Maria Elena Gaitan is a musician by nature, an activist by impulse and an educator, interpreter and translator by profession. Last month, the East Los Angeles native, also known as the “Chola con Cello,” received the Sor Juana Legacy Award from the National Mexican Museum in Chicago, the biggest Latino cultural institution in the country.
The award honors a woman of Mexican descent whose outstanding lifetime contributions to the arts and/or academia exemplify and continue to honor the legacy of Mexico’s Juana Inés de la Crúz, (1651-1695), a nun and great poet and philosopher who is known as La Décima Musa (The Tenth Muse), and the first feminist of the Americas.
The National Mexican Museum has honored writers, musicians, dancers and performers from both sides of the border with a special emphasis on women in the arts.
“We are very proud to have given Maria Elena this award to honor her hard work in the arts,” the museum’s director, Carlos Tortoledo, told EGP during a telephone interview.
“You don’t see that many people playing the cello as good as she does,” said Tortoledo, explaining that about 20 women have received the award since its creation. In receiving the award, Gaitan joins a renowned group that includes Chilean Writer Isabel Allende, French-Mexican Writer Elena Poniatowska and Nobel Peace Prize winner Guatemalan Rigoberta Menchu.
“A lot of people don’t know Maria Elena and we want to say ‘here is a woman who is very important,’” Tortoledo told EGP.
EGP sat down with Gaitan recently to discuss her feelings about the national recognition, and the inspiration behind her work.
While Gaitan is perhaps best known for her popular “Chola Con Cello ” stage show, she says she was never a “chola” (female gangster), instead preferring the music of her mother’s piano and an eventual passion for the cello: the big, bowed four-string instrument that would almost cover her entire body when she played it.
“My aunts would gossip that a cello was inappropriate for a young girl like me,” she recalls them saying about the instrument that must rest on the musician’s leg as it’s played.
Gaitan received her first cello at age 12 and never let it go.
A few years later, her passion for the cello, political activism and love for arts led her to merge her music with stand up comedy and visual narrative, gaining international recognition over the past four decades.
Gaitan told EGP she is humbled by the award and the museum’s recognition of her work in the arts, language and community service.
“I am honored to accept this award and have always felt great pride in being a native of East Los Angeles,” she said.
Gaitan says she doesn’t look for fame, but has been fortunate to perform to large audiences and bring awareness to numerous important issues, from education to immigration, to the arts and health, among others.
“I have an activist past,” Gaitan told EGP, recalling how her mother was a teacher at Lincoln High School in the late 1960s, the height of the civil rights movement.
At the time, there were very few teachers of Mexican descent in the public schools, she said. She was there when Chicano students at Lincoln and other eastside schools walked out to protest unequal conditions in Los Angeles public schools.
“One day, during the walkouts, teachers received in their mailboxes a letter saying, ‘Mexicans are a bunch of soil-grubbers,’” recalled Gaitan. She said her mother “would come and talk to us about the actions at the school … She would justify the walkouts.”
Following in her mother’s activist steps, Gaitan, then a student at Cal State LA, joined the United Farm Workers’ movement to improve working conditions for farm laborers.
“I worked with Dolores Huerta and met Cesar Chavez. We would go to Delano to take food to the farm workers and organize them,” she said.
She said she always kept her cello close by.
It was during the early 1990s that Gaitan created the multidisciplinary and acclaimed show “Chola con Cello,” one of five solo shows she has toured throughout the country.
She had been invited to perform with some eastside Chicano performers in downtown LA, and wearing a “big scary wig,” used satire and comedy to create awareness about immigrant rights.
“Pete Wilson was the governor at that time and he was asking the LA County school board how many ‘illegal aliens’ they thought were in the public schools,” Gaitan told EGP. “I knew this was a new way of persecution.”
After the Rodney King riots in 1992—a series of lootings, arsons and civil disturbance after the acquittal of four white police officers charged with unjustly beating a black man—Gaitan recalls the atmosphere in race relations and civil rights was very tense.
The undocumented community, though in different ways, was also being targeted, she said.
Someone from the Mark Taper Forum attended the performance and invited Gaitan to a bigger stage.
“The County Arts wanted people of color at the Mark Taper…after the riots” to ease the tension, she said.
At the Taper, her performance was dedicated to UFW founder Cesar Chavez and immigrants.
Now, at the age of 66, Gaitan says she’s extremely proud of her work. She has worn many hats and has enjoyed each one of them, she said. She has traveled with her cello to many parts of the world, but believes her most important performances have been at Los Angeles area hospitals, giving doctors, nurses and the sick comfort through her music.
Gaitan is currently working on a book about her mother.
She told EGP she wants to tie the Sor Juana award to the East LA community, as proof that those in the predominantly low- to middle-income class can also do great things in the arts.
“I don’t want to hear another stereotype story of an East LA native,” she said. “I’m from East LA and I play the cello,” she proudly emphasized.
The very same cello she received when she was 12-years-old.
Twitter @jackiereporter 
Updated 01-04-16 to better explain ow the cello is held by the artist.