Martha Gonzalez ’99

5 min read
Martha Gonzalez '99 Musicology
Martha Gonzalez '99, Musicology ?: Pablo Aguilar

Department of Ethnomusicology

Martha Gonzalez is a Chicana artivista (artist/activist) musician, feminist music theorist and Associate Professor in the Intercollegiate Department of Chicana/o Latina/o Studies at Scripps College. A Fulbright (2007-08), Ford (2012-13) and Woodrow Wilson Fellow (2016-17), her academic interests have been fueled by her own musicianship as a singer/songwriter and percussionist for the GRAMMY Award-winning (2013) band Quetzal. Gonzalez’s first manuscript “Chican@ Artivistas: Music, Community and Transborder Tactics in East Los Angeles” was just published in the University Texas Press. She received her B.A. in ethnomusicology in 1999.

In an interview with Gonzalez, she shared her insights into her early scholarly influences, discussed how teaching, researching and performing all inform one another, as well as offered advice for musicology students.

  • You earned a B.A. in Ethnomusicology at UCLA and then went on to earn a Ph.D. in Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies from the University of Washington. How did your time studying music at UCLA influence the next step of your academic studies?

It’s important for me to note that the first time I attended I was a transfer student from Pasadena City College. My cousin Veronica Gonzalez was already a student in the program and thought that this focus would be a good fit for me. I attended the first year and then I dropped out. The change was too much for me at the time. Some years went by and I happened to be on campus in the summer of 1997 when I ran into Al Bradley (academic advisor at the time). He looked up from his desk and without skipping a beat asked, “Are you ready to come back?” This was extremely important for me. Mr. Bradley was one of the most important factors in my success at the school. The two other most influential things were the strong presence of women of color amongst the faculty and the performance ensembles. Note that it was a sense of community that made my success in the program a reality. I still keep in touch with the many folks I bonded with in the final years of my studies.

  • Was there a particular UCLA faculty member who impacted your scholarship or performance?

I really enjoyed taking classes from all the women of color, especially Dr. Jackie Dje Dje and Dr. Cheryl Keyes. I think seeing their style of teaching and their presence in the classroom was reassuring to me. They were intellectually rigorous but also approachable and had alternative learning pedagogies-which in retrospect challenged patriarchal white supremacy that is so prevalent in the academy at its core.

The most impactful in regards to performance was Francisco Aguabella’s percussion ensembles. The learning and mind expansion were so much that we (students) even began our own group called, Omo Ashe. We played many gigs for the college and ourselves in order to continue to study and hone in on what we were being taught in the Afro-Cuban ensemble. Francisco Aguabella was a legend and an effective instructor, and what I learned in his course continues to inform my own songwriting and rhythmic sensibility to this day.

  • In addition to being an Associate Professor at Scripps College, you also perform with the Grammy-award winning band Quetzal. How do teaching, researching and performing all inform one another?

As one of my mentors has said, “The world is fragmented, I am not!” (Liz Lerman) I am lucky to be able to work in music in many capacities and to me they are all fluid. This is a life I have built for myself. The practitioner side of my work is both on the professional stage and in social movement trenches. A level of musical/creative proficiency is essential to the success of what I do. In all of these experiences (once lived) I get to write about the process. I reflect on how as an artist this has felt, and I interview and engage the community as any other researcher. This yields important information being that I have a close relationship with the community. This of course in all its totality is a teachable moment. I love to share innovative teaching strategies with my students and introduce them to the methodologies I have developed and other strategies I have admired.

  • You are also a prominent voice in the Chicana activist movement. How do you see music and activism working together?

The Chicano movement or “the movimiento” informs my consciousness at its core. The many leaders of the moment made it possible for the many opportunities I have benefitted from. I am a product of their hard work and legacy. I also consider myself an artivista. For lack of a better description, some folks refer to this as an artist/activist. This is not exactly accurate. An artist inserting political content in their work is nothing new. By this frame of thought, we are really not challenging much more than what others are trying to do by selling their products. We become one more commodity out there. At the end of the day capitalism can sell anything, including revolution.

In this day and age, we need to be more critical and more savvy. That being said, to be an artivista is an attention to process. As artivistas we are harnessing our skillsets in order to engage communities in music processes. The goal is to create in and alongside community for the purpose of deep discussion that only creative activity can bring about. It is my belief that human beings, when engaging in deep creative process, summit into new kinds of analysis they would not normally engage in. The goal is to engage in these processes and not for the purpose of selling or recording anything in particular but simply to convivir (or to be with and discuss with others). This is how we challenge commodity culture and the way in which it has arranged this most intimate aspect of human life-creative expression. Music isn’t always a commodity or something you buy or you sell. It can also be a way of life and how you spend time with others.

  •  Can you share a fond memory from your time at UCLA?

Every moment of my time in performance ensembles was amazing!! Aguabella’s course as well as Kobla Ladzekpo’s course was most memorable. One afternoon I was in Ladzekpo’s class and I was asked to demonstrate a dance move. Surrounded by the class and some visitors I did my best. I guess I did such a good job that Ladzekpo dug in his wallet and walked up to me and put a dollar on my forehead. This startled me somewhat and I wondered if I had offended him or the culture. His daughter/assistant, Yeiko immediately explained to me that this was a compliment in the culture-a gesture of a job well done. I thought wow! It was a proud moment for this Chicana from East LA!

  • What advice would you give to current students and/or young alumni of the School of Music?

Find your community. In a school as large as UCLA it can be daunting and the experience can feel anonymous. The second time I gave Ethno a try made a difference because I had a community of students who stuck together and learned together. I still keep in touch with the cohort.

As far as alumni are concerned, don’t check any part of yourself at the door! Life is interdisciplinary and we need to use the entirety of our skillset to design and live the life of your dreams. This is what will make you unique in your field or however you decide to utilize your degree in Ethnomusicology.

Learn More about degrees in Ethnomusicology.

Are you an alumnus who would like to share your success with the school? Please e-mail We’d love to hear from you!


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