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Hispanic Heritage Month

Voices: Why My Folk Rock Is Bilingual

Image: Elena Lacayo

Elena Lacayo, who started the folk rock band Elena & Los Fulanos. Ruben Jimenez

WASHINGTON, DC -- My bilingual folk rock has a complicated identity. Like me, sometimes it feels a bit schizophrenic. But don’t all of us bicultural kids feel that way?

I was born in the New Orleans, Louisiana to a family of Nicaraguan civil war refugees. When I was eight years old, after spending a number of years in Miami, my family decided to go to Nicaragua where I lived until I completed high school.

You could say that my transition was rough. Up until I moved, I was just like any other eight-year-old American Latina – I understood Spanish but only spoke English, I loved McDonalds, fruit roll-ups and marshmallows more than anything, and I was used to the comfortable world of air conditioned rooms, hot water showers, and clean streets to which the US had made me accustomed. The U.S. had been my only home and I was happy.

But my parents longed to return to Nicaragua. And so we went with them, leaving behind all that I knew and replacing it with a dirty, war-torn, scary land that was filled with bullet holes in buildings, cold showers, spiders, and strange smells.

As a scar of Nicaragua’s many years of Civil War and the U.S. embargo, the country was devoid of any restaurants, chains, or brands that I could recognize (not to mention that it was virtually impossible for me to find any of the snacks I so cherished). Everything was in a language I couldn’t speak. Everything tasted funny. I missed the U.S. so much and came to idealize it as the embodiment of perfection.

Years later, I finally returned to the U.S. to attend college in Indiana. But a great deal had changed about me. I was now fully bilingual, speaking and writing Spanish fluently. I had a more nuanced view of the U.S.; I had learned about our country's complicated role in Nicaraguan history. The food I once thought to be disgusting I now cherished, like my beloved quesillos (a Nicaraguan meal made with cheese and tortilla). I loved the warmth of Nicaragua’s people and the breadth of Nicaraguan culture.

People like me live in a grey area in between the two worlds that we straddle. We instinctively translate not only words, but also worlds, culture, humor, and points of view. We intuitively bridge misunderstandings between cultures because we simultaneously view our worlds as both natives and strangers. We can go from engaging in a heated political conversation about the U.S. and whether we measure up to our values in one minute to rebanando (Nicaraguan slang for joking) over a salsa dance in the next.

"While I have stated that the purpose of my music is to enhance diversity, I suspect it may actually play a larger role in helping me come to terms with the diversity of my own identity – one that is both 100 percent bonafide American and Pura Pinolera, Nicaragüense por gracia de Dios."

Now that I live in DC, I still have the opportunity to return to Nicaragua frequently to visit my parents, three brothers, and my extended family who still live there. I am not only fully bilingual, but also fully binational and bicultural.

We are true natives of both places, yet we don't feel completely at home in either one without the other home we carry with us. In 2006, I moved to Washington DC to work in social justice and quickly fell into working on immigration issues. I found the work compelling because it allowed me to serve a poor and marginalized population that spoke to my own family history. It was also a space in which my cultural and language skills were an asset.

It was during this time that I also really started writing music. I come from a musical family and have loved singing since the very beginning. I taught myself how to play guitar in middle school (during the regular power outages in Managua) and continued to play through college.

I was anxious to share my original songs with others but I was torn by the idea that I needed to choose a language in which to perform. I mean, I couldn’t write in both languages, could I? By the same token, neither language seemed right or complete to me. I didn’t know what to do.

Finally, after months of turmoil, I decided that even if it was difficult and unconventional, the only way to be true to myself would be to write in both languages because that is who I am. And so, with the help of some talented friends, who themselves came from different cultural backgrounds, I formed a band called Elena & Los Fulanos. Finally, about two years ago, I quit my job to spend more time on this project.

Earlier this summer, my band released its debut bilingual folk-rock album called Miel Venenosa. The songs are not only in English and Spanish, but they also include elements of different genres and styles within the folk traditions of both my cultures. For example, “Amor Migrante,” an immigrant mother’s love song to the child she left in her home country, is written with rhythmic Spanish-style guitars and even features some gritos. By contrast, the song “Carolina,” a folk-country tune with a rocking bass line and simple lyrics, showcases the quintessential American spirit that yearns to be independent and free.

Both of these songs, as well as the rest of the album, come from me. And while they are inspired from different worlds, I have to remind myself that they aren’t in conflict with one another – like the different parts of me, they exist simultaneously and in harmony. So, while I have stated that the purpose of my music is to “enhance appreciation of diversity in an increasingly multicultural world,” I suspect it may actually play a larger role in helping me come to terms with the diversity of my own identity – one that is both 100 percent bonafide American and Pura Pinolera, Nicaragüense por gracia de Dios

Elena Lacayo is the lead for Elena & Los Fulanos, a bilingual folk-rock band out of Washington, DC. Their debut album, Miel Venenosa, is available on Itunes and CD Baby. For more information, or to order a physical copy of their album, visit www.elenalosfulanos.com.