The singer for Portland's abstract folk band Y La Bamba, Luz Elena Mendoza, opens her song with a reference to a trip to India that Mendoza took a decade ago, one that initiated an unintended spiritual journey that even today haunts the statuesque Mexican-American and native Oregonian.
Her cool voice is heavy with the weight of the lyrics as she sings: "I was found in southern Asia in a river filled with dust and gold. There they had taught me how to grieve when I was broken."
In an interview with the Source, Mendoza explained, "That [river] was the Holy Ganges. Being there was one of the first times I felt like I was exposed to the world in a different way. I felt like I left my heart there."
Raised a strict Catholic in Medford by her immigrant parents, Mendoza was handed a belief structure early in life. Last year, just before releasing her band's third LP, Court the Storm, she talked with Oregon Music News about that part of her past.
"It was not just a religious philosophy. It was the food I ate and the smells I smelled," she said.
But the trip to India ended up changing everything. So much so, Mendoza has an anatomically correct heart boldly tattooed on her chest as a memorial to that expedition.
"I love getting tattoos," said Mendoza, "but that one was me marking a time in my life of walking away from religion, from being a Christian. At that point I felt completely disillusioned from my time in India. My intention was to get closer to God, and when I came back I was stripped of everything. I realized there was so much more."
For the last 10 years, that experience has colored more than just her approach to spirituality; it's manifested in her songwriting as well. Once Mendoza moved to Portland and formed her current band, Y La Bamba, she had a vehicle with which to tackle her enigmatic musings on life.
"It's how I work things out," said Mendoza. "For me because there are thing that you've already gone through, things you will always remember. When I write I come up with conclusions. People affect me and I'm inspired by their reactions and what's going on in the world."
No matter how expansive Mendoza gets with her exploration of what she believes and the things that happen to her, she knows there is a part of her she cannot and frankly will not deny.
"There is a part that never changes," explained Mendoza. "What is evolving is me cracking into the world as I get older. The kind of change that everyone strives for, to be a better person. I am the Latin American Chicana. I can't run away from that. When I write or interact with the world, that will always be there. It's crazy to know two cultures so intensely."
The 31-year-old embraces both that stoic Mexican-American heritage and evolving spiritual truths with music that integrates as many whimsical Latin influences—like accordion and Spanish guitar—as it does dark shiftiness. Y La Bamba strikes happy notes with fanciful folk ditties like "Squawk" from Court the Storm, and yet other songs—like "Death on the Road" from Oh February—use tribal drums and mournful piano to track more toward a serious introspective journey.
"I think hindsight and perspective have been my allies through all of these journeys," said Mendoza. "I've learned that a lot of the music is the voice of new self-awareness. I feel pretty solid about the things I've come to realize."
Y La Bamba
6:30 p.m. Saturday, July 6
Backstage at the Les Schwab Amphitheater
344 S.W. Shevlin Hixon Dr.
Tickets $8.50 at The Ticket Mill