“Ojos Del Sol,” the newest album by Y La Bamba, is uniquely wise. In both English and Spanish, Luz Elena Mendoza sings about being transformed as a soul in many bodies. Her songs delve into issues of identity and spirituality both lyrically and musically. Rare Candy connected with Luz to discuss the album and how Luz’s own identity and life as a Mexican woman emerge from her songs.
by Lena Nelson
RARE CANDY: You sing and write in both English and Spanish. Do you think your writing changes at all when you change between languages? Do you express different parts of yourself in English and in Spanish?
LUZ: It’s one of those things I can’t articulate. I’ve come to terms with it as a spirit. My spirit has come to terms with how simple it is. I grew up listening to Spanish. It’s what my parents listened to. It’s what my ancestors listened to, and many more generations too. That’s instilled in you. Growing up what really inspired me was seeing emotions being expressed all the time. The way that I was raised and the culture that I was raised in showed me a lot of emotion. My parents were raised in a small town in Mexico, in Michoacán. So, the music that I was inspired by, or even just what inspired me to express myself, was mariachi music. All the singers in mariachi music are so expressive, like “AHHHH.” And I am like, “YES, totally!” Also, growing up in my household, my mom would be so expressive and loud in rapid Spanish.
Es una energía que te empuja, que está ahí, que existe. No puedes hacer nada, no más que lo sigues. Cuando estás chiquito, yo, ahora, bien jovencita, no te puede enseñar eso: lo malo sientes, lo vives todo. ¿Verdad? Los canciones. . . La manera de que puedo explicar es cómo cambia mi vida cuando estoy hablando en español. Cuando escribo en español es algo que se quiere cantar, se quiere decir. Cuando hablo en inglés, es otra manera, quiero pensar, quiero explicar. [TRANSLATION: It’s an energy that pushes you. It is there, and it exists. You can’t do anything other than follow it. When you are young, like I am now, very young, you cannot be taught this: you live through the bad and you truly live it all. Y’know? Songs . . . The only way I can explain it is how my life changes when I speak Spanish. When I write in Spanish, I write something I want to sing, something I want to say. When I speak or write in English, it is different. In English, it is something that I am thinking, something I want to explain.] It’s like a bridge. It’s like information. When I write in Spanish I feel like there is a suffering. An inherited suffering. Then, in English, I try to articulate that suffering in a different way
People ask that a lot, “How does that shifting of language translate into your music?” or “Do you pick one or the other mostly?” I write exactly the way the balance is within me already. The energy constantly shifts back and forth. It’s something that I don’t force. The music wants to be written because that’s how I was raised, in English and in Spanish. It’s an extension of what you can see and hear of me now. I was raised here, but my dad still can’t speak English well. My mom has an accent. So the music is just how I feel inside.
RC: It’s really beautiful how you’ve come to terms with the bilingual aspect of your music. Strangely, or maybe not strangely at all, I’ve talked to lots of other Spanish speakers about how Spanish is generally a more emotive language, and also a more loving language, than English.
LUZ: Yeah, I feel safe when I speak in Spanish. I feel at home. I feel like there’s more space for the fire I feel. When I speak in English, when I articulate myself, I use my body language to translate that fire. Friends of mine who’ve spent time around my family will ask, "Why is your family always yelling? Are they mad?” I tell them, “No, they’re just very passionate about that rice!” You learn how to be fearless about communication and expressing yourself. As a woman, growing up in a machista culture and then being Americanized, and also being very tall at an early age, it gave me a voice. I had to speak. I was trying to hide all the time. I would feel insecure speaking in Spanish and in English. Being a woman and having a voice is always complicated. I had to figure out two voices—or three: spirit, Spanish, and English. If I could only really show you how I was raised. It explains why and how I write with the languages I do. It’s just me.
RC: Your new album, “Ojos Del Sol,” feels transformative. Lyrically, you seem to be going through and experiencing so many different things. Musically, I feel taken on a journey by the album. Where did your ideas for the album come from? What did the conception of “Ojos Del Sol” look like?
LUZ: The conception of the album was based off of a Kickstarter that I began to raise money to make these little booklets of my art for each song I was writing. For every song I wrote I would go back and make little papel picado stencils that went along with the song. I wanted to present the art to show what I was doing when I wrote each song. The album also was really me learning how to do more on my own—producing etc.
Regarding the lyrics, I’ve gone in and out of just dealing with physical trauma—illness etc. I always write about that. During the conception of “Ojos Del Sol,” I was just coming out of that, just feeling better. I was exploring the new ways that I could and can grow. I was happy to share that. The album reflects where I was at mentally and physically and also the technical level I was at with music production at the time.
There are a couple of songs on there, like “Ojos Del Sol,” that were recorded live. I always knew that “Ojos Del Sol" needed an album surrounding it. I knew I wanted, needed, to make an album because of that song. I knew it would be the first song and start the journey of the album. A lot of the songs have to do with personal growth and catharsis, how I see the world, and how people are hungry for change and healing. I am so empathetic to that.
I’m really excited to do my next album, but music is not what completely defines me. I'm a spiritual being in this physical body, and I just have sound as a way to express myself. It’s been there since I was a kid listening to mariachi music.
RC: An important theme in “Ojos Del Sol,” and something you’ve mentioned a few times already, is spirituality. Other than being a spiritual being yourself, how is spirituality important in your life? Do you feel like musical expression is part of your spiritual being? Does your spirituality come out more in music?
