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Q&A: 'Artivist' says creative expression makes communities healthier

Musician Martha Gonzalez is the 2016-2017 ASU Gammage guest residency artist.
Gonzalez says grassroots art movements help build communities.
September 27, 2016

Martha Gonzalez — Grammy winner, activist and ASU Gammage guest resident — discusses whirlwind tour through Arizona

For Martha Gonzalez, this is the eye of the hurricane. 

The Grammy winner, activist, scholar, community builder and mentor has been working to inspire creative growth and imaginative expression around the Phoenix area as the 2016-2017 ASU Gammage guest residency artist. She’s on a short break, but starting next month her whirlwind tour of Arizona will resume.  

Since Sept. 12, Gonzalez has been involved in a series of events that included a youth workshop, a jam session, songwriting workshops, MFA-level grad student discussions and the kickoff of the current “Performance in the Borderlands” series. Next month, she’ll discuss art in the context of women in U.S. history, pop music and race, Chicana activism, and immigration and ethnicity.

The tour will take her all over the state, but the current calm provides an opportunity for Gonzalez — "the artivist" — to discuss, in a Q&A with ASU Now, the role of women in art, the connection between arts and activism, and the scope of her work.

Question: Have women always been a vital part of performing arts and activism?

Answer: Women have always been at the front of social movement, social justice, the arts and beyond.

I’m not in any way attributing this to feminism or Western feminism when we think about the empowerment of women. Before the enterprise of feminism, there were always women in our families — in Mexico, other part of Latin America, Africa — who have resisted in particular ways in history.

We’ve always been resisting. We’ve always been building. We care for our families. We care for our communities. And we find different ways to accomplish things.

We’ve been using music, art, dance and other forms of creative expression to do this as a way of communicating with others, raising concerns and bringing communities together in different ways.

It’s great when an institution like ASU is paying attention. It’s a good thing for the students. It’s a good thing for the community. And it’s a good thing to get us all together so that we can all build the future in a collaborative manner.

Q: Is the idea of artists bringing attention to social injustice a relatively new phenomenon? Or is it now just getting traction? 

A: Art has always been meant to document and instigate critical thought and bring communities together.

It was always, I believe, more participatory.

With the advent and creation of the industrialization of music, with hyper-capitalism as the way we understand it, we always think of art as something separate from community: something we buy or we sell.

That was really never the case before capitalism took a hold of all of our minds and our creativity and imagination.

Art has always been a way of bringing the community together to instigate critical thought.

Capitalism has led us to believe that it’s something we have to major in and has been Westernized how we think about art — that it’s a product. But music isn’t a product.

A lot of artists are coming back to the idea that participation in art and music is a way of being in communication with the community. My work personally revolves around bringing people back to this idea.

Performance art is also an important way to impart knowledge and inspire people.

How many times have you been to a concert that just blew your mind? That’s really important.

I can speak to both. I love to perform. I’ve worked on my craft for many years, but I’ve also spent a great deal of time and energy in participatory music and dance practices, which I feel are important ways of using our skills as artists to reconnect communities.

Participation in art and music is a human right, and we need to reconnect to those ways. They lead to our greater consciousness. It makes communities healthier.

Q: The 1960s was a time of great social activism, and it seems like we’re getting back to that. What are the issues we as a society need to focus on and address today?

A: The result of the 1960s social era movement is that the biggest strides were made in terms of representation.

Having people that politically represent you that look like you in terms of race, gender, at times, sexuality. Also the implementation of the institutionalization of the movement, those are important things.

It’s important to study these movements to see where the new critical thought is coming from and to keep that as a way of deconstructing power.

In addition to that institutionalization comes pacification as well.

We need to look at the change in what’s happening on the ground and find ways to keep it alive on the ground. Not rely on federal money because along with these things come those parameters. With the non-profits come these ways of how you can and can’t spend money, and the efforts become institutionalized.

When that happens, it shuts down and doesn’t allow for new ways of exploring. Keeping it grassroots as much as possible is the way to instill the purest way of doing things.

We originally wanted to be a part of the system, and now we realize the system is corrupt in general. It doesn’t matter who you have in the White House, sometimes they just have to play by the rules. So for me, it’s more about what happens on the ground and with people who are there on a daily basis.

There’s less trust in the system now than ever before. The thought before was, “If we could just get in there we could change things,” and now we’re slowing finding that’s not the case. We need to stay close to the grassroots because many people are thinking upward mobility.

Q: I’ve heard that your music has brought about social change in your community. Can you give me an example?

A: In our music, we really try and instigate critical thought as they listen to our lyrics, and have discussions around it.

On an academic level, there is discussion on our music, lyrics and methods as a way of writing about it. Often they teach about our music.

