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An Interview With Professor Martha Gonzalez
Left photo, courtesy of Martha Gonzalez; right photo by Pablo Aguilar
Left photo, courtesy of Martha Gonzalez; right photo by Pablo Aguilar

“Part of being in the band is having a Chicana feminist analysis. The presence of women in the group is not ‘eye candy’ or a tokenized gesture toward balancing any sort of gender scale: it’s an honest recognition of the poetic, musical, and compositional strengths the female musicians in the community possess.”

Martha Gonzalez is a Chican@/Latin@ Studies Professor at Scripps College, a Grammy-winning musician, and an important artist/activist in her community of East Los Angeles. Her research includes Chicana feminist theory, Chican@ music and popular culture, transnational musical dialogues, and feminist development theory. She has a PhD in Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies from the University of Washington, which she draws upon in composing music (see song from her Grammy award-winning album, Imaginaries). In her scholarship, she “analyzes community music-making practices that debunk commercial and social pressures that often position women to choose between musicianship and motherhood” (– bio and oral history at University of Washington).

Professor Gonzalez is lead singer, percussionist, and songwriter for East LA Chican@ band Quetzal, a group centered around social activism, feminism, and community engagement. At the core of Quetzal’s mission, there is a belief in using music as a tool for political and social change, as well as for community building and identity expression. As explained on Professor Gonzalez’s website, events such as the 1992 LA riots, Prop 187, and the Zapatista movement “spurred a powerful synergy, in which avenues of expressive culture such as music and public art emerged as platforms from which to voice marginalized people’s desires, opinions, and resistance to the conditions in which they found themselves. The proactive strategy of Quetzal and other artists was to maneuver through the societal problems that were affecting the communities in which these artists were living.”

In an interview with me, Professor Gonzalez explained that her music is inextricably linked to her artivista, or artist/activist, mindset. She has many years of experience in the professional music business and expressed her admiration for female powerhouses of the industry like Beyoncé, but also stated that she never really wanted to be that kind of performer. Rather, she writes music that is politically charged, which she doesn’t believe has a place in that part of the music industry. And through her professorship, she works to unite the supposedly separate worlds of academia and music to create a space for the sharing of personal stories and identities.

Music has always been tied to storytelling and oral history for Professor Gonzalez. Her early musical training was based largely on her own family’s oral musical tradition. She recognizes music as a tool to bring people together, to learn from one another, and to tell one’s story. In her many artivista projects, she works to create a sense of convivencia – literally “coexistence”. Convivencia, Professor Gonzalez explains, is a central aesthetic principle in community building that places importance on personal relationships. She uses music, just one of many methods, to create this sense of convivencia among practioners and community members. And through her projects and music, she works to bridge translocal and transnational borders to create a larger network of convivencia.

In 2008, she was awarded a Fulbright fellowship, in which she collaborated with Chicanas/Latinas in Los Angeles and Jarochas/Mexican female musicians in Veracruz, Mexico. She released her research in 2012 as a CD compilation entitled “Entre Mujeres: Feminine Translocal Music Composition”. Professor Gonzalez is also involved with Mujeres de Maiz, an organization of women artivistas who work to inspire women and girls of diverse backgrounds to tell their stories and create interdisciplinary and intercultural work. Felicia Montes, an artivista in Los Angeles and an integral member of the Mujeres de Maiz community, defines the artivism of the organization as rooted in social change, art, and education.

Professor Gonzalez recognizes the importance of education in her mission for translocal and transnational convivencia and artivism. Before becoming a university professor, she taught for many years at different levels in the school system. Working with youth, she says, was a great way to put into perspective what she had experienced in and outside of her community. She recognized how important that acknowledgement of story and personal history was, and constantly looked for ways to stay connected and give back to her community. For Professor Gonzalez, teaching is a sharing process. Academia, she says, provided her another language to express and share what she had already experienced in her life.

“In terms of teaching I like exposing students to things, sharing the knowledge that I know, sharing readings that have inspired me over the course of my whole education career, sharing other learnings that I’ve seen and come across – not just through literature, but through music and other things. I’ve been a musician for many years, and I feel I’ve learned just as much in the music world than I have in Academia.”

An essential component of convivencia and social change is genuine human connection, which Professor Gonzalez finds in student/professor relationships. She finds it especially important to create opportunities for this kind of connection among students, their peers, professors, and the larger activist community. That connection – created through dialogue, sharing of stories, and an openness to learn – not only grounds academic theories for change in ‘the real world’, but also builds community.

“For us to see that we have a lot in common even as we deconstruct the system, we, you and I, care about a lot of the same things. And I think that’s another form of learning and really connecting with each other on that real basic human level – even as we recognize our differences. … We can talk ‘til we’re blue in the face about systems, but if we’re not taking the time to build relationships, then we’re not deconstructing anything, it’s just all up here [theories, imaginary]. So the more that I’m able to interact with students and get to know them as people and what they’ve lived, I think that’s where the real work is happening.”

Professor Gonzalez is constantly working to bridge the gap between theories/the Academy and the real world. She is part of a large community network of artists, musicians, community activists, and artivistas who are doing work “on the ground”. She believes it is her job as a professor to bring them into the academic space, but also to take students out into the world so they can see what people are doing on a daily basis. This way, discussions of theories in Academia can connect “not just in the mind, but in the heart”.

Professor Gonzalez believes the classroom to be the ultimate place for dialogue, for the exchanging of ideas and concepts for social change. Academic learning is a collaborative process between student and professor, in which there are constant opportunities to learn from one another. Professor Gonzalez does not see her position as one to tell students what to think, but rather to influence them with dignity. She feels she learns just as much from students as students learn from her. As Paulo Freire asserts, the learning process itself is a dialogue. And the Academy can model and teach dialogue, but if professors aren’t doing it, Professor Gonzalez says, “we’re not challenging anything”. “How we engage people on a regular basis,” she says, “is where the real teaching happens.”

In our interview, Professor Gonzalez discussed a video project her husband and band partner, Quetzal Flores, worked on with inmates in corporate prisons. The video starts out with a storyteller, a former Black Panther, who starts out by saying, “Everybody has a story to tell. And it’s my job to help them choose that story to tell. It’s just as important for us to hear it, but it’s more important for them to tell it”. The opportunity to share stories, both in academia and in the music/artivista world, creates community and connection among people. This, Professor Gonzalez believes, is the path to real social change.

Check out Quetzal and more about Martha Gonzalez here:

Imaginaries

Jarocho Elegua

Para Sanar

Martha Gonzalez & Quetzal ‘Breast Pump Waltz’

http://www.quetzanimales.com

http://marthagonzalez.net

 

– Cassidy, Scripps College student

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