Kristina Gonzales teaches at the Bernalillo County Juvenile Detention Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Much of my teaching experience over the years has involved working with high risk students (code for, economically disadvantaged teens of color). Prior to my current assignment, I taught pregnant and parenting teens, and gang involved youth. My certification areas include Language Arts, Social Studies, TESOL and Visual Arts. As many schools have cut fine arts from curriculum I felt it would be prudent to be certified in multiple subjects. This choice has served me well, it has allowed me to continue art education in the absence of an official art curriculum.
Over the years, I have found ways to incorporate art into the curriculum, this has been particularly critical for the populations I work with. Most of my students have not experienced success in the traditional classroom, many have not attended school for weeks or even years. With proper facilitation art can help make content accessible and approachable. The creative process provides an opportunity for self-expression and a degree of freedom.
Much of my work with incarcerated youth has involved reaching out to artists within my community. Poets like Jimmy Santiago Baca and musicians like Eric McFadden have come to share their art and wisdom with my students. The past three years I have worked closely with Emanuel Martinez and his program The Emanuel Project.
(Students painting a mural at the central intake of the Bernalillo County Juvenile Detention Center)
Together with my students we have teamed up to create four large murals in our facility. The students engage in painting the majority of these murals. Every opportunity to engage in the creative process is an opportunity for personal growth. When students are engaged in making art they are transformed, in that moment they become free.
(Student making calaveras, sugar skulls, for a Day of the Dead community celebration at the Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque.)
(Community exhibit at the Hispanic Cultural Center. Each of the 473 skulls had the name of a murdered woman in Juarez, Mexico. At the time, only 473 of several thousand had been identified.)
What experiences did you have that turned you toward social justice work?
There have been so many experiences that have turned me towards social justice work. Primarily my mother, she was and is, a strong, educated, politically conscious Chicana. She was a college student, a nurse and a single mother for much of my childhood. She worked as a public health nurse in some of the most impoverished neighborhoods in our community.
Fearless in her pursuit to help people, I remember going with her on home visits to El Cerro, an unincorporated area without services or even street signs. A place most people don’t see and would never go to, El Cerro had make shift houses of corrugated metal, plywood and cinder block. The type of community one would expect to see in a third world country. She would often go alone to deliver food for the holidays, food she purchased. Her work, courage and dedication to social justice had the greatest influence on me.
Who would you consider your social justice heroes?
Again, the women around me, my mother, my grandmother, and my tias. I don’t want to romanticize their struggles and strengths, but they truly are the best examples for me of social justice in action. I think one of the failures of the social justice movements of the 1960’s was to create”super heroes”. Larger than life male icons. Men who achieved greatness with the efforts and sacrifices of many unacknowledged people. Some of these men, as we now know, abused their power and took advantage of the young women who believed in them. I understand their place in the movement was important, it had its place but we need to move beyond hero worship and build truly inclusive organizations and coalitions.
What gives you hope for the future?
My children and their peers, they are so wise in so many ways. They understand the need to protect the environment and are keen on issues surrounding food justice. They recognize the gross manipulation of mass media and think critically about everything. “Because I said so” to my dismay, just does not fly with them. They challenge me and keep me in check all the time. I can’t even think about stopping at “La Walmart” even if it is convenient, even if it is the cheapest price, or even if it is the only place open. They give me hope and keep me on my toes.
What do you think are the most significant obstacles to Social justice or a better society in the US in the future?
Education; our education system is and has been under attack. Teachers are very limited in terms of the content and scope of what they can teach. With all of the testing we can’t always explore the content we would like to. The quality of education we are able to offer is being compromised by standardized tests and Common core curriculum. Fortunately, because of the extenuating circumstances that I work in I can be creative with content and curriculum.
What books would you recommend people look at for social change?
Pedagogy of the Oppressed; a classic but still relevant.
Gloria Anzaldua, This Bridge is my Back.
Anything by Sr. Eduardo Galeano.
It’s so difficult to recommend specific books however, I would recommend certain authors. The poetry of Neruda and Jimmy Santiago Baca.
Read the voices of the most marginalized folks, third world women, LGBTQ the incarcerated and exiled, Vandana Shiva, Rigoberta Menchu…
In addition to reading, study the art and the music of marginalized people, of political people. Find or create opportunities to engage with folks, in casual conversation or political forums, poetry readings, art shows, concerts schools and other gatherings. Make a conscious effort to stay politically and culturally active. Finally, if you have an opportunity please take time volunteer at a jail or youth detention center.
(Artwork by Kristina Gonzales, “La Serpiente”. At display in the Chicano Humanities at Art Council Gallery in Denver)
Interview by Joseph Orosco, July 2015. Photos by Kristina Gonzales.