But in terms of grassroots, we do a lot of community work around Fandango, which is a participatory dance and music practice that we’ve helped disseminate here in the U.S.

There are Fandango communities everywhere.

They aren’t performances but music and community dance practices. There’s a whole bunch of protocols, and they’re quite extensive.

This is work we’ve been doing for the past 12 years, and what’s come out of this is a lot of critical thought that extends into other communities. It’s a way of building community with others.

We’ve also done collective songwriting workshops where we engage communities around whatever issues, and we write songs together. But we do it in a way where there’s a real discussion, and we collectively write a song.

We’ve done this to discuss propositions all over, and that’s how we utilize our artist skills to instigate dialogue so we can do other things. We don’t predict what those other things will be, but ultimately it’s about promoting community and what’s important to them.

Q: What are you hoping community members will get out of your visits to some of the smaller towns in Arizona?

A: I feel like we’re going there to share what we do as artists.

There will be a lot of Phoenix-based artists on these trips, and when we leave, the goal is: If it makes sense, to keep it going, and it outlives my presence and stays relevant to their lives and the issues in their communities.

The issues in my community could be very different than the issues in the communities we’ll visit.

My goal is not to tell them what to do as much as to have a dialogue with them so they can figure it out for themselves, but in these very fun ways.

Through art, through music, through lyrics, these creative ways communities should engage in.

It’s also about tapping into the resources that are already there and having us look at our communities not from the deficits they have. It’s how we look at it and how we harness the energy that’s really important.

The arts are a way of talking about these issues and looking at the beauty that’s already there. Highlighting these things, building on that strength and extending into other things.

About Martha Gonzalez

Performances: Gonzalez has performed at the Kennedy Center for the Arts as well as the Smithsonian and worked with musical artists Jackson Browne, Los Lobos, Tom Waits, Susana Baca and many more.

Community work: Through her Mexican folk band, Quetzal, Gonzalez has engaged communities in critical thought through music. At the same time, she has increased access to health care and educational programs for underserved populations in the Los Angeles area.

Academic work: Gonzalez is an assistant professor in Chicano and Latino studies at Scripps College, a liberal arts school for women in Claremont, California.

Next event: ASU West Campus will host “An Evening with Martha Gonzalez” at 6 p.m. Oct. 20 in celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month. The event is free and open to the public, but space is limited. Go here to RSVP

Top photo: Singer and "artivist" Martha Gonzalez talks about community in her work during the opening event of "Performance in the Borderlands" on Sept. 13 at the Phoenix Center for the Arts. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Reporter , ASU News


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ASU Book Group puts readers in touch with authors

ASU Book Group kicks off its sixth season Sept. 28.
See this year's lineup for ASU book club.
September 27, 2016

Monthly meetings feature books by ASU faculty, Valley residents, more

ASU professor Martin Matustik discovered at the age of 40 that he was the child of a Holocaust survivor. It opened his eyes to a world of trauma and suffering he never realized was so close to him.

Matustik's journey led him to write “Out of Silence: Repair Across Generations,” one of the selections in the ASU Book Group's upcoming sixth season.

The group began in fall 2011 when it was established by now-retired ASU media relations officer Judith Smith, and very often the authors attend the monthly meetings.

It's a great learning experience, and just plain fun to hear the authors talk about what motivated them to write the book, and how it all took place,” Smith said.

ASU Book Group meetings are held from noon to 1 p.m. on the last Wednesday of every month at the Virginia G. Piper Writers House on the Tempe campus. After the book discussion, group members are encouraged to join the author for lunch at the University Club (attendees should be advised to bring their own lunch).

Other ASU authors featured this season include assistant professor of English Matt Bell, whose book “Scrapper” tells the tale of a post-apocalyptic Detroit; and associate professor of English Tara Ison, whose debut collection of short fiction “Ball” explores the darker side of love, sex and death, and how they are often intimately connected.

Past books have included “Gettysburg, 1913: A Novel of the Great Reunion,” by Alan Simon, lecturer at the W. P. Carey School of Business; “The Best of a Better View,” by Chris Benghue, ASU alum and columnist for The Catholic Sun; and “A World Apart,” by Camelia Skiba with ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration.

Skiba is one of ASU Book Group’s most enthusiastic members.

“It’s free and at your feet; all it takes is a walk through the campus and you’re there,” she said. “Make friends, learn something, discover new subjects, enhance your imagination … the list can go on.”

The ASU Book Group is sponsored by the Department of English. It is free and open to all members of the ASU community.

The schedule for the ASU Book Group’s sixth year:

Sept. 28: “Crossing the Line: A Marriage Across Borders,” by Linda Valdez, editorial writer for The Arizona Republic

book coverNot a typical immigration story, “Crossing the Line” is told by a middle-class American woman who falls in love with the son of an impoverished family from rural Mexico – a man who crosses the border illegally to be with her.

