Edna Vazquez doesn’t like being boxed in: “I look forward to a day when we can drop the labels and everyone can be who they are, regardless of gender identity, sexual orientation, skin color or cultural heritage,” she says matter of factly when asked about the role her sexual orientation plays in her music.
It’s a straightforward answer to a straightforward question, but one that doesn’t explain the myriad influences that have marked both her personal and professional paths: Edna grew up in Jalisco, Mexico, but was banished from the country by her family when she came out as gay (she now resides in Portland, Oregon); her 1998 performance in Mariachi Los Palmeros made her the first female vocalist and vihuela player in the Pacific Northwest; she competed – and occasionally won – TV talent contests like Sabado Gigante and Tengo Talento, Mucho Talento; and earlier this year, she sang "Sola Soy," the title track from her 2016 album, on NPR’s Latin Roots.
We spoke to Edna about her life, her art and the future of Latinos, women and queer musicians. Here’s what she had to say.
Your influences range from folk to rock to pop to mariachi. Where did you acquire all of those tastes?
I have been touched by so much music, both in Mexico and in the U.S., and my music is a cresol – the culmination of my experiences, emotions and influences in this life. Sometimes people ask me about which influence is most important or which style is my favorite. In all reality, I connect with music not because of the style, but because of an emotion, a message, an inspiration. It is just how it has always been for me since I was a young girl. Since I began composing original music, I have found that it allows me to transcend the boundaries of style and connect directly to others.
Portland, Oregon isn’t the first place that comes to mind when people think of Mariachi music. How did you land in Portland and does it have a bigger Mariachi music scene – and Latin music scene, in general – than one would assume?
It’s true that Portland has a reputation for being one of the whitest cities in the U.S. But it’s a growing city, and there is definitely a Latino community here, which means that there is music. When I moved to Hillsboro, a suburb of Portland, from Mexico at 17, singing with a Mariachi band was one of my first jobs. It gave me a chance to practice singing and make a living. My experience as a Latina in an all-male band also taught me to stand up to misogyny and sexism and gave me the strength to be a bandleader.
So how did people react to seeing you sing Mariachi when you started?
Some people were surprised to see a woman playing in a Mariachi band, but I got a lot of positive feedback that it was inspiring to see. It was an overall struggle that left me feeling appreciated at times and rejected at others. Before it was about my acceptance as a woman in the band, but now that I am recognized in the Latino community for my ability to sing Mariachi, the rejection I feel is when people ask me to perform only traditional songs and do not respect my original music. Everyone has their own perspective, and each day, each concert, I connect with new people who value what I do. Mariachi music was not an easy path by any means. I learned how to play the vihuela on the spot at a gig, because that was the expectation if I wanted to stay in the band. I constantly had to prove myself to the guys, to stand up for my rights and equal pay.
And how do people react to you now, nearly 20 years later? Has anything changed for female musicians in male-dominated styles?
Today I think that it’s a little easier for a woman to be able to play this role in Mariachi music, but machismo is still alive and well. I have a deep respect for other women, and people of all genders, who continue to stand up and push the boundaries of our culture.
Speaking of genders, many in the Latino community have struggled with accepting their LGBTQ brothers and sisters. What has been your experience both as a queer Latina and as an artist?
Each day, I meet people who share their stories of resilience and struggle. That makes us real and teaches us to learn from each other and overcome our limits. As an artist, I see myself as a constant reflection of those experiences and emotions. No one is inferior or superior, and each of us has something unique to share. We need a reminder of that every single day ... both the judge and the judged.
You’re playing at Joe’s Pub, a beloved and very intimate New York music venue this weekend. Do you ever get stage fright, and, if so, how do you conquer it?
Yes. I am excited to play at such a renowned venue and to be invited by Mariachi Flor de Toloache. Earlier this year, Mireya Ramos played violin with my band for a couple of concerts, and I joined her band for a couple of shows later that week. About stage fright, my ritual comes from the inside. I imagine that I am alone and meditating when the music and lyrics begin. Performing is a cathartic experience for me, an opportunity for me to heal and connect emotionally with my audience. Somehow, I always find a place where I am able to synchronize and engage.