“Soy Como Soy”: Evolving Identity in Art

Experimental indie band Y La Bamba explores spirituality, politics and cultural identity through a Latinx lens and a walk down the streets of memory
Luz Elena Mendoza of Y La Bamba. Photo Credit: Christal Angelique 

Arturo Hilario

El Observador

Y La Bamba is a self-described indie folk pop group from Portland, Oregon, spearheaded by vocalist and songwriter Luz Elena Mendoza, a first-generation Mexican American trying to make sense of coming from two vastly different worlds. The music of Y La Bamba, an amalgamation of her experiences and musical history which include Mexican showstoppers Los Bukis, to create a listening experience like no other.

On the day I speak to frontwoman Luz Elena, she’s taking a pit stop from her bands current tour in the Southern US to talk about her journey through music and identity. She tells me she’s somewhere around Asheville, North Carolina and half an hour from having to attend to another scheduled meeting. She’s willing to let out her sincere feelings for the interview though, even in a time crunch.

As far as feelings go, her plucky personality and sincerity permeate her words, not only within her songwriting but even as she speaks to me about her viewpoints and experiences. As a precursor to the following interview I’d like to add that this was a resoundingly successful and unexpected chat, that went from simply touching on Y La Bamba’s music and method, to an introspection of Mendoza’s own reason for being and doing what she does.

Hello Luz Elena. I wanted to start off by asking what your musical history is like. What are your strongest memories or first memories of the music that you can remember?

Oh, my gosh. It’s all kind of collaged together. One of my first memories of music [had] been at church; a Catholic church, like alabanzas (musical praise), and me singing in the background. Before that is boleros, wapangos, musica huasteca, corridos, grupero bands like Los Bukis, Los Caminantes, Rigo Tovar, stuff like that. But the thing that always was around when it wasn’t a quinceañera, or a bautismo or a wedding, was when it was a gathering with the family. Like la carne asada (BBQ), when there’s like 20 or 25 people just like gathering around a house. [There] would be like a band that they always hired. I was raised pretty much in southern Oregon, so all the Latinos had their bands that they would hire.

And it wasn’t mariachi bands that would come to your house and play for the family. This band consisted of a harp, a violin or two, a guitar and I think that’s it. It’s just like old, old music from pueblitos chiquitos, it’s just like a go to. And corridos [too] in that sense. That’s like one of my first memories, just being a little kid watching the older generation just kind of drink and eat food and we’re just running around. It was just part of the package.

With that in mind, when did you begin to think about creating music and making something of your own, and getting into that?

It’s so crazy to think about this because I’ve been thinking about it since I was a little kid. And I can remember a really early memory. We used to have to go with my parents whenever they paid their bills, like the water bill, the electricity bill and we would have to translate.

My dad would just drive us in his pickup truck, and we’d be in the back like in the camper. My brothers and I, and I would just be mimicking [the radio].

I’d just mumble the words and mimic the emotion, because I think you are a product of the environment. And my brothers would sing along with me, it was very infectious. Even though my brothers don’t play music or sing, even as little kids, we liked having that shared experience when we were not with the elders. We would do that all the time. And then when you get home we carried ‘the band’ in the garage.

I used to sit on top of these boxes that my dad would make out of wood to put his working shoes in, and I would just turn them over and dance on them and hit it with a stick and make my beat. My brothers would just try to be my band, just like with the whatever the hell was around in the garage, and I would just be singing.

I used to watch “Siempre en Domingo” and “Sabado Gigante”, seeing Daniela Romo and Yuri (Latin pop artists), and all these artists that weren’t what my parents listened to. As a kid, I said, ‘I want to do that!’ My mom would be like, ‘No! Te van a robar!’ (You’ll be kidnapped).

Now, with hindsight, I look [back] at stuff like that. I was little, we lived in this house on Tea Party Street in Medford, Oregon. I remember exactly the moment when I was in the living room, what I was feeling and thinking. And then I used to make up my own songs, even though I didn’t have an instrument to play.

