I change myself, I change the world.Gloria Anzaldúa
Thanks for joining us again for Queer Circle Podcast. Today’s Queer Healer is Alex Martinez. She is a Queer Chicanx Visual Artist and Teacher in Oakland, California/Occupied Ohlone land. She has a Bachelor’s in Art, Multiple subjects credential and Educational Specialist for students with Moderate to Severe disabilities. She discusses how life, ancestry and healing journey are both informed by and inform her art. Below is an image of the piece she mentions in this episode: La Malinche Malinalli. You can see more of Alex’s work on her website: http://alexandriamartinez.squarespace.com/ or get in touch with Alex on instagram @hechoporalex
Listen to this episode HERE
Music by Purple Fluorite (Bandcamp // or all the streaming platforms)
Ep. 3 Alex Martinez
[Lo-fi Ambient Music Plays]
Billy: Welcome back to the Queer Circle, where healers step up to the mic to share their journey and what they’d tell their younger self. Today we have Alex Martinez, she is a queer, Chicanx, visual artist and teacher in Oakland, California. She has a Bachelor’s in Art, multiple subjects credentials and an educational specialist for students with moderate to severe disabilities. We catch up with her as she visits San Diego to make some art and hang out with her friend’s dog, 8 Ball.
Alex: I was born in Northern California. Both of my parents are from Mexico, they’re both born there. So I’m second generation. My father’s side is from Zacatecas and Guerrero and my mother’s side is from Michoacan, though both of them lived close to the border for a long time, or short time, before they immigrated. My mom’s family lived in Mexicali for awhile. So my mom’s side immigrated to Watsonville, California, which is the central coast, south of Santa Cruz, where my grandparents worked in the fields and in canneries there, that’s like strawberry country and lots of canning going on there. So they worked there and then my grandfather on my father’s side also worked in the fields, my grandmother also, everybody did, really. Up in Northern California, near Chico, California, they lived. They also lived in this small town called
Pewt City, where my grandmother still has a house, though she’s now passed away. My parents met in college, they went to school at Chico State. My mom lived with a bunch of Latina first years in this apartment with like 2 or 3 roommates and one of my mom’s roommates is my aunt, Marisela and so Marisela introduced my mom to my dad and they began dating and they got pregnant with me and they decided to get married and my mom decided to drop out and my dad stayed. My dad became a teacher. My dad taught for 30 years and just retired a couple years ago. But my mom dropped out and really just focused on being a parent. After about four years of being together and lots of strife, lots of marital strife, just an unhealthy relationship, my mom and dad had my brothers also, within those years, and then they divorced when I was about 5. So I’m beginning to really just notice how independent my mom is and just how happy she is as a single parent, she is just really an amazing caregiver. So she had my brothers and I within about five years of each other and then twenty years later she had my kid sister, Bella. So there’s four of us and I’m the oldest and I think what’s really formed a lot of myself is, you know, for most people is learning from your parents and seeing their example and noticing, for us it was a lot of nonexamples of, you know, unhealthy relationship dynamics. There’s a lot of trauma on, specifically, my dad’s side, but also my mom’s side, but really violent, physical and mental abuse that they suffered from my grandfather, who actually was murdered in a very brutal way when my father was 16 years old. So he left my grandmother widowed with seven children, not speaking very much english with all these kids to take care of and they, and I just started learning more about that time and that time, but learning that that was actually ruled a homicide and that, from what I understand, my family decided to not continue that cycle of violence, and I know there was an investigation, there was someone who arrested, but I’m starting to learn more about what really happened and how that incident was documented. It was 1973 and he wasn’t a citizen, or he came through with the Visa program, as I understand it, so he has a Visa to work, but not necessarily a citizen, and just how he was treated and how his case was probably treated and just from the little documentation I’ve been reading, just kind of noticing some implicit bias already in the documentation that I’ve read. So I say all this because I didn’t have a lot of information about my dad’s background and what him and his siblings and my grandmother endured, I just knew that they had really had a difficult background story and a context for a lot of their trauma and a lot of their disconnect as family members and I really wanted to understand my dad as a human, as just a person who had endured a lot and because he has suffered a lot of alcoholism and a lot of alcohol abuse in our lives and still today struggles with it, but just understanding his story has really helped me to accept a lot of who he is, the pain and the love that I have in that relationship, I think has been really healing for myself, but also it helps me to have a better relationship with my dad.
