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The Making Of An 'Artivista': How Martha Gonzalez Became The Latest MacArthur Genius Grant Winner

Musician and professor Martha Gonzalez wears horn rimmed glasses and fuchsia top and stands in front of solid green wall and plant.
Martha Gonzalez, Musician, Scholar, and Artist/Activist, 2022 MacArthur Fellow, Claremont, CA
(Courtesy John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)
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This is how the MacArthur Foundation describes Martha Gonzalez on its awards page: “musician, cultural theorist, and activist developing collaborative methods of artistic expression that build community and advance social justice principles.”

Gonzalez says that leaves out a lot.

“I am a Chicana Artivista, musician, feminist music theorist, academic, mother, sister, daughter of the world,” she said.

The term artivista is key to understanding her work in the last three decades and why her local and international impact put her on the radar of the MacArthur Foundation, which last week awarded her a coveted MacArthur Fellowship and its accompanying monetary award, an $800,000 annual prize better known as a “genius grant.”.

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While Gonzalez’s name is the only one on the award, in singling out her work, the MacArthur Foundation recognized a network of activists using various forms of art to combat racism by creating cultural bridges between people of different ethnicities, races, and social classes.

An artivista is someone who, in her case, uses music “not just for their own sole expression, but they utilize their skill sets to pull other people into an actual process,” she said.

The recognition of Gonzalez’s and these activists’ decades-long work against the dehumanizing forces of capitalism and colonialism comes at a time when people of color in Los Angeles are hearing hateful racial rhetoric come out of their very own halls of political power.

Crossing Race, Ethnicity, And Borders

Gonzalez has created an artistic practice that balances singing, songwriting, national touring with her band, scholarly field study, and grassroots organizing.

“She's been a great gift to the people of Los Angeles and the people of the world,” says George Lipsitz, research professor emeritus of Black studies and sociology at UC Santa Barbara and one of the nation’s most renown ethnic studies scholars. “And this is a fitting recognition not only of her genius but of the effectiveness of her work.”

Here are some of the things Lipsitz highlights:

  • She wrote a book about East LA artivistas who were shaped by the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the 1990s
  • She’s helped produce Fandango Obon, a participatory dance and music event in Los Angeles that melds West African, Japanese, and Mexican traditions
  • She producedEntre Mujeres, a musical collaboration of women artists from Veracruz and Southern California
  • She’s contributed tothe popularization in the Southwest United States of traditional son jarocho music from Veracruz through concerts, workshops, and community music making
  • She’s working withFideicomiso Comunitario Tierra Libre, a Los Angeles based group helping people who are unhoused by “taking land out of the speculative market… to begin to think about land, not as a commodity, but as a human right,” she said.
  • She’s been the lead singer, percussionist, and songwriter for Quetzal, the Los Angeles-based band that’s recorded eight albums, won a Grammy in 2013, and counts The Smiths, Rubén Blades, and Stevie Wonder as musical influences.
Three peopple sitting on a couch play stringed instruments. There is a young man on the left, a woman in the middle in a bright pink dress, and an older man on the right. They all have light brown skin. There are several colorful paintings on the wall behind them.
Martha Gonzalez, center, has been selected as a 2022 MacArthur Fellow.
(Courtesy MacArthur Foundation)

The band is Gonzalez’s most visible and popular effort. It was founded by her partner Quetzal Flores to highlight stories of people of color. That focus comes out of two influential events: the 1992 violent uprising of mostly Black and Latino residents in Southern California, and the 1994 uprising of Indigenous people in the Mexican state of Chiapas, known as the Zapatista Uprising. Subcomandante Marcos, the rebellion’s leader, popularized the motto, “otro mundo es posible,” another world is possible.

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Gonzalez’s award came just days after some of L.A.’s top elected officials were revealed to have engaged in racist rhetoric.

The fallout from those revelations, Lipsitz says, makes Gonzalez’s MacArthur award even more important because it holds the potential to give people examples of anti-racist methods that center collective approaches across races and ethnicities.

“I think the kind of hope that she embodies is much more about living with dignity and decency and democracy in the future,” he said. “Instead of imagining a day when we won't be pitted against each other, instead of hoping that some city council president, some governor, some senator, some president will come in on a white horse and save us.”

Communal Efforts As A Key To Healing

On Thursday of last week, a day after The MacArthur Foundation publicly announced the award, Gonzalez did what she’s been doing year in, year out: singing, performing with musicians, and telling stories about what it means to be an artivista.

She did so with an audience of about 50 people, mostly community college students, gathered around tables in a ballroom at Pierce College in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley.

Gonzalez walked off stage, satisfied with the performance.

“I feel good, I feel really happy, we shared some new things and it was a lot of fun,” she said.

In addition to singing and talking about what it is to be an artivista, she danced on a wood platform made popular by African-descended Mexicans centuries ago in Veracruz. She closed the show with a song from an October 28 performance at L.A.’s REDCAT, that takes on incarceration and racist urban development.

Alt text: College professor, activist and artist signs copies of her book while female college student holds it open. Student wears a t-shirt with word MEChA, the name of a Chicanx activist group.
Martha Gonzalez, left, signs copies of her book "Chican@ Artivista: Music, Community and Transborder Tactics in East Los Angeles" for Pierce College students after her performance on campus.
(Adolfo Guzman-Lopez

Students in the audience talked about their working class, Spanish-speaking roots, and how Gonzalez’s stories and singing about those kinds of families and their struggles empowered them.

“I think I cried like three times,” said third year Pierce College student Preston Reyes after the show.

“I grew up very musically and artistically inclined. I grew up writing stories and doing piano lessons, taking vocal lessons,” she said. But as she got older, her parents persuaded her to drop those interests.

“I had to be good at things that would benefit me and my family. And art just wasn't it.”

Gonzalez told the audience she’s a proud Chicana feminist, PhD, college professor, and mother. And that served for some students as a strong response to negative racial and ethnic labels many of these students have heard in their lives.

“She's definitely helped me gain a new perspective of my background and where I really come from,” said Guadalupe Aldana, a third year student majoring in Chicano studies. After years of wondering whether to identify as Mexican or Mexican American, Aldana says she’s now embraced calling herself Mexican and Chicana.

What questions do you have about higher education?
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez focuses on the stories of students trying to overcome academic and other challenges to stay in college — with the goal of creating a path to a better life.