Yahritza y Su Esencia finds its voice amid controversy : Alt.Latino For the second episode of Alt.Latino's regional Mexican music series, hosts Anamaria Sayre and Felix Contreras interview the rising family band Yahritza y Su Esencia in its hometown of Yakima, Wash. The two discover that the U.S.-Mexico border looms large in this regional Mexican moment, especially for Yahritza y Su Esencia — not strictly because of the music's obvious Mexican roots, but also the ways in which the border can create an "us" and "them" dynamic. The band's struggles with musical and personal identity also reflect the real struggles that millions of U.S.-born folks with Mexican heritage face. And what started as a musical journey for Ana and Felix has now become a personal journey.

Audio for this episode of Alt.Latino was edited and mixed by Joaquin Cotler, with production support from Janice Llamoca, Shelby Hawkins, Suraya Mohamed and Natalia Fidelholtz. The editor for this episode is Jacob Ganz and, our project manager is Grace Chung. Hazel Cills is the podcast editor and digital editor for Alt.Latino. Our VP of Music and Visuals is Keith Jenkins.

Regional Goes Global, Part 2: A band finds its voice amid a storm of controversy

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YAHRITZA Y SU ESENCIA: (Singing) Búscate a otro que te pueda dar lo mismo que yo. Mucho tiempo...


Yahritza Martínez wrote her first song about heartbreak at 14. And like many people her age, she uploaded that song to TikTok.


SAYRE: But unlike most people her age, her song blew up. And it was old-school - música Mexicana.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yahritza y su Esencia pierden más de cinco millones de seguidores.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Three nominations that's why - yeah, (inaudible).

SAYRE: Millions of young Latinos streamed her music and sang along.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Singing) Trato de olvidarte esta noche como...

SAYRE: Soon she and two of her older brothers formed a band.

YAHRITZA MARTÍNEZ: We're on stage together. We're making a connection with the crowd.

SAYRE: And after that, Yahritza y Su Esencia were recording their own version of a style called sierreño, perfect for wearing your heart on your sleeve.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: It's never going to be out of style, being heartbroken.

MARTÍNEZ: El desamor.

SAYRE: Their music really found an audience, one that grew fast, and the band was offered a record deal.


YAHRITZA Y SU ESENCIA: (Singing) ¿Por qué no tengo el corazón así?

SAYRE: They performed with bands that a few years before they had looked up to as heroes...


GRUPO FRONTERA: (Singing) Y yo queriendo un corazón así.

SAYRE: ...Collecting a Latin Grammy nomination and playing in front of larger and larger audiences.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing) ¿Por qué no tengo un corazón así? Así como el que te dieron a ti.

SAYRE: Yahritza y Su Esencia was connecting with fans. But along the way, things got complicated.


MARTÍNEZ: I'm not disrespectful. I just don't respect people that don't respect me.

SAYRE: In a way, that says a lot about how audiences in different places feel about this music, regional Mexicana, and the artists who are making it...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Yeah. No, their name's Yahritza...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: They're Yahritza.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: ...And Their Essence now.

SAYRE: ...As it crosses borders all over the world.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: How could you look and sound so paisa but at the same time not be paisa?


From NPR Music, this is ALT.LATINO. I'm Felix Contreras.

SAYRE: And I'm Anamaria Sayre. Let the chisme begin.


CONTRERAS: You know, Ana, the thing about this music, regional Mexican music - it's all about the unbridled passion. And for me, you know, it really hits home when it comes through a voice that can reveal the kind of emotions that we'd rather keep inside.

SAYRE: Felix, when Yahritza Martínez sings, she lays it all out there.


YAHRITZA Y SU ESENCIA: (Singing) Ya no me quieres hablar porque piensas que te voy a tratar igual.

SAYRE: Channeling the emotion and alma of generations before her, the power in her delivery of pain and heartbreak makes the authenticity, the honesty undeniable.


YAHRITZA Y SU ESENCIA: (Singing) Deja de tomar, deja de llorar. Eso no te va a quitar el dolor que sientes tú adentro

CONTRERAS: The sierreño music the band plays comes from the word sierra - so quite literally, music of the mountain range.

