Focus on the Faculty: Martha Gonzalez’s Regenerative Social Imagination

By Rachel Morrison

Martha Gonzalez, associate professor in the Intercollegiate Department of Chicanx/Latinx Studies, shares her lifelong pursuit of social justice as a Chicana artivista (artist/activist) and offers her grassroots vision for horizontal governance.

When the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) took effect in 1994, it was heralded by many across the continent as the start of a new era for free trade and economic integration. Yet for the Zapatistas, a group of indigenous Mayan rebels in Chiapas, Mexico, it signified a recolonization of the country. The Zapatistas staged an uprising, claiming rights to their ancestral land in southern Mexico and setting up a horizontal government independent of the Mexican government that they considered illegitimate. The Zapatistas retain this autonomy today.


At the same time, some 2,300 miles north, Martha Gonzalez, Chicana artivista (artist/activist), musician, feminist music theorist, and associate professor in the Intercollegiate Department of Chicanx/Latinx Studies at Scripps College, was 22 years old and had just begun thinking about government, voting, and community. “Voting wasn’t even on my radar, because it didn’t seem like it affected my life,” she recalls of her time as an undergraduate at UCLA. “And also, I was so alienated from political jargon, and the fact that candidates didn’t seem to address my reality. When you’re poor and a person of color, your life is consumed with trying to survive—voting doesn’t seem like it will ever make a dent in our day-to-day lives.”


What did register for the burgeoning activist was the idea of “horizontal governance.” Hearing about the Zapatista uprising struck a chord in Gonzalez and with the local East Los Angeles artist community she was deeply involved in, some of whom had already begun meeting with other students and community members to discuss a new vision for governance that eschewed top-down efforts to provide for communities. Instead, they envisioned a form of governance rooted in the mutual participation of community members themselves.

Voting wasn’t even on my radar, because it didn’t seem like it affected my life.

“At that time, I thought that voting didn’t work—that it didn’t reflect the needs of the people living in the communities that were supposedly being represented,” says Gonzalez. “I still feel this way about voting, but I participate. However, I realize that change may not just happen through this voting system. As we have seen, many politicians are puppets to economic interests: if they entered with clean slates, many can become corrupt. Regardless of what happens in the higher tiers of the pyramid, communities still need to develop power on the ground to self-advocate—we can’t rely exclusively on this government to meet people’s needs.”


This hybrid approach to electoral and community-driven civic participation is exemplified by Gonzalez’s participation in the 2016 ballot measure known as the Local Control Funding Formula, which determined how money would be appropriated in her community and the schools of Boyle Heights. She first translated the measure from the jargon-filled language of government documents into language more accessible to her community. Alongside Chicanx youth, she then facilitated communal songwriting workshops with teachers, school administrators, and students, a tradition from the Zapatistas, in which the whole community came together to share their thoughts and composed a song that clearly stipulated for local officials how they wanted the money spent.


“When I think about our communities, they are so busy surviving that they’re not often willing or able to get up to speed on measures and politicians. They don’t have faith in the system,” Gonzalez reflects. “Through these collective songwriting workshops, they have seen what these proposals are about and are more apt to get involved. This process allows them to express themselves freely, dialogue with one another, and explore possibilities. Their thoughts and voices are elevated, and we get to not only envision new futures but bond and build community in the process. It is also generative. Music, after all, is a joy to participate in. It elevates spirits and thus instills hope, which I believe is an effective and critical nutrient for the health of any community or nation.” Gonzalez elaborates on this type of process-based political engagement in her recent book, Chican@ Artivistas: Music, Community, and Transborder Tactics in East Los Angeles.

Music, after all, is a joy to participate in. It elevates spirits and thus instills hope.

In her neighborhood of Boyle Heights/El Sereno in East Los Angeles, Gonzalez and her partner, prominent community activist Quetzal Flores, are working to advance affordable housing options and alternative models of land governance. They recently formed the Fideicomiso Comunitario Tierra Libre (FCTL), an organization that aims to establish community land trusts. Gonzalez and Flores have also participated in “Songs without Barriers” and “Arts in Corrections,” collective songwriting workshops held in juvenile and adult corrections facilities, respectively. These programs were designed to facilitate self-reflection and dialogue and to promote the social and emotional well-being of people experiencing incarceration.


Closer to campus, Gonzalez offers the course Collective Songwriting: Theory and Knowledge Production as part of the Scripps College Core III curriculum. She designed the course to share with students the value of utilizing music as a tool for social transformation.


Amid the growing economic stress and displacement from the COVID-19 pandemic, Gonzalez has turned her attention to a campaign in collaboration with the Right to the City Alliance and Artivist Entertainment called Beyond Recovery (#CancelRent), that is rooted in a grassroots mission to cancel rent and win permanent, dignified, and affordable homes for all people. “Here we are again in the COVID-19 storm, this global pandemic in which banks and greed sharks are floundering around the poor and most vulnerable. They are bailing out the banks while the small folks drown,” Gonzalez says. “But we have base power if we want it. It cannot be business as usual. If we want a new world and new realities, we must build it—it can’t just be won with the vote, but also with the will and critical mass and might of those from below.”