Alex: So my early realizations of my queerness. Well, I started exploring my sexuality when I was in second or third grade, I had a friend that lived in my apartment complex, same apartment complex, and, I don’t know how it started, but we started fooling around in the closet. We would fuck around in the closet and it got to this point where our friends were all like “Hey, what are you guys doing? We want to play with you.” and we’d be like “No, we just … no.” We didn’t want to hurt their feelings, we decided to lie, we decided to say that we had to do something together and so we scrambled and were like “Let’s say that we’re taking a dance class together.” and so we said “Oh we’re in a dance class right now.” and we were in D or C or whatever it was and they were like “Really, you’re in a dance class together?” and they were like “Show us.” and we were like “Oh my god, now we have be like, “We haven’t been going to dance classes, we’ve been fucking around in the closet this whole time.”, so we need to figure out some choreography or something to show and prove to these girls that we’ve been doing this dance class.” So we spent an afternoon coming up with some choreography and then we had them over to my room and showed them …
Alex: our choreography, which was probably not anything, but they were impressed, they believed it, we were fine or in the clear. I don’t know how much longer we continued to fuck around, but I think we probably stopped, because we were like “Ooh, that was a close call.” But yeah, so then after that very sexual time, I didn’t date for a long time. I was also second or third grade, so yeah, I was just a kid, but I think, you know, I had a bunch of crushes and I think I just kind of buried- I buried my sexuality for along time, but I would have these wild crushes on women and on men,or boys and girls at the time, and people. My first kiss was a friend of mine, some girl, I don’t remember her name, but she was like, it was after school one day, and she was like “We’re kissing everybody in the group today.” I was like “Oh, okay.” and then she kissed me and I was like whatever, no big deal or anything, and I had a couple boyfriends in high school. So, yeah, I didn’t have another love interest for a long time. In high school, my boyfriends and I barely kissed and I didn’t connect, I couldn’t connect emotionally with them, so maybe it’s just like a development thing, because I just was like “There’s not a real reason why we are dating besides like we find each other attractive.” Then in college, the first year of college, I came out like right away. I had a boyfriend that was like “You’re bi.” and I was like “How dare you tell me something about myself, like you don’t even know, but yes I am, but like go away.”. I didn’t appreciate the audacity, but he was right. So I told my parents and nobody was … it wasn’t like an earthquake hit or anything. My dad was just like “Yes, I know, Mija.” like “You’re my daughter of course I know that.” and my mom was like “Are you sure?” and I was like “Yeah.” and she was like “Okay.” and my stepmom was like “Really?” and I was like “Yeah, I am.” So what’s crazy is that the people that I considered myself the closest to were kind of like the most surprised, but my dad, who at the time, I didn’t have the closest relationship with, was the one to be like super, I felt like the most affirming, and over the years, I don’t feel the same kind of scale of affirmation, but anyways. So, yeah, I just started dating all kinds of people and seeking relationships with women and queer people and gender queer people or people. My queerness is, it’s just, I don’t know. Being queer is the best thing in the world, I think. Queerness is your sexuality, but it’s also your like “Fuck you” to all of the systems in the world that just weren’t made for everyone. I think it’s just a way of radicalizing your politics, yourself, your sexuality, the way that you live in the world. It’s just kind of looking at it and seeing that just because these systems are here, doesn’t mean they’re right. It’s just an incorrect assumption that people are straight until they’re not, they come out, like why is the assumption that that’s how people are and it’s frustrating. Anyway, my queerness is a beautiful thing and I’m grateful that I have a family that accepted me. I think, over the years, I haven’t brought that many people home, but it’s just because my personal feelings of like unless someone is going to be in my life for a long haul, they’re most likely not going to get to meet my family and that’s for a lot of reasons, but I just really hold my mom’s point of view in really high regard and my relationship with my dad has been up and down, but I don’t necessarily want to include everybody in that side of my life until I feel like their my family as well. So I’ve had a couple people that I’ve introduced, but mostly that’s just reserved for somebody super special so, yeah.