SAYRE: And the Martínez siblings did, in fact, grow up in the shadow of a mountain range, just not the one you'd immediately think to associate with sierreño.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Tan fuerte que...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: That's Mount Rainier. That's Mount Rainier. And then there's another one that's over there, and that's Mount Saint Helens, I think.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: I don't even know my mountains.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Un valle que está rodeado de muchas montañas, y nosotros...

SAYRE: So we're going to take you there to the Yakima Valley, just beneath the Cascade Mountains, where these siblings grew up, meeting the land that inspired their version of sierreño.

CONTRERAS: We spent time with them in Yakima, Washington, D.C., and Mexico as they dealt with the highs and the lows of a very tumultuous summer. We sat with the siblings through laughs, tears and lots of goofy family moments, offering a snapshot of a band - really, of a family - battling all the challenges that come from being honest and upfront about who they are on a stage bigger than most teenagers ever have to deal with.


SAYRE: Yakima sits near the center of Washington state.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: It's nice. It's peaceful. It's very peaceful. This is, like, our relaxing place.

CONTRERAS: It seems like it's like there's a buffer...


CONTRERAS: ...Between the rest of the world and Yakima.


CONTRERAS: You know what I mean?

MARTÍNEZ: It's just so quiet over here, too.

SAYRE: It's surrounded by rolling brown hills. And to be honest, it reminds me a bit of certain parts of the Central Valley and the central coast of California, where I grew up visiting family.


SAYRE: Around 1930, Mexican farm workers started to arrive here in large numbers to work in the fields during the Great Depression, and it has continued for almost a hundred years. Yakima Valley gets over 300 days of sunshine each year and grows over half of the country's apples and hops. So needless to say that, yeah, the agricultural business is booming, and there's always farm work available. In fact, the 2020 census puts the Latino population here at over 50% of the valley's 250,000 people, and a lot of them are still working in the fields.

CONTRERAS: A little over 20 years ago, José Martínez moved his wife and three young kids to Yakima from a pueblo called Jiquilpan in the state of Michoacán, Mexico. A few years later, two more were added on this side of the border. And since then, Yakima has provided the family both work and a home.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: Hello. ¿Cómo están?


ARMANDO MARTÍNEZ: Yo, Felix, what's good?

CONTRERAS: Producer Shelby Hawkins and I arrived at the Martínez home in Yakima on a warm summer Saturday afternoon. When we got there, older brother and guitarist Armando was cutting little sister and lead vocalist Yahritza's hair.

ARMANDO MARTÍNEZ: I'm going to fix up my girl, but I'm finishing up Yahri (ph).

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, he's cutting my hair now.


CONTRERAS: Armando told me that he started cutting hair for money back in high school before he got serious with music as a career.

ARMANDO MARTÍNEZ: But Little Sister has to be looking clean all the time, you know? Even if I don't get a haircut, I got to have her looking clean.


ARMANDO MARTÍNEZ: A lot of orchards around, like, this area.


CONTRERAS: The Martínez home sits on six acres of land, and after just a short time talking to the entire family, we learned that while their roots are in Michoacán, there is now a huge part of the family history that is planted in the land that surrounds their hilltop house.

ADRIANA MARTÍNEZ: Aquí abajito hay un field grande donde mi tío, era mayordomo él y, este mis papás trabajaban con él, ayudándoles como, pues...

CONTRERAS: Older sister Adriana points toward a field where her parents and her uncle used to work during the harvest.

ADRIANA MARTÍNEZ: Hay muchos fields por todos lados.

CONTRERAS: Their parents have been farm workers for the past two decades, picking almost every crop that grows in Washington.

ARMANDO MARTÍNEZ: We have a cherry tree right here, a little shade tree, more cherry trees.


ARMANDO MARTÍNEZ: Oh, yeah, some plum...

CONTRERAS: Cherries, peaches, nectarines, pears and, the main crop, apples.

ARMANDO MARTÍNEZ: That's the ciruelo right here.

CONTRERAS: That field is where the older brother Armando learned to do some farm work - small things like picking apples when he was just a kid.

ARMANDO MARTÍNEZ: Andaba trabajando ahí - ¿Qué, pa? - como por media hora. Y le dije, Pa, tengo hambre, y me fui a comer todos los sándwiches que traían.