I have the ear for harmony without even realizing it was like a skill. You grew up listening to people harmonizing with each other like this music. So, you’re like, ‘Oh this is normal’. And then when I was in junior high, mostly 8th grade through freshman year in high school, I used to go to Sam Goody [or] anywhere to look for those tape single cassettes, [where] one inside was an instrumental version of the song and the other version was the radio hit. But I would just get all this R&B and Hip Hop, and event stuff I didn’t even know, I would just buy them and then I would check out what the instrumental was like. If there were no backup vocals, then I just wrote my own songs for them.

I did that a lot! I never thought it was bad, or it was a good thing, it was just the most natural, visceral thing. I just always wrote songs, [even] as a little teeny kid.

I mean, the fact that it was there, and I still am that person [is] like the most consistent thing that I know of my life. I think that expressing yourself and emoting is part of our culture, to express something really [strongly].

I think the most important follow up is do you have any of those tapes still?

No! No, I don’t. I know. Everyone asks me that. Maybe my brothers have something. They were, and still are, my big supporters because they saw it all happen.

Moving onto the music you’re creating now, I wanted to get your viewpoint on Latinidad and identity in music. Your music is bilingual, you grew up in the states, so how does that Latinx identity fit into your music?

Well, I think it’s like what you hear and how you get it all out [is] natural, you know. So, it’s something that hasn’t been labor. It’s never been a laborious thing to write the way that I write, to express myself in the language Spanish. [Even] though it’s a colonizer language. I mean, I can’t help what I was raised with. So, I’m a product of exactly what my environment was. You know, what my parents taught me, what I was surrounded by. It’s as simple as that.

Also, Mexican American, that’s a whole other Latinidad that needs to be celebrated. For so long, I’m thirty-seven, so there was a lot of shame being like me, ‘I’m not from there. I’m not from Mexico and I’m not white. So, where am I?’

There’s vergüenza. So, you just kind of get used to being like, ‘Well, I’m not either. So, then what?’ So recently the last couple of years, I’m like, ‘You know what? That’s a whole other Latinidad in itself but it needs to be celebrated. And so, the way I open my heart and my mouth and how I tried to articulate myself in Spanish has been like a growing experience for me to not be ashamed of my Spanglish or ashamed in a way that I am.

Not be so insecure about it. And I know that I’m not the only one. And now I’m like, ‘fuck it.’ Like when I go to Mexico, it helps me to be in that body of knowledge, of speaking in Spanish all the time. Obviously, the emotions have always been there. You know, like being, ‘I’m fucking Mexican American!’ and that will never go away. But to articulate yourself with a vocabulary has helped me a lot.

Also being confident in my Spanglish and not caring of people’s [opinion]. I’m like, ‘You know what? Either you’re gonna help me or you’re just going to accept me for who I am.’ And also know that this is a growing experience. I’m not invisible. I don’t want to be invisible. Like, I don’t want the Chicanos or the Mexican-Americans, and Latin American to be invisible with the fact that we are both and an in-between; and that I personally recognize the privilege of having a birth certificate, of being born in the United States. But that’s a whole other thing.

To celebrate what it is that I am, my parents labor. The reason why I am the way that I am is because my parents’ hard work and me navigating through the world in this lens of knowing the difference of being a daughter from immigrant parents and like really celebrating it in everything that I do.

And because I do music, which is not the only thing, I just don’t identify myself as a musician, it’s just another way of expressing myself. I’m going to express myself naturally, as a Mexican American.

We all have different experiences, for me specifically, I was really embarrassed. I was scared, really insecure about not being accepted by, like, whiteness, white people, and not being accepted by my Mexican family because I was just Americanized to them. Super fucking ‘other unicorns’, in both sides and that really messes with your psychology, like hella hard, [but] then you just kind of get used to it.

