Mele Martinez: Flamenco Performer, Choreographer & Author

(The following interview with Mele Martinez was conducted by Art Motif Magazine’s editor and originally published in Panorama Sonoran Desert Art & Literary Journal. | Header Photo by Kristen Watts)

Grounded deeply in her Tucson, AZ origins, featured dancer, choreographer and award-winning writer Melani “Mele” Martinez embodies the essence of creative expression. Courageous in her cultural self-exploration, Mele shares with us her boldness, strength and universal femininity in motion through her art.

What works, events, or moments in your life have influenced your writing/art?
Sandra Cisneros profoundly influenced me. I must have been a teenager when I read House onMangoStreet. I don’t remember how I got the book. I don’t know why it was suddenly there in my hands, but I read it over and over. It felt like it was the first book that I had ever really read. It was certainly the first time that I realized
books could be written about people like me. My eyes were opened and I’ve wanted to write ever since.

For flamenco, the most impactful event of my life was attending Festival Flamenco Internacional for the first time when I was 15 years old. I saw on stage what I had never seen before,and I was completely captivated. I have attended every festival since then. This annual event continues to inspire and shape the artist I want
to become.

How do your background, cultural roots and sense of identity manifest themselves in your writing/art?
I struggle with understanding my roots and my identity. It is one of the things that I write about the most. I grew up in Tucson, so I feel like I can call myself a Tucsonense, but sometimes I feel like an alien in my own town. I grew up in a Mexican-American family, but
my experience of what it means to be “Mexican-American” doesn’t seem to match others who call themselves the same.T here have been times when I feel a tug of war in my own heart–one side is trying to distance itself from everything and everyone and the other side longs for community, for familiarity and for home. For most of my life, I’ve tried to either shed my culture/identity or figure out how to define it. Sometimes I’m convinced that it is the most important thing and other times I find it irrelevant. Though this can become exhausting, I try to remember that my cultural roots and my background are simply gifts. Even the hardships are gifts. And I find peace when I allow God to define my identity instead of always trying to control it.

Do you have a preferred genre/medium? If so, why?
In writing, my preferred genre is nonfiction. I’ve always loved stories but for some reason I gravitate towards the stories that we call “true”. I love taking what is real and shaping it, structuring it. Though reality is very messy, there is a sense of logic, pattern and reason I find in it. That is a constant inspiration for me. In dance, my preferred genre is flamenco. I started dancing different styles when I was just three. I loved dance from that young age but when I first encountered flamenco, that love turned into a calling. For me, flamenco has the most expressive potential. It isn’t just a genre of dance but a world of art unto itself.

What inspires you (e.g. places, scents, sounds)?
This might sound strange but food inspires me to write. I don’t mean that I have to eat before I get a few words out, though sometimes that can be good. What I mean is that when I start thinking about the way food is a daily ritual, the way it is fundamental to life, the way it is unique and mixed for every culture, family, person—these things inspire me to explore it in words. I’m writing a memoir about my family’s tamale factory, so this idea is extremely important to me. Food is the object of the first sin recorded in the Bible, it is a metaphor for union with God, it is the object of addiction, symbolism and probably the majority of the issues I face on a daily basis. The topic of food never gets old for me. My father used to say that having a food business is secure because people never stop needing food. Ironically, I still believe that. In flamenco, music is my inspiration. I’m the kind of mover that relies heavily on what I hear, rather than a creator of images and sounds. I’m a responder. I always do my best to reflect music and my favorite dancers do the same. My euphoria in flamenco happens when I feel like I am physically INSIDE of the music.

Different people perceive and respond differently to literature and artwork. Do you recall any memorable responses by others to your writing/art?
With Luz, my project to honor mothers in the arts, I get to practice both flamenco and writing. For me, this project has had the most memorable responses from audiences. Mothers, in particular, have talked to me about how much they appreciate someone shedding light on their struggles and on their creative process. Even though I’ve experienced a lot of fear throughout the work of Luz, I’m glad that the artists I’ve worked with have been moved. It is exceptionally satisfying to see artists you admire be so supportive and emotionally connected.

Your favorite painters and composers?
My favorite painter/writer is Makoto Fujimura. Fujimura is a Japanese contemporary artist who uses stone-ground minerals such as gold, platinum and azurite and traditional Nihonga technique to create works that reveal his bi-cultural education in the arts and express his Christian faith. His grasp on the intersection of faith and art is a model I hope to emulate.

Your favorite food or drink?
My family’s home cooked food is generally my favorite! But the best food I’ve ever had was in Mexico City. For three days while I was there, every single meal felt like enlightenment. I try to remind myself that it is just food, not love. But sometimes those lines get crossed.

To learn more about Mele Martinez, click on the following links:

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