Y La Bamba Opens Up About Breaking Curses on “Lucha”
Luz Elena Mendoza Ramos of the alt-rock outfit Y La Bamba starts out talking about rain. “I feel like I’ve been going through my Saturn return for ten years,” they confide early in our conversation. “I’m in the eye of the storm.”
In some ways, it’s the perfect place to begin: Storms and rains are central to Lucha, Y La Bamba’s sumptuous seventh album. The disarmingly gentle opening track “Eight” invokes light summer showers. Shortly thereafter, “La Lluvi de Guadalajara” plays out like an interlude with ambient rainfall in the background. From there, Lucha picks up speed, becoming an intimate offering laced with spoken word poetry, where Luz embodies their vision in all its rawness: “Lay back/ or make a run for it/ hear me out for once/ I just want to let you know how I’ve been,” they say on “La Lluvi de Guadalajara.”
Even Lucha’s most uptempo songs — like the guitar-bolstered “Collapse” and psych-rock track “Walk Along” — channel a reflective mode. Radical honesty and directness take center stage here. “Hues”, which features the distinctive croon of Venezuelan freak-folk god Devendra Banhart, are made for slow-dancing and demanding respect (“I am no fool,” Mendoza Ramos sings in the refrain.) “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, an oft-covered country standard by Hank Williams, could not see their voice in a more tremulous mode. Lucha is more stripped back than Mendoza Ramos’ past records, like Mujeres and Entre Los Dos, but it might be their most intentional collection of songs to date. It deals in multiplicity, from reflections on queer love and nonbinary identity to existing between cultures, genders, generations. Even the name of the record invokes a double-meaning: lucha means struggle, but it’s also a term of endearment for femmes named Lucia — or, in this case, Luz.
“I’m all about synchronicity and symbolism; I didn’t just name an album after my nickname,” they joke. “It’s the perseverance in my resilience, and to fight.”
In a long-ranging Zoom call from Mexico City, Mendoza Ramos spoke to Rolling Stone about finding healing and radical softness, discovering new sounds, and breaking intergenerational curses through music.
This interview has been edited, condensed, and translated for clarity.
The name of this album is the Spanish word for “struggle,” but it’s also your nickname, right?
So there was this güerito in California — very, very American —and he used to call me “luchadora, lucha.” When I asked why, he said, in his little gringo accent “Lucha Villa! Her name was Luz Elena.” [Villa] was a mariachi singer. It turns out as a term of endearment — like Francisco and Pancho, like José and Che, like Eduardo and Lalo — a nickname for Luz and Lucia is Lucha. I never knew that. It started in 2017, and nobody called me that except him. Then when I moved to Guadalajara everyone would call me Luchinski, Luchis, Lucha… It wasn’t something I was imposing on anyone, but everyone called me that. I loved it, and just kind of adopted it.
So the meaning is sweeter than I thought! Definitely thought about it more in the context of struggle.
It is that, too. It is. That’s the reason why I named the album that; I’m all about synchronicity and symbolism. I wouldn’t have just named an album like, “Oh, it’s my nickname.” It just happens to be the perseverance in my resilience, to fight. Even before the first [pandemic] shutdown, I’m still the same fucker. I was still isolated. I had the opportunity to live by myself in Guadalajara. There was a lot of introspection, a lot of hyper-vigilance. I’m 40; there’s a lot of [unchecked shit] that my generation had to get used to from identity politics to gender politics, gender identity. The decades that I’ve experienced, and the evolution of my artistry as a Chicanx creative… Lucha is definitely apt.
There’s a lot of struggles inherent in the multiplicities that you’re talking about: you’re talking about questioning gender, looking inside yourself, cross cultural struggles.
It is. There’s a lot of heaviness. I wanted to highlight mental health and reach out to everybody, but speak to my generation. We’re hurting, especially dudes. Yes, women and queer folks too, but none of us had the outlets and the opportunity to be 22, 19, 25, 30 and ask ourselves “Who are we, where are we in this spectrum?” Even being non-binary and my queerness… there’s so many things that the generation before me paved the way for, as queer people. We all have to adjust. There’s new things there, things that are evolving, but there’s also a lot of scarcity and protecting certain things that got us to a certain point. So I have compassion, and then I know what I know. That stuff wasn’t available for us, so a lot of us are tired, but we’re like, “Yeah, the younger generation, fuck yeah!” I still get to benefit from those changes and being validated. Even talking about mental health and self-care.
Those things that you were made to feel were ridiculous are often the most important thing.
Our generation has been so gaslit. Even addressing those topics, not having access to boundaries and talking about mental health [is difficult]. Socially, I definitely was in mostly heterosexual and cisgender communities. I had queer friends, and I’ve always been queer, I just didn’t give myself the agency. I grew up in a very misogynistic household, and it gets heavier because of the communities I come from. Both of my parents come from el rancho. They weren’t school-educated; they worked the land. My dad crossed the border; he had to swim through the fucking river, undocumented until I was 14 years old. My mom grew up in a small humble ranchito with a bonfire and no fridge. They lived in the Valley, in California’s migrant camps. I was born in San Francisco, because it was the biggest hospital. Eventually they moved to Redwood City, [me and my siblings] had to do the whole translating for them while they pay their bills, stuff like that.
