Maria Palacios, a.k.a. Goddess on Wheels, will be performing a flamenco dance for Sins Invalid’s "We Love Like Barnacles: Crip Lives in Climate Chaos." (Photo by Nine Lam, courtesy Sins Invalid)

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When nondisabled people complain to Maria Palacios about feeling isolated while sheltering-in-place during the pandemic, Palacios has a message for them:

“Welcome to our world.”

Palacios says, “disabled people have been doing this since the very beginning. This is how we survive. This is how we connect with each other. We make community. We reach out. We connect with each other. We build networks.”

Palacios performs under the name Goddess on Wheels, and she will be center stage when Sins Invalid streams its new virtual show “We Love Like Barnacles: Crip Lives in Climate Chaos” this weekend.

Sins Invalid is a disability justice-based performance project that supports and celebrates people with disabilities, with a particular focus on LGBTQ artists and artists of color. The organization has been in the forefront of advocacy for disability justice since its founding in 2006. It offers creative workshops and political education, and promotes leadership opportunities for disabled people. A central part of its mission is to showcase the rich, sensual beauty of disabled bodies.  

Micah Bazant, a trans visual artist who works with social justice movements, created the poster for Sins Invalid’s show, “We Love Like Barnacles: Crip Lives in Climate Chaos.” (Courtesy Sins Invalid)

The tagline on its website is “An unashamed claim to beauty in the face of invisibility.”

Sins Invalid was conceived by Patricia Berne and Leroy Moore in 2006. Both have been disabled from birth. 

Berne and Moore were at a play or ballet in San Francisco, according to Palacios’ recounting of the organization’s origin story, and “witnessing how beautiful the bodies were onstage, the movement, the essence of the whole, capturing artistically the expressions of a culture in the arts.” 

They had a powerful realization: “There was no platform, no venue, no voices, no opportunity for disabled lives to be presenting the same kind of energy, the same [kind] of awareness artistically,” Palacios says. “So they looked at each other and they said, ‘Let’s do this. If there’s nothing like this, let’s create it”

They created Sins Invalid as a showcase for the beauty, artistry and, particularly, the sensuality and sexuality of disabled people and their bodies. 

“It was all about disabled sexuality,” Palacios says, “because it was the sensuality and the sexiness of those nondisabled bodies onstage that made Patti and Leroy realize that there was nothing representing disabled bodies as beautiful, representing disabled bodies as sexual, representing disabled bodies as being able to project such energy. 

“The words ‘sex’ and ‘disability,’” she continues, “were not something that you would find outside the context of the medical model.” The medical model of disability is characterized by a belief that disability is something to be cured or treated. A central part of Sins Invalid’s mission is to show and celebrate the beauty of disabled bodies as they are. 

Sins Invalid defines disability in a broad sense to include “people with physical impairments, people who belong to a sensory minority, people with emotional disabilities, people with cognitive challenges, and those with chronic/severe illness,” according to the mission statement on its website. 

Alex Cafarelli plays “Mistress Asthma” in the upcoming Sins Invalid performance. Her cruel mistress asserts, “I’m going to wrap my fingers around your lungs and squeeze. That’s right, give me one of your quick, restricted breaths.” (Photo by Mée Rose, courtesy Sins Invalid)

Palacios describes a performance she did at the beginning of a film Sins Invalid produced. The camera focuses on her and she pretends to comment on people with disabilities by asking incredulously, “These people have sex?” and she pretends to be in shock.

She says that when you talk to people who know the work of Sins Invalid, “they automatically expect some aspect of it to be sensual, to be about making sure that society knows that we are sexual beings.”

Palacios was born in South America. She contracted polio as a 9-month-old, which left her disabled. She moved to Texas at 15 and has lived in the States since.

Growing up, she was quiet and shy. “I grew up oppressed by ableism without knowing that that’s what it was —because most disabled people didn’t even have a name for ableism — not being able to name that oppression, not being able to understand that horribleness of being put down and labeled and forced into invisibility,” she says. “It can be emotionally devastating enough for you to want to hide within yourself. And that’s what I did.”

But in her 20s she discovered what she calls her “sexy power.” She says, “I think that that’s been part of the essence of who I am. And that’s how I empower other disabled women. Because for me, the ability to recognize my inner beauty is what allows me to shine physically.”

Palacios will be doing a flamenco dance in one of her performances. That would once have scared her. “I’m not a dancer,” she says. “Movement does not come natural to me.” But she has learned to think differently. 

She is a Goddess on Wheels. 

“It is about just flaunting our disabled-ness from a position of power and saying, ‘I’m crippled, sexy baby, and I deserve to be here.’ 

The title of the show — “We Love Like Barnacles” — comes from the way that barnacles cling.  Palacios says, “it is about how we hold on for dear life. We attach ourselves to whatever space we’re able to just so that we can stay alive.”

Nomy Lamm, Sins Invalid creative director, will perform as a queen bee to “Honey,” a song by their band, The Beauty. (Photo by Megan Xeal, courtesy Sins Invalid)

Palacios explains, “loving like barnacles means that we hold on for dear life even when people are pushing us off the edge, wanting to euthanize us, throwing us off the bridge, telling us that we’re ugly, saying that we don’t deserve to be here. Damnit, we’re fucking barnacles, we are here to stay.”

