A Talk with Lila Downs

Mexamérica / dossier / Mayo de 2018

Mardonio Carballo

Traducción de: Lacey Pipkin


From where does one come, where one is born or where one dies? From where does one come, where one’s umbilical cord is buried, or where everything else will be buried? Every tree is the ground that feeds it, every flower is the mineral subsoil that gives it scent and color. Every tree sings through the syringe of the birds that live in it. In flight is the path, but also the cross; childhood is destiny, say the classics, but also the origin, and that is well known by the members of indigenous pueblos. We know it. But the sky opens. Not long ago, a study endorsed by the INEGI 1 reported that in Mexico the color of one’s skin conditions or limits one’s possibilities of getting a good job. According to said study, those of us—those like me—with dark complexions have fewer opportunities to find good jobs and good pay. The ground of our pride is also the ground of our burden. To wear the color of the ground has its cost. This is why to militate becomes necessary. To speak of Mexican racism becomes most urgent.
Twice I tried to escape from my pueblo, but my mother found out and they gave me a couple of good beatings. They grabbed me by the hair, I laughed. You suffered so much, Ma, she says to her. By this time it has become clear that our characters are mother and daughter.

Her name is Anastasia but she likes to be called Anita, and she is Mother to perhaps the most important singer from Mexico at this present moment; she sings the same in China as in Buenos Aires, in Paris or in Colombia. Her first name has shades of paint and flower, her last name pulls from below while her fame grows like foam. We are speaking of Lila Downs. Our appointment begins in the land of the coyotes, Coyoacán, in Mexico City. Anita greets us with a smile; she is diminutive, her hair kinky and black; she is perhaps around 80 years old. Benito, her grandson, plays with dolls that resemble his mother, collected by his grandmother.

I’m making tea. Lila has come from the north and you see, it’s so cold there, she is sick. Ah, how they celebrate her there!

She is right. I few years ago I happened to be with Lila Downs in Los Angeles, California. At the mere mention of the words mezcal, México or Oaxaca, our compatriots living there howl with excitement. It is nostalgia at the service of memory. As well as the impeccable sound of the band that accompanies her, that grows with her voice. Our chat is interrupted, it is Lila Downs who says, “it looks like a muxe”;2 she speaks to Benito, her son, who at that moment plays with one of the doll-sculptures that some fans give Lila at each concert. Yes, it has a man’s face, says Benito. Many years have passed since that appearance at the Oscars next to Caetano Veloso, the Brazilian singer with whom she collaborated for the soundtrack of the film Frida; there, during that broadcast, the world fell at her feet. Blue caught fire. Her Burn it Blue. When one listens to Anita, Lila Downs’s mother, speak, if one sharpens one’s hearing, one realizes that Spanish is not her first language. Yes, the mother of Lila Downs is Mixtec, or Ñuu savi, a member of the pueblo of the rain; perhaps for that reason Lila Downs’s voice is pristine as the water that falls and joyful as the cicadas that invoke the rainy season with their song. The throat, for her, is an instrument to be tended; she approaches the table where Anita has prepared a bucket of steaming water with herbs; she leans her face toward it to receive the benefits of the plants. The bird prepares itself to fly. We will follow Lila’s steps before her concert at the Centro Cultural Teopanzolco, in Cuernavaca. Our chat begins in the van that transports us there. We are preparing a new book, The Indian Power Book, soon to be published. In it will be many of the figures that come from indigenous pueblos and that give identity to a country that rejects them. Or, that rejects their peers who do not enjoy fame and prestige. Although many of them—of us—are ignorant of our family trees that are full of grandmothers and grandfathers who are members of Mexico’s indigenous peoples. It’s only a question of climbing down. On a daily basis, we refuse to look at our own navels. But the response is beneath the soil we tread. The best memory is that of the ground, and there are our bones. The case of Lila is paradigmatic. It has two roots. Her testimony is important, given that there is discrimination against her that, as it moves in reverse, reinforces our everyday misogyny, our racism, our prejudice. She is begrudged the indigenous part of her. It is her last name, Downs, inherited from her United States-born father, that is given weight, even for the hate it provokes. Anita, the Mixtec mother, seems not to matter. Oh, Mexico. Nevertheless, she embraces her two paths through the sky with all her foliage. And she does it singing. Below I share Lila Downs’s words, that thread together like a flower necklace

