José Quetzal Flores, musical artist, activist and founder of the Grammy-winning Los Angeles band Quetzal, received an honorary doctorate on Wednesday during Commencement at Cal State LA.
Flores, a self-described artivista, or artist-activist, for more than three decades has creatively melded musical traditions and genres to bring communities together through art. In so doing, he has entertained and enlightened audiences across Los Angeles and far beyond.
Cal State LA and the California State University Board of Trustees conferred an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts to Flores during an afternoon Commencement ceremony for the College of Arts and Letters on July 28. Cal State LA President William A. Covino recognized Flores on behalf of the university and the CSU and read the degree citation.
“Mr. Flores’ artistic intention focuses on pushing the boundaries of Chicano music, and his band is currently one of Los Angeles’ most important and successful groups,” Covino said. “Playing a mix of Mexican and Afro-Cuban rhythms, jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock music, the band is known for its powerful and poetic socially conscious compositions.
“Mr. Flores has selflessly defined his art through collective creative works that cross boundaries of communities and cultures to bring people together through creative expression,” Covino said.
Flores lauded the graduates for persevering, and even thriving, during the many months of the pandemic in the face of white supremacy and police abuses, as well as politicians’ failure to guarantee housing, food, health care and education as basic rights.
“Congratulations to you for refusing to be invisible, for doing something extraordinary in a year that presented … countless, monumental challenges,” Flores said.
After recognizing parents, guardians and families for their sacrifices on behalf of the graduates, he drew loud applause for referring to generations even deeper in the past.
“Congratulations to your ancestors, to all of our ancestors, people who have carried deep-rooted traditions across genocide, slavery, stolen land, for generations, so that you could arrive whole, so that we could arrive whole, so that we could feel the comfort of belonging, so that we could arrive armed with culture, with tradition. You are your ancestors’ radically imaginative dreams.”
To graduates who aspire to work in the arts, entertainment and media, Flores noted that the industry “can be very cruel, extractive and dehumanizing.”
“But there’s good news. You’re not built of that value system,” Flores said. “From our ancestors to our parents, to our communities, to ourselves, we’ve inherited a different value system that teaches us dignity, how to care for ourselves and each other … all the while being infinitely creative and resourceful.”
“There are many ways to be an artist, to be a producer, to be a keeper of culture, to be in community, in the communities to which you belong.”
Flores, the son of social justice activists, grew up in Northeast Los Angeles and attended schools there and in Alhambra, not far from Cal State LA. He and his bandmates started Quetzal in 1993 in response to the civil unrest in Los Angeles the year before.
Flores and his band, which includes his life partner, singer-songwriter Martha Gonzalez, have recorded seven albums since 1998. Their two most recent releases, on the Smithsonian Folkways label, include Imaginaries, which was awarded the Grammy for best Latin rock, urban or alternative album of 2012.
Working with fellow artivistas, Flores has led a border-spanning project called Fandango Sin Fronteras. Their purpose is to extend traditional celebrations in dance, music and verse by cultivating projects between Chicano and Chicana artists and their counterparts in Veracruz, Mexico.
Flores serves as a program manager for the Alliance for California Traditional Arts, overseeing health and equity work in Boyle Heights. He and others founded the Community Power Collective, which arose during the pandemic to advocate for low-income tenants and workers on issues of economic justice in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles and greater Los Angeles.
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California State University, Los Angeles is the premier comprehensive public university in the heart of Los Angeles. Cal State LA is ranked number one in the United States for the upward mobility of its students. Cal State LA is dedicated to engagement, service, and the public good, offering nationally recognized programs in science, the arts, business, criminal justice, engineering, nursing, education, and the humanities. Founded in 1947, the University serves more than 26,000 students and has more than 250,000 distinguished alumni.
Cal State LA is home to the critically-acclaimed Luckman Fine Arts Complex, Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs, Hertzberg-Davis Forensic Science Center, Hydrogen Research and Fueling Facility, Billie Jean King Sports Complex and the TV, Film and Media Center. For more information, visit www.CalStateLA.edu.