With all those influences in mind, I want to point out that I hear the attitude and rhythm and feelings of the bolero appear frequently on Lucha, particularly that beautiful track with Devendra Banhart “Hues.” Did you grow up with boleros, too?
I didn’t grow up with boleros. Boleros were around; just the other day someone who plays traditional son jarocho said boleros were the commercial side of the music in Mexico. The Panchos and Los Dandys were around, but there’s so much I don’t know. I don’t try to sound like anything. It just happens, and then I sit back and it’s like “huh.” I reached out to [Devendra] because he’s been an artist I’ve listened to since I was in my 20s.. I heard him on the radio and I was like, “What the fuck is this?” He was the first representation of something that wasn’t corridos or norteñas that was singing in Spanish. It was modern but folk — me clave de ese güey. He played a show at Crystal Ballroom in Portland, and he asked if anyone wanted to come up, and my friend forced me onstage and he acknowledged me. I’ve still been so intimidated, but I asked him during the lockdown, “Hey, do you want to do this song?” He said, yes, and it was easy. He just wrote some guitar, and I wrote the song, Ryan Oxford did the music. That’s the only song where he did the music, the main stuff like the guitars. Then, in Mexico, I added congas and wrote all the melodies. Devendra sang, adding his little magic.
Honesty is so imbued on this album in a lot of ways. It often felt like you tore out your guts to make it.
This record was really painful to make. I was dealing with misogyny, masculine fragility from really good sweet dudes — those are the hardest ones to deal with because they’re so nice. In order to understand the album, there’s the upbringing, the trauma, the domestic violence, the late bloomer, the PTSD, the fawning, the people-pleasing, the making myself small, not really knowing how to take space… A lot of people would not think that, but I know those nuances. I tried to find my voice as a producer because I didn’t have access to a lot of things at a certain point, or I hire the wrong musician. I’ve made my creative voice so small around men, even though I’m the one calling the shots. I really want to highlight how hard it is for women, for queer people and neurodivergent people like myself, trying to find their voice and how hard it is to progress when they’re trying to figure out their mental health and believe in themselves.
Moving to Mexico City, I decided to finish the record here. I started it in Portland and then I finished it here, and then I finished it with a beautiful, sweet community of Chileans and just dealing with unchecked masculine fragility here too. I don’t know how to talk about this…I want to protect people, but at the same time, I need to express it. I wish that I could hear from more women and queer folks, because you have to find the courage to just talk about it. And then there’s the creative choices: This record has been a very authentic part of my journey, but I can’t not listen to it and remember those details. It’s hard for me to celebrate my labor when I have that trauma.
I remember someone interviewed me not so long ago, they were like, “It doesn’t sound like the theme of trauma’s in there.” If you hear me talk about love, it’s because that’s me getting through it, coming face-to-face with my trauma and allowing myself to talk about this girl that I had feelings for and allowing myself to feel it. I get tired of the narrative of talking about ancestral trauma, butI’ve been talking about it for a long time because I’m trying to find new ways. I’m learning a lot, being in Mexico on a whole existential journey of what it means to be Chicanx, here, what space am I taking up, what conversations am I a part of? What am I supposed to nurture?
I’d like to tell you something that I did hear: softness. Even “Lluvi de Guadalajara, which is such a cleansing track, comes near the start. It felt like the listener had to cleanse spiritually before entering the world of this album. In so much processing of pain on Lucha, how do you land on such a soft note?
I think it’s just that I have arrived at a point where if I don’t show up for myself, I’m not going to make it. “Lluvi” is a dedication to my brothers and all misogynists. It’s me saying, “I wish you knew how to ask me how I’ve been, I wish you had the tools to check in on your sister, to check in on your daughter, but you don’t.” It’s a stage of healing and emancipating myself from grief. “Ojos Del Sol” was my little message in the bottle that I threw out to the sea; I had no idea that people were going to respond to it. I didn’t care about touring. That’s just my authentic sentiment. I’ve been a prolific writer since I was a little fucking morrita, and trying to give it a home, a safe space for my mental health. I’ve been sober for over a year and three months from everything. I’m trying to find my right queer community, my right fucking Chicano community, my right Latino community, the right people who can really nurture these uncomfortable conversations and hold me in the right way. My mom is now just starting to talk the domestic violence that she went through in her poetry.
I took the thanks in the album out, the credits, because to me it represented posturing to white people in the past, and I put my mom’s poem in there where she’s talking about how she was abandoned. This is our magic as children of immigrant parents who have had that struggle: the way that we live and carry conversations and make relationships with people and have experiences is trying to show up for our parents and give them space they never had. Even being in Mexico, I’m taking the space that they could never have here. It’s hella meta, and it touches a nerve.
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