Born Lizette Gutierrez, Los Angeles-based Mexican-American musician San Cha has mastered the art of defying tradition by employing the exact tropes that define it. Her name alone will begin to give you a strong idea of who she is.
A play on Spanish words — san means “holy” and sancha means “mistress” — the artist says the irony within the name is intentional. Much of San Cha’s work reflects both an overwhelming love and respect for her traditional Latinx-Catholic upbringing, as well as her disdain for its misogynistic and homophobic restrictions.
Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, San Cha started her musical endeavors singing in the church choir at 12 and later learning to play guitar. She moved into electro and lo-fi alt sounds as she grew into adulthood. After experiencing a quarter-life crisis of sorts at 27, the artist “ran away” to Mexico and ended up at her aunt’s farm in Jalostotitlan, Jalisco.
“I left to Mexico because the Bay was just, like, pushing me out,” says San Cha with a hint of melancholy in her voice as she reflects on that time. “I had a falling out with this mentor…[who] turned out to be kind of very abusive, not physically, but mentally abusive…. I was working, promoted like three clubs, and performed like three times a week—and still didn’t have any money. And I was drunk all the time.”
That was 2014. She then hatched a plan to go to Mexico and realize her vision to write an epic, modern, and highly conceptual musical incarnation of the telenovelas she grew up watching. It was there that she also discovered her true musical passion: ranchera.
Though the music favored by Mexican fieldworkers and dominated by male musicians may seem a strange choice for an artsy queer Latina from San Francisco, San Cha says her aunt “who never married or had kids” and was still living on the family farm helped guide her toward it.
“She said, ‘You need to start singing ranchera! I don’t know what you’re doing singing that music out there, and it obviously didn’t do shit for you because you’re here, broke, and your clothes are tattered,’” recalls San Cha with a laugh. “So I went through her iPod…. I would imitate the sounds with, like, synthesizer sounds…if it was mariachi singing or something, I would do all the voices.”
After falling in love with the style and testing out the material singing in the streets of Mexico City with a neighbor, San Cha eventually got sidetracked with recording an EP (the critically acclaimed Capricho Del Diablo), and the telenovela idea got put on the backburner.
“I ran away with the intention of finishing the telenovela, but my visual ideas were too grand for that time, so instead I wrote a whole new album and let this idea sit for a little,” she says. Everything changed when Red Bull approached her in 2018 about participating in a music festival they were putting on.
“They told me they wanted something that mixed art disciplines and practices — and I said, ‘I have just the thing.’ So in two months, I finished writing 13 songs, learned the music with a full band, and finished the full story. We performed it like an opera-theater telenovela at [St.] Vibiana’s Church [in LA] that included visuals, movement, fashion, a runway, floral decorations, sophisticated lighting, and high, overacting drama. This was the first time that I wasn’t told that my ideas were too grand, or that I was asking for too much.”
San Cha explains the choice of using telenovela was purposeful, a commentary on the oppressive gender roles that can exist in Latinx communities. “I was thinking about the telenovela showing a lot of abuse and glorifying it,” laments the artist. “You know, and just thinking about my aunts, too, who have gotten married with men who are just, like, so violent—not only toward them but my cousins and the rest of the family. And they still stand by them. [They feel] this is their cross to bear.”
The final result is La Luz de La Esperanza — an exceptionally unique, artistic, and moving stage telenovela and conceptual album that celebrates the musician’s journey from cultural oppression and domestic violence to a flourishing freedom as a queer woman of color, making for a woman for all of us to watch in 2020.