CONTRERAS: Armando remembers the one time when he was a kid working in the fields. He got so hungry he ate all of the sandwiches the family brought - basically, everyone's lunch. Their dad, José, recalls taking Armando to work with him one winter and telling him, if there ever isn't any work, there's always farm work.

JOSÉ MARTÍNEZ: Andábamos en la poda en el tiempo del invierno, me acuerdo.

ARMANDO MARTÍNEZ: Dile a la gente, porque hay gente que dice que yo no trabajé en el field.

JOSÉ MARTÍNEZ: No, sí, sí trabajó. Yo me lo llevé de chico a trabajar en el field.

CONTRERAS: Listening to them talk, it's clear working in the fields is a point of pride for Armando, and I quickly understand how the band's work ethic and dedication to the family came from their parents.

SAYRE: Armando told us a story about a moment in the band's early days when they needed to buy a sound system, but the $2,000 expense was a big deal back then. The band reinvested their gig money, and their dad invested the rest from his savings from work in the fields. And the rest of the family got by with a little less in the name of pushing the band forward.


SAYRE: Even Yahritza's first steps as a songwriter were a bit of a family affair. She says she was reluctant to show her songs because they were about heartbreak, and she didn't want her overprotective older siblings to start asking, who hurt you? She explained that the deeply emotional lyrics in her song "Soy El Único" were not from her life experiences at age 14. She got them from people on TikTok.


MARTÍNEZ: (Singing) Qué triste es amar a otra persona que no te sepa valorar.

SAYRE: The band's family life even influenced their choice to sing traditional music. In an era when other genres like reggaeton, bachata or even highly produced pop are blaring from their friends' phones, they leaned into the music that their dad played at home.


SAYRE: Yahritza explained to us that not everyone is going to understand the lyrics or the melody. It's about the vibe of the music.


MARTÍNEZ: (Singing) Ya déjalo ser...

SAYRE: At 14 years old, she understood what all of the great Mexican cantantes did.


MARTÍNEZ: (Singing) Puede tratar como yo, soy el único.

SAYRE: Making music that matters for a community or a country means bypassing the brain and going straight for the soul.

ARMANDO MARTÍNEZ: We think in English, but when you translate it to Spanish, it's so beautiful.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: A different feeling.

ARMANDO MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. And I feel like in Spanish is where you get a deeper feeling of the words.

CONTRERAS: The passionate lyrics of the music complemented their authenticity. Forthcoming with emotion, it's that vulnerable energy - doing what comes naturally, channeling their families and their ancestry and how they share heartbreak - that got them to rise. Their rise coincided with the growth of the genre, with many bands and communities just like theirs connected across the border by the music's rich history.


CONTRERAS: But that connection was soon tested in ways that were painful for the siblings in the band.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: Yahritza y Su Esencia.

MARTÍNEZ: Muchas gracias por su tiempo

SAYRE: In August of 2023, a video of an interview they did earlier that year resurfaced and caught attention on social media. They all had something to say about Mexico.


MARTÍNEZ: Sí, me gusta. Pero no me gusta cuando me levanto o cuando me estoy durmiendo, porque se escuchan, como, los carros y las sirenas de los policias y todo...

SAYRE: Yahritza didn't like the cars.


JAIRO MARTÍNEZ: Casi no más como - como chicken, chicken, ajá

SAYRE: Jairo prefers chicken wings.


JAIRO MARTÍNEZ: También que no tengan chile. No me gusta nada de eso

SAYRE: And Mando...


ARMANDO MARTÍNEZ: No me gusta mucho la comida de aquí.

SAYRE: ...Likes the food in Washington better.


ARMANDO MARTÍNEZ: Me gusta más de donde vivimos.

SAYRE: Yahritza tried to walk it back.


MARTÍNEZ: I'm not sure that he mentioned, but I just don't like Mexico.


MARTÍNEZ: I don't feel like it's Mexico, I just feel like it's Mexico City.


ARMANDO MARTÍNEZ: Oh, my God. That's where we're from.

SAYRE: Mexicans everywhere had something to say about it.


EMILIO: I don't like Mexico, why would she say that?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #13: No te gustó la comida - you don't have to like the food, but to say it that way, that's the problem.

EL KING FRESH: Your main genre is Mexican music and your No. 1 support system is the Mexican people. You have to be a little more cautious of the way you talk about Mexico.

