The Grammy and the Graduate Student: Melding Music and Scholarship

David Jewelz Photo at Little Temple


Academic fellowships are prestigious; and for graduate students who earn them, fellowships can help set the stage for illustrious careers. They are competitive. They come with money. They have titles like Fulbright and Ford.

But what really impresses people in and out of the academy is a Grammy Award—something that UW graduate student and Grammy winner Martha Gonzalez discovered at a job interview shortly after she took home the gold.

“Usually, when I talk about my music, people are like, ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s nice.’ But upon mentioning the Grammy her band won, eyebrows shot up.

“This time, they were all, ‘What? Really?'” she said. “They know Fulbright. They know Ford Foundation. But the Grammy seemed to get more of a reaction.”

A graduate student in the UW’s Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies program, Gonzalez and her band, Quetzal, won the Grammy for best Latin rock, urban or alternative album. The song that gave their album its name, “Imaginaries,” takes its title from “The Decolonial Imaginary: Writing Chicanas into History,” by Emma Perez. Gonzalez’s thesis advisor, Michelle Habell-Pallan, assigned this book in the first course Gonzalez took as a graduate student.

The book “completely inspired me,” Gonzalez said. “It made me think how, in artivistas circles, we’ve always done this same sort of imaginary work.”

The term artivista refers to artist-activists. Gonzalez’s dissertation, “Chican@ Artivistas: East Los Angeles Trenches Transborder Tactics,” focuses on the community of musicians in East Los Angeles who use their music as a social justice tool. As a member of this vibrant, intimate community, she was initially skeptical of attending the UW.

“The scariest thing about leaving a tight-knit community is going into an empty space,” she said.

And the UW was initially a very empty space for her.

“People are very nice, but they won’t take you in past ‘hello, nice to meet you.'”

Though she was enthusiastic about the department and felt like she had clicked with Habell-Pallan, Gonzalez had reservations.

“When you’re first walking through, the campus doesn’t look diverse. Some might argue that it just isn’t diverse. But there are pockets.”

GO-MAP (Graduate Opportunities & Minority Achievement Program) is one such pocket. Juan Guerra, a professor of English and then-director of GO-MAP, persuaded Gonzalez that the UW was the right school for her, after all.

“Meeting Dr. Guerra, I felt he understood me completely, where I was coming from. I felt safe, and I thought, ‘Well, if worst comes to worst, I can always come to GO-MAP and know that someone understands.'”

Through GO-MAP, she made more “connections like that, one by one.” And Gonzalez ended up creating some safe spaces of her own. She and her husband, Quetzal Flores, fellow band member and co-founder of Quetzal, established the Seattle Fandango Project, an organization that promotes community through music. She is also a founding member of Women Who Rock, a collaboration of local musicians and scholars and community activists, and a participant in the Women of Color Collective, an organization that promotes and supports diversity through grassroots organizing.

For Gonzalez, community-based connections are the key to success, academically, musically and personally. About the graduate school experience, she says, “Classes can be great. But if you don’t have a community, you won’t retain students.”

Gonzalez seamlessly integrates her own communities of academia and music performance.

“I’m lucky. I enjoy academia, I enjoy making music,” she said. “I navigate different worlds. If life is interdisciplinary, we need to be able to express that in our work as students and professionals in our field.”

Her experiences at the UW have reinforced that approach.

“Although theoretical discourse often tries to separate itself from practice, my professors have encouraged me to keep relating them to each other,” she said.

With her dissertation defense set for May—the last step in earning her doctorate—Gonzalez was able to leverage her music in her search for a faculty position. “Departments are seeing the value in academics who are also practitioners,” she said. And she proved this by recently landing a tenure-track assistant professor position at Scripps College.

And while the glitz of the Grammys seems like the antithesis to the formality of academia, Gonzalez has realized that embracing an integrated approach to academia also means embracing her identity as a Grammy winner—especially since it is an attention-grabber.

Going forward, Gonzalez expects to continue to be equally devoted to her music and academic study.

“I see the community of artist-musicians as an extension of my classroom and the way I’m going to teach,” she said. “I write and produce during the summer. The school year is like any other regular school year. I have a seven-year-old son who needs his schedule. I live that life; I love that life.”

Want to learn more about Martha’s music and academic research?

Martha’s recommended playlist:
Imaginaries – El Quetzal
Don’t Mess with the Dragon – Ozomatli
Que Pasa – Blues Experiment
Aztlan Underground – Aztlan Underground
Marisela – Monte Carlo 76
Maya Jupiter – Maya Jupiter
Barrio Roots – Quinto Sol
El Hielo – La Santa Cecilia

Martha’s recommend reading list:
The Decolonial Imaginary: Writing Chicanas into History (Theories of Representation and Difference) – Emma Perez
Methodology of the Oppressed – Chela Sandoval
Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples – Linda Tuhiwai Smith
Research Is Ceremony – Indigenous Research Methods – Shawn Wilson
Extinct Lands, Temporal Geographies: Chicana Literature and the Urgency of Space – Mary Pat Brady
The Gloria Anzaldua Reader – Gloria Anzaldua, ed. AnaLouise Keating
The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde
– Audre Lorde
The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas – Diana Taylor

Photo by David Jewelz

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