IN LIFE there are no coincidences, and Luz Elena Mendoza’s first name is proof. The heart of Portland band Y La Bamba, Mendoza is a warrior of light, resilience, and creative ingenuity. Born singing mariachis of Michoacan in Southern Oregon, her haunting yet calming bluegrass folk vocals are rooted in Mexican tradition. Mendoza’s voice resounds with a profound sense of history, her guitar strumming soft but with gripping presence. Ojos del Sol, Y La Bamba’s fourth album, chronicles a deeply intimate journey of personal growth and perseverance. The record comes after a nearly four-year-long hiatus that Mendoza spent processing and healing from past traumas. The Chicana views her music and art as the bridge between her own experiences and the shared histories of her family and ancestors. Mendoza and I have never met, but recently discovered we are related by blood.
Throughout our conversation, nearly every question I ask slowly morphs into stories of Mendoza’s family. That’s because as much as this album is her story, it’s also equally her family’s. “Every time I make a record, I think of my family,” she says. “It’s for them. I always want to write music that they can understand and connect to.” She yearns for acceptance and reciprocation of her love, a theme constant in her music.
Mendoza feels the weight of the world on her soul, mourning her own losses with those of others past and present. Instead of becoming paralyzed, she has fought hard over the past years to free herself of anger’s grasp. This evolution in finding her sense of peace is marked in her verses throughout the album. On “Ostrich” she sings, “I may have lost all of my reason so I could love the way that I can.”
Mendoza’s capacity for love is vast. In many ways, Ojos del Sol is a plea to end the cycle of suffering. “I am constantly healing the oppressed through sound and energy,” she explains. “Music for me is my diary and philosophies. I’m growing and people get to watch my evolution [through] music.” She equates her time away from Y La Bamba with a headache—something that came with no apparent rhyme or reason yet to which she had to succumb. We talk about the album being framed as a comeback. She laughs and says that emotional comebacks don’t exist: “People forget that music is healing in nature. Music is an extension of how I feel inside, and it’s my process. It’s so important for us to hold space when we need to.” When asked how she knew she was ready to make music as Y La Bamba again, she says, “The same way I knew I had to stop.”
As we share tales of our overlapping chronology, it becomes evident that the deeply sensitive Mendoza also holds boundless empathy for others. I joke about screwing the haters; she asks for their tolerance. I refer to toxicity; she refers to the darkness. Her language is intentionally wrapped in positivity, and it isn’t an act. She explains, “In vulnerability comes understanding. If you’re not vulnerable, then you won’t be able to hold space for another person.” Mendoza is also a dreamer. “I want to invite new ways to court one another [and] feel that there needs to be a revolution of change of how we are vulnerable with one another.”
Ojos del Sol is also an account of navigating identity and the duality of being Mexican American. She flips the script of being “half,” and instead tries to express how hard it is to house two whole identities as a woman who is 100 percent Mexican and still 100 percent American. It can be overwhelming, but she assures me that we are blessed in our duality. Like her music, Mendoza seamlessly swaps between English and Spanish as we speak. “When I sing in Spanish, I am singing the song of my blood. I feel that I am not alone. I sing [to my family and ancestors]. I see them there.” She pauses. “When I sing in English, it’s where I connect everything. It [represents] the gift of knowing another way to think and express, and having the opportunity to think for myself [having been] raised in America.”
Creating music and art is second nature to Mendoza. “I am driven by a force que no soy yo,” she reveals, alluding to the pull she feels beyond herself. Built into the album’s Kickstarter campaign were resources for Mendoza to produce a series of visual art pieces for each song. The intricate, hand-cut stencils are both powerful in imagery and delicate in durability. What began as an inexplicable desire to make kites on tour slowly evolved into yet another form of expression mastered. “It was a mirror,” she says. “Whenever I was hard on myself, doing my art made me more free in my music. They were buddies that needed each other.”
Mendoza continues to undo grief, and sees the pain she’s endured as a guide toward strength and compassion. Pain has been her teacher, and this album celebrates her countless triumphs. While she warns “There is a danger to stay asleep when one is alive,” in “Ulysses,” she hopes that her words can awaken others to their own value and strength. Above all else, Ojos del Sol pushes listeners one step closer to a world where we’re all connected and loved.