SAYRE: The members of the band were accused of disrespecting Mexican culture...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: No, their name is Yahritza...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: ...And their Essence now.

SAYRE: ...And were met with anger at what some people saw as appropriation.


JAXX: She said we're artists that make Spanish music. That doesn't mean we speak it.


MARTÍNEZ: No me estés hablando en Español, por favor.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #14: Tú tienes que hablar en Español porque eres una cantante Mexicana en Español. Tu chat habla Español. Hay mucha gente en México que habla Español y que no hablan Inglés.

MARTÍNEZ: Eso no significa no más porque…

SAYRE: The same online ecosystem where Yahritza first found a following that has enabled the explosion of this music in recent years was causing them hurt.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: How could you look and sound so paisa but at the same time not be paisa?

SAYRE: The animosity built and built, with people sending hate messages and even death threats. It got to the point where they were the target of such vitriol that even the president of Mexico felt the need to weigh in and support them.


PRESIDENT ANDRES MANUEL LOPEZ OBRADOR: Siempre tenemos que perdonar si alguien se equivoca o comete un error. Pero, además, siendo un niño - o sea - y, hay una explicación. Nacieron allá.

SAYRE: It all hit Yahritza and her family hard.


MARTÍNEZ: Era más de lo que es porque es mi hermano, ¿no? Y, pues, lo que más no quiero es que algo le pase o algo. Y, pues, era más como la preocupación por él.

SAYRE: It almost felt like, within their momentary misstep, the veil broke and the border reemerged. Yahritza, Mando and younger brother and bass player Jairo had grown up on this side. And no matter what music they played or who it touched, they would never be able to forget that. Before this moment, Yahritza and her siblings were part of this growing community of musicians and fans united by love for this music with roots in Mexico. But the response to the video pointed out something different, a tension that vibrates between the people for whom that music is the music of home and the people who hear this music as a kind of link to an idea of home that is much more complicated. That's a familiar feeling for a group of kids whose parents brought them to the U.S. for a better life, kids now being criticized for being Americans making Mexican music.

CONTRERAS: Before all of this, we talked to them.

SAYRE: That's coming up after the break.


CONTRERAS: And we're back.


CONTRERAS: At ALT.LATINO, we'd actually had our eye on Yahritza y Su Esencia long before there was any controversy for all the same reasons the group's music had started to catch on with so many fans. And as it happened, the first time we sat down to interview them, it was in Washington, D.C., in July when the band came to NPR to play at The Tiny Desk.


YAHRITZA Y SU ESENCIA: (Singing) De las noches que pasamos, nadie podrá...

CONTRERAS: At the time, the band was still dealing with the aftermath of a very personal challenge, one they talked about very openly. And when you listen back to that interview, you hear another wrinkle in this story about displacement and belonging on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.


YAHRITZA Y SU ESENCIA: (Singing) Pensando si voy a verte.

SAYRE: The oldest brother, Armando, was born in Mexico and was living undocumented in Yakima Valley with his family. So last year, right as their popularity was exploding, he had to leave the United States. He stayed in Mexico City while he applied for an O-1 visa, which is a special visa for individuals with extraordinary ability in their field. It was his first time back since leaving Mexico as a baby. He was there alone, separated from his family for several months.

CONTRERAS: His experience there as someone who grew up in the U.S. fueled the comment that got him in trouble a few months later.

SAYRE: The band has always been gifted at wearing their hearts on their sleeves - being honest and upfront. Part of the joy of getting to know them was getting to experience this candidness. So during that conversation in D.C., before the angry comments bubbled up, they spoke honestly - about their feelings around the time they spent separated and how they felt about Mexico as a result of that experience. At the time, they were free from fear of any criticism or backlash for being open.

ARMANDO MARTÍNEZ: Well, the whole Mexico experience - it was very different to me because, one, I came to the U.S. when I was about 3 years old. I mean, I consider myself Mexican American, obviously, but también, I have more of the U.S. type of vibe, you know. But I love being Mexican. Like, México para mí siempre va a ser algo que amo y, pues, creo que fue por eso que nunca he ido a México desde los tres años. And I feel like some people don't get that. Like, unas personas dicen, no, son Mexicanos. Tienen que hablar Español. Like, no, it's not like that. I'm sorry. But, like, if you grew up how we grew up, it's two different lives. You know, like, Mexicans that grew up here in the U.S. is very different than Mexicans that grew up in Mexico.

