October 31, 2017

Marisa Martinez (L) with ACTA artists Quetzal Flores and Omar Ramírez and Quincy McCrary and inmates at California Correctional Facility in Tehachapi, 2017. Photo: Eric Coleman.

This month, we say farewell to our former Arts in Corrections Program Coordinator, Marisa Martinez, who is moving on to focus on time with her family and her music. 

Read an interview with Marisa reflecting on her time at ACTA and the AIC program upon her departure.

Was there a transformative moment that will stick with you from your time with ACTA’s AIC program? Did anything surprise you in working with incarcerated Californians?

I think one of the things that I had to remind myself of was that not only do the inmates come to the program with fully intact valid lived experiences and knowledge sets, but that some of these knowledge sets include prior arts training, or even self taught artistic methods that then of course, get tapped and utilized by the master traditional artists facilitating the class and utilized for the groups overall development. Some of the inmates were incredibly talented and skilled artists that would rival any working artist on the outside. I was especially moved by some of the visual artists that I was blessed to get the opportunity to see their work develop over time, and also some of the breakout voices that I heard as part of some of the music classes. To be moved inside those walls by someone’s talent, and to know that ACTA’s program created the space and opportunity for this person to be able to express themselves and share their talent was definitely transformative.

What do you hope for the growth of ACTA’s Arts in Corrections program, and perhaps, the field of arts in corrections in California, at large?

I hope that the program continues on its unique path as an Arts in Corrections program, but one that not only recognizes the general healing and restorative aspects of all arts, but that especially in prisons, acknowledges that working with traditional artists and traditional arts communities rooted in a historical trajectories or practice and cultural development, that this program, unlike others, can reconnect, or connect some for the first time, to a deeply felt sense of cultural identity and purpose in the world. Because within the realm of traditional arts, our music, our dance, our crafts, and our stories are not things that we do, they are what makes us who we are, they are our way of being in the world, our ways of making sense of the world, and what gives our lives meaning and purpose. 

Your work background includes teaching the very young in preschool. While that may seem like a far cry from working with the incarcerated, are there any connections that you made to these seemingly disparate groups of people?  (i.e. a sense of wonder, a hunger to learn?)

I saw both of these connections deeply present. The schools where I taught as an early childhood educator were places of holistic anti-bias learning, where the whole child was centered at the core of the curriculum and there was mutual, reciprocal, respect between teacher, student, and community. In this environment students were encouraged to explore, make mistakes on their paths towards growth, they were regarded as whole individuals bringing with them unique identities that would enrich the classroom and shape the learning environment. In this, they safely developed healthy senses of self-esteem, independence, confidence, pride in who they were, and an awareness of the importance of celebrating difference within themselves and their greater concentric circles of family and community. This is the connection that I saw the most when working in the Arts in Corrections program at ACTA. When this same humanizing environment was created inside the institution by the talented and skilled artists/educators that we worked with, the inmates reacted to this pedagogy in the same way as the children that I taught so many years ago did. They began to become curious, inquisitive—their walls began to crumble and fall away—and because they were gaining a deeper appreciation of themselves through the nourishing processes of participating in this program, they were able to also gain deeper understandings and appreciation for others.

How does your background as a performer/musician/composer reflect in the work you do with ACTA?

I was informed by my active music making practice during the time I spent with ACTA in a very unique way. I identify as a conscious, multidimensional, Chicana artist/activist, who places great importance on community process and collective responsibility. My music practice has always resided within this space and is very connected to the intersections of art and activism in LA. There is a sect of artists that view their artistic/cultural practices as a means and/or vehicle for sustainable social and political change. They view their practice as a manifestation of their dreams for improved, more just, and honorable modes of existence; based in a sense of dignity, tradition, ritual, and identity. Many of the artists that work with ACTA hale from this sect of creatives, that don’t merely consider themselves artists, but also cultural bearers that have a moral but also social/political responsibility to continue on their traditional arts practices in order to raise awareness, instill positive understandings of identity in future generations, and especially in the work I did within the Arts in Corrections program at ACTA, connect individuals back to a root of purpose, place, and belonging that in many cases is literally life saving. My arts practice allowed me to understand how the arts could and do function extremely affectively in this way. It also allowed me to have the vocabulary and lived experience of a working professional artist so that I could better relate to the artists teaching in the program, and also to understand what a commitment it was for working artists to do this work, and how much that work needs to be appreciated.