Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Lila Downs: censura, mujer y el indigenismo en Oaxaca

photo via liladowns.com

I love Lila Downs. I first saw her about three years ago when my colleague invited me over to her loft on the Lower East Side for dinner and this lovely woman with long braids and a Mexican blouse over jeans came out the front door. My colleague waved and then said to me sotto voce, "That's Lila. She's very sad because she and her husband really want to start a family."

What she didn't mention in her haste to pass along some gossip was that Lila Downs is a wonderful singer from Oaxaca, a fact I discovered last summer when I heard her music while I was in Mexico and bought several of the CD's which I then played constantly at work last fall. This went on for weeks before my colleague asked me if I remembered meeting Lila. It took me a minute to realize that the singer and the young woman who wanted to start a family were one and the same person. My colleague went on to regale me with the news of her adoption of a young boy, how she hears Lila and her husband Paul rehearsing with the band when they are infrequently in New York City, how she gets free tickets to the NYC concerts but never goes because she's too busy, etc., etc., etc., with me open-mouthed all the while.

In addition to Spanish and English, Lila Downs often sings in the indigenous languages of Mexico. I was anxious to see her when she had a two-night gig in New York in March but unfortunately was out of town those days. She's just finished up a stint in Mexico and apparently will be in Europe this summer, so I won't be able to see her in Oaxaca, either. But I've got four or five of her CD's on my iPod, and she's one of the singers I listen to for help with Spanish.

She gave an interview to a Michoacan newspaper last week and spoke about the three issues that concern her most: censorship of the press and artists, women's rights, and the problems faced by indigenous people in Oaxaca. The article's in Spanish, so I am excited that I was able to read the whole thing without resorting to my dictionary or Google Translate. I plan to translate it word-for-word as an exercise, but the gist of the interview is as follows:

She speaks about growing up Mexican-American and not being in tune with her heritage, even rejecting her indigenous identity and feeling no sympathy for her mother and grandmother who both spoke indigenous languages. Through music, she came to embrace the Mexican half of her heritage, and she incorporates many traditions and languages in her performances.

She notes that although statistically things seem to be better in Oaxaca for journalists and artists than they were a decade ago, there are still groups like organized crime, a government who can act with impunity, and brutal military and police who have a vested interest in oppressing any kind of dissent.

Indigenous people make up a third of the population of Oaxaca state, and of those, half live in Oaxaca city while the rest live in some of the poorest and most marginalized communities in Mexico. Life is especially hard for women, who are victims of centuries of machismo, and consequently for their children, who suffer from high rates of malnutrition, sickness, and, if they live to be old enough, eventual illiteracy.

Many of the concerts she gave in Mexico were with the Oaxacan band Tierra Mojada to benefit the scholarship fund of Guadalupe Musalem (more on them in the next post) to help young Oaxacan women continue their education.

So that's my very basic understanding of what she was saying. If you want to read a more accurate version in Spanish, click on the link below:

Lila Downs: censura, mujer y el indigenismo en Oaxaca: "Lila Downs: censura, mujer y el indigenismo en Oaxaca, Lila Downs habla de la censura, la mujer y el problema de indigenismo en Oaxaca."

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