CONTRERAS: And even with the generations, right?


CONTRERAS: Because, like, I'm a little older than you guys.

SAYRE: A little.

ARMANDO MARTÍNEZ: OK, a little bit.


SAYRE: Felix.

CONTRERAS: But, like, my generation - there's a lot of people who don't speak Spanish at all, right?


CONTRERAS: Because of what our parents went through, where they were punished for speaking Spanish and all that, like, in the...


CONTRERAS: ...'30s and the '40s, right? So my - that's why I'm always amazed when I meet young people, like, from this generation, because you guys already - you already have a working relationship with the language. You go back...


CONTRERAS: ...And forth all the time...


CONTRERAS: ...Right? But for my generation, that's an effort to try to do that, you know?


CONTRERAS: So - but then, like you said, ni de aquí ni de allá, right?


CONTRERAS: Like, the first time I went to Mexico, I'm like, wow. Everybody looked like me. But not everybody accepted me...


CONTRERAS: ...Because of the way I spoke or tried to speak Spanish.

ARMANDO MARTÍNEZ: And then they kind of make fun of you. Como dicen, oh...

SAYRE: Yeah.

ARMANDO MARTÍNEZ: ...Like, tienen el nopal en la frente y no hablan Español o lo que sea. Pero, like, ustedes no saben de que, like, ustedes no saben las razones de eso.


SAYRE: I always say, I'm, like - I've never felt less and more Mexican than in Mexico...


SAYRE: ...Because it's like, you're there, and you're like, no, you're right, like, I didn't grow up here. Like, that's - for you, if you're born, raised, never left, then, like, how is this person, like, who's coming from the U.S. Mexicano? Like, you're American...

ARMANDO MARTÍNEZ: Exactly (laughter).

SAYRE: ...You know? Like - but then at the same time, there's so much about it that feels so familiar in this way that you can't connect here.


SAYRE: So it's really...

ARMANDO MARTÍNEZ: You have to actually be in it to, like, experience it. Like...

SAYRE: Yeah.

ARMANDO MARTÍNEZ: ...You have to be in that situation that you're from over here and you go over there to actually experience with what people like that feel.

CONTRERAS: As the oldest son of an immigrant family and the leader of his sibling band, the figure they all look up to, Mando is no stranger to discomfort and adversity. But being away from his family, the land that hold the spirits that the siblings write from, hit him particularly hard.

ARMANDO MARTÍNEZ: I could not stand it...

SAYRE: (Inaudible).

ARMANDO MARTÍNEZ: ...And that's why I was just in my room the whole day...

SAYRE: Yeah, seriously? Damn.

ARMANDO MARTÍNEZ: ...Like, all the time. But I felt like I would have more fun in my room than...


SAYRE: ...Than hanging out with them? Yeah.

ARMANDO MARTÍNEZ: I would get stressed out when I would go out.

SAYRE: Eventually, he was able to return home and pick up where he and his parents left off, pursuing their dreams back in Yakima, which is where we caught up with them again in August after those now controversial comments had resurfaced. After we arrived, they showed us around that new house on the hill.

CONTRERAS: You guys - how long have you guys lived here in this house?

MARTÍNEZ: We've only lived here for - like, it's barely going to be, like, a month. Thank God. We - se nos cumplió el sueño, you know? 'Cause it was a dream to buy my parents a house and, like, move them to a different house. Because, like, the house we used to live at - it was very, like - it was very small. Like, we could barely fit all of us, and it was, like, seven of us in a little house. And every time we would go to, like, my cousin's house or, like, one of our friends' house, and they would have, like, an upstairs, we would be like, damn, like, that's hella cool, you know. Like, you guys have a big house. And then...

CONTRERAS: OK, so you guys bought this house for your parents?

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Thank God.

ARMANDO MARTÍNEZ: We saw other houses that we liked. And we were, like, damn, this is sick. But our parents were like, damn, we love this one because of all the trees. And they - my dad is - he loves working in the fields. So he's always out there pruning the trees.

JAIRO MARTÍNEZ: And this also has pretty - a lot of land, like six acres, I believe.

