Lila: The Voice We Haven’t Heard

By Jorge Valdivia

Years ago, while still working at the National Museum of Mexican Art, I had an opportunity to present Grammy and Latin Grammy winning artist Lila Downs in Houston, Texas, as part of the Sor Juana Festival there. I never imagined I’d find myself interviewing her years later. But here I am. I wanted the interview to not just focus on her music but to also touch on the other side of Lila, her activism and political views, the things we rarely read or hear about.

La Musica

A little over a year ago you did an interview for Gozamos when you had just released Salon, Lagrimas y Deseo. At the time, you were about to do a show at Ravinia and now you’re coming back to Chicago to do a show at the Auditorium Theater on November 9th.  Is it accurate to say that this is the last leg of your tour with this album, and, if so, what can audiences expect to experience when Lila takes the stage in Chicago?
Mariachi. This concert will be different because we’ll be performing with a mariachi. Mariachi Herencia de Mexico will be our guest artist. We’ve also been working on our new album and so we’ll be sharing some of our new material with Chicago. This is something we didn’t do at our previous show. I’m also excited about sharing a song I wrote about el chile, the chile we eat. It’s a fun song. We’ve also been experimenting with Cumbia Sonidera, which has been so interesting to experiment with so they can expect some of that, too. It’s going to be exciting sharing new material with our audience.

Since you are wrapping up your tour with this album, what has it been like sharing this album with the world?
The voice. It was a wonderful opportunity to showcase the voice in a sophisticated style because bolero is the standard for harmonic structures. There was also a very emotional connection to this album. The songs allowed me to touch on issues women can relate to, what we experience as women, issues that are impacting us right now. Now is the time of the woman.

 La Mujer

What do you mean by that?
Women are standing up for themselves. There’s a wide array of topics affecting us but there are also very positive things too. But I can’t help but notice that at the same time we’re regressing because abortion, for instance, is still at the forefront of a national debate. Not just in the United States but in Mexico. It’s just nice and empowering to see women marching and mobilizing and speaking out.

And I’m glad that it’s happening in Mexico too not just in the United States. We’re not talking here about how that movement looks there. But it’s happening. And I’m glad that women are speaking up. That’s why I say it’s the time of the woman.

Next album. Can we get an idea of what we can expect?
It’s a party music album! After a tour where music touched on so many emotional things, I really needed this upcoming album. It’s fun. It’s upbeat. It’s everything I needed. As I said earlier, there’s a song about el chile that I love. It’s a fun song.

But there’s also another song about violence. And what inspired me to write this song was thinking about this past election in Mexico, which has left some Mexicans really paranoid. People have been indifferent about the issues Mexico faces. We were just there and we noticed that there was this uncertainty in the air, among some. People asking themselves: Are they going to take away my money? What does this mean for me?  What’s going to happen? My response to that was this song. So, again, this song is about violence. But not how one would think. The thing is that when people are put down for so long, and they suddenly have power, what do they do. This song is about saying: I can be vindictive. I can be hateful. But I won’t be because I am above that. I am above violence.

Lila Downs (Photo by Jose Calvo)

Las Causas

Years ago, you shared a tribute video that was done for you of Muxes (Oaxacan transgender women) lip synching and paying tribute to you through the song La Cumbia del Mole. That sparked a lot of criticism from some of your fans. But a lot of people were also very supportive. What was your reaction to that?
We actually were the ones behind that video. We produced it. I think that was like two or three years ago. Basically, I wanted to make a point. Here’s why: It was brought to my attention that there are several transgender women that have imitated me. So, I thought it would be fun and interesting if they participated as me in the video. I liked the idea of creating confusion about who was really Lila. Taking away from my own importance. Also, I work with a lot of transgender women. There are a number of people behind the scenes who are transgender that work with me so it was very important and personal to me. Any opportunity I have to make people aware of the transgender community and their rights is important to me, especially now more than ever.

You’ve spoken out recently on Trump’s anti-immigrant, anti-Mexican agenda. In fact, you’ve been emotional at times. Would you mind sharing your views on the climate of Mexicans, the Latinx and immigrant community in the U.S. right now?
It’s a difficult situation to deal with. We just got back to the U.S. We’re now in DC. I have my braids, my dark hair. You can feel the tension. They stare at you with that “What are you doing here?” look.  In fact, I’ll share this with you: I was in New York City in Times Square and we were standing in front of a building waiting because we were working on something when suddenly some random individual asked me, “What are you waiting for? When are you leaving? Just take the picture and leave?”  He didn’t realize that I was there doing a promotion with Univision.  All he saw was someone who didn’t look like him and he felt the need to police me.

Lila Downs (Photo by Jose Calvo)

So many people believe that they are the superior race. How does one deal with that? I think it’s a good thing that they’re “coming out” because it lets us know who and what we’re dealing with. Unfortunately,  it also means there’s a possibility for confrontation and that can sometimes lead to violence. I’m not advocating for violence. I think there are civilized and peaceful ways of dealing with confrontation. But I ask myself if someone hits me because I’m dark because I’m Mexican, I ask myself if I would hit them back?

And then I watch the news coverage of children being separated from their families and being placed in detention centers, families being torn apart. It’s illegal! It shouldn’t happen. Which is why I decided to be part of something called The Lantern Tour, which is a series of concerts that raise money for migrant and refugee families. This tour allows me to share the stage with other artists in a Song Circle.

Now, I know this because I presented you in Houston, Texas, before as part of the Sor Juana Festival. But what your fans may not know is that before each show you need a quiet room where you can be alone for about 15 minutes uninterrupted. In fact, when I presented you it was included in your rider. Can you tell us about this? Why is this so important to you?

I think it’s a combination of elements. It’s about being a singer. Singers have to prepare before a show. And if we’re doing a show about a specific event or topic, we need to think carefully about what we’re going to say so that audiences can connect, so audiences can take action, if that’s required. And I think it also spiritual in the sense that all musicians connect to a place where we let go, we then become something that unifies us, it isn’t about our egos or ourselves. In fact, we lose ourselves and connect to something larger, to the universe.

El Gran Evento

Lila Downs will returns to Chicago Auditorium Theater on Friday, November 9th, at 8pm, alongside Chicago’s very own Latin Grammy nominated Mariachi Herencia de Mexico. If you’ve seen her before, I would encourage you to see her again and remind yourself why you fell in love with her music to begin with.

Now you have more than her music to connect to. Hopefully, you’ll also connect to some of the things she stands up for.

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