Grammy Award-winning musician Lila Downs was born in Oaxaca, Mexico to a British-American father and a mother with Native-American roots. Later, she grew up in Minnesota where she formed happy childhood memories, though also experienced shame and discrimination for the first time.
“I grew up in a wonderful community that was very plural, though there weren’t too many Latinos,” she said when visiting Chicago to receive an honorary doctorate from DePaul University. “I remembered feeling uncomfortable because of the color of my skin and hair. Most people in Minnesota are of European descent.” But, she added, “the real discrimination happens when you cross the border. The way the agents look at you and treat you is a unique experience.” In Mexico, Downs also felt discrimination because of her background. “In Oaxaca they called me ‘la hija de la india y el yanqui,’ which means ‘the daughter of the indigenous woman and the Yankee man.’”
Her music, like her heritage, blends elements from many different cultures to create a sound that is all her own. She uses her gift for languages to perform and record songs in Spanish, English, Portuguese, and indigenous languages such as Mixtec, Zapotec, Mayan, Nahuatl, and Purépecha. By lending her voice to share Mexico’s diverse cultures, Downs has become an inspiration to many people.
Downs herself finds the strength to inspire others because, she said, “there are many people who inspire me constantly, and there are people who face constant adversity.” She especially admires “women here in Mexico who have definite influence on the culture in spite of all odds in terms of their education. There is the great healer María Sabina whose practices are based on Mexican herbs and the knowledge of our ancestors here in Oaxaca.” She also stays in contact with another healer, Enriqueta Contreras.
Downs certainly practices what she preaches when it comes to holistic healing. She announces her presence in any room first with the scent of Nag Champa oil. “Wearing essential oils really helps my mood swings… and any other uncomfortable situations.
“I love to sing for people, and that helps with my mood swings too – especially folk music. Folk music is the mother of all music. It’s the people’s music. I am very grateful to express my views through the music. Music can make people confront reality and confront themselves.”
If you need a little musical healing, enjoy her performance of “La cruz de olvido” (“The cross of forgetfulness”) recorded when she visited WFMT’s sister station, WTTW, and aired on Chicago Tonight. The piece has been performed by many important artists from Vicente Fernández to Chavela Vargas. Though there’s something particularly poignant about hearing Downs sing solo. The song is a wistful canción ranchera, a genre that predates the Mexican Revolution. It tells of someone who must leave a lover, despite how painful it might be, because ultimately, it is what is best for everyone in the end. Find a translation of the lyrics to the song here.
Collaborative arts programming is made possible by the Richard and Mary L. Gray Artistic Collaboration Fund.