ARMANDO MARTÍNEZ: But then once you start growing on them...

MARTÍNEZ: But it's nice. It's peaceful. It's very peaceful. This is like our relaxing place.

CONTRERAS: It seems like it's - it's like there's a buffer...


CONTRERAS: ...Between the rest of the world and Yakima...


CONTRERAS: ...You know what I mean?

This little plot of paradise gave them a little time and space to absorb the controversy and think about how they feel about the cultural conflict. And by the time we talked to them in Yakima, you could hear the difference in how they were feeling about their situation.

ARMANDO MARTÍNEZ: It just made us feel like we weren't enough to be Americans when we're over here, but when we're over there, like, we're not enough to be Mexicans, you know?


SAYRE: Yeah.

ARMANDO MARTÍNEZ: That's how I feel. Like, we're not good enough to be from either/or side.

CONTRERAS: How does it sit now? You guys are just moving forward, putting it behind you?

ARMANDO MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. We're just moving forward because...

JAIRO MARTÍNEZ: If anything, I feel like it's more like a motivation, you know?


JAIRO MARTÍNEZ: There's still people that love your music. There's still people that text me and they're like, put your head up, you know? Like, we don't want to lose you guys.

ARMANDO MARTÍNEZ: We know what we said, and it wasn't with any bad intentions to offend anybody. Like, not even our culture that we're proud of. And we didn't mean to disrespect anybody. So I feel like that's why our hearts are at peace, as well. We didn't mean it in a malicious way or nothing.

SAYRE: Do you feel like there is something you learned from it?

ARMANDO MARTÍNEZ: Definitely. It's more part of preparation and stuff like that, you know? But yeah. Definitely.

JAIRO MARTÍNEZ: I was kind of, like, bummed out about it for a little bit, but then like I said, it's just the people that show support is - were the ones that kept me up, you know? So I feel like I didn't really take it too hard like that because I know how I am. I know my parents come from Mexico. I know what we grew up having and we didn't, you know? So it's like nobody can really change the way you grew up, you know? So I feel like I - like Mando said, our heart is at peace because it wasn't in no bad intentions.


CONTRERAS: About a month after we visited the family in Yakima, the band returned to Mexico for a performance in Mexico City at the first big festival to feature strictly regional bands. Yahritza y Su Esencia shared the stage with bands from across the genre. Legendary musicians like Ramón Ayala and newcomers like corridos tumbados pioneer Natanael Cano. They all performed in front of tens of thousands of fans. The siblings had been invited to perform long before the controversy erupted.

SAYRE: They were both anxious and excited. Standing backstage with them after all the time we'd spent together, I could see they all have their own way of dealing with their nerves.

MARTÍNEZ: Ay, qué nervios, bro. Qué nervios.

SAYRE: Yahritza was pacing.

How are you feeling?

MARTÍNEZ: I'm very nervous right now.

SAYRE: Mando was focused on his fingers and his stomach.

Your stomach hurts?

ARMANDO MARTÍNEZ: No, no, it's like - you know that - when your, like, just stomach drops 'cause you're, like, kind of nervous?

SAYRE: Yeah.

And Jairo was shadowboxing?

What are you doing?

ARMANDO MARTÍNEZ: Jairo, you fighting Casper?

SAYRE: He's literally fighting right now.

Then older sister Adriana gathered them for a quick moment of prayer.

ADRIANA MARTÍNEZ: Que nos ayudes a llenar los corazones.

SAYRE: The prayer, in part, says may you help us fill the hearts of all the people who are here. May you fill their hearts with love of the music that my siblings are going to play, my God. She closes with, I ask you to please, may you give my parents peace of mind to know that their children are well and are going to return home safely.

ADRIANA MARTÍNEZ: En el nombre del Padre, del Hijo y del Espíritu Santo. Yahritza y su Esencia.


YAHRITZA Y SU ESENCIA: Una, dos tres - Yahritza y su Esencia.

ARMANDO MARTÍNEZ: Just ignore the negativity, all right? Go out there...

SAYRE: After older brother/bandleader Armando offers a few more words of encouragement, the band finally hits the stage.


SAYRE: From the stage, the roar made it feel like this Mexican crowd had nothing but love for them. But when you change perspective, the situation, like every situation in this story, proved to be more complicated. As I walked down below the fireworks display of the stage into the seemingly adoring crowd...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Chanting) Fuera. Fuera. Fuera.