Alex: In that relationship, I think it’s been really healing for myself, but also it’s helped me to have a better relationship with my dad. So that’s sort of our beginnings. I think as I grow up, with my dad as an alcoholic and going back and forth between my mom and my dad’s house for visitation, I started to just kind of develop a sense of self determination and wanting to be really separate and not need my dad’s guidance or I didn’t want him to be able to tell me what to do, so I kind of wanted to have independence from him like financially and kind of spiritually, for awhile I was pretty angry and angry in general, I think. So I became an independent and I like wanted to get away while still needing some sort of financial support for going to school. I went to school in 2001 for art. Art has always been a part of my life, but I went to school to study studio art at San Francisco State and did the thing, it took a long time, probably because there wasn’t very good guidance at the school, but studied printmaking and painting and still do it today, love it. But I really kind of struggled to figure out how to make it my work. I wanted it to be my work, but whether or not I wanted to monetize it. I also really wanted to teach. I always really gravitated to jobs that involved some kind of education, so I worked at an after school program in the Lower Haight and then I also worked as a nanny and I worked as a volunteer for Creativity Explored, an art center for adults with some cognitive disabilities, I’m not sure if that say that, but it’s an art center for adults with disabilities, and there is where I really noticed that this is a population that I really love working with and I really love making art with this population. At the time, the idea of being a teacher in that economy did not seem stable and, like I said, I’ve always kind of felt like I needed to be able to stand on my own two foot without any support financially, like get a job that’s going to get me financial security and I’m going to get a credential that’s like in high demand. So I became a general education teacher, so that I’d be able to do inclusion based teaching and became a moderate to severe specialty teacher, which is even more impacted. So we started working in the East Bay, in Oakland and worked with adults or, teenagers too, teenagers or transitional age adults, really focusing on supporting them into adult day programs and on skills to increase their general quality of life, so anything from adults and there my students had a lot of behavioral challenges, really rooted in not having very strong communication systems. So I worked really hard with behavioral therapists and their caregivers to figure out the functions of their behavior and how to support them to communicate their needs in a way that was going to get them what they needed without others. So that was really great work, it was really hard work and then I took a job teaching at a special day class for kids that were pre-k to second grade and knew the beginning of the identification of disabilities and how to support those. I was working with really big teams and it was also really great work, really fulfilling work, but exhausting work. I hurt myself on the job and I just figured, I just found myself doing less and less artwork and feeling like I was spending more and more time on selfcare, so I was spending all this time in the gym and all this time working with a therapist and anxiety groups and things like that, just because it was kind of overwhelming to meet the needs of a lot of people and my own. So after five years, I’d been saying it for so long that I don’t have enough to do my work and I don’t have the energy for it, but it’s time to rethink my work. So I decided to go from full time teaching to transitioning to teaching as an art teacher. So that was about five years ago, I guess. So at the moment, now, I’m taking some time, but I’m transitioning to work with an organization and I work all over the Bay area, right now it’s July in 2020, so everything’s remote, but I usually am driving to three or four different cities every week and serving three or four different school districts, from first grade to middle school classes all over the Bay. It’s been really great. It’s been a challenge to figure out how to advocate for myself to …
Alex: Oops, the dog.
[Dog continues barking]
Alex: Okay, you get the good and the bad, working with all different kinds of organizations. But also, what’s been wonderful is that I love my work. I get so much more autonomy. I get to figure out what I want to teach and how I want to teach it. I get to develop relationships with schools and get to interact with kids through art and offer, you know, work that is really rooted in racial justice. So it felt really good and then I also have had so much more time to work on my own practice. So, like I said, I’m a printmaker and I printpainter, but over the years I’ve also been teaching myself how to bead and how to embroider and how to make baskets and how to do different things.