Nomy Lamm will be performing in the show. Lamm prefers that people use they/them pronouns when referring to them. 

They started at Sins as a ticket-taker but, over the years, the organization drew them in. Lamm’s current title is creative director. They have performed in seven shows for Sins Invalid, singing and performing to their music.

In 2016, Lamm performed a piece in which they wore a giant red skirt that flowed down from a raised platform where they sat and covered most of the stage. 

Two dancers were positioned below the skirt and then danced there, below the fabric. At the end, the dancers crawled out. 

“The piece was called ‘The Primordial,’ and it was like they were the first beings crawling onto land, but crawling out of fire/lava instead of water,” Lamm said. 

This year Lamm will be performing as a queen bee. They sing and write their own songs. Lamm’s current band, The Beauty, recorded a song, “Honey,” that will be used for their performance. The Beauty, according to its webpage, makes “punk anthems and cosmic power ballads for the rise of the matriarchy.”

Creative director Nomy Lamm’s queen bee smears honey on their face in a performance for Sins Invalid’s “We Love Likes Barnacles.” (Photo by Megan Xeal, courtesy Sins Invalid)

Sins Invalid has become a big part of Lamm’s life. It helped them find connection.

They came to the Bay Area after several years in Chicago. “I felt reflected in the Bay Area,” Lamm says. “It’s one of the few places in the world where I would encounter other people who were like me in lots of different ways, where my presentation felt ‘normal,’” though they quickly add, “this becomes less and less true with gentrification.”

Lamm loves performing with Sins Invalid. They say that it is common for members of the audience at Sins Invalid’s performances to be “struggling with a disability or chronic illness or access needs as if it is a personal issue often realize ‘Ohh, this is part of a bigger political identity’ and feel more empowered.” 

The theme of this year’s show is reflected in the show’s subtitle: “Crip Lives in Climate Chaos.” 

The Sins Invalid website describes the show as “a performance that centers our communities in the throes of climate chaos and our agonized planet. From the storms battering our shores to the raging fires threatening our homes, the social, political, and economic disparities faced by disabled queer and trans people of color put our communities at the frontlines of ecological disaster.”

With climate change have come more hurricanes and fires, “disabled people are being left behind, and disabled people are always left behind,” Palacios says.

“Mother Nature is pissed off,” Palacios explains. “For this year’s show the narrative has shifted into survival. It has shifted into resilience. It has shifted into the realization that our lives are in danger, that disabled people are in danger of being left to die as the world comes to an end around us.”

The word “crip” in the show’s title is controversial, Palacios says, even within the disabled community, because of the negative connotation of the well-known gang and the reference to the word “cripple,”which has been used as a slur.

But Palacios explains, “in the disability culture world, especially among the people who are artists, who are activists or advocates and who have been comfortable enough with our disabled bodies, we embrace the word ‘crip’ as something powerful, as something that represents our reality, as something that represents and explains the oppression that we have survived.”

“When we claim ‘crip’ as part of our identity, we do so with power; we do so with love,” she says. “We may have to explain the word ‘crip’ to others, but we don’t have to deny it. We do so without shame.”

Maria Palacios, a.k.a. Goddess on Wheels, will be performing a flamenco dance for Sins Invalid’s “We Love Like Barnacles: Crip Lives in Climate Chaos.” (Photo by Nine Lam, courtesy Sins Invalid)

This year’s performance will combine physical and virtual spaces. Each of the performers delivered their performance in an actual theater. The theater was empty except for folks assisting with the performance and a small film crew to record it. 

The films from the different performances will be edited into a coherent whole and streamed to a virtual audience in three shows this weekend.

There will be a loss of the joy and camaraderie from the live performances of the past, but there will be positives as well. Sins Invalid’s shows “always sell out,” according to Palacios. Now more people will be able to join. This means that people all over the world will get to see their work.  

Another benefit is this year the performers will be able to watch their own performances along with the audience, an experience Palacios says she has never had before. 

In the end, Palacios expects this year’s show will do what Sins Invalid has always done. “We will bring our troops on stage. And we leave people in awe of the fact that not only are we existing and resisting, we’re surviving and creating and changing and demanding. And that’s what’s beautiful about it.”

* “We Love Like Barnacles: Crip Lives in Climate Chaos,” a show presented by Sins Invalid focused on disability and climate justice featuring seven disabled artists of color/disabled LGBTQ artists, will screen four times this Friday through Sunday. Ticket holders are invited to arrive half an hour early to hang out in the virtual lounge and to stay after the performance for a live Q&A session. Tickets, $10-$23 per person, are now available online at ODC Theater. No one will be turned away for lack of funds.

* Joe Dworetzky is a second career journalist interning at the Bay City News Foundation and Local News Matters after a 35-year career as a lawyer. He graduated from Stanford in 2020 with a Master’s in journalism. He can be reached at joe.dworetzky@baycitynews.com.