Tonya Ingram, LA poet and ‘lupus warrior’, dies at 31

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Tonya Ingram, LA poet and ‘lupus warrior’, dies at 31

Tonya Ingram, a beloved poet, mental health advocate, mainstay of Los Angeles’ close-knit performance poetry scene and self-described “lupus warrior,” who spoke candidly about her illness to thousands of online followers, died late last month at 31.

Her close friends and neighbors, Matthew “Cuban” Hernandez and Alyesha Wise, told The Times they found Ingram unresponsive during a well-being check at her apartment around noon on Dec. 30 after not hearing from her for several days. did not hear her. The poets announced her death in an Instagram post on New Year’s Day. “There are not many people like Tonya, with a heart and energy like hers. And we will love our little sister forever,” Hernandez’s post read.

Ingram has published three books of poetry, including “Growl and Snare” (2013), “Another Black Girl Miracle” (2017) and “How to Survive Today” (2019). Much of her writing, published in outlets ranging from Vice to BuzzFeed to the New York Times, has surrounded themes of chronic illness, black girlhood, love and mental health awareness.

Since her death, close friends and supporters have flocked to Instagram, sharing posts about the impact of her friendship and her poetry on their lives. With over 20,000 followers, Ingram has shared her journey through illness along with her poetry.

Born in Cincinnati and raised in the Bronx, Ingram got her start as a youth poet in New York City, where she was also a founding member of SLAM! at New York University with poet and classmate Safia Elhillo. She traveled and performed widely during her twenties, competing as a spoken word artist in college slams; several of her recorded performances reach hundreds of thousands of viewers.

But it was in LA that Ingram found her tribe, after moving west to earn a master of fine arts at Otis College of Art and Design. She became a regular at Da Poetry Lounge in West Hollywood, where Wise and Hernandez help co-host one of the country’s largest weekly open mics. She toured with DPL’s national slam team (fellow alums include Yesika Salgado) and quickly established herself as a leading voice in LA’s performance community.

From left: Alyesha Wise, Matthew ‘Cuban’ Hernandez, Tonya Ingram, Poetic Moment, Jasmine Williams and Kito Fortune.

(Jireh Deng)

Until her death, she continued to organize and plan public events, including the “Poetry in Color” series in collaboration with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “Poetry in Color” launched in 2020 and features poets who have written pieces inspired by public art at LACMA. Ingram’s goal was to make both poetry and art accessible to larger audiences.

Her death also shook a following that had gathered around her disability and mental health advocacy. She didn’t hesitate express her opinions about the flaws of an American medical system that left her and thousands of other transplant hopefuls waiting for organ donors. In 2020, Ingram went live on Zoom with Rep. Katie Porter (D-Irvine) to discuss errors and mismanagement among organizations charged with procuring donated organs.

Ingram was on the kidney donor waiting list for three years. In an interview, Hernandez said he believed her death was preventable. Ingram’s last Instagram post shared with her followers that she was struggling to breathe. In the months before her death, her hospital visits became more frequent and urgent. Hernandez and Wise said she was sometimes sent home before she fully recovered.

Hernandez said the medical industry was “nothing short of dereliction of duty” even as Ingram’s complications increased. “She was tired.”

Ingram has prioritized peace and quiet in recent years, according to Wise. “We were both always on the train, bustling and constantly moving [in our youth], so our snail life was well deserved,” Wise said in an interview. “We talked about [how]as black women in this world at this time, we deserve to have that.”

For a self-described introvert with a debilitating illness, Ingram was a persistent and vibrant presence across the city. She sported a dinosaur costume to match her nickname, “Tonya-saurus Rex,” and some of her social media posts showed her dancing around the living room in it. In recent years, she has learned to surf, and she has been an active participant in outdoor collectives for people of color, such as Color the water and AdventureCrewwhich brings visibility to Black and brown people who enjoy nature and wildlife, including in an advertising campaign for Nike. Among the awards listed in her bio, Ingram noted that she was a winner on “The Price Is Right.”

Hernandez and Wise, who are married, had Ingram as a roommate for three years and then a neighbor across the street. On their frequent walks in North Hollywood, Ingram often talked with Wise about wanting to fall deeply in love, grow a family. Dream projects included a movement to bring poetry and art to very sick hospital patients and other, even higher aspirations.

“She wanted to be abducted by aliens,” Wise recalled. “She also said that as soon as she gets her kidney, she wants to leave the country. She wanted to go to Europe.”

Hernandez and Wise are handling funeral arrangements for Ingram, who shared with them her wish to have a green funeral under a tree. Family and friends are raise funds to have her buried on the grounds of Hollywood Forever Cemetery under a California Oak. With these funds, Hernandez and Wise plan to fly Ingram’s family from Cincinnati and Brooklyn, NY for the ceremony scheduled for January 27.

So far, the two have raised about $30,000, which covers the costs associated with her funeral. They are still taking donations, hoping to build a trust to send Ingram’s 15-year-old younger sister to college, maintain her published and unpublished work and advocate for improvements to organ donor programs.

In a recent episode of the podcast “So Life Wants You Dead,” recorded in July 2022, Ingram spoke candidly with host Nora Logan about the medical discrimination she faced as a dark-skinned black woman – and also about how to learn to the possibility of her own death.

“I do not invite death, but I am not afraid of it. Which means when it’s time, I’m at peace with it,” Tonya said. “I’m not afraid of it … I just have such a deep peace knowing that this body will rest.”

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