And again, because I’m thirty-seven, I know that the newer generation, there is a lot of strength because when I was twenty-five, I didn’t have the validation or even had these conversations that we’re having right now. And so, I’ve been trying to heal from what it is that I put up with for so long. And my speech through music, because it’s communication, like my articulation in Spanish has gotten better.

But that’s just for me. That’s personal. You know, that’s a personal thing for me. It’s helping me grow. And then I watch my growth, just being like, ‘oh, I’m not going to be ashamed of this anymore.’ I’m not going to be ashamed with me taking initiative and allowing myself to grow and whatever it is that looks like.

To be like, ‘Si puedo hablar español, y a veces no puedo, pero no importa. No tengo de otra.’

I was wondering when you write music, when you create music, are you thinking about the fact that people are gonna hear it at some point, or are you doing it for personal reasons?

It’s so personal. And I am a sensitive person and I can see how people try to gauge it. There are people that celebrate it. I’m not going to just be all negative and be like, ‘oh, people are just making fun of me.’ But there is like that seed in my mind.

This seed of, people are going to make fun of me for expressing myself in this way in Spanish or it’s not going to be Mexican enough for the Mexicans. Or it’s not going to be ‘cool enough’ for the white people or it’s not going to be Mexican American enough for the Mexican Americans because of the way that I look, or people just don’t know my full story.

There’s a lot of insecurity behind that, there always has been. But I still do it because it’s the only thing. It’s what I have. It’s almost much. It’s natural. Yeah. You know, and it really teaches me about where we’re at as people.

I can’t help the way that I am. If I want to rock a fucking mariachi suit, I’m going away and I know people are going to look at me, either Mexican Americans or Mexicans or whatever. Maybe I’ll be like an ethnic token for the white people. But the people that I want the respect or the validation [from], it’s awkward. It’s still fucking awkward. When I go to Mexico City and then I have so much intimidation of just singing my songs in Spanish because I feel like when I go present myself, even though I blend in with them, but when I start talking about things that I’m talking about right now, a lot of the [wealthy] people, that don’t know what it’s like living or growing up humbly how my mom and dad and all my family that lives in California, they’re like, ‘What?’

I’m like, whoa. And that. And then and then what’s popular and ‘hip’, this westernized way of thinking about music. It’s not cultural. So, when I think about culture. I’m thinking about like what, um, what are we talking about here? Like, what is the Mexican culture? You know what I mean? For me, Mexican culture is not Mexico City.

It’s Michoacán, pueblitos chiquitos. I know that for so long I thought that the Mexico was just ranchos because I grew up with parents that showed me that, you know. So, when I say that, I don’t say that I’m making fun of myself. I say like, yeah, I’m trying to teach people by just even that story.

What is your favorite thing about doing all this at the end of the day and like traveling and performing in front of people, many who might say, ‘I’m like you too!’

That’s it. I’ve never done it en una manera para estar aquí, ‘I wanna be famous!’ Or whatever. I’ve always done what I’ve done for my family, even if they don’t fucking get it, like the older generation. And I’ve had this social dysmorphia, this imposter syndrome of just not ever thinking I deserve what’s going on or anything. I don’t even see it. And then when people come up to me and they’re like, ‘yo también, yo también guey!’ [It’s validating]

Either we’re talking about domestic violence or talking about like, [feeling] so invisible for X, Y and Z, that fills me. That is why that is why I’m personal. And I know the people that have been traveling with me the last year or so have also been going through things like that. That also means [something] to them in their own ways. And that’s why it can be really strange sometimes when that is all mixed into an ‘industry’, which I have a hard time with.

But it’s personal. It’s my act. It’s not even just activism. It’s like transparency. It’s a story. And when we come together, it’s like a gathering. It’s like, ‘Hey, vamos a esta quinceañera!’ It’s like that for me. I do it for each other, for us, for myself. Me growing, me seeing my growth before my own eyes. Like taking ownership and loving myself. It’s a whole act of self-love.

Y La Bamba joins Noise Pop Festival 2020 on February 28, 2020 at Slim’s in San Francisco. More info at noisepopfest.com.

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