When Luz Elena Mendoza was about 13 years old, she snuck out of her parents’ house and entered a talent competition where she came in second by performing a song written using only the instrumental track off the back of a cassette single. Mendoza doesn’t quite remember which song was used, but she’s pretty sure it was something from the ‘90s R&B Holy Trinity: SWV, Brandi and Aaliyah.

“I was writing songs … with whatever I had,” Mendoza said. “If DMX put a song out … I would look for whatever was good and juicy, whatever had a beat, hoping they didn’t [include] their choruses.”

This need to express and create has never gone away for Luz Mendoza. She’s had a very prolific career spanning well over a decade, writing songs through many musical projects and across genres. But the one band she is most known for, Y La Bamba, also happens to be the musical equivalent of a diary.

“I grew up listening to a lot of traditional Mexican music. My dad loves Ramon Ayala,” she said. “Expressing in that emotional, raw way was natural. Without even realizing, I was feeding and nurturing this spirit that’s been with me since birth.”

Luz Mendoza was born in Redwood City, California, to Mexican immigrants from a Sister City in Michoacan. The promise of steady work in the lumber industry relocated her family once again to Medford, Oregon, while Mendoza was still an infant. Growing up, Mendoza’s desire for a bigger and more creative life often butted up against her family’s devout Catholic faith. Although she’s been able to gather strength in her Mexican heritage, Mendoza didn’t have many peers who shared her cultural background or developing interests.

“Being surrounded by all this noise and growing up as a Mexican-American, and being the only one, I was like, ‘their Mexican friend,’” she said.

Moving to Portland in 2007, Mendoza immediately immersed herself in the local music scene. And slowly, her bedroom four-track project became a fully realized band, Y La Bamba, that has since released five full-length records. We sat down and went through her discography, piecing together the ongoing thematic threads in her albums, and seeing how the evolution of her sound has culminated to the most forceful and self-possessed album Y La Bamba has put out to date, “Mujeres.”

“The emotional language behind what this is, I’ve been really wanting to share with my community and my friends,” Mendoza said. “So yes, I’ve been Mexican-American to you for the last 12 years here in Portland. However, there’s this emotional knowledge behind that. Because of how I was raised and what I’ve gone through … because of what I was trying to protect, I didn’t know that people had time for the emotional knowledge of who I really am.”

Mendoza’s songwriting no longer exists between the fractured emotions of singing in either English or in Spanish. Now, as Mendoza says, she just “lets that voice hang.”

Watch the performance from Y La Bamba — recorded at Portland’s Type Foundry Studio — in the video player above. Hear the interview below by “State of Wonder” producer Claudia Meza.

Credits:

Audio production: Nalin Silva, Steven Kray
Video editor: Jarratt Taylor
Videographers: Nate Sjol, Jarratt Taylor, Andrew Barrick
Interview: Claudia Meza
Executive Producer: David Christensen