How would you respond to sexual assault? For one San Antonio creative writer, there was only one satisfying response. Little did she know, this response would carry a message of hope to thousands of sexual assault survivors and their supporters across the city.
Amalia Ortiz founded “Women of Ill Repute: Refute” in 1999 in response to a recent sexual assault at the hands of an acquaintance.
“Feeling helpless in the aftermath of the trauma, a friend of mine… encouraged me to write about it… and to not approach the topic alone,” Ortiz said. “At that point, when it was still a new wound and she recommended that I do it with a group of women.”
However, before the 10 original performers compiled their personal stories into the theatrical poetry reading San Antonio has come to love, “Women of Ill Repute: Refute” was simply women getting together to discuss their experiences with sexual violence and female sexuality.
After connecting with women who shared her experience, Ortiz had the inspired idea to use her writings to create a greater outlet.
“I was trying to get women interested in coming to a first meeting… to share our writing on women’s issues and to see who’d be interested in putting together a show,” Ortiz said. “[A show] that was more than just a reading, but a theatrical work where hopefully we could have more interaction converting poems into scenes or monologues and seeing how to stage poetry.”
And so it began. Ten women gave their very first performance as the women of ill repute, at Puro Slam in the fall of 1999. The original 40-minute reading transformed over the years into a two-hour theatrical show, when they were invited all over South Texas to perform for eager female audiences.
"The response back in the 1990s from the community was very positive. There were so many young women that would come up to us after the show, some crying, some cheering, some just feeling empowered and feeling free to share their own stories,” performer, Victoria Garcia-Zapata Klein said.
The performance created a dialogue that wasn’t being discussed in open spaces in San Antonio at the time.
“It was a stronger response than I ever really figured that I would receive,” Ortiz reflected. “It started as a project of personal healing; then to see so many women come forward wanting to either share their stories or say that our stories touched them or empowered them in any way, that was what kept us going through the early 2000s.”
The love from the community was undeniable in 2001. According to Klein, their very first performance at the Guadalupe Theater completely sold out.
That same year “Women of Ill Repute: Refute” had their last show. However, on July 23, 2016, 15 years after their final performance, “Women of Ill Refute: Repute” returned to the Guadalupe Theater with new works and even more theatrics. (Scroll down to replay video of the performance. Editor's note: This video contains explicit content that may not be appropriate for all audiences. Viewer discretion is advised.)
All five poets performed in the original reading in 1999. Performers included Maria Ibarra, Andi Garcia-Linn, Amalia Ortiz, Victoria Garcia-Zapata Klein, and Lisa Cortez Walden.
“I think it’s nice and strange that there are people who remember the original shows,” Ortiz said.
One person who remembered their performances fondly is local writer and artist, Anel Flores. Flores introduced “Women of Ill Repute: Refute” with a testimony about her experience sitting through the performance 15 years ago.
“When I was 22, we were at this bar… and all of a sudden one bad ass woman at a time walked out… fierce as ever, shoulders back, heads up, red lipstick, sexy, beautiful, powerful, intelligent, and they just blew my mind,” Flores shared.
Flores shared with Ortiz that their performance continues to inspire her feminist literature today.
“The women of ill repute refute, not only did they heal through their community and through their circle, but the audience began to heal from so many experiences that they too had gone through and had never spoken about,” Flores said. “And that’s something extremely important about art.”
When it comes to the topic of sexual violence, no organization has worked more closely with survivors than the Rape Crisis Center. Ortiz understands this more than most as she developed a close bond with the center following her trauma.
“Women of Ill Repute: Refute” used their success with the community to raise money to support the center and continue to have a relationship with its members to this day.
“Our whole mission in the first place was to raise funds for [the Rape Crisis Center],” Klein said. “Amalia called me one day and told me her story and how she found no justice... and the only organization that helped her at the time was the Rape Crisis Center.”