ORIGINALLY POSTED 06/15/2017
Maribel Valdez Gonzalez is the face of a movement. The San Antonio middle school teacher and UTSA alumna has become an avatar on Facebook and Twitter. Her image wallpapers mobile phones and actual buildings. Thousands carried a poster bearing her image as they took to the streets during the Women’s March in January, the largest protest in recent American history. Her direct gaze, a red flower in her hair, her T-shirt with an eagle and serpent, and the words we the people defend dignity emblazoned below her image — all came together to symbolize what so many had been feeling during the lead-up to 2016’s general election: We are here, we matter, and we can’t be ignored.
“The person on the poster was meant to be anonymous — to be representative of a community. I think what it shows is the strength, confidence, brilliance, and fierceness of my ancestors.”
Yet few people even know her name — or anything else about the woman behind the image, which is the point, says Gonzalez ’13: “The person on the poster was meant to be anonymous — to be representative of a community. I think what it shows is the strength, confidence, brilliance, and fierceness of my ancestors.”
The poster featuring Gonzalez was one of five created as part of the “We the People” campaign by the nonprofit Amplifier Foundation to celebrate diversity and highlight minority communities targeted by racist rhetoric, particularly during the long election season. Artist Shepard Fairey adapted his famous red, beige, and blue Barack Obama hope poster for three of the designs representing women from the Muslim, African American and Latino communities. Like Gonzalez, the other women featured have also been celebrated.
For the Latina image, Fairey collaborated with San Antonio–based photographer Arlene Mejorado, who is also Gonzalez’s best friend. A Mejorado portrait of Gonzalez was one of several photographs she sent to Fairey and the foundation. Mejorado worked with Fairey to form the concept of the poster, including adding the rose and the style of shirt. Gonzalez saw the poster only a few days before it was released as an advertisement in The Washington Post and other newspapers across the country. She didn’t realize the impact it would have until the day of the Women’s March.
Standing in Pershing Square in Los Angeles, where Gonzalez attended the march with her husband and friends, including Mejorado, she watched as people crowded around a poster more than a story tall. “It was really powerful when I saw the amount of people in front of it, congregating around it, and taking pictures with it,” she says.
“From what I’ve seen living and working in San Antonio, UTSA has the biggest connection with community.”
Fellow ’Runner Stefanie Arias attended the Women’s March in Austin and says knowing that the person behind the defend dignity poster is another alum makes the message even more special. She has collected all three of Fairey’s march posters, but it was always Gonzalez’s image that stuck with her. “I heard that the woman on the poster was from San Antonio,” Arias says, “but I didn't know she was a UTSA alumna until recently. I was already proud, and now even more so. She's the wallpaper on my phone. Whenever I see her, I connect to my culture, my hometown, and now my alma mater.”
For those who do know Gonzalez, she exemplifies the message of “Defend Dignity.” UTSA professor Rhonda Gonzales says her former student embodies the university’s mission to engage the community, serve others, and act as a role model: “When I first saw the poster, I thought, This is the right person for this. This is the right person for this moment, and this is the right person to show the fight for dignity.”
Mejorado, who is from Los Angeles, says she and Gonzalez are often asked how they were picked for the project. She says the answer for both is, Why not! “We both belong to working-class communities of color and we are out here trying to do good, but we are not pretending to be anything that we are not,” Mejorado explains. “That is why this campaign was successful. It was based on everyday people and faces we are already familiar with. It is not meant to iconize her. It is meant to provide a mirror of inspiration for others to feel visible, validated, and most importantly activated! Sincerity is key.”
Gonzalez entered UTSA in 2009 as a biology major after graduating from Health Careers High School. She says she thought of becoming a doctor, since she knew she wanted to help people. But events that happened two states away ended up turning her freshmen year into a transformative experience. In 2010, Arizona passed one of the strictest anti-immigration laws in the country [the law would later be deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court]. It spurred Gonzalez to learn more about her own history, that of her parents’ Mexican heritage, and America’s relations with other countries. She joined student groups and followed the news. She decided to switch her major to history. She consumed materials that helped her relearn a more balanced version of historical events.
“It was really powerful when I saw the amount of people in front of it, congregating around it, and taking pictures with it.”
MARCH MOMENT: Gonzalez and husband Antonio (far left) grab a moment with friends in front of her poster in Los Angeles on the day of the march.
For Gonzalez, that connection to the past is imperative for understanding the present and working toward a better future, which is a lesson she tries to instill in her students. “I tell my kids all the time, what’s great about studying history — and studying history in college — is that it’s learning different perspectives and coming up with a critical lens [to view] research, so it’s definitely much more fun and interesting.”
After getting her bachelor’s at UTSA she received her teacher’s certificate and a master’s degree. As an English teacher, she has realized her dream of having a career that helps people. And as a first-generation Mexican American and first-generation college student, Gonzalez uses struggles she experienced growing up to help her students better understand the world they live in but also to help her understand them.
One of her most passionate causes is equity for students. Mentorship even before students get into college would level the playing field for underserved students. She turns to her own story as an example. She didn’t have the siblings or parents who knew the system the way other high school students might have. “I had to do all of that myself. It’s not to say Spanish-speaking parents aren’t supportive or that low-income parents aren’t supportive; it’s that they didn’t have that experience. That built-in knowledge isn’t there.”
Being able to reach out to her mentors at UTSA continues to be helpful, she says. “From what I’ve seen living and working in San Antonio, UTSA has the biggest connection with community,” Gonzalez says. “In academia, we talk about ‘disconnect’ because we are here in our ivory tower, but I feel like my mentors have really tried to bridge the gap between student spaces.”
“As a mama-to-be and a teacher, I feel like that’s what my whole life is about — to be the person that I needed when I was little.”
She tries to do the same and wants to expand the way her students think about the world. They have a “respect contract” that took a week for the entire class to complete. First, they worked individually, then in teams, and then as a class. She launches GoFundMe accounts for student projects and often tries to bring a multicultural experience to her classroom of nearly all Latino students. Maybe it’s discussing a movie like Hidden Figures, which showed the critical role of a group of black women during World War II, or bringing in a speaker.
“As a mama-to-be and a teacher, I feel like that’s what my whole life is about — to be the person that I needed when I was little and that’s what I am now,” she says. “When people ask what my life is going to be like in 10 years that’s the answer. I'm always going to be the person I needed.”
For Black History Month, Gonzalez used her UTSA connections, asking former professor Rhonda Gonzales for a suggestion for someone who would be willing to speak to her class. They turned to history professor and author LaGuana Gray. “She came to our campus and talked to the whole school about children in the civil rights movement,” Gonzalez says. “She talked about children in the movement in Selma, Alabama, in the 1960s and she started a conversation about what can students do right now in 2017 about social-justice issues that they are passionate about.”
Former mentor Gonzales says these are types of connections that help UTSA stay involved in the community. She sees Gonzalez as not only a great teacher but also “much more than that. She’s a change agent,” Gonzales adds. “I think that’s what UTSA could be most proud of about our alumni and her. They are going out there to effect positive change in the community, and I think she embodies that. She really had that fire early. She feels an imperative to speak up. It’s not just about her. It’s about things that are larger than her.”