Art from the heart
Mercedes Martinez (BA '11) teaches and builds community through the arts
By Aaron Cooper
When Mercedes Inez Martinez (BA ‘11) walks into the classes she teaches at John Barry Elementary School on the northwest side of Chicago, her main goal is to help a child learn music and performance. But Martinez, who is part Mexican and part Spanish, also passes on her knowledge of Latino culture to the predominantly Spanish-speaking student body.
One minute, she’s teaching children about basic music theory, like note-reading, singing techniques, rhythm, harmony, melody, and vocabulary. The next she’s teaching them Aztec drumming and about the Aztec legend of the white eagle, the founding of Mexico City, and how that all relates to images depicted on the Mexican flag.
In addition to her teaching career, Martinez founded and is artistic director at the MAGI Cultural Arts Center in Pilsen. She also a vocalist, guitarist, and accordionist who performs with various groups, including the Mexican folk band Son Monarcas (“they are Monarchs” in Spanish), referring to Monarch butterflies. She also does freelance scenic design and painting of sets and backdrops for theatre companies.
Martinez grew up in El Paso, Texas. She got to know Chicago during her summers in high school while attending improvisational comedy workshops at the Second City and working with sound and lights at the Lookingglass Theatre. In Chicago, she would stay with her older sisters, one a professional dancer and choreographer and the other an actress.
When her senior year ended, Martinez had one more class requirement to fulfill—her language requirement. She traveled to Spain and studied Catalan and guitar. The lessons were intense, especially since Spanish is her second language.
Soon after her trip to Spain, she befriended a Latino composer and learned some traditional Mexican songs, and she began to play a few public gigs, eventually landing a regular gig at the Mainstage Theatre.
It was then that she discovered an empty building space in Pilsen and applied for funds from a nonprofit organization called MAGI (Modesto A. Gomez, Inc.), a social enterprise based in El Paso. Her proposal was accepted, and thus was born the MAGI Cultural Arts Center.
“Since I am involved in music, theatre, and visual art, I thought a new cultural arts center in Pilsen would be the perfect outlet to help artists of all different forms and allow me to express myself and work in a studio,” says Martinez. “I thought it would be a perfect way to bring people together in the community.”
She began hosting concerts and traditional performances called fandangos. Fandangos are community celebrations that showcase Son Jarocho and Son Huapango music and dance and feature traditional folk instruments and Spanish lyrics. Performers dance zapateado-style (percussive foot tapping) upon a tarima, or raised platform, around which people circle and sing, everyone moving in syncopation with the music.
“It’s beautiful music, and it can go on forever. It’s based on improvisation,” says Martinez. “The fusion of music from Spain, rhythms from Africa, and poetry from indigenous people comes together in a fandango. It’s an Afro-Latino connection that’s relatable and teachable—a folk music of the people, and those who experience it can learn and comprehend it.”
Martinez understands the therapeutic nature that art and music can have on people in her community who have seen hard times, especially children.
“People don’t realize how powerful expressing themselves through the art is,” she says. “If they can strum a guitar and sing, they’re going to feel empowered, or if they create a drawing they realize they can create something. Art provides an outlet that a lot of people don’t delve into. So I tried to create a forum where that was possible, where you could try new things and allow yourself to create.”
Whether she’s singing, teaching, painting artwork for a play, or learning about her heritage, there’s a clear passion that motivates her life’s work.
“The reality is that what you’re passionate about—if you’re serious about it and you follow it—you can do something with it,” Martinez says.