Sandra Lilia Velasquez grew up in San Diego, the daughter of an immigration lawyer single-parent mother. Her childhood was saturated with consciousness of the border, of the struggles facing recent immigrants, and of the dangerous lives of political refugees and dissidents. Today, she lives and works in New York City, where she has founded a four-piece band called Pistolera, dedicated to bringing the messages of her childhood and her people to the world through lively, danceable songs with vivid political points. This weekend, Pistolera will play a series of free concerts: at the Isla Vista School on Friday, October 15, at the Royal Theater in Guadalupe on Saturday, October 16, and at the Marjorie Luke Theatre on Sunday, October 17. The concerts will also be the first presentation in the sixth season of Viva el Arte de Santa Barbara, a joint program of the three venues and UCSB Arts & Lectures, designed to bring high-quality performing artists representing Latino traditions to communities in Santa Barbara County for free. I spoke with Velasquez by phone last week.
How do you feel about outreach events like Viva el Arte, where you do free concerts for children and their families? It’s the most exciting aspect of what we are doing right now, even more so than playing clubs and festivals, because these are people who may not have the option of seeing us any other way. For us to perform for people who don’t have access is crucial to what we do. We’re always trying to empower people and to bring a positive message about understanding our neighbors.
When I lived in New York, I absorbed a lot of salsa music by virtue of the fact that it was playing all around me. Does the music that you perform now, such as cumbia, fit that description for you? Yes, that is actually why I make the music that I do. I was born and raised in San Diego, and that’s how I feel about cumbia and these other musics that I make today. They were the soundtrack of my youth, and although the community of Mexicans is growing in New York, it is not near what it is in Southern California. So when I moved to Brooklyn, I was like, “Where are the songs I heard in the taco shops? And while we are at it, where are the taco shops?” In San Diego, I was never far from the music I grew up with, and so I took it for granted. I think if I had stayed there, I would probably still be playing in a rock band. But there was something about moving to New York and missing my family and my roots in the Mexican community of Southern California that led me to begin to compose in these styles.
You are just finishing a new album. What can you tell me about it? It takes so much work to make a record. This one is called El Desierto y el Ciudad and it’s about N.Y.C. and the deserts of Southern California and Mexico. We’re treating the record like a soundtrack to a movie that doesn’t exist, and we’re using it to address a situation that seems more and more common today, which is that people end up living simultaneously in two worlds. I was born and raised in this country, but for me, my two worlds are N.Y.C. and then the complete peace and solitude of the desert. The desert is the place where I get to actually be in the night. It never really gets dark here, and it’s never completely quiet. I love New York, but I use the desert as a place to clear my mind.
Pistolera will perform Friday, October 15, at the Isla Vista School at 7 p.m.; on Saturday, October 16, at the Royal Theater in Guadalupe at 7:30 p.m.; and on Sunday, October 17, at the Marjorie Luke Theatre at 7 p.m. For more information about these free family concerts, visit myspace.com/vivaelartedesantabarbara.