The United States is undeniably in a state of crisis. So much has occurred in the past few months alone from the devastating massacre at an elementary school in Uvalde, TX, that killed 19 children and two teachers in one of the deadliest school shootings our country has seen in a decade, to the recent overturning of Roe vs Wade and the 36 migrants that were found dead in the back of a sweltering tractor-trailer in San Antonio, TX. The immigration conversation, in particular, has seen little to no progress. It’s a topic R&B singer Flores knows all too well. The Mexican American who grew up in the border town of El Paso, TX, has been using her music and platform to bring awareness to the injustices immigrants experience the second they cross the US-Mexico border. And it’s something she addresses in her debut EP, “The Lives They Left.”
“A lot of people don’t know what it’s like to grow up on a border, and people take for granted their experience if they didn’t grow up south of the border or toward the south, and the American southwest is very volatile when it comes to it’s politics,” Flores tells POPSUGAR. “I didn’t really know it was such a political thing growing up. I just knew as a child that the people across the border look like us but there’s a big border that divides us.”
Flores’s album serves as a homage to El Paso, to Mexican Americans, and Indigenous communities. But it also highlights the injustices that happen at the border. The tracks focus on her upbringing in El Paso and confront the cruelties immigrants experience. On tracks like “Sangre” and “American Dirt,” listeners can hear everything from CBP apprehensions to songs about discrimination.
“I think through the years, I learned whether it was Obama, whether it was Bush, whether it was Trump — they all had the same border policies. And over time, it wears on you,” she says. “CBP and ICE have a real presence in our communities, and a lot of people don’t know the feeling of militarization along the border, and my mom lives right on the border. You walk right down the street, and you can see it from the top of her house. So, it’s very important to us. “
Flores’s mom worked as a social worker and was an activist that led the Ni Una Más movement. The campaign addressed and fought against the femicide killings that continue to take place in Ciudad Juárez. Seeing her mother dedicate her life to social causes and to helping others deeply impacted Flores even when she didn’t really understand it. It also served as the inspiration behind the album.
Femicides, otherwise known as the intentional killing of women or girls, have been happening in the US-Mexico border cities of Chihuahua and Ciudad Juárez since 1993. In 2020, 64 femicide homicides were counted with nearly 1,500 in 2019. In 2021, femicides in Chihuahua increased by 34.7 percent and by 39.13 percent in Ciudad Juárez.
“My mom was a single mom, so she just brought us along with her whenever. Maybe some of the things we saw weren’t necessarily age-appropriate, but I do remember being at the university with a lot of different people joining forces to help the senator cross the border,” she says. “This was before the drug war, so they were able to cross — probably around 2004. It was a really long time ago, and a lot of the images that were shown were of women’s bodies that were thrown in the desert with no effort to cover up what they’ve done. This has persisted for many years and still goes on today. There were several women that were killed recently this year that are from El Paso. After the drug war, people stopped talking about it but it’s still quite pervasive.”
“Just because we’re Americans doesn’t mean it’s not our struggle.”
Flores learned at a very young age that just because she’s a Mexican American with citizenship doesn’t mean what happens to undocumented Mexicans that cross the border isn’t something she should be concerned about. “Just because we’re Americans doesn’t mean it’s not our struggle,” she adds. “We’re still not even seen as Americans. When we see kids in cages and we talk about femicides, we have to think how does that impact us? If they’re dying from an American gun, is it not our responsibility to monitor guns? It’s quite a political issue. But my mom has been part of that for many years. It’s been an honor, but it’s been a lot for her I think. She took in a lot.”
“Brown” is one of the most powerful tracks on “The Lives They Left” album. “So when they ask you where your people come from/when they ask you where your people come from 16,000 years we here/valleys stained of blood and tears/Mexica let them know/this is the land we sewn/laid the seeds that grow,” is the hook right before the chorus which goes: “Brown skin/Brown Love/we Brown people/With Brown Issues/Brown Skin/Brown Love/we proud people with Brown issues.”
