The beat goes on: New acquisitions once stomped out the soundtrack of Los Angeles

As the Museum gears up to open new exhibitions in 2015, 2016, and 2017, our curators have combed the country, looking for the richest objects to tell the most resonant and expansive stories. On one recent trip to Los Angeles, Curator Margaret Salazar-Porzio sat down with Martha Gonzalez of the band Quetzal, hoping to come away with one such object.

Photograph of a pair of black dancing shoe, The shoes sit on top of a plywood stomp box, called a tarima. The box is well-worn and decorated with stickers.

It is 9 a.m. on a Monday morning in April in sunny downtown Los Angeles. I'm sitting at Homegirl Cafe waiting for Martha Gonzalez, singer and songwriter from the Grammy Award-winning band Quetzal. Coincidentally, Quetzal's music streams over the speakers as the sun filters through the windows of the café. A few other patrons in the place are scooping up their chilaquiles on fresh tortilla chips as I hum along to "Dreamers, Schemers"—one of my favorites. The song brings me back to growing up in Los Angeles. Lalo Guerrero, Ritchie Valens, Thee Midniters, Los Lobos, Ozomatli, and Quetzal provided a rich and complex soundtrack for Los Angeles. Quetzal in particular mixes the traditional son jarocho of Veracruz, Mexico, with R&B, salsa, Cuban charanga, Brazilian pandeiro, and other sounds into what can only be described as contemporary Chicana/o rock. Their music is emotional and intellectual at the same time. And it is distinctly L.A.

Now, as a curator at the museum, I sit in Homegirl Cafe in my home town, listening to music that changed my life forever, and waiting to meet Martha Gonzalez, a Latina woman with a voice that can make you dance and strive for social justice at the same time. Just as the song ends in one, long, fading note, Martha walks in and sits down at the table. We order coffees and breakfast, and we chat about her new position as a professor at Scripps College. She is down to earth and interested in material culture (objects, architecture, clothing, and the like) and the work of the Smithsonian. I tell her how excited I am to meet her. I'm a fan. And I tell her about how my most recent project through the National Museum of American History and the Smithsonian Latino Center is to document how Latinas have impacted and changed the cultural landscape of communities in Los Angeles.

When I put on my "curator cap," I'm looking for artifacts from everyday life that can tell important stories with national resonance. Martha's story is perfect for this. Her life and performances cross racial categories and allow for representation of home, community, culture, and politics. She fuses Chicana/o (already a mixture of histories, identities, and cultures) and African traditions in her music, demonstrating how our communities exist in complex intersection. Her musical performances show that identities are constantly emerging and shaped by axes of power and history. In particular, I am interested in how museums can present these kinds of cross-racial representations and stories.

Photograph of Martha Gonzalez's pair of well-worn black dancing shoes.

Martha and I talk in depth about this. She is trying to do similar things through her music. After a little while, she says she has the perfect artifacts for the museum: her tarima (a five-sided stomp box with roots in African and Mexican musical traditions and used like a drum) and her zapateado black leather heels used in a form of Spanish traditional dancing. I've seen them in action in her performances. The box—about 3 ft. square, 8 inches off the ground and smaller than most tarimas—has a hole in one side so that it resonates each beat as Martha stomps out percussive rhythms in shoes with tire-tread soles and tiny nails hammered painstakingly into the heel and toe to produce thumps with different pitches. The box has stickers on it, some partially peeled off and some still intact from Quetzal's concerts, friends, other bands, and national and international travel through airports. There are inscriptions in Spanish and English in permanent marker and the top of the wooden rectangle is scuffed, cracked, and well-used. Each song carved a little more wear out of the planks, creating an archive of movement and musical energy. Martha is right: it is perfect.

There comes a moment in every curator's life when you realize you are making history, when you know that the artifact you are preserving and intending to present to the world in the museum space is something unique and innovative. This was one of those moments. The best part about this collecting process was that it is collaborative. The objects came out of a budding friendship and a conversation between two women interested in how to present complex cultural stories on the national stage. 

Photograph of Martha Gonzalez's plywood stomp box, called a tarima.

I hope to display Martha’s stomp box and shoes in an upcoming exhibition called Many Voices, One Nation. Set to open in 2016, the exhibition will cover 500 years of American cultural identity through the lens of immigration and migration. The tarima and zapateado shoes will represent the complex and dynamic transnational musical culture in California alongside other important musical instruments from Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. 

Margaret Salazar-Porzio is a curator in the Division of Home and Community Life. These objects were collected as part of the collecting initiative "The Worlds We Make: Latinas at the Intersection of Food, Family, and Festivals in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, California." Learn more about Quetzal's musical journey on our What It Means to Be American project site.