.”
Later, when his niece was born, Pizarro continued to incorporate this kind of brightness into his artwork. “She loves pandas. I started painting bears for them, thinking I was only gonna do it for a little bit, and I’ve been doing it for 13 years now.”
Moving through his studio, I found more nudes from Pizarro’s earlier period, which feel like a lifetime away from the cuddly Mexicano pandas that first drew me to him. “Songs for a Deaf God” (2004) features a pale figure curled in the fetal position against an impressionistic background of yellow, red, green.
On his web site, Pizarro describes the paintings in his series, “Songs for a Deaf God” as one that “explores the complexities of living within a space that’s afraid of nuances and having to fund healing within yourself. Too many of us don’t have the resources or connection to mental health so we turn within. The title is a link to finding divinity through how we are within our actions and physical identity and the lack of seeing our complexions trying to instantly compartmentalize a stranger by what our eyes see.”
“Ms. A’s Symptoms” (2006) depicts a figure from behind from the torso up, long, reddish brown hair reaching just past the shoulder bones. They appear to be holding an origami horse emitting glowing green sparkles. Below the painting I spotted Pizarro’s spare powerchair. Many disabled people who use assistive devices keep backups for when their primary mobility implements inevitably fail. This device hoarding ensures we are not stuck or trapped; we also loan out our secondary devices to other crips whose primary devices fail. This is part of disability community and culture.
To me, Pizarro’s nude figures represent vulnerability to the medicalized gaze, an inability to hide the disabled body. The figures appear to be cis-women, but also could be read as gender-queer or androgenous. Similarly, disabled bodies are often hard for society to pin down or accurately label. So much power exists in our ability to identify oneself on our own terms.
Pizarro’s paintings of nudes, with their mystery and sense of interiority, left me thinking about how powerful it is to connect with people who share similar identities, as we find overlap in shared struggles and triumphs. I’m reminded that marginalized folx, those not easily defined by the unspoken norm, are often drawn to each other.
When I mention this to Pizarro, he tells me about a transgender friend who was presenting as a vato when they met at punk Chicano art exhibit: “There was something about her presence and super shiny shaved head, Dickies, flannel, and earrings. After everything ended, I went up to her and said, ‘You don’t know me, but we’re gonna be friends.’”
He was right. The two became very close friends. “We would go out in public after she started wearing summer dresses but still dawned the shaved head. I’m over here like a jota in a wheelchair. People are just like, ‘Uh?’ People don’t know what to do with us, which box to put us in.”
Pizarro gets visibly excited when he tells me this story, and I get it. Being boxless hurts at first, and then we find a kind of power there. Those of us who exist on society’s fringes often absorb the confusion and discomfort that gets sent over via strangers’ stares, disgust, or intrusive questions.
For example, when Pizarro used to go out to clubs, strangers would often express concern if they saw him drinking alcohol, as if being disabled meant he shouldn’t be drinking. Usually this concern was expressed not to Pizarro himself but to one of his friends, exhibiting the frequent disrespect that people with disabilities live with. To all that, Pizarro was quick to joke, “If anybody needs to drink, it’s me. And make it a double.”
Again, I can relate. As disabled people, when we leave the house we must be mentally, emotionally, and physically prepared to deal with a society that makes assumptions about our actual abilities based on their perceptions of what our abilities “should” be. It’s utterly exhausting.
Taking on public space is what Pizarro is after with his current project, “Tianguis‘’—from the Nahuatl word “taianquiztil,” meaning “market”—which honors the lives and stories of migrant vendors. For the project, which is funded by the National Association for Latino Arts and Culture (NALAC) as part of the Reclaiming the Border Narrative Initiative, Pizarro is painting portraits of vendors to make their lives and work more visible.
For Pizarro, the work is personal. When he was growing up, his mom would sell furniture and “arregalos” (floral arrangements) at the local tianguis alongside other immigrant families, most of whom came from Central or Latin America.
Listening to Pizarro talk about this work made me think of my own childhood experiences at the Tanque Verde Swap Meet in Tucson where my mom sold truckloads of hand-me-downs and items we no longer needed. The tianguis speak sweetly to me as a site of jubilation, culture, and commerce inhabited by many who transgress borders.
While Pizarro exists in society’s margins in some respects, he, like other disabled people, relies on technology to integrate into able-bodied society. Unlike others who’ve interviewed Pizarro, I wasn’t much interested in Pizarro’s Northrop Grumman’s Fab Lab machine, which assists him by hydraulically holding up his arm and positioning the easel so that he can paint with minimal effort. (This video shows how it works, but to me it verges on inspiration porn.) This assistive technology is just as important as his powerchair in supporting this artist with muscular dystrophy.
Rather than ask the same, tired questions able-bodied interviewers often ask, I simply wanted to relish in the precious time I had with a fellow goth, queer, crip, Mexicano artist.
Before I left, I couldn’t help but ask Pizarro the question I like to ask all my disabled friends and acquaintances. “How many people have prayed for you?”
We both burst out laughing, but then Pizarro told me a true story. Once, when he was leaving a show, a security guard went up to him and put his hands on Pizarro’s head.
“I used to do all these super queer hairstyles that would take me forever. And he fucked it all up! Then he said, ‘In the name of Jesus, I demand you to stand up and walk.’ I looked at him and rolled around shouting, ‘Hey, it worked!’ He got so pissed off.”
Pizarro said people too often pet him, treat him like a baby, or call him “m’ijo,” an affectionate yet diminutive term in Spanish for “my son.” Actions and words like these belittle disabled people’s independence and agency. It reverberates in society when others don’t take us seriously or assume that we don’t know what’s best for ourselves.
The truth is, we do know what’s best for us. And my time with Pizarro solidified that.
When I left Pizarro’s, I went to see the Judy Baca and Yolanda López retrospectives at the Museum of Latin American Art and Museum of Contemporary Art, respectively. Later I visited Chicano Park, where OG muralist, Victor Ochoa, invited us up the scaffolding to witness the creation of the newest mural celebrating lowrider culture. Seeing work by and being in the presence of these groundbreaking Chicana/o artists reminded me of how art can both celebrate and forge identity—not only for individual artists, but also for entire communities.
I feel similarly about Pizarro and his work. I almost can’t believe how down to earth he is given his artistic talent. I feel blessed to be in the orbit of this fellow crip whose personality and paintings joyously affect me. In my mind, Pizarro is just as important to Chicanx art as the aforementioned trailblazers. He is an artist extraordinary in ways that only a chingón crip can be, making work that has both nothing and everything to do with his disability.
Raul Pizarro with the author, Alisha Vasquez
Alisha Vasquez is fifth generation Tucsonense whose Chicana-krip-queerish bodymind exists intersectionally. Alisha credits street kids, punk rock, community activists, her mama, and those without official titles as her greatest teachers. She is the Social Media Administrator for the Southwest Folklife Alliance and is also caring for her two-year-old daughter, Athena.
Cover photo image description: A close-up of a stack of books on the left of the photo. On the right is a thin man with medium light brown skin and glasses, who has one hand on his face and the other resting on his wheelchair.