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The Interview: Sara Ortiz

As program manager for the Black Mountain Institute and "The Believer," the former vocalist lifts her voice to advocate for literacy in Las Vegas.

People  |  Nov 13, 2018  |  By Karyn S. Hollingsworth
Sara Ortiz, program manager for the Black Mountain Institute. She manages events, readings, etc. for the fellows and writers-in-residence, poses in front of trees on campus.

Sara Ortiz, program manager for the Black Mountain Institute. She manages events, readings, etc. for the fellows and writers-in-residence.  (Lonnie Timmons III/UNLV Creative Services)    

You could call Sara Ortiz’s entrée to UNLV a baptism by The Believer Festival. She started on April 2, two weeks before Black Mountain Institute’s culminating event of the season — a roving two-day celebration of music, art, and literature featuring an eclectic mix of renowned authors and artists. Her work helped draw record crowds of literary lovers to various Las Vegas venues.

The Austin, Texas, native and daughter of Salvadoran immigrants was attracted to the growing arts community here. As program manager for the Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute (BMI) and The Believer literary magazine, Ortiz curates events and coordinates the selection, service, and public appearances of BMI’s fellows and writers-in-residence.

What inspired you to get into your field?

What brought me into this career is a passion not just for literature, but literacy — working alongside educators, reading specialists, and librarians who work with younger readers to develop reading and writing skills. These components drew me in as a reader to this field. 

How your background prepared you for your work

I was studying composition, voice, and music education at Texas State University in San Marcos when life happened. I moved around a couple times. When I settled back in Austin, I switched to creative writing with a focus on Middle Eastern studies and got my bachelor’s degree at St. Edward’s University. I worked for an Austin nonprofit, the Writer’s League of Texas, before I moved to New York where I worked in bookstores and children’s publishing. After six years, I moved back home to Austin to work for the Texas Library Association, another nonprofit that works with educators, librarians, authors, and illustrators. When I learned about The Believer Festival — that they were looking for a program manager, and it was affiliated with BMI and UNLV (College of Liberal Arts) — I was naturally curious. I was someone who enjoyed The Believer magazine years ago.

An "a-ha moment"

I was working for an independent bookstore in Brooklyn. My a-ha moment was really more of a learning moment with the owner of the bookstore where the readership was different from another bookstore. I had previously worked at a high-brow, independent bookstore in Manhattan where I was curating events. The Brooklyn owner said she wanted to book a certain author for an event. I questioned it, and she could sense my judgment. She said, “At my bookstore, I don’t care what people read; I just care that they’re reading.”

I’ve taken that with me forever. It’s taught me to be less discriminatory as a reader. Some people might frown upon detective or romance novels, but odds are, they haven’t read the right one — and probably don’t want to. I remain a discerning reader with all kinds of literature, and it’s great that people like very different kinds of books. For some, romance, mystery, or graphic novels will serve as a gateway for reading.

The best surprise about working here

I can’t tell you how much I love this team (at BMI). It’s part of what hooked me. They’re all creative, high-level, inspired, passionate human beings, and I feel fortunate to work with them. As far as Las Vegas, I didn’t think I was going to love it as quickly as I did, and it’s a big testament to the thriving literary and arts community here. It’s just beginning to see the nuggets of goodness of what it can be. Our friends at the (Marjorie) Barrick Museum (of Art) are dreamy. Our friends at The Neon Museum are just as great. I see these wonderful relationships forging with Nevada Humanities and others, and that’s really exciting.

The most "Vegas" thing you’ve done since you’ve been here

My partner, Steve, and I went to see Elton John in his final concert in May. It was the last night he was playing at Caesar’s Palace. That was a pretty “Vegas” night.

The trait you like most about yourself

I’m open to ideas. I don’t believe that the best ideas come from one individual. They come from a team; they come from discussion; they come through workshopping ideas. I love a collaborative setting.

When you were a child, what did you want to be?

I wanted to be a symphony or choral conductor. One of my favorite things to watch is the bounce and lilt a conductor has. I love the posture; I love the pose. There’s something about the dance, the hop, the musicality of a musical production. It’s almost theatric. Conducting is a skill that takes years to master. As a singer, I found it to be a true meditative experience. If you’re lucky enough to work with a conductor who is really inspired, it almost feels like a very spiritual experience.

The last book you couldn’t put down

This book was long-listed for the National Book Award: Tommy Orange’s There There. It’s an amazing novel that is going to change the literary canon; I’m convinced of it. It follows the various Native Americans in the Oakland, California, area, and it culminates in a gathering that happens in the big Oakland Pow-wow. Everyone in the world of books has been raving about it. It’s one of those books that lives up to the hype. It truly gets you from the first moment to the last page.

A favorite holiday food or family tradition

My family is very much a brown family in that we don’t eat traditional American foods for big holidays. If people are having ham or turkey or something of the sort, we’re having pupusas, a Salvadoran dish, or we’ll make a brisket or have lamb. I usually say, “Let’s really Latin it up and eat something super brown!” I made tamales pisques — Salvadoran tamales — for the first time this past holiday season.

A favorite season or three-month stretch of the year

In every place I’ve lived — Austin, New York, Vegas — I enjoy the fall. The foliage, if the city experiences it, is happening. It’s also book festival season, so the arts, literary, and music seasons have taken off. It’s a really exciting time. October and November are two pretty special months. I’m just experiencing it here in Vegas, but I have a feeling it’s going to be great.