Flores, who proudly identifies as an Indigenous Mexican American, grew up on the Tigua Indian Reservation in Texas with essentially the border wall in her backyard. She wanted to create a song that celebrates the power, the beauty, and also the struggle that comes with being a brown person in this world — but particularly a brown person living in the states. “‘Brown’ definitely pays homage to the fact that many of us don’t get the white pass. We’re not even identified that way. We’re considered ugly if we are dark-skinned or our proximity to it,” she says. “And I think it’s the closest song that I have to discussing our issues and within us and Afro-Latinxs, and Black Americans. We’re brother and sisters in this struggle, even though I feel sometimes our communities can be divided but we can also be a very powerful group if we came together.”
The Indigeneity conversation is one that has really taken off in recent years, but Flores feels it’s still nowhere near where it should be. We barely see Indigenous representation anywhere, whether it’s in Hollywood or in political roles. “I often worry about the fascination of Indigenous people on social media as more of a fetish,” she says while noting how many Latinxs of Indigenous descent often experience gatekeeping from identifying that way unless they have documentation to prove their tribe. “And then I think about how my mom would say, ‘no one would believe you’re Indigenous or that you’re of Indigenous ancestry unless you have a feather in your head,'” she says. “There are two-thirds of Indigenous people that belong to tribes that don’t live on their tribal lands, and that doesn’t make them any less Indigenous.”
They don’t want people to claim Indigenous because claiming the land would mean you have ownership of it in some way.”
Flores believes that the gatekeeping surrounding claiming Indigenous identity, whether it’s from Native Americans or Indigenous people of Latin American descent, not only harms Indigenous communities but perpetuates colonized theologies. “I think it needs to be aired out because a lot of people I know that talk about this don’t think there should be gatekeepers when it comes to how people choose to identify. Your identity is very personal to you,” she says. “And any time there’s a gatekeeper, it’s always with the guides of colonialism. They don’t want people to claim Indigenous because claiming the land would mean you have ownership of it in some way. I think you’d respect your land. You’d want more from your government if you knew you had an inheritance to it . . . There’s a colonial benefit to not claiming your Indigenous heritage.”
Flores finds the lack of representation of Indigenous folks across the board disheartening especially in regard to public office and entertainment. As much as she loved seeing Yalitza Aparicio in “Roma,” she felt bittersweet about the role. “I get into this conversation sometimes with friends because when I saw “Roma,” I loved it, but what I feared for Yalitiza the most is how she was pigeon-holed playing a maid. And this is a form of colonialism that was pushed on our families,” she says. “Will she get to play a CEO of a company? Will they ever reimagine who she could be as an Indigenous woman — especially as a very brown-skinned Indigenous woman? You want the representation but you don’t want to be a cliché. We don’t get a lot of reimagined roles for ourselves and that gets me.”
Flores discusses how colonized terms like “mestiza” don’t just prevent Latinxs of Indigenous ancestry to claim their indigeneity, but also perpetuate colonialism. “Just historically it’s a term from the caste system,” she says. “If we look at it objectively it’s a term rooted in hatred. It’s a term pushed on us to believe that because we’re so blended now we’re this superior race. We’re breeding the Indigenous out,” she adds. “I think for me, because my mom and my family still embrace it, it has to evolve. People have to evolve out of this. I think it’s a privilege to question your identity. I think it’s a privilege that we’re not all out here wondering how we’re going to get food for tomorrow. I don’t think my ancestors had the opportunity to question that because they were surviving.”
Keep reading to see what else Flores has to say about putting out music for her community and the deep need for more positive Indigenous representation.
POPSUGAR: How has music healed you?
Flores: Music has been a gift. I feel that because I do think that I’m gifted at storytelling. I have to use my ability to use this language that I’ve been given, one that my grandparents couldn’t speak, and use it to weaponize against the people that forced it on us. That’s what I feel my voice is made for. It’s a powerful thing to be able to speak English like an American. It’s a privileged place to be. So, I’m using that, and my voice and music has helped me find my identity more than I imagined it would. It’s part of who I am. I think I’m an oral storyteller. It’s probably some gift some ancestor had long down the road. It’s a vessel.
