Scripps professor, Grammy-winning singer awarded MacArthur ‘genius grant’

by Andrew Alonzo | aalonzo@claremont-courier.com

Last week, Martha Gonzalez got the go-ahead to talk about what is perhaps the ultimate “one-up” story to tell this year around her holiday table.

No, the associate professor of Chicanx/Latinx Studies at Scripps College and lead singer of Chicanx band Quetzal didn’t win another Grammy, but the educator did enter another exclusive club.

On October 12 the MacArthur Foundation awarded Gonzalez a 2022 MacArthur Fellowship, sometimes referred to as a “genius grant.” The prize comes with an $800,000 stipend.

Gonzalez isn’t sure how she wound up one of this year’s 25 MacArthur winners, but she does recall receiving the phone call telling her she’d been selected.

“I was informed of it actually a month and a half before, and it was a complete shock,” she said. “I had no idea I was even in the running of this fellowship that’s very secretive. I didn’t know anything about it. I was very shocked, excited, and just felt — like a lot of folks — very undeserving of it in many ways.”

The selection panel is comprised primarily of educators, artists, and scientists. The foundation recognizes people making strides in various disciplines such as art, science, and academics, and provides funding to further their projects.

Gonzalez was acknowledged both as a scholar, and for her 30 years as a musician in the Los Angeles-based Grammy-winning band Quetzal.

“We’ve been around for a long time,” Gonzalez said. “We’re very rooted to social justice movements in our communities and trans-nationally. I’ve been utilizing music to engage in different contexts, from grassroots organizing to a musician on the stage, a musician in the community, a musician in the classroom, and a musician writing about music and social justice.

“In all of these ways, I guess, and the ways in which I talk about it and the community work that I’ve been a part of, caught their attention. And here we are.”

Martha Gonzalez, center, plays with her son Sandino Gonzalez-Flores, left, and her partner and founder of Quetzal, Quetzal Flores. Last week The MacArthur Foundation awarded Gonzalez a “genius grant.” Photo/courtesy of John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Gonzalez’s $800,000 stipend will be awarded over the next five years. The purpose of the money is to “fuel the future achievements of extraordinarily talented and creative individuals,” according to a Scripps College news release.

“I have to think about the tax part of it,” Gonzales said when asked her plans for the unexpected windfall. “I’ve never dealt with this kind of money, so I’m still kind of in shock. I think it’s bad luck to plan before you actually receive the money. So, although I have considered what I might do, I’m trying not to plan for the money until I see it in the bank.”

Before she received news of the award and the accompanying monetary boost, Gonzalez already had typically ambitious plans in the works. But, “If I have to say something about it, I’ll probably record a project in the future with some of my favorite artists and continue to collaborate like I always have.”

Quetzal won a best Latin pop, rock or urban Grammy in 2013 for their “Entre Mujeres” album. Asked to compare the two honors, Gonzalez cited one distinct difference.

“Well, the Grammy doesn’t come with any money, no money at all, just a little heavy trophy,” she said.

While certainly grateful for the recognition from the recording academy, being named a MacArthur Fellow is “a really big deal” she said.

“It feels like it because congratulations are coming at me from different people, different communities, different spaces,” Gonzalez said. “And so that part of it is really cool.”

Gonzalez knows it’s something her mother is going to be bragging about for months to come. The daughter of Mexican immigrants, her mother has always advocated for her. Her first memory of her protective advocacy comes from when she was in the second grade.

“I was an [English as second language] student and didn’t speak English very well,” Gonzalez recalled. “They were about to put me in a remedial classroom and my mom refused that, refused to sign the paperwork that would allow them to do that. And I remember that moment really well. That’s something that my mom always reminds me of — whether it’s when I graduated from college the first time, or when I got my PhD, and now for this.

“She said, ‘Remember that time that teacher wanted to put you in a remedial class because she thought you were dumb?’ And I say, ‘Yeah, I remember that mom.’ She always sort of goes back to that. That’s her ‘stick it to ‘em’ moment for her as a mother, as an immigrant mother.”

Though Quetzal has been dormant for some time, Gonzalez said the band have projects in the works for 2023, including a collaboration with La Marisoul from La Santa Cecilia, and an album with David Hidalgo of Los Lobos.

To view Gonzalez’s MacArthur profile, visit macfound.org/fellows/class-of-2022/martha-gonzalez#searchresults. To view the list of 2022 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” winners, go to macfound.org/programs/fellows.

For more information about Gonzalez’s band, visit quetzaleastla.com.

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