This story is part of Image Issue 9, “Function” which is a sound and visual reminder that there is no party like an L.A. party. Read the full case here.
San Cha sings from a divine place. Ahead of her upcoming spring release – the double singles titled “Procession” – the queer ranchera artist describes her path to enlightenment through song.
I think music is very spiritual. It may be secular, but in indigenous cultures, music comes first from a sacred place. And when you are singing the same thing over and over again… how can that not be a mantra? How is the song not a prayer?
I was born and raised in San Jose. I grew up singing in the church choir. We grew up very Catholic. My parents were undecided. They came here from Jalisco. We lived in a one bedroom apartment with my uncle, who had a wife (and who had a daughter), my younger brother, and his younger sister. I wasn’t really allowed to leave the house unless it was for school or church. Everything revolved around him. I didn’t go to the movies. I didn’t go to the restaurant. I didn’t do anything that wasn’t affiliated with the church. My parents were so strict. He used to worship the rosary everyday.
My favorite songs to sing in church were the ones we sang during the Lent season – Christ’s Last Days, 40 Days and 40 Nights. That’s when he is losing faith in everything and everyone. I was like, oh i recognize it: the most serious minor chord. Goth S-. But that’s because you can see his humanity.
We all have moments where we are at our lowest and have no hope of anything. My parents did not accept me, so I had to live in such an underworld. At the age of 13, I learned guitar from my choir instructor. He thought my parents would love to hear the Bolero – but my mom was like, “Why doesn’t he play the rancher near you? No Me Guston Las Romanticas.“It was very repressed.
But it was this CD set that my dad had with 100 songs from various Mexican artists. That’s when I first started listening to ranchera music – like Lola Beltran. Amalia Mendoza was the one I really liked; His voice was very hurting. she sang with a lot Anf! A lot of feeling I’ve never heard anyone sing like this before.
And there was Juan Gabriel, who had his choir – and a mariachi bando. And An orchestra – but he still had room to dance around and be theatrical, holding his cup of wine. I wanted to be like this.
I went to study music at St. Mary’s College in the Bay Area. I thought my parents would be happy it was Catholic. He only had four music majors in the whole school. I took formal lessons – like in European classical music – but I felt like they were trying to convert me. I used to have nightmares in music theory.
In college, I used to see all these white girls really slutty and naked. I was given great shelter, and [didn’t have] Full sexual experience before that. I went from having my first drink and going out with friends to having my first boyfriend and being with him before leaving school.
I never finished.
My best friend from high school went to UC Berkeley. Even before I was out, he would take me to a gay bar in San Francisco. By then I was already having relationships with girls – all while having a boyfriend. Me and my friend didn’t even need to talk about my being queer. He already knew. I didn’t really come out. It was like… I’m just doing what I’m doing!
After leaving college, I lived for a few months at my aunt’s farm in Jalisco. She was like, “You have come here with torn clothes. You don’t have money. And apparently everything you were doing isn’t right – you should sing Rancher.”
I had my own recording equipment. So I took his iPod and found some songs that I liked. I covered a mariachi song by Linda Ronstadt – I sang it in its lower register and doubled it, adding some harmonies. I played guitar and added these little violin synths. I recorded seven covers and burned a CD for me tia – Then he passed it on to all my others Tias, Then they traded it all over the city. my music It became a huge family thing that unified the genders – it brought everyone together.
I moved to Mexico City because my friend offered me a room. I thought, “I’m going to make it there.” My neighbor said, “You just need to learn three songs to sing in the restaurant. I was singing for In Takaro in this Zona Rosa when it hit me—a moment where I just felt like, belted out. I let my voice loose and it felt free. Something clicked.
“Cam” means “mistress” in Spanish; “San” is the word for “saint”. I started moving to San Cha in 2009. I think it happened organically because I already had a first name and a middle name. My family used to call me Annabel, and at school they called me Lysette. I was already living with a split personality.
