Blog Article

Road Scholar Catalina Maria Johnson Talks About the Legacy of Latinx Music and National Hispanic Heritage Month

Photograph: Carolina Sánchez

Late last month, we caught up with Catalina Maria Johnson, Chicago-based music journalist and Illinois Humanities Road Scholar, to learn more about her heritage, the work that goes into crafting her presentations on Latinx music culture, and what National Hispanic Heritage Month means to her.

September 15th marked the beginning of National Hispanic Heritage Month, the yearly celebration dedicated to honoring the cultures of Hispanic, Latino/a, and Latinx Americans. Initially established as Hispanic Heritage Week in 1968 under President Lyndon B. Johnson, it was later expanded to cover a 30-day period through the efforts and advocacy of U.S. Representative Esteban E. Torres (CA) in 1988.


Toussaint Egan (TE): Would you mind introducing yourself for folks who aren’t already familiar with your work? Where are you from, what do you do, what’s keeping you busy nowadays?

CMJ: So, my name is Catalina Maria Johnson. I am Chicago-based, but I grew up between two different cities. They’re both named St Louis; St. Louis, Missouri, and San Luis Potosi, Mexico. They’re kind of like versions of one another, mid-sized cities with some tourism, but not tons. My mom’s from San Luis Potosi, and my dad is the son of German and Swedish immigrants and grew up in Minnesota, so that’s my background. They’re both academics, so they absolutely insisted that my sisters and I be raised bilingually and biculturally and we went to high school in Mexico.

I ended up going into academia thinking that was what I was going to do for the rest of my life. I am a linguist, I have a doctorate. But what happened is that I ended up becoming a translator-interpreter and a music journalist, and it’s kind of two sides of a life, but all the same, and definitely complimentary in the many ways they intersect and enhance each other. I do quite a bit of music journalism, both through writing and a radio show called Beat Latino that airs on Vocalo in Chicago as well several other select cities around the United States and Berlin.

TE: How did you first come into contact with Road Scholars? What inspired your desire to be a part of the program?

CMJ: Through both cultural pursuits, as well as translation and interpretation, I’ve known Mark Hallett for some time, and he’s now at [Illinois Humanities]. He reached out and asked if I would share that the Road Scholars Program applications are open and that they were particularly interested in members from the Latin and Latinx communities, especially those that could present in both [English and Spanish]. And I thought well, hey, that’s me! At the time, I had been working through in my mind a number of questions. I’m a member of the editorial board for a Spanish-language literary magazine called Contratiempo, and I had been saying for some time that hip-hop is poetry and that we should do something about a big poetry event we do in April. It was kind of pushing the envelope a little too much. It took a while. That was on my mind at the same time as I was considering Road Scholars: the question of who exactly decides why and which certain subjects are worth studying versus others that are not. Why do we decide that some subjects are worth studying and getting degrees in and others are not? Why not focus on what’s actually, you know, incredibly poetic about this music and spoken word art form that’s happening? So that was the opportunity to put together my thoughts on those subjects, and maybe provide them a very renowned or recognized platform through Illinois Humanities and the Road Scholars Program. It was just too tempting to not answer.

TE: Tell us a bit about your presentations, “Latin Hip Hop As The New Poetry” and “Latinos in Illinois and The USA: Music, Cultural History and Communication”? How did you take this multifaceted subject and condense it into the space of two presentations?

CMJ: With great difficulty, and I don’t think I really do the subjects entirely justice, especially when it comes to music as a cultural history. My presentations are sort of an entertaining, annotated youtube playlist— annotated in the sense that I comment or coordinate visual aids and consolidate them into what I hope is a somewhat logical order although, especially in the case of the “Latinos in the Illinois and The USA: Music, Cultural History, and Communication” presentation. It’s all happening at the same time, and history tends to want chronology, but I at least cover some of the historical milestones through the music and share historical events that I didn’t know existed for example, Woody Guthrie’s song “Deportee,” which has become a part of the Latinx songbook. There’s a lot of versions of it, and it talks about the plane wreck at Los Gatos Canyon. So while I knew about that, I didn’t know all about the details until I went looking for the answers. Another example is of a young musician in Boulder, who, his name is Xiuhtezcatl, who does hip hop in his own background, which is a combination of English, Spanish, and Nahuatl, which is an ancient indigenous language from Mexico. It’s all a Herculean endeavor of love, pulling these sources together and creating these presentations.