LUZ: It’s hard because we limit ourselves with words and vocabulary. The word “art." Art to me is . . . The earth is a piece of art. The universe is art. We’re all art. That's because it expresses itself as what it is—the good, the bad, everything. Spirit is super simple. Spirit, or whatever you want to call it, is more than our bodies. We all have this information, this inherited knowledge of being more than our earthly selves. We have our things, our interviews, but we’re so much more. I feel so grateful that I can sing. Es otro conversación, con el canto. [With song, it is a different conversation]. It's like when you see someone that you want to help. Those moments when you just want to hold someone or give someone love, unconditional love. That’s what spirit is. Love is like removing your physical identity and becoming something more than you can even comprehend.
I’ve gone through a lot of shit coming from a Mexican upbringing and feeling a lot of suffering—my parents suffering, my ancestors suffering—that makes me connect with spirit. It makes me really see something beyond my body. It all keeps wanting to be sung, to be said. People can listen to it or not. It’s something que no me se va a quitar [It’s something that I won't be able to get rid of]. Western society really needs to know that even though we lack the vocabulary to discuss spirit, we should start creating safe spaces for people to celebrate that vulnerability. People need to come out of the closet and express that they feel something beyond what society is expecting of you. There’s so much more than that. Eso es el espíritu. [That is spirit].
[Pauses. Sighs.] It gets to me, because I see how people are fighting for so many of the right things. Beautiful things could happen. It’s hard and you usually have an awkward stage and horrible things happen. Nothing’s perfect. Everyone is trying to find and understand vulnerability, but we just continue to divide each other. Spirit is ridding ourselves of all the things we think we need to identify with. Letting go of cliques and scenes. Letting go of my being Mexican. Focusing on the love—the feelings too big to explain so simply.
RC: I’m with you . . . I think those sentiments come through in your music. I hear the big questions, the spirituality, the larger than yourself, the not thinking so hard about what’s coming next. Your vocal style on “Ojos Del Sol” especially. It feels to free, so unattached to anything but what feels right in the moment.
LUZ: With good intentions. I wanted that song to be as vulnerable as it could be. ¿Dónde estás? ¿Quieres compartir esta conversación? [Where are you? Do you want to share this conversation?]
RC: Your understanding of your music is extremely personal—it's about your family, your spirituality, your upbringing etc. However, questions of identity and the story of an immigrant family in America have become so political. Do you recognize the inherently political quality? Do you accept it?
LUZ: Yeah, we all have to be responsible with this moment. I see everyone trying to find that responsibility. I’ve known it ever since the moment my parents put me in public school here. Being a muchacha and being tall, I got a lot of crazy and interesting energy from people—racism, fear. With my light skin sometimes people don't think I’m Mexican or they think I'm half. That’s just going to happen. It's interesting being raised in my physical life with a Hispanic family and then being spat out into the world and looking the way I do. My light skin really makes it so that people just don’t know. Imagine the information I’ve taken in. Even till this day! I was working as a teacher at an after school program, and a kid asked me why I was speaking Spanish. I told him, “Oh, because I’m fluent,” and he said to me, “You’re not even Mexican!” I told him that I am, and he was surprised. Adults do it too. Society does it all the time. It’s just because of como me miro. No me puedo poner triste ya. ¿Para qué? Pero lo que estoy diciendo es que yo me pregunto todo el tiempo, “¿Qué es esto?” Soy más de esto cuerpo, soy más de todo eso. Cuando se mira mal, tratando de defenderme pero también we have to let go. [It’s just because of how I look. I can’t be sad about it. What would be the point? What I’m saying is that I ask myself the question all the time anyways: “What is this?” I’m more than this body! I’m more than all of this! When someone treats you poorly you have to try to defend and explain yourself, but we also have to let go]. I have to let go even of my identity. We’re so much more than all of this. I can’t sit there and try to convince someone of who I am. I’m going to be who I am, and I’m always going to write either en ingles o en español [in English or Spanish].
In this physical world I always struggle with trying to feel accepted. As much as I say I'm strong and I don't care and I've grown it keeps coming back. People who don't know me will ask, “Oh, how Mexican are you if you're writing songs in Spanish?” Because I live my life out loud (on a minor scale), I’m vulnerable to it. People question my identity even though I know who I am. It’s always going to happen. I’m constantly trying to find ways to heal that part of what identity means to me. When I look at my dad, when I go visit my mom, when I’m submersed in my heritage, I’m always thinking of my identity, and then people will ask me why I’m speaking Spanish. My identity is always being brought up.
RC: It hardly seems fair to even ask about identity because of what you're saying. Identity is something that comes out of you; it’s your understanding. For it to constantly be questioned is hurtful, and it’s not really helpful when you understand yourself.
LUZ: It is helpful because I use it as my ally. I use that feeling of resistance. I tell myself, “Luz this is an experience.” It comes partially from my writing music in both languages, but I think it’s mostly about my height and my skin color. I wonder what it was like sometimes for my dad, who is tall, growing up Mexico. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to grow up in Mexico looking the way I do! My siblings and I are all prematurely gray! I’m sure our neighbors would have commented on eso grupo de locos! [That group of crazies].
RC: Have you toured at all in Mexico?
LUZ: Yeah! I had the opportunity two years ago to hang out in Mexico City at this studio called De Moto Studio. I met a couple of people there, and through them I got to play some shows at this place called Borcoroso. I also got to play at Ibero, a college radio station. Nothing big.
When I go to Mexico people are surprised by how I speak because I have an accent. When I’m here people are surprised I speak Spanish without an accent. I never feel Mexican enough for the Mexicans or American enough for the Americans or Mexican-American enough for the Mexican-Americans.
RC: Do you feel like it’s healing for you, making music in English and Spanish and bringing parts of yourself together, feeling at home in your own music? It is your music after all. It doesn't really matter what people say about it.
LUZ: Exactly, exactly, exactly. I feel like it is a constant healing. It keeps connecting to that home, to the knowledge of how I was raised.