[Helicopter Noise in Background]
Alex: We’re right by a military base, so there are crazy helicopters out here. What I was saying is that my work is really about resilience. So I’ve been working with YBCA, since October of last year as a fellow and the project started pre-COVID and we were asked to think about the idea of public participation, how do you mobilize and uplift it. So who gets centered in those conversations? Who is prioritized and who is getting left out? Especially as 2020 is a census year and we were kind of tasked to think about representation in terms of voting and the census, but also how do we do that in our work. So this current project I’m working on with YBCA came out of me learning more about how there are these 40 large amount of populations that the census is determined to make it hard to count for a variety of reasons, that they’re basically black people, disabilities, people that are incarcerated or houseless, trans people, undocumented people, they’re people. To me it just is the link between all the reasons why it’s so hard to count these people is so inextricably linked to this inequitability, this way that there isn’t access to basic needs, housing, mental health, education, you know, health insurance. So I started to look at how just the connection between a lot of the injustices that are faced, that a lot of these populations are facing. So I wanted to really honor some of the groups with some portraits, some large scale portraits. So the series is called a “Legacy of Resilience” and I’m starting with three pieces. They’re larger, like six by four feet, mixed media pieces, including myself and then some block printing on fabric that is being done by an artist and friend of mine, Malia Tuele and some embroidery that’s done by an artist Elia Dayas. So the first piece is about transgender asylum seekers that have been denied medical services and died in ICE detention centers. The portraits are of Roxana Hernandez and Johana Medina. It’s really just to honor many, many lives that have been lost by the detention of migrant people and right now, with asylum being attacked, there’s going to be more stories and, you know, those are just the stories I could find easily in the media, but there’s so many people that have been valued even less that their stories are not even told. So that was to honor the transgender asylum seekers in ICE detention and then the next piece I’ve been working on is about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, trans, nonbinary to spirit relatives. So this piece will honor two more people that have gone missing or been murdered, they’re Indigenous and the statistics are just really devastating. I’m working with an Indigenous activist named Anita Lupeze. She said they go missing three times: in the media, in the data, and in life. So this really, I feel like, is the impetus for all of this work, really, is like how can we even count people, if we’ve never seen them, if we’ve not valued their lives, in this world, but also we don’t tell their stories, we don’t investigate their stories, we don’t try to find any justice for them and then we don’t count them, so we don’t even know the gravity of the problem, because people are getting misgendered, they’re getting misnamed, they’re not being categorized correctly racially, and the date is just really incorrect. So this is the piece I’m working on right now and then the next piece I’m working on is for incarcerated Indigenous people of color, including people who have died because of police brutality. So it’s really great work, I’m really happy with having this work to do right now. I’ve been reading for hours and it’s just a really good time to reflect and think about all the people that have been lost and all of the strength to keep fighting and people that are really trying to make the world understand that this is a problem and that these are very specific problems that are very intersectional and that we need to get free. So that’s been the work I’ve been doing.
Alex: In terms of work and how my work is connected to myself, I think that a lot of times my work has been really personal. My work has been kind of investigation to how different systems work in my love relationships, how patriarchy, misogyny, machismo, these horrible power dynamics have played out in some unhealthy relationships and how they’ve kind of played on my psyche and my sense of self worth in just the ways that I feel I’ve stayed in relationships that weren’t healthy for me. So my work has examined a lot of that, but also I’ve looked to women and queer people in our historical and mythological writings. I look for people that are kind of misinterpreted and why they’ve been misinterpreted. So one of my pieces, it’s called “La Malinche Malinalli”, I looked at the story of this Indigenous woman that was the interpreter for Cortez who was a Spanish conqueror and came and colonized Mexico, conquering the Aztecs with the help of this interpretation of this 13 year old Indigenous young woman that was sold to him. So her story has been kind of interpreted as her being a traitor to the Mexican people and the traitor to our bloodline, when in fact she was a young child that was trafficked and she wa doing what she could to survive and there’s accounts and stories of that have turned around and demonized these people that are seeking survival. She was a 13 year old kid that knew three languages fluently. She was incredibly talented and survived, instead, she’s being called a traitor to the race and to the Mexican people. I guess I’ve looked for a lot of archetypes that really prove that we come from strong ass women that are connected to the land that use what they have, that have this intuition, and this power that is to be feared really. I think that so many times, women have been called witches or brujas, because they’re so powerful, because they’re feared for being so powerful, being so in touch with the land, being so in touch with themselves and not giving into the powers that be. So for me, I