TE: What has been your most rewarding experience since becoming an Illinois Humanities Road Scholar?

CMJ: I’ve often debated whether to accept certain presentations that were really kind of a pain to get to- far from Chicago, but not quite far enough to be maybe overnight, necessarily, and often libraries. I would get there and be kind of tired, and I would be sometimes greeted with a little reception and someone would bring out Mexican pastries. Librarians are the most spectacular amazing people, and often women; my respect for librarians has really grown immensely over my time with the Road Scholars program. And then there would always inevitably be, even in the audiences that were relatively sparse, there would be like a whole family from somewhere that wasn’t even from there. Maybe they had actually driven like an hour, because so few things were presented that were of interest to them. So those moments are very special.

TE: In the wake of the COVID-19, most if not all presentations in the Road Scholars program have transitioned to other alternatives, including remote online presentations. How have your presentations evolved to meet the moment that we are currently living in, and what are the challenges and advantages that have come with meeting this moment?

CMJ: I have to tell you, Zoom has been a very flexible and incredibly useful platform. I’ve really enjoyed using it. If you need to interact with your audience, it is much easier than others I’ve had to use for a presentation I was doing for a middle school that had a system that they insisted on using in their district, as well as in other situations. It’s a great platform, but the biggest challenge has been interaction. I’m able to interact a bit, but not nearly as much as I’d like. It can be very cumbersome in a cyber reality. Although, I will say that the students are very used to interacting in chat, it’s just difficult for me to keep track of that and the presentation that’s going on. I’m getting the hang of it though, so that’s been cool to discover. An advantage of the online presentation is that it can reach a wider audience than originally would have been possible if the presentations were done in-person.

TE: September 15th marks the beginning of this year’s Hispanic Heritage Month, lasting all the way through October 15th? How are you choosing to celebrate and recognize this month, what does Hispanic Heritage Month mean to you, both personally and as an educator?

CMJ: To me, it’s a little artificial y’know. It’s sort of the time that every organization says, “Oh, we got to do something Hispanic Latino,” everybody reaches out, so that’s good and bad. On the other hand, that’s a time that at least we can focus, briefly, for a month on what that population has brought to the United States; the cultural heritage and its incredibly rich contributions. I don’t have any particular celebratory ritual for the holiday. My family probably never even mentioned it, you know; it really only became apparent to me as I was an adult. I am grateful to it because it gives us an opportunity to shine a light on a culture and a history that deserves as much attention and appreciation as possible.

TE: What would you say to prospective Road Scholars who are looking to bring their passions and knowledge to a larger audience to expand the dialogue surrounding the humanities?

CMJ: I think the humanities are everything, actually. If you had to look up what the definition of the humanities is, well, the name says it all. They’re everything that encompasses what it means to be human. So I would say, certainly anybody that has a knowledge base, no matter whether they think it’s a part of the humanities or not, I would urge them to evaluate it in terms of the humanities because there’s a lot of richness that falls out of the traditional parameters of what we interpret as “the Humanities.” And I also think this is a really golden opportunity, as somebody who really does consider Chicago and Illinois home. The coasts get a lot of attention, but there is a richness in the center of this land that can also be shared. So I think it’s just a very unique opportunity to share that richness; to share things that are outside of the very traditional borders of the humanities, and to make that known to a much larger audience.

TE: Where can audiences go to learn more about you, your work as a journalist, writer, and educator, and your Road Scholars presentations?

CMJ: If you want to learn more about my presentations, the list for Road Scholars is on the Illinois Humanities site. You can find me on Instagram and Twitter, and my radio show Beat Latino. You can find more of my work through my author page at NPR and Contratiempo.

TE: Is there anything else you want to say about the Road Scholars program?

CMJ: I think I’d like to express my gratitude to Illinois Humanities and the Road Scholars program in particular because I think what is fascinating is that when you enter into this, you think you are one imparting your knowledge, but actually, you are being educated in the process. The things I’ve learned and the people I’ve met, the interactions I’ve had with them — there’s no way to measure that. That’s priceless. So I thank the program for the opportunity, I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.