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Le Ra’s Mónica Mendoza is building communities of women and musicians that blur borders.
Mónica Mendoza is constantly in motion. She fronts the cross-border indie band Le Ra (and performs in several other projects in San Diego and Tijuana) and founded GRRRL Independent Ladies, a collaborative that aims to bridge San Diego, Los Angeles and Tijuana-area women and non-binary musicians, and empower them to create and share art. Her passion and prowess landed her a 2017 Best of San Diego People nod from CityBeat, and she has built a reputation inspiring musicians on both sides of the border — and booking their shows, encouraging the steady exchange of music across the U.S.-Mexico border, particularly among women.
To understand why the border — and its music — matter to Mendoza, it helps to start with a border crossing decades ago. Her parents came into the United States in order to give birth to Mónica, granting her U.S. citizenship, but continued to live and raise their family in Tijuana.
“I grew up in Tijuana, and have been a frontera person since I was very little,” she said. The border has always played a major role in her life. “I’ve realized how much I want to blur that line that separates people,” Mendoza said.
She developed a love for music in Tijuana (“My dad was a musician, he’d sing ranchera around the house”). But at the age of 5 she was exposed to her older siblings’ favorite music videos, namely The Smiths and other Britpop. “It started to spark something in me,” she said.
Mendoza describes music as a form of activism, simply in that it’s a way that creative people express themselves. “There’s layers of how you can impact a community,” she said. She believes communities using a shared interest as a way to connect can dismantle the societal structures placed to divide. “You start to look at the border wall as an illusion,” she said. “You start to blur it.”
Founded in 2015, Mendoza’s GRRRL Independent Ladies helps bands set up shows, find places to stay, learn the intricacies of bringing gear across the border (she’s been known to bring musicians directly to immigration offices to walk them through it) and the geographic limits of visas in the United States and tourist permits in Mexico.
Mendoza advises U.S. musicians interested in playing in Mexico, or Mexican bands interested in playing in the U.S., to take stock of the gear they’ll need to bring, or seek out “backlines,” loaners from musicians in the destination cities. For American musicians, if the gear is more than one musical instrument — or more equipment than one individual can carry — the safest route is to officially register each item with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, using form 4457 and bringing equipment in-person to a local office for inspection.
Despite the help she provides other musicians, she said she hasn’t completely mastered the system herself.
“I’m still trying to figure it out, I think,” she said, citing trial and error and the privilege afforded to her with a U.S. citizenship. Still, she can offer her experience and understanding of the system’s ever-changing restrictions and enforcements. It’s Mendoza’s way of giving back to the community that helped her, and celebrating women and non-binary cross-border artists.
Mendoza and bandmates Ida Naughton, Maribel Luna and Luis Lopez set off for a tour of their own early next month. Le Ra plays a series of shows (alongside Elis Paprika and Los Hollywood) in the Mexican cities of Puebla, Mexico City and Cuautitlán, beginning April 3. While no stranger to touring, this will be the farthest Mendoza has traveled with Le Ra, the project she affectionately refers to as her “baby.” They launch the tour at Voodoo Stu’s in Tijuana on March 30, with a premiere screening of their mini-documentary.
Listen to “Silence” from Le Ra’s latest album, 2018’s “Limbs.”