On May 2, 1992, professional hip-hop dancer Auti Angel was on the verge of signing a recording contract with Columbia Records. The next day, her spinal cord was severed in a terrible car wreck, leaving her permanently paralyzed from the waist down. Now, ten years later, Auti is one of the inspiring stars of the new Sundance Channel reality show "Push Girls," which gives viewers an intimate glimpse into the challenges wheelchair-using women face. In this honest and revealing interview, Auti shares how surviving unimaginable trauma -- she endured both that car accident and childhood sexual abuse -- can help you build a fighting spirit... if you work at it.
I love how you pushed your comfort zone to enter that ballroom dance contest in episode two of "Push Girls." That was incredible!
Oh, thank you so much. Oh, yes indeed, I push myself beyond my comfort zone.
To me, that’s the crux of why you’re fearless. Most people stay within their comfort zones. You say, “I’m going to do the opposite of what people expect of me.” Have you always been that way?
I have. I’ve always been a fighter. I went through a lot as a little girl, and knew how to learn how to fight through situations. So I just became fearless.
What is your definition of "fearless"?
"Fearless" is tackling obstacles full force and head-on, with no regrets.
What have you learned about fear and fearlessness since your accident?
I learned that being afraid holds you down and holds you back from accomplishing incredible things. And learning to become more fearless, even with extra obstacles, empowers you more. I find that I became more fearless after my car accident, because… I had a car accident where I was driving. I know that [fellow "Push Girls"] Angela and Tiphany were passengers [when they had their accidents]. But I was the one that was driving. A car clipped the front end of my car and I went spinning and hit the center divider head-on. And that was a traumatic experience.
To your self-worth, it made a difference that you were the one driving, you mean?
Yeah. So conquering that fear of driving again, and being worried about, “Oh my gosh, is somebody going to hit me?” It’s weird, because I was like, “You know what? Not too much more damage could happen unless it was my time to go.” The only time I really became fearful of driving is when I had somebody else in the car, because I didn’t want them to get hurt.
How long did it take you to get back behind the wheel?
I was in rehab still. Back then, they used to have kind of a driver’s ed for newly injured individuals, [so they could] learn how to drive again with hand controls. I’m not sure if they still have that, but I was still in rehab when they asked me, “Do you want to try to learn how to drive again?” and I was like, “Yeah!” That was going to give me my extra sense of independence back. And I couldn’t wait to gain it. In fact, I think I remember them wanting to postpone it. I was like, “No! Can we do it now?”
Like getting back on the horse?
Exactly! Like, “Don’t make me wait! Let’s get this going, so I can get a set of hand controls and get back on with my life.”
In one of the show's episodes, you had a lot of important things to say about naysayers: Some of your doctors said you’d never dance again. Can you talk about how to identify naysayers, why their negativity is horrible, why you shouldn’t listen.... Where did that come from with you?
I've had naysayers most of my life! Especially being a Latin-American female who was trying to dance in the hip-hop industry. Back then, they were only hiring African-American women as backup dancers. And when they told me, “No, you’re not the right color,” I was like, “But watch me dance! Wait! I have something to offer other than color!” I learned to fight against naysayers through my multiracial parents. I saw them go through naysaying from my own family. My mother was white, my father was brown. And in the beginning, [my mom's family] didn’t like my father because of his color! But once they fell in love with him as a person, they didn’t see the color. And the same thing goes with people in wheelchairs: Once you fall in love with the person, you forget about the wheelchair. So what I want to say to naysayers is, “Stop speaking your fears upon people.” Naysaying is people who have a fear and don’t know how to address it, so they press their fear on you with negativity.
Exactly. That’s so good.
To people who are being naysayed at, I would say: “Don’t listen to the naysayers. And LOVE on the naysayers.” Naysayers need love. That’s what they need!
That’s so sweet! But it means that you have to get past your own fear to reach out to them, and not be small.
Absolutely. Conquer your own fears so that you can press forward. Once you do, love on the naysayers.
Can we talk about the link between low self-worth and fear?
I was very insecure as a young girl, going through child abuse. So it became very.…
What do you mean “child abuse?” What happened?
Well, physical and sexual.
Really? I’m sorry.
It’s okay! That’s what made me who I am today! I wouldn’t be such a fighter today if I didn’t go through all of the things that I’ve gone through. Had my life been so peachy keen, I would not have learned how to fight through all of my obstacles -- including becoming paralyzed.
Wow. So you learned strength from that.