POPSUGAR: In terms of Latinidad, how do you identify?
Flores: I don’t really know. When it comes to Latinidad, I don’t know if I feel fully Latina because I don’t speak Spanish that well, and I feel Americanized in a way. I identify that way because I feel like that’s the box that I’ve been put in. I feel like I don’t even have a choice sometimes because I tell people I’m Mexican American and they’re like, ‘so you’re Latina.’ So, it’s just kind of a byproduct, but I don’t know if I necessarily feel Latina. To be politically correct, it would probably be Mexican-American of Indigenous descent. That would probably be the best thing for me.
POPSUGAR: Is there an Indigenous celeb that you love that you feel doesn’t get enough shine and respect?
Flores: All of them . . . But I was thinking about Selena Quintanilla because she was one of the most Indigenous-looking women that was in mainstream music at that time, and she was never allowed to sing at the Grammys in Spanish. And the first woman to sing at the Grammys in Spanish was Rosalia. I cried because I was like, ‘Selena sold out at the astrodome twice but she wasn’t allowed to sing in Spanish at the Grammys.’
POPSUGAR: What do you love the most about being from El Paso?
Flores: I suppose I love the fact that El Paso has been able to retain a lot of its culture. A lot of migrant people have had to leave a lot of things from their homelands. And every year that I come back, there’s more and more Indigenous roots that come from south of Mexico to El Paso, and I see more and more Indigenous people, and it makes me so happy because I see how we have persevered through oppression. We’re still here. We still eat our food. We still speak Spanish. However, you want to look at that. I think there’s a lot to be said about people who can ride through so much and still be humble and strong and not hateful or resentful. I’m very lucky to be from there in some respects.
POPSUGAR: What’s the last movie you saw?
Flores: “The Last Black Man in San Francisco.” It’s magical. It’s a nearly all African American cast. And it is told from a truly African American standpoint. And the white people almost don’t really exist, and if they do, they are sort of an afterthought, the way people of color are often depicted in film.
POPSUGAR: What’s the last book you read?
Flores: Actually, the last book I read was “You Sound Like a White Girl: The Case For Rejecting Assimilation” by Julissa Arce. I was excited to read it. I’m a privileged Mexican American, so I didn’t see the perspective of what it is to live the American dream when we’re almost the same background. It gave me the lens of what she and her family went through, and it was something that we as privileged Mexican Americans don’t get to see if it’s not in your family — being undocumented.
POPSUGAR: What’s the last show you binged?
Flores: “Stranger Things.” It was so good, but I will say it lacked diversity. I will say that.
POPSUGAR: What was the last song that you listened to?
Flores: I listen to soundtracks a lot. I was listening to “Jacob and the Stone” from the movie “Minari.” I love soundtracks.
POPSUGAR: What’s the last piece of advice you received that changed your life?
Flores: My mom and I were discussing the differences between empathy and sympathy. She was telling me empathy is when you connect with people and sympathy causes more disconnection because it’s like pity and it can be hurtful to another person. I think learning the difference teaches you how to love people better.
POPSUGAR: What do you think your purpose is — your sacred contract?
Flores: I’ve never been asked this question. It’s probably the biggest question I’ve ever been asked in life. I hear a lot of people say they were born to do music. I think I’m here to help facilitate or be a vessel of a message from my people, of my ancestors and our struggles. I feel like I’m telling the stories they were never able to tell, and I have so many to talk about. My great-grandfather was murdered and lynched by a Texas ranger, and it’s a story that we have found with documents now. But it was a rumor with misinformation for years throughout our families. And finding his grave — well, really a pile of graves — and going on that journey. Learning who his murderer was. And we’re hoping to put that story out there in the future but also the lost history of Mexican Americans who are part of this history. I feel like I’m here to tell their story, who were buried under a pile of rocks with no names on it and didn’t get to live the life that I get to live. I just feel like a vessel for that.
Image Source: Tim Worthington