By Jorge Ivan Velez
I’m at the mic, all up front and center, about to bellow out, “I wonder as I wander.” The crowd of parents don’t realize how important this is to me; I’m in high school chorus and have just landed my first solo as a baritone. My ability to perform this solo is my first step to fronting a rock n roll band. But as I stand there, about to sing a song about internal conflict, I’m in the midst of an internal conflict, wondering if I even belong at the mic. My name is Jorge, and all my music idols are white guys like Brandon Flowers or Tom Delonge, and while I can effectively pass for a white guy, the moment my name enters the conversation I’m kindly directed out. Maybe Jorge could front a salsa group? But definitely not a rock ‘n’ roll band. Taking Back Sunday had a Latino member, but he played rhythm guitar. Maybe that was the role best fit for me, supporting someone else’s dreams while my own teeter in the rippling tides.
In her seminal work, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Gloria E. Anzaldúa writes on the difficulties of navigating intersections, “Like all people, we perceive the version of reality that our culture communicates. Like others having or living in more than one culture, we get multiple, often opposing messages. The coming together of two self-consistent but habitually incomparable frames of reference causes un choque, a cultural collision.” My career as a musician is full of these moments, moments where the intersections of my identities deliver opposing messages and cause un choque.
Que llevue! / Que llevue! / Que llevue! / Que llevue!
On their latest record Mujeres, out now via Tender Loving Empire, Y La Bamba is at the mic, all up front and center. The title track is bursting with anthems, truisms and calls to action, with the “que llevue,” or “let it rain” chant which closes the track acknowledging the cultural collision Anzaldúa wrote of, as songwriter Luz Elena Mendoza recognizes the American music industry is not built for Latino/a/@/x/e identity. The only way to make ripples in the oceans of industry, and by extension patriarchal white supremacist society, is to stop trying to be another wave in the ocean. Rather, be the rain crashing upon the waters, attacking, disrupting and nourishing new life into the system. To try and find place for Latino identity in an industry constructed in the image of colonizers is to halt the creation of spaces for intersections.
“Boca Llena” is a declaration that women are just as clever as the men who have intergenerationally undermined their brilliance. With the encompassing nature of its groove and its surreptitious hook “De puro malicia, mi boca llena,” Mendoza is reimagining what stereotypical narratives for Latinas look like. The message behind “Follow Your Feet,” with its quiet guitar and breathy vocals, encourages the self-conscious to take a step towards the mic and to then follow on through with their feet. Every nuance of the captured vocals on this record spark the creation of spaces which have not existed before. I go as far as to say the vocals are politically hi-fi. In an act so subtle, Mendoza’s voice is uplifting all those like her to take chances, as it’s the only way to make spaces for ourselves.
In an interview with El Nopalito on being a Latina in indie rock, Mendoza says, “There was so much of myself that I was holding back just to make others feel comfortable, it’s different now because I’m being vocal about it.” Mendoza is privileging others in the narratives she represents, speaking to the shame of intergenerational poverty on a track like “Dieciseis” or alienated group identity on “Conocidos.” She is showcasing the cultural collision of Latino identity entering a homogenous society via her positionality as a Latina woman in indie rock. She highlights her struggle navigating intersections in an interview with SFR, saying, “Just because I’m Mexican doesn’t mean I play mariachi music. No one really knows how to talk about me. … I’m Chicana, first generation, on her journey trying to express herself in the most visceral, natural way and being pushed down through trauma and personal anxieties.”
To only look at this record as an exercise in applying labels of feminist, latin, folk, indie with chicano influence is to undermine the impact of its existence. In every song, Mendoza is encouraging Latino/a/@/x/e people to go out and create. As a young Latino trying to build a career in indie rock, I find Y La Bamba’s music not just to be something I enjoy, but a space where I feel affirmed. Mendoza’s voice, her arrangement choices and the daring decision of bilingual lyricism in an American market encourages me to be dangerous. I want “Que llevue! / Que llevue! / Que llevue! / Que llevue!” to be a reality where young musicians find mainstream success in redefining to the industry what it means to be a Latino artist in music. I want more Cucos signing seven-figure record deals.I want more Rosalías selling out venues in minutes. I want the rain to cut through the waves and smash into the ocean floor, causing a rumbling which shakes the means of creation! Y La Bamba is a reminder to put in the work, because there is a crowd listening, and my baritone solo is my moment to shine. It is a process outlined in closer “De Lejos,” where getting your body and blood moving is immediacy, as Mendoza sings, “Hay que mover la sangre y el cuerpo.” So I’m at the mic, all up front and center, and I bellow. Not only for the parents in the crowd, but because I can, and because at the mic is exactly where I belong.
Jorge Ivan Velez is a Molasses editor, artist, musician and educator based out of Queens, New York. They write songs about queer and latinx identity under the moniker Fear Not Ourselves Alone. When not caught on camera doing Weezer rock hands or taking on one too many projects, they are thinking of ways to enact healing in their community via art and action.
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im really like that!