Chords of Community: Martha Gonzalez

by Koren Wetmore

Martha GonzalezA woman sings out and is answered by another, their song improvised as the music plays. Others join her, dancing, strumming jaranas, and singing, an invisible thread connecting them all in this shared space that boasts no spectators or performers, only participants. A conversation — one spoken through dance, rhythm, and verse — ensues.

The Fandango has begun.

Fandango, a community fiesta featuring son jarocho — a regional folk musical style from the South of Veracruz, Mexico — draws upon African, Andalucian, Spanish, and indigenous roots, uniting people, regions, and cultures. And the resulting convivencia is essential to the experience.

“Convivencia is a deliberate act of being present with each other,” says Martha Gonzalez, assistant professor of Chicana/o and Latina/o studies, “and engaging in each other’s lives for the sake of reaching an understanding between communities.

“Through music, we experience a moment, and although it may be perceived as ephemeral, its staying power is so much stronger than we realize,” adds Gonzalez.

As a feminist music theorist and Chicana artivista (artist/activist), Gonzalez harnesses music as a tool to mediate relationships between seemingly disparate groups in order to build community. Most recently, Gonzalez has been working closely with the Japanese American community and legendary activist Nobuko Miyamoto and Quetzal Flores to unite Japanese Buddhist and Fandango traditions. Convening through participatory music and dance to strengthen or build community is a methodology born from her East Los Angeles upbringing, her family’s musical roots, and her wider connection to other artivistas.

Encouraged by her aspiring-musician father to pursue music as a vocation, Gonzalez redefined the art for herself not solely as a means of personal expression but as a dialectic tool to engage community. As a professional performer in the Grammy award-winning band Quetzal, she splits her time between Los Angeles and Claremont, where she teaches courses in Fandango, Chicana/o and Latina/o studies, and a section of Core III.

In a recent session of Gonzalez’ popular Fandango course, she taught the group of seven assembled students to play the eightstring jarana, the main instrument in the musical style of son jarocho.

On Mondays, the students learn theory, including the history, culture, politics, rise of the tradition, and colonial influence on past and present Mexico. On Wednesdays, they incorporate the practice themselves.

“Professor Gonzalez leads us in discussions that have helped me understand music as something from which I can be empowered. She’s changed the way I listen to and play music, deepening the meaning and importance of both,” says Aida Villarreal ’16, a media studies and Spanish major.

Gonzalez adds, “Embodying the practice is important to the overall understanding of — and politics around — the form. I don’t want my students to understand solely the importance intellectually. I want them to experience it, as well.”

Along with jarana lessons, the students learn multiple son jaracho lyrics as they trade verses with Gonzalez on subjects ranging from love and nature to social movements and politics.

“In class, after we’ve been playing a song for a while, I feel like we are all transported for a moment to another place,” says Villarreal- Licona. “Because of the connections Professor Gonzalez creates with us through music, the course is more personal, and the interactions are more substantive.”

Gonzalez encourages her students to attend regional fandangos, as well. “We’re fortunate to live in an area where there is a thriving fandango community,” says Gonzalez. “You could attend a fandango every month from San Diego to the Bay Area.”

To further spur involvement among students at the 5Cs, she inspired the formation of Fandangueras de Claremont, a student group aimed at creating community and context for social work through fandango practice.

“I love people, I love connecting, and I love music,” Gonzalez says. “Connecting and convening with people through music — is an artivista philosophy.”

Gonzalez earned a PhD in feminism from the University of Washington, Seattle, and a bachelor’s in ethnomusicology from the University of California, Los Angeles. She has been teaching at Scripps since 2013.


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