Photography by Marcela Taboada

On Racism

In my pueblo discrimination emerges towards my yankee father, I remember that graffiti would appear on our house saying, “Go home Yankee,” and every week there would be more. At school, with the mestiza community of Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca, which curiously is surrounded by indigenous communities, the idea persisted that they were culturally and also racially superior, even though—it’s comical—everyone is the same as you and me, but they feel they’re a little more lofty. When I studied opera at the University of Minnesota, there was a blond, blue-eyed woman; my singing professor would tell me, Watch how she does this, she does this very well! In reality, he was telling me, If you were like her things would go very well for you! I tried dyeing my hair blond, and on one occasion when I was blond, I remember that in Minnesota they would say to me, How pretty, you’ve burned your skin! They thought I was sitting in tanning beds.

On the Dead and Other Worldviews

My mother would speak of my grandmother, my grandmother would speak of her pueblo, her pueblo would speak with the dead and would talk to me about these things, which were very mysterious, about the existence of a different world. Aunts and uncles would come to visit us, my grandparents on my mother’s side of the family, who are Mixtec, most of them came from San Miguel el Grande, which they call the Pueblo de Nahuales.3

On Migration

I am a person of constant nostalgia. My essence is that of a migrant and that is very characteristic of my pueblo: we travel a lot. We search in different ways for how to get ahead. I went to kindergarten there, in Tlaxiaco; I think it took two years. I went to almost all of elementary school there. Middle school I also did entirely in Tlaxiaco; then for high school I went to Oaxaca and then I went back to Minnesota for university, where I studied anthropology and music.

On the Recording Industry

The people from records labels are only interested in selling, and if they see that an artist sells records, that person becomes interesting. What we found is that, in the United States, our music was a little better received than in Mexico. In my case, I decided at one point to make socially conscious songs; you have to know what’s happening, what verses to compose to talk about what is coming to pass. Sometimes people want to hear it and sometimes they don’t; sometimes they do want to listen but the record label is afraid to promote it—I’ve seen it all. Then the record label opts to support someone famous. Then, you have to see how you can do it yourself; the record label doesn’t promise to always put you first.

On Women

We have to watch little girls, young women, to make sure that they value themselves and that, at a certain stage of vulnerability, they also have support—we have to look for ways to create centers of support for women.

On Indian Power

Sometimes I still feel like a little girl from my pueblo. Sometimes I tell myself I’ve done a few things that have had a positive influence. That really pleases me. For more people to wear huipiles,4 to use their rebozos with pride. For more women cooks to feel pride at being women from the lowest part of Mexico with an important legacy. That truly pleases me!

We arrive at the end of our stretch of the highway. Morelos smiles, despite the tragedy in which it is submerged. We accompany Lila Downs to the soundcheck for her concert. She requests one tone lower, another higher. We watch her direct the orchestra. I want “La Llorona” to become a lament like those at small town festivities, she says. Kindly, she sends us to the hotel. Five hours before the concert, between makeup, hairdo and concentration in her dressing room, she no longer leaves the areas near the stage, where an avid public will roar with her songs a few hours later. Everyone rests, except her. Agua de rosas dame de beber, she says.5 That is why Lila is what she is.

I left my pueblo at the age of 14. Says Anita. But I do not speak of myself, I speak of her. I say. I had to marry to be able to leave my town. Says Anita. You suffered so much, Ma. Says Lila. I also left my town when I was 14, but I’m not them. I say. Salud 6 with mezcal. Says Lila. Salud, we all say. Even for this country that needs it.

Tlazkamati miak. 7

Cover Image: Mural painting in Chiapas.

  1. INEGI stands for Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía, or the National Institute of Statistics and Geography. 

  2. The Zapotec culture of Oaxaca uses the term muxe to refer to someone who is born with biologically male characteristics but dresses as and adopts behaviors associated with the female gender. In Zapotec communities muxes are considered a third sex, rather than transsexuals or homosexuals. 

  3. In Mixtec folklore (and in other indigenous and mestizo traditions throughout Mesoamerica), a Nahual is a person with the supernatural ability to transform into an animal. 

  4. Huipiles and rebozos are embroidered blouses and woven scarf-like garments, respectively, that are traditionally worn by women in indigenous communities throughout Mexico and Central America. 

  5. Agua de rosas dame de beber is a lyric from Downs’s song “Agua de Rosas.” It means, “Give me rose water to drink.” 

  6. Salud, which means “health,” is a traditional toast in Spanish. 

  7. Tlazkamati miak means “many thanks” in Nahuatl.