Sandie Luna: The Art of Reproductive Justice

Doula literally and within the art community, Sandie Luna is a New York based Afro-Latina on the mission to close the reproductive disparity within the Brown and Black underserved communities. From a traumatic first birth, leaving her unsatisfied and angry by the current medical system, she endeavored in the contemplation of motherhood and birth through art. MODESTEAT, her past exhibition, defined the mothering body as a powerful and resilient political tool, standing against the pressures of financial and cultural aggression while challenging the limited representation of mothers of color.

Sandie Luna is the Co-Founder at Punto Space along with Deborah Barlardini and Duke York, and the Co-Artistic Director at Nettles Artists Collective, with the mission to imbue the American art scene with authentic, global voices, and multidisciplinary collaborations by providing a platform for the performing and visual arts. In addition, Sandie is a 2015 Dominicanas in the Mix (DITM) honoree, recognized by the Dominican-American National Foundation for excellence in the arts, an actress, mover, director and producer having performed in TV, radio, commercials, and theater productions for the English and Spanish markets, including the Off-Broadway hit Platanos & Collard Greens for four years, the producer and production designer of Apple of My Eye, which received a Brazilian International Press Award in 2016 and performed at the UNICEF in 2017.

“At a stage in life, you learn to talk less. That is, let your works do the talking. Hence, work hard in silence. The evidence will be clear for all to see.” An Oscar Bimpong quote that is well applicable to Sandie's approach, whose investment in the community and thirst for knowledge reveal an authentic and passionate human.

OPENLETR: Please tell us about Punto Space and Nettles Artists Collective, and how it all came about.

Sandie: Soon after arriving in NYC, I became obsessed with the idea of community as a means of survival. I’m naturally an introvert and don’t mind spending copious amounts of time alone but, as much as I loved exploring the city solo, it was also a bit overwhelming to try to find my way alone. So, I set out to meet people in the hopes of building some lasting, supportive bonds. That’s how I met my dear friend and partner in business and art, Debora Balardini. I volunteered for a festival where she was one of the coordinators. The festival was not what either of us would have hoped for, but our conversations were rich and promising. A few months and cups of coffee later, we decided to start our own company borrowing some of the principles from companies we trained with and admired, like Labyrinth Theater and Siti Company. Soon after, we started working with and producing workshops for Pantheatre, a Parisian based company whose artistic directors have become our artistic mentors. This influence particularly led to frustration at the lack of resources that supported a process-based approach to theater.  We were often struggling to find and pay for space. After a few years of knowing that was a major roadblock to our development, we realized the answer was for us to create our own space for ourselves and for others in our position. That’s how Punto Space came about. Punto is a for-profit business with social good in mind. Our space has clients from the artistic, corporate, and fashion world, as well as social events. With our mission in mind and the support from the Punto Co-Founders (Debora Balardini and Duke York), I’ve spearheaded initiatives to support and empower communities that we believe in. We have successfully worked with the HOPE Program and UpNext Fellowship for a few years now. And it is very rewarding, in addition to supporting artists in our community.

OPENLETR: You are also training to become a Birth Worker, what does this mean to you?

Sandie: I recently became a doula. Arriving to this place has been an interesting and complex journey that I am only able to see through the rearview mirror. I am a birth worker in that my job is to be fully present for the laboring person. The work is showing up for the laboring body and support it with as much ease and grace as it is possible, which can be through emotional support and/or advocacy. My training is a full spectrum doula, which means I provide services before, during and after the birth occurs, because the actual birth is only the fireworks in the timeline of creating a human. I am also trained as an abortion doula, which most people don’t realize is a much needed service. Abortions are a part of many women’s reproductive timeline, but the attitudes around it can often hamper caregivers’ ability to provide adequate information and support to those going through it.

OPENLETR: As an artist, how is birth part of your creative exploration?

Sandie: As long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by death. As a child, I read about it constantly behind my mother’s back. I was kind of a morbid kid! I was never afraid of death until I became a mother. As soon as I had my first kid, my preoccupation with death became more personal; I feared my own death, because I now have these two humans that I love and protect fiercely... and because I have this fear, I am more alive than ever! And that is the thing about birth and death, they are on opposite sides of the same coin, and this is the currency artists trade in. My creative practice has always been an open gate to grasp - sometimes successfully - understanding that is not readily available to me in my everyday life, and that only happens when presence of body, mind and spirit align, much like birth. I am currently artistically invested in the experience of mothering in a black or brown body in this society. That is the theme of my latest work, Modesteat, a multimedia installation that defines the mothering body as a powerful and resilient political tool that stands against the pressures of financial and cultural aggression, while challenging the limited representation of mothers of color.

