When Gayle Elliott, lecturer of interdisciplinary studies at California State University, Dominguez Hills, shows a film to her students, she doesn’t just screen it, she invites one of the film’s stars to speak to her class. A Martinez starred in the 1989 “Pow Wow Highway,” the story of the struggles of Native Americans living on a modern-day reservation. The Emmy-winning actor is a regular visitor to Elliott’s classes when she shows “Pow Wow Highway,” and addressed students from her “Power of Myth” and Native American and Chicana/o literature classes again last month about his journey as the film’s protagonist and as an actor.
Elliott says that while an instructor can help students interpret literature and film, it adds an extra layer of meaning for the class to meet someone who was actually involved in creating a work, and who has been able to watch audiences receive it again and again.
“A is so intellectually versatile and so engaged creatively,” she says. “He added a dimension of rigor with his conversations about… how he creates a character, the insights he had into the character at the time, and [those] he continues to have as he watches the movie [again].”
“Movie watching is an enjoyable pastime but watching it with the star of the movie sitting two seats away takes it to another level,” wrote student Teresa Sulser in a response to the guest lecturer. “I enjoyed listening to A’s interpretation of his scenes as quick-tempered activist Buddy Red Bow. Having [him] with us in the classroom made Buddy’s journey come to life.”
Other students were struck by Martinez’s willingness to share not only his experiences as a veteran actor, but of the impact that “Pow Wow Highway” made upon him personally.
“A comment made by A Martinez [that] resonated with me was that every time he watched the movie, he was a different person,” wrote Natali Gaxiola. “I know that as individuals we evolve, but many times we do not realize it. This gave me insight into how reflective a person he is. This is what must keep him grounded and in touch with others, as well as with himself.”
Patricia Kalayjian, associate professor and chair of interdisciplinary studies, teaches a class titled “Promise of the West,” on the mythology of the American West and the debunking of that mythology. She was impressed by the connection Martinez made to the students.
“He was an amazingly generous guest, very responsive to and respectful of student questions —not to mention willing to have his picture taken with everyone who came forward at the end,” she says. “He spoke with great intelligence and insight on ‘Pow Wow Highway;’ he has obviously been mulling over its meaning as a film as well as its cultural resonance over the past 30 years.”
Martinez was best known among soap opera fans in the 1980s and 1990s for his roles on “Santa Barbara” and “General Hospital.” D. Takasu, who immigrated to the United States from Brazil, wrote a heartfelt thank you to Martinez after meeting him in Elliott’s class.
“Your responses to [our] questions reflected your simplicity and sincerity about who you really are and what your serious work represents to you and to society,” wrote Takasu. “The road this character embarks on is the road we all travel, in one way or the other, searching to find balance.
“Actually, I have to confess that you were my favorite actor in the early 1980s when I first came to the United States,” Takasu continued. “I wanted to learn the language and the culture so I became addicted to ‘Santa Barbara’ and ‘General Hospital.’ I loved your characters and didn’t want to miss anything. Indeed, these stories helped me to become more acquainted with the language and culture of this country.”
Martinez, a recognizable face to students of all ages has appeared in shows ranging from the original “Hawaii Five-O” to a recent episode of the series “Castle.” He humorously described his long career in television and film in a phone interview as “a 40-year job search” and says that he currently has been serving more and more as a mentor to younger actors.
“I’m an artist who’s been on the path a long time,” Martinez says. “It’s in the natural order of things that you start to function more like a mentor as you go deeper.”
Martinez says that he was inspired by acting from childhood and as a young person and turned to it for his spiritual perspective.
“I think of some of the moments I’ve had in a theatre as having been truly holy,” he said. “To me, the stories that [I absorbed at] the theatre or the movies functioned in my life the way church would have when I was a little kid.
“I understood early on that the world would be a much better place if everyone would be able to spend time acting. It teaches you to look for what you have in common with other people. After several years of doing that, it becomes your default. That process is profoundly nourishing.”
Elliott says that her students were particularly appreciative of his generosity and openness in speaking to them and with them on his evolution as an actor and future director.
“They could see his growth as an actor, and as an artist and a thinker, and that he never stops exploring,” she said. “He reads a lot, he’s politically involved, he’s always trying to enrich himself. They were very impressed by that and his humbleness and his kindness.
“One thing he said was that when you first become an actor, you worry about creating a name, and then money, so you can sustain yourself. But today he says, ‘I know that it’s all about the story.”
Elliott works to reveal the importance of storytelling in her courses by bringing the sources in person to students at CSU Dominguez Hills. She was instrumental in bringing Chicana writer Sandra Cisneros to campus in 2007. On Tuesday, Nov. 16, she and IDS will present a reading by Native American poet Joy Harjo at 7 p.m. in the ballroom of the Loker Student Union. The event will begin with an informal reception and a Q & A and booksigning will follow the reading.
Elliott says that in many cultures the handing down of stories and traditions is matrilineal, regardless of the characters’ gender.
“With most of the writers that we feature, the emphasis is more on the women’s writing,” she says. “But we see that even in stories about men… that the protagonist has to reconnect with the earth mother and with the stories central to his culture to get the kind of nourishment his soul needs. When we explore writers like Sandra Cisneros, they go back all the way to the mythic figures, the feminine figures of their native past [that] merge with the ones from the Spanish and Catholicism, like the Virgin Mary and even earlier, to the Aztec earth goddess Coatlicue, who is known as ‘Mother of the Gods.’”
The Joy Harjo event is presented by the IDS/PACE Alumni Club, the Multicultural Center, World Cultural Studies, and the CSU Dominguez Hills 50th Anniversary Committee with the additional generosity of donor Dr. Robert Blaine. For more information on the event, contact the IDS office at (310) 243-3640.
For more information on interdisciplinary studies at CSU Dominguez Hills, click here.