think I look to these women and stories for strength and for confirmation, just kind of helps me to know that there’s countless stories of queer people, women, just people that have paved the way before me to kind of live my best life, what was all that for if I don’t try to live my best life, if I don’t try to be my truest self and my most authentic self. So I think that my work has been really personal and now, it is still personal, but it’s more a response to what I see, to these incredible inequities that allow for a lot of people to be undervalued, that have created these toxic situations and toxic beliefs and devalue people and don’t honor them, the incredible forces that they are. So really it’s been my goal to just to try to amplify the work that’s really already been out there. There’s incredible mutual aid funds and incredible organizers that are doing work to amplify the stories of transgender asylum seekers, migrant people in detention, incarcerated people, people suffering at the hands of the police, and missing and murdered Indigenous people. I just want to be able to give them something with my art, a little more amplification and just meditate on how many people have come before me and what it was for. So, I think it’s been nice to have work that is less personal, but more political and you can argue that those are one in the same, because they are, but it isn’t necessarily me making work that is dissecting the space between my ears. It’s more like me trying to do something about these atrocities that I see on a day to day basis. I guess what’s hard is that my work is really slow and there’s just so many people, I don’t know what to say about that, but I think there’s something to it, it feels like by the time I start working on a piece that there’s 20,000 more stories like the stories of the people I’ve chosen to paint and that it’s already yesterday’s news, because there’s just constant, constant stories coming out everyday of more people being hurt or dying or going missing. I guess maybe fighting against the urgency to just put something out really quickly to get a message out and more like I really want to spend time with these pieces and I think when they come out, they’ll still be really relevant, unfortunately, because the work is being done, but the work is just starting really.
Alex: So I think what I learned from all that is, and what I would give to my community, is that what I did, really, is I looked to my ancestors and I found a lot of struggles, I found a lot of violence, I found a lot of trauma, but I also see people that are so resilient and so strong and so beautiful and I continue to unearth those stories. I think it’s really powerful to know stories and it’s really powerful to also know that we have survived so much and that we will continue to survive so much and thrive. Also, yeah, what I was saying with timing with my work and with my career and life is just to trust in your own timing, not compare yourself to other people, really know that when the time is right, it will come, whatever is that you want to move forward in your life, it will come. I think, especially with your self worth, for me, it’s really important to listen and believe what people, who I respect, say about me. So people who respect me, what they say about me is also really important to me, because I think we can have internalized a lot of racist and sexist and all the gross things, but we can internalize some really negative attitudes towards ourselves and sometimes what really helps me is to really listen to what other people say, because it’s beautiful what people say and also trust yourself, listen to your own intuition, knowing that it’s a muscle that grows stronger the more you use it. Also, so if I could talk to myself today to little Alex, I would tell her that you deserve to be happy and safe and treated as an equal and you deserve to follow your own path and your labor. You are valuable, so watch out for people that would abuse your labor or abuse you and that there are no mistakes, just opportunities to learn. I think I would tell other first generation, second generations immigrants is to always, I mean family is so important, but make your path, trust your journey, draw from the strength of your family and just know how amazing it is that you have come into this world and how many obstacles our ancestors had to overcome and how much strength there is in that. There’s just literally so much resilience and strength in our stories, share those with your friends and family, you will notice our communities that collectively we have so much strength and so many resources within ourselves and I think sometimes as second generation or first generation people, third generation even, are often the people that do things first or its never been done, or it’s never been done the way that you want do and just because it hasn’t doesn’t mean it’s impossible, it just means it’s that much more spectacular when you do do it. So just really trust that you can, little by little, put the work in, connect with community, connect with all of you resources, don’t be afraid to ask questions, don’t be afraid to look “stupid”, really there is no looking stupid, everybody always learns something new for the first time, just try your best and know that you are so valuable by yourself without anything that you give to this world, just existing is valuable and everything else is just icing on the cake.
[Lo-fi Ambient Music Plays]
Billy: Thank you so much for joining us today, Alex, and thank you too, listener for being apart of the Queer Circle. If you’d like to see more of Alex’s work, visit her website alexandriamartinez.squarespace.com or you can get in touch with Alex on Instagram @hechoporalex or you can visit our website queercirclepodcast.com for links to her sites.
Billy: Music from today’s episode was provided by Purple Fluorite from the Downcast Tempo Mixtape. You can find this album and Purple Fluorite’s other works anywhere streaming is available: Spotify, iTunes, and beyond.