OPENLETR: You are a big advocate of Reproductive Justice. What is Reproductive Justice?

Sandie: Reproductive Rights + Social Justice = Reproductive Justice: the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children in safe and sustainable communities. It is important that the term was coined in the early 90’s by Loretta Ross, co-founder of Sister Song, a collective dedicated to improving institutional policies and systems impacting the reproductive lives of marginalized communities. I am becoming educated in Reproductive Justice everyday. There are incredible organizations that have been around for a long time doing life-changing work. I am lucky to have studied under Chanel Porchia, founder of Ancient Song Doula Services, one of those organizations based in NYC. I am invested in using my tools as an artist and as a doula to bring more attention to Reproductive Justice, and to improve the current conditions around birthing.

OPENLETR: What event triggered your will to be a part of the change?

Sandie: I had a very traumatic first birth, where I felt great throughout my pregnancy, but ended up in a hospital being bullied into a c-section with a doctor who was talking about dead babies while I was in labor. I had chosen to give birth at the only free-standing (not in a hospital) birthing center in NYC, and the experience left me feeling like I had been let down on different levels: systematically because the care I received was inconsistent, partly because the center’s funding was threatened while I was a patient, and personally because that led to a lack of rapport with the midwives at my birth, who I had met only once before going into labor. It is a flawed system that landed me in a hospital on a cold winter night, void of options. That experience was very profound, as I had to deal with what I thought was my body’s inadequacy, and the lack of compassion and care I received from medical providers, all the while caring for a newborn for the first time in my life. I cried and was anxious for a few months, but slowly began to feel better and sadness was replaced by anger, anger replaced by questions, and questions by action, which is where I am now. I don’t think it is coincidental that I am an Afro-Latina, and that said, hospital serves mostly a community made up of mostly low-income, poc.

OPENLETR: What do women face in terms of reproductive right, and is there a gap in access?

Sandie: There is tremendous disparity in reproductive care. Studies have shown that black women are about three to four times more likely to die of pregnancy or delivery complications than white women. As reported by NY state, in New York City, black mothers are 12 times more likely to die than white mothers. 12 times! And the reason is not what society would like us to think: “women of color don’t take care of themselves. They are uneducated and poor. It is genetic.” The root of this crisis, because it is a human rights crisis, lies in the history the state has to black bodies. black women are dismissed (i.e. Serena Williams’ case), systematically devalued by lack of funding to areas where mostly people of color live, and, as put by the NYTimes, the lived experience of being a black woman in the U.S. is killing us. The United States is one of only 13 countries in the world where the rate of maternal mortality — the death of a woman related to pregnancy or childbirth up to a year after the end of pregnancy — is now worse than it was 25 years ago, and that number is being driven by black maternal deaths.

OPENLETR: Going back to Nettles Artists Collective, what type of artists do you support, how do you vet them?

Sandie: We support artists of color, particularly immigrants, because Debora and I are women immigrants and know how difficult it can be. We also work with emerging artists who don’t necessarily have academic pedigree, which can be something that shuts you out of a network of opportunities, regardless of talent or dedication. Lately, I am very interested in the cohabitation of motherhood and creativity and how we make space for mothers to remain outwardly creative, so I expect this to be a focus of our work in the near future.

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OPENLETR: With the many things your are involved in, how would you like to be remembered?

Sandie: As someone who wasn’t concerned with being heard, but who was invested in having something worthwhile to say.  

OPENLETR: What has been the best thing that happened to you?

Sandie: My resilience. And my family. 

OPENLETR: What project are you currently working on?

Sandie: I just finished doing my installation ModestEAT at Punto Space. It was an incredible experience with a weekend of talks “Interactive Reproductive Timeline” by the awesome Natalie Pena and “Creativity in Motherhood” with an amazing group of creatives who I admire sharing thoughts and insights on the subject, along with the installation which featured sourced images of mommas from all over the world and intimate videos of my experiences breastfeeding. I am energized by how this work, which started as a response, an antidote to harmful narratives, was received. I am already looking for a home for the next iteration of this project.

OPENLETR: Any thoughts you would like to share with our readers?

Sandie: Thank you for letting me be part of your visual landscape. Here are some recent articles on the subject of Reproductive Justice:

Photo courtesy of Sandie Luna