To me, art is like a spiritual exercise that guides me to ponder subjectivity and social justice. In April 2001, I was working as an uninsured part-time adjunct professor at the University of Illinois, when I received a phone call from a resident doctor, who diagnosed me with breast cancer. She advised me to make an appointment with a resident sergeant at the outpatient clinic. He ordered labs, a mammography, and a core needle biopsy. Then he scheduled my surgery without informing me if I was having a lumpectomy or a mastectomy. I canceled the surgery because could not afford reconstruction, so it took me some time to confront the newness of my body; my rights to consent to treatment and to participate in the decision-making process were violated.
At the time, recalled artists who transcend the enclosure of the clinic with their stories of visible illness i.e., Khalo, Spencer, Sontag, Metzger, Wilke, Juana Georgen, Diana Solís… I started documenting my experiences with body modification to envision a creative map that would help me endure the suffering. This segment of my poem revealed my feeling: “I can listen to my sadness taking over my body. I eat my tears in mutating silence.”
From April to June it felt like I was immersed in a “Kafkanian process”; I was reading women’s journals and pictorial narratives urging to “share illness-identities solidarities” (e.g., Lorde, Eisenstein…). These narratives were maps that helped me refigure gender crisis, body politics, stigma, and trauma. Illness is a process composed of multiple mutations.
My friends started networking, and, finally, Lisa Brock called our mutual friend, who connected me with doctors at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. In July, I had a lumpectomy. After the biopsy results, I had a mastectomy, followed by reconstruction and treatments. Emotionally dislocated, I was invited to move in with Esther Soler and Mark Zimmerman, and become part of their extended family.
Meanwhile, chemotherapy disrupted ordinary smells to other medium. Esther reminded me that I had an invitation to exhibit. In spite of the side effects, I gathered my intimate self-portraits, found objects, and collective narratives and transformed them into visionary images; I exteriorized my “illness” as aporia: anguish, confusion, crossroads in which the subject emerges with a new corporality and is perpetually transforming.
In October, after my last chemotherapy, I relocated to Miami. My brother, Diego Perez, composed the music for one of my performances called “Trams-body.” The name was connected to my Trams-flap surgery. The performance and installation, Reconstruction II, interconnected my living body, history, gender, destabilized identity, and sensuality, within my newly acquired scars. These works were then included in a collective exhibition called Body as a Poetic Space (2002), where I was the curator. I deployed multiple strategies, in order to offer a testimony about becoming a woman, a warrior, and an artist.
Breast cancer influenced me to employ an interdisciplinary perspective in my creative process and aesthetic of the subject. In 2003, I abandoned my body as an inspiration; but introduced Barbie dolls to expand the terrain where inscriptions are found everyday, in order to decode the way we internalize their messages, and to interrogate the cultural construction of gender while confronted with therapeutic decisions. In 2006, I completed the independent film Territories of the Breast. The documentary allowed me to listen to my family’s suffering for the first time. It addressed the complexity of breast cancer, the unfairness, and the dehumanization I experienced in my dealings with the healthcare system, and the politics of the body.