MagdaMatinezMagda Martinez

Magda Martinez is a Philadelphia-based playwright and poet. A native of New York City's Lower East Side, she is of Puerto Rican and Ecuadorian heritage. She has written, performed, and produced her original works nationally. Magda has received an Independence Foundation Fellowship in the Arts, a Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation Artist as Catalyst residency, and most recently was one of 12 women from a pool of over 200 to receive the Leeway Foundation's Transformation Award recognizing her work using writing as a tool for community transformation. Magda served as a facilitator and coordinator of the Asian Arts Initiative’s Artists in Communities Training (ACT) Program.

How would you describe your family and your first experience wth the arts?

I'm Magda, and I grew up in New York City. And my mother's from Puerto Rico and my father's from Ecuador, and they met here in the United States. And, I pretty much grew up with my mother's side of the family. My dad's an only child. So, Ecuador was sort of this mythical place-it was far away and we never went there as children, and we went to Puerto Rico all the time, during the summers with my grandmother's family.

When I think about my family, and growing up in New York and then I think about not just ending up at the Initiative, but also ending up in places like the Initiative-you know, when I really think about it, my mother and father took us to the museum, to museums, all the time. And especially, I used to love going to the Museum of Natural History . . . they had one little section in the back of the museum called the "People Center," where they would have live performances, every weekend, of groups from different countries and different parts of the world . . . And, my mom would take us to art museums and things like that.

I think, since they were first generation from other countries, I don't think they had these preconceived notions about who goes to museums and who doesn't go to museums, that people have in this, who were born in this, country. Like, young people that I meet that are born here sort of have this feeling-they're not meant to be there, right, they're not meant to go there. I don't know if I'm being clear, but you know, sort of watching my parents go in as if this was a really natural thing that anyone should or could do, I think really made me feel like those things, like art-making, or going to a museum, were just things that people did. And it didn't matter if you had money or if you didn't have money.

Has art made a difference in what you think or believe?

I remember my mom reminded me awhile ago, "You know when you were little you would say you felt like there were lots of little bugs running around in your head." Because I was little and I didn't know how to say it. I still have that feeling, sensation now. But it's really because I'm thinking, so like, my brain is buzzing, right? And I realize that buzzing brain is what makes me write.

You know when my grandmother passed away, it took me two years before I wrote about it. And I remember writing one line, where I just wrote, you know, "Nothing is real for me until I write it down." And I think that's why it took me two years to write it down. And so for me I think it's always been powerful in terms of how other people view it, but it's been the way that I make sense of my life, is to write.

I think that's also why I do this work, and my time at the Initiative was important, because it felt like, if in some small way I could create that moment for other people, or help people find their way to that moment-it's about art, but it's about other things too. And, that was really important, it's a really powerful moment for anyone to have. You know, even if you're not going to be an artist, to understand that the act of creation is really powerful. It allows you to understand that you can do that. That you can make something that didn't exist before. And that's reflective of who you are.

How did you get involved with community arts work?

Before I did community arts work, I was a high school teacher for five years. I hadn't been trained to be a classroom teacher. I had actually had the privilege of having a really exceptional high school experience . . . they were really big about, going to the primary source: Don't read about the thing, go to the thing itself. And I don't know why, to me that feels like a much more creative way to think about learning. But also I felt like that's what artists do, right? They go to the thing or they make the thing that they see, in their mind . . . So we would read about some, case, like the Sacco and Vanzetti case. And, we recreated this courtroom. And everyone had parts. And so it became this play . . .

I think that experience not only prepared me to be with young people, but I realized the way I want to be with young people is not in this traditional classroom structure.  The way I want to be, a way for them to learn about the world, or to think about themselves-a traditional classroom's not really set up for that. And I also wanted to write. So, I stopped teaching because I realized, if I wanted to be with young people, I, we, all needed much more flexibility, in terms of the way that we were going to discover things.

When I came to the Initiative and I started doing some poetry writing workshops with some of the teen groups, that was really interesting because it gave me a chance to experiment as well . . . I remember one of the first workshops I did with you guys was this poetry workshop, and the group ended up being a group of young women. There were no boys, no young men. And, so we just came up sort of with this list of adjectives they used, that they wanted to use for themselves as young women. And then other adjectives that other people might use to describe them. And it was really fun, ‘cause the thing about writing is I've had to find ways to make writing not feel like writing. You know, because people feel like they're in school when they write. They associate it so much with school and being judged that they freeze up.

How has art inspired you?

I think that, for me, watching someone have that moment-where they're, it's like they're meeting themselves for the first time in this different way-is really addictive. When I write, there are moments when I feel like I don't fit in my body. When my soul feels so much bigger-it feels like it bursts out of me. And that happens when I'm happy, and that happens when I'm being really creative. And so I feel like everyone should have that moment, right? Everyone should have that moment where you realize how big you really are-‘cause you spend your life being taught, actually, to be small.

For me personally, I've always written, and so, I think what I realized early on as a child, really young, in school, was that it was powerful, this thing. Right, like, adults suddenly treated me differently because I was writing, or could write well, in their eyes. Right, and so that there was this, this power and this thing that I haven't given much attention to, in just writing down my thoughts. That somehow it meant something to other people.

And I remember specifically, I think it was 7th grade, it was the first time I had a teacher who wasn't white. Ms. Hodges . . . she was this incredibly-and I'm short, so maybe she wasn't as tall as I remember her, but I do really believe that she was close to like six feet tall. She was this incredible willowy, model-ly looking African-American woman who was my English teacher, and she had us all go off and write a short play for our class. And I remember I handed it in and she gave it back, and I got a dreaded note-no grade, and a "Please see me" on the bottom of the page. And so I went to see her after class, and really she was the first person, she said, "This is really good. You know, you could be a writer."

Do you believe art can facilitate connections between people and their communities?

I think what happens a lot of times with the work and, with art and activism, is that people want the people who are working with them to make these huge leaps sometimes in terms of their own political thinking. And they also forget that the place they are at now, as an artist activist, was a process. That they probably didn't always think, or weren't always able to articulate the world, their worldviews, in the way that they do presently. And so you have to be respectful of the fact that other people may not. They're coming to take the art class ‘cause they wanna learn how to draw, right?

I come from a working class-and that's probably a step above from what we really were-family, where you know, these are really interesting people who have deep-seeded passions, right? And so, why should that go unseen or unheard or unspoken? You know, and with young people I feel that, you know, you need to write it down. You know, you need to say it. You need to speak it. You need to claim your space. And the world, because no one's going to hand you your space in the world, right?

For me the "work" is when an artist makes the decision that they want to make art or, or create a space where others can make art, who aren't necessarily artists, or don't think of themselves of artists, or want to be artists. That for me is the "work." Those spaces. Those times when you're so convinced-that this is a way to give people a voice and to give people a chance to participate in the act of creation . . . Because everyone does it a little differently . . . It happens in community and sometimes those communities are defined ethnically, by level of education, by neighborhood, and sometimes it's just that it's like-minded people who end up in the same place. And so, that's part of the work too-making these random people be a community, right? And even though you work through this artistic process to make a product, the genius of it is that this process also creates a community, right? Because people can't go through the process without somehow bonding to each other.

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