Married in 1988, Linda and Sixto Valdez learn to love each other’s very different families and cultures, raising their child to walk proudly in both worlds. “Crossing the Line” cuts through the fears and preconceptions that fuel the continuing political turmoil over immigration.

Oct. 26: “Scrapper,” by Matt Bell, assistant professor of English at ASU

book coverAuthor of the well-received novel “In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods,” Bell returns to tell the tale of a post-apocalyptic Detroit in “Scrapper.” A devastating reimagining of one of America’s greatest cities, it forces the reader to confront the consequences of one’s actions, even when they are made with the best intentions.

Nov.  30: “Angela Hutchinson Hammer: Arizona's Pioneer Newspaperwoman,” by Betty E. Hammer Joy, ASU alum and Phoenix resident

book coverIn 1905, with her marriage dissolved and desperate to find a way to feed her children, Angela Hutchinson Hammer bought a handpress, some ink and a few fonts of type and began printing a little tabloid called the Wickenburg Miner. In her naïveté, she never dreamed this purchase would place her squarely in the forefront of power struggles during Arizona's early days of statehood. Betty Hammer Joy tells her grandmother’s story based on her prodigious writing and correspondence, newspaper archives and the recollections of family members.

Also Nov. 30: “Sam, The Freeway Isn't A Cattle Trail Anymore: Stories Of Early 1900's Rural Life In The Salt River Valley, Arizona,” by Sam Joy, ASU alum and Valley resident

book coverJoy was born in Phoenix and raised on his dad’s farm along with a cattle operation on the north side of the Salt River Valley. This lavishly illustrated book tells the story of the ancient Hohokam, who developed an extensive irrigation system in the Valley; early rural life, farm practices, how the Depression and World War II changed the Valley, and much more.

Jan. 25: “At Home With the Aztecs: An Archaeologist Uncovers Their Daily Life,” by Michael Smith, professor of anthropology at ASU and director of the ASU Teotihuacan Laboratory in Mexico City

book coverSmith begins his new book by discussing what the Aztecs weren’t: blood-mad maniacs compulsively slicing off heads or miserable faceless slaves dying on vast construction projects.

Ordinary Aztecs were well-to-do. They had nice things: bronze bells and needles, crystal jewelry, musical instruments. Noble households had nice things, too; they just had more of them. And everyone wanted the latest styles from Tenochtitlan, Smith says.

The book explores three stories simultaneously: the title subject; what it’s like working on a dig in Mexico; and his experiences raising two daughters while uncovering ancient towns.

Feb. 22: “Ball,” by Tara Ison, associate professor of English at ASU

book cover“Ball” is the debut collection of short fiction by Ison, acclaimed author of the novels “Rockaway” and “A Child Out of Alcatraz.” In it, she explores the darker side of love, sex and death. The stories, set mostly in contemporary Los Angeles, feature a recently bereaved young woman, a cancer-stricken best friend and a dying uncle.

The Design Observer Group named the cover of “Ball” one of the 50 best book covers of 2015.

March 29: “Out of Silence: Repair Across Generations,” by Martin Beck Matuštík, professor and director of The Center for Critical Inquiry and Cultural Studies at ASU

book coverIn 1997, Martin Beck Matuštík made a dramatic discovery at the age of forty: He was the child of a Holocaust survivor. His mother's shocking secret came from the most unlikely of places: shoeboxes full of her literary and personal archives. These dramatic revelations changed his life forever and set him on a path to discover his true identity. His research unveiled his mother's remarkable life – and the truth behind her painful decision to reject her Jewish heritage and keep it hidden from her family.

April 26: “A Solemn Pleasure to Imagine, Witness, and Write (The Art of the Essay),” by Melissa Pritchard, professor emerita of English at ASU

book coverIn an essay contained in “A Solemn Pleasure,” Pritchard poses the question, “Why write?” The collection attempts to answer that question, among others, by proving the power of language. The various essays explore themes of imagination, literary figures past, Pritchard’s personal experiences and finding inspiration in our own lives.

May 31: TBA

Possible extra meetings (dates still to be determined):

book cover book coverJewell Parker Rhodes, “Towers Falling” and “Bayou Magic.” Rhodes is director of the Piper Center for Creative Writing at ASU and winner of numerous awards.

 book coverPatricia Murphy, “Hemming Flames.” Murphy is an ASU alum and a senior lecturer in the College of Letters and Sciences at the Polytechnic campus. The book won the May Swenson Poetry Award, a competition organized by University Press of Colorado and its imprint, Utah State University Press.