Naming Yourself Is Powerful, At the time, I knew nothing about gender politics and things like that, or even about queerness. But later, I saw all my friends changing their names and posing as different genders. I had already done it without knowing it.
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Back in San Francisco, at Q Bar, we met Persia. She’s my drag mother now. I thought she was beautiful. She was very friendly and generous from the start and introduced me to all her artist friends who used to drag. And as soon as she heard I made music, she was like, “Come do it in my gallery., She used to perform in this bar named Esta Noche. I don’t think it exists anymore, but it is on the 16th and mission. And she used to perform there every Thursday and Saturday and did two shows on Saturday. It was all Latina queens. He eventually started letting me down to get ready with the girls. And they don’t let anyone down there.
It was interesting to watch these queens. I Was Studying Them When I Wasn’t Drunk Black-Out , Her display of femininity. Seeing how he exaggerated femininity. I was like, “Me too! Tits up!” But I was not lip-synergy. I wanted to sing in my own voice. I joined this band called Daddy’s Plastic in the Bay – we would all drag and perform and jump around in shorts.
When I took a gender studies class in San Francisco, one thing I read always stuck with me: Gender is performance. I was taught to demonstrate femininity in a strict way. If I said, “I don’t want to wear that dress,” my mom would be like, “Okay now you’re going to wear this for 10 days straight.” It was a way of asserting his dominance. She wanted me to be this normal lady queen. A woman is like a husband.
But then I had an aunt who used to come to visit us from Mexico, and she was with us all the time. She is one of my father’s younger sisters. She was definitely the cool Tia. We always called her Tia La Guerra because she is very light skinned. She dyed her hair blonde and wore really tight bongo jeans – so tight she had to lie down to put them on.
When she came to visit, I would help her blow-dry her curly hair. Then she would take me shopping because she wanted me to translate. He made me smell all the perfumes that made my head hurt. She will tell me about the club. She’ll flick the lights to make her strobe-y, and she’ll be like, “This is the club!” I looked at him a lot.
I moved to LA in 2015, and I immediately joined a band. I had found a band even before I got the job. When I got here I said, “I’m going to form my own band without men” – unless they’re gay men. But now I’m like… if you’re kinda weird? Are you an alien who sounds alien? you’re perfect. You’re gonna be with me forever.
I was invited to play at this party called SCUM at the Ecoplex in 2018, and it was like a queer, brown punk party. Limp Wrist performed with two other punk bands and the trio called Mariachi La Victoria. I sang Two Ranchers with him, before Limp Wrist. And I was so surprised — the punk kids were silent for a time — and they were singing songs and really identifying with it.
That was the moment I thought, “It all fits together!” That’s why [in Mexico] My aunt was telling me it was not so. …Even in San Francisco, I felt like none of these fit together. But when I came to L.A., it got like the right place Me,
And it keeps looking for me, you know. When Bardia Zinali, director of [Kacey Musgraves’ 2021 film] “Star-Crossed” scouted me I thought I’d be an extra. It was on a Zoom call that I realized – too drunk after a friend’s birthday party – that it was actually an audition. The leaflet states that they were looking for someone like Amanda Lepore or Queen Latifah to sing for the people in the pews, in front of the church. His choice was between a lesbian and a queen? I guess I was somewhere in the middle!
It felt very fitting to be back in church. I felt like I had come full circle. But for me the church is different now; When I came over with my partner, I had a dream to have this place where my friends could come and we could sing all night till 4 o’clock which sounds like church to me. My strange church.
I thought of those moments while writing my [series of] Double singles – there are four of them, and each of them is called a “procession”. They are all attending the ceremony, which will culminate in the album. I will release each double single in April, May and June. (You know, after Lent.)
I still pray; These days I pray to the moon. Tide. water. I find that every time I’m writing a song, it’s like I’m imitating the way water moves. Want to harmonize with him because we are water. And when your voice is properly connected to the air – and you feel it coming out of you, like Ohhhh! , That is when heaven has taken you.