Portland indie band Y La Bamba doesn't serenade you at restaurants or feature a trumpet, and its members don't sport matching embroidered tuxedos. Its resemblance to a mariachi band is more subtle: emotive lead vocals, a plethora of stringed instruments, an accordion, songs of lament. Though her music is now rather folky, lead singer Luzelena Mendoza's past reveals an adoration of traditional Mexican singers whose influence on the band is undeniable.
"When I was a little girl I loved mariachi and the conjuntos and all the little trios and singing at church," Mendoza fondly remembers. It's hard to imagine Mendoza, six feet tall with striking tattoos scrawled across her shoulders and neck, as a small, pious child. But as she continues to resurrect memories, the picture comes into focus.
The singer grew up in sheltered Mexican communities, first in Michoacan and later in California and Oregon, and her list of childhood favorites sounds like a classic Latin jukebox medley: "Ramón Ayala, Los Madrugadores, Los Panchos, Los Dandys, Los Caminantes, Pedro Infantes, Pepe Aguilar, Javier Solís." During Mendoza's teenage years in the US, R&B entered her repertoire and prompted her to develop her voice. "I would sing along with mariachi stuff in the background because I loved the way it felt."
The reason she was entranced with Mexican singers in the first place? "I was born into it." Her dad was a fan of the accordion and someone who "always wanted to be the center of attention and sing his heart out." But her parents haven't always been supportive of her career path. "They didn't really know how to accept who I was. It's not like I'm half-Mexican or something—it was the real fuckin' deal. To see something like me come out of something that strict and thick and beautiful," she explains, referring to her conservative Catholic upbringing, "they were like, who is this?"
She pushed onward, dabbling in punk rock and working as a body piercer before creating Y La Bamba with fellow Portlanders in 2003. Mendoza writes most of the band's songs, dipping into legends and stories as much as her own personal experiences. Recently, for instance, she wrote a song called "Lamento de Madre," which juxtaposes her own mother with the famous Mexican legend of "La Llorona," the crying woman, whose wails of grief over her children's deaths plagued waterways in Mexico and Central America.