SAYRE: ...My own read of the scene changed as I came across a group of screaming, angry fans stationed directly in front of Yahritza's solo spotlight.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Chanting) Que se vayan. Que se vayan. Que se vayan.

SAYRE: People were telling them they never should have come to Mexico, to go back to where they came from. It felt like they were flipping the script on the racist language we often hear in the U.S. against people coming from Mexico. Despite the mixed reaction during the show...

MARTÍNEZ: We f****** killed it.


SAYRE: ...Backstage after the performance, spirits are high.

How are you feeling, Mando?

ARMANDO MARTÍNEZ: I choked a little on the last song, you know, but it's over.

SAYRE: How do you feel about the crowd?

ARMANDO MARTÍNEZ: It was good that they were respectful, you know? Obviously, there was a couple of people that...

SAYRE: Yeah.

ARMANDO MARTÍNEZ: ...They didn't want us there, but the majority showed respect. So, you know, we respect that. We got respect from it. So...

SAYRE: Yeah.


SAYRE: Now here we are talking to each other two months after that concert, and it feels like this is going to be a part of the band's story forever - belonging, but not quite; authentic, but not quite.

CONTRERAS: Let's take a step back for a moment and think this through. A lot of the anger online seem to be centered on the idea that these American artists were using Mexican music to earn popularity and money from Mexican people. The idea that these same artists would then publicly degrade Mexican culture felt wrong, even exploitative. As we learned over the course of our time dealing with the siblings, that was not their intent. The anger still feels justified. But the Martínezes didn't create this anger, nor did the jeering fans expressing it at the music festival.

SAYRE: And this anger that they feel is earned. The pain that the border causes and all of the music that exists on both sides - it feels as authentic to this music as the romantic parts of it. It's a reality of this music, of all of the people who play it on both sides of the border. And I couldn't help but think how many people on that side of the border are frustrated and confused by the exchange of this music, but also about how many people on this side of the border feel seen by what these siblings have gone through because for so much of my life, I too have felt like I don't have a right to my culture or to this music, and it almost felt like, standing in that crowd, that maybe they were yelling at me too. And I can't look at this experience that this band has gone through and not feel both sad and seen.

CONTRERAS: You know, Ana, something I heard back in Yakima speaks to the idea of the border being nothing more than an arbitrary line in the sand.


ADRIANA MARTÍNEZ: Creo que es - puede viajar a tantas diferentes áreas del mundo y creo que - o sea, un comentario que ellos hicieron ayer es que, pues, ellos con su música cruzan como las fronteras.

CONTRERAS: Artists like Yahritza y Su Esencia - their music transcends borders. And like Adriana said just now, their music crosses the borders that their parents and other immigrant parents can't cross. We were talking about the passion in Yahritza's vocals and songwriting when their mom revealed a bit of family history that even the siblings didn't know...


CONTRERAS: ...Which in a way revealed an even deeper and more emotional connection to Mexico and Mexican music. Rosa said recently she heard from one of her tías that her mom, who she lost while she was still an infant, had a beautiful singing voice.

R MARTÍNEZ: La persona que tenía una muy bonita voz era la mamá de tu mamá, tu abuelita. Esa señora se subía a cantar a los árboles y cantaba.

CONTRERAS: They were told that their abuelita had a unique voice, and Adriana suggested maybe that's where Yahritza got it from.

ADRIANA MARTÍNEZ: Mi abuelo también.

CONTRERAS: Yahritza chimed in to remind them that their dad's father also sang.

MARTÍNEZ: La música está en la sangre.

CONTRERAS: The music is in her blood, Adriana said.

MARTÍNEZ: Es una bendición, you know, knowing that, it's like they passed it to the family.

SAYRE: It's been like this since the day Yahritza was born. It's her birthright. She was born with this voice. She has to sing.

ARMANDO MARTÍNEZ: Yahritza has to give herself credit because I watched her grow, like, ever since she was little, little. And every time that I would be playing the piano or whatever, she'd always go with me, and she'd be like, oh, Mando, let's sing this song. I feel like she never gave up. And she always loved to sing, and she never gave up on her dreams. So