Y La Bamba, the Portland-based indie band helmed by singer-songwriter Luz Elena Mendoza, have spent the past decade weaving both dynamic guitarwork and regional-Mexican flair into the vivid tapestry of the American folk tradition. And just months after releasing their 2019 LP, Mujeres, the band has returned with a heartrending EP titled Entre Los Dos.
Released in February, Mujeres found Mendoza reckoning with her family history, drawing from the trauma (and unflinching fortitude) passed down from her foremothers. Mendoza was born in San Francisco to Mexican parents of indigenous Purépecha descent; both migrant workers from the state of Michoacán, they eventually settled in Medford, Oregon, to work in a lumber mill. But after calling Oregon home for most of her life, this year the 37-year-old artist put down new roots in Guadalajara, Mexico — which serves as the spiritual home of Mujeres‘ companion EP, Entre Los Dos, or, Between the Two.
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“I moved to Mexico because it was time,” writes Mendoza from Spain, where Y La Bamba is currently on tour. “Guadalajara [feels] like home more than ever. It feels similar to how I was raised; my parents come from Aguililla y Coalcomán, Michoacán, and [had] limited resources. “El rancho” as they say, with a deep soaring nostalgia that haunts our blood. I moved to Guadalajara because I feel there is healing that needs to be done, as well as a letting go. What I find there is something that I haven’t been able to truly meet in the Northwest.”
Recorded in Portland’s Center for Sound, Light, and Color Therapy, as well as the Besitos Fritos Studio, Entre Los Dos is an unsparing work of sonic catharsis. In both English and Spanish, Mendoza illustrates the wilderness of her bicultural, neither-here-nor-there existence, as it manifests in both her intimate relationships and the world at large. Written like incantations, songs like “Rio Sueltos” forge a flexible, quake-proof bridge connecting North and South, the sea and the clouds, her self and the other; it’s in these songs that Mendoza tries to find peace in the middle. “When it feels bad I’m already/Grateful for my eyes/And for my voice and my life,” she sings in Spanish: “A portrait of my body/Well stuck to the moon.”
Much like other avant-folk artists of the Latinx diaspora — namely Devendra Banhart, and Helado Negro, with whom Y La Bamba has previously performed — Mendoza’s state of in-between has undoubtedly informed her musical style. Along with Ryan Oxford, her co-producer and guitarist-vocalist, Mendoza slingshots spindly guitar riffs in “Rios Sueltos” and “Los Gritos.” And amid the melodrama of the title track, in which Mendoza threatens to jump out of her window, her fluttering strums meet the distant chatter of birds. Meanwhile, the feverish bustle of Miguel Jimenez-Cruz’s pan-Latin percussions, spanning from Mexico to the Caribbean, grooves along with Grace Bugbee’s nimble basslines, offsetting Mendoza’s throaty croons to subjects of all genders. “Beautiful dreamer,” she sings sweetly in “Soñadora”: “I am lost in your gaze/Give me your kisses.”
“I grew up listening to mariachi, like Lucha Villa [and] Lola Beltran,” says Mendoza. “And cumbia mexicana, like Rigo Tovar y su Costa Azul,” she adds; “[And] norteñas, old corridos like the ones Las Jilguerillas used to sing.” As a tribute to the legendary regional-Mexican artists who soundtracked her upbringing, the artist finally acquired her own mariachi players’ suit; although cut for a conventionally masculine silhouette, Mendoza dons it proudly while promoting Entre Los Dos.
“The mariachi suit means so many things,” she says. “As a queer woman wearing this suit, dressed as my own, I feel proud to represent how my family and I feel inside. Putting it on felt both intimidating and empowering.”
Yet for all that she’s processed about her life as a queer, Mexican American woman in the United States — where the Latinx community faces increasing hostility under the Trump administration — Mendoza is no Pollyanna about returning to her parents’ country. “I’m certainly aware of the patriarchy, classism, racism and what is considered matriarchal within different regions,” she notes. “But I also see a community coming together and starting to talk about these uncomfortable issues within the country. … The wounds are alive and are different from those in the U.S. [There is] so much beauty and powerful insight from my peers in Guadalajara, creating, making art, and fighting for positive changes.”