Absolutely. People either learn from their trials and tribulations... actually, “trials and tribulations” isn’t the phrase I want to say, because when somebody pushes something upon you, it’s really not a “trial” that YOU go through; it’s something that somebody pushes upon you. So it’s like, when you go through a traumatic experience such as physical and sexual child abuse, you either learn how to become a fighter through years of gaining self-worth, or you lose self-worth and, later on, have to go through more of your own trials and tribulations that you create from that, that extend from the abuse. And then you learn later on in life to deal with those issues, and then become the fighter. That kind of was me. I had to learn how to be a fighter later on [because of] my own trials and tribulations that I put myself into. Because once I went through molestation, I became a very promiscuous young woman.
Which commonly happens after someone is sexually abused!
Yeah. And sex became my drug. So I put myself in situations where I became physically and sexually abused by men. And at times, received it because that’s what I felt like love was. It wasn’t until later on in life that I let go of all those relationships and began my relationship with God. I knew that there was a God -- and I don’t have to put my beliefs upon anybody, but I knew that there was a God, or a “higher being,” if you want to call it that, or "the universe" -- and I knew that I had to develop a relationship within myself and reach out to that higher being and develop a relationship with it. And once I did, I gained so much self-worth that I realized, “Oh my gosh, I’m putting myself into these situations! I deserve better! I was created beautifully, and was wonderfully made, and did not deserve this type of abuse.” And once I realized that, I started to put on a posture that was non-penetratable. Does that make sense?
Yes. You mean that nobody could shake.
Yeah! That nobody could shake, and nobody could penetrate. It was like, “You’re not going to hurt me no more. No, don’t talk to me like that anymore. No, don’t speak to me like that. Love me the way God loves me. Love me, ’cause I’m going to love you in the same manner.”
I think reading your story will help so many people who’ve been abused.
I wish I would have been able to read an article out there somewhere, instead of having to go through all that I had to go through. Something that stressed upon my heart, “Really? That’s how I gain self-worth?” It’s like: Shed the layers. Shed the negative people around you. Focus on self and rebuild. THEN go back out in the world and conquer.
I like that you acknowledge how, in the past, you contributed to some of the negative situations that happened after your initial abuse. I think it’s also very common to punish yourself after something like that.
It is. You tend to gravitate towards what you know. If you don’t know any better, you don’t do any better. And so when I received that type of punishment, that was the type of attention I received. I felt like that’s how I was suppose to be loved. I didn’t know any better, so when I went out into the world on my own, I attracted those people, those predators. And they preyed upon me. And I allowed them to, because I didn’t have any self-worth. Until finally one day I was tired of being abused and I cut everybody off -- anybody that was negative. I closed my door, stayed in my room, and began to just meditate and gain self-worth and rebuild and look to a higher being to help me. Once I did and went back out into the world, I told people “no” if they tried to approach me in that [negative] manner. Or guys: When they would approach me [and say], “Hey, you’re sexy....” I actually had somebody say to me, “Too bad you’re in a wheelchair and you probably can’t have sex, but I bet you give great head.”
I literally had somebody say that. I’m sorry I’m being so graphic, but I want to give you an example of how rude people can be. I turned around and said, “How DARE you! Why would you even approach somebody like that?! I would never approach you about you having a little penis." [Laughs] You know, it was like, you fight with whatever you can fight with. But I was like, “No, you’re not going to address me in that manner. And don’t be so rude. You have no right.”
By showing women how to set boundaries, you are doing a positive thing.
And then you begin to attract like-minded people. Like-minded spirits. And you have a shield. With that type of posture of positivity and self-worth, you have a shield that protects you from the idiots.
I need an idiot shield immediately! Thank you, Auti!
Hey, Push Girls are powerhouses! And that’s why we are fearless.
Check out the slideshow for video clips of the "Push Girls" in action!
'Push Girls' Breaks Wheelchair Misconceptions
Courtesy of the Sundance Channel and AP.
The 'Push Girl'
Courtesy of the Sundance Channel.
'Push Girls' Trailer
Courtesy of The Sundance Channel.
'Push Girls' On 'Ellen'
'The Insider' Interviews The 'Push Girls'
Courtesy of the Sundance Channel.
'Extra': 'Push Girls' At The Grove
If you or someone you love is a survivor of child abuse, you can call the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD for help (they counsel adults, too). Alternatively, you can visit the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network's website by clicking here.
For more by Elizabeth Kuster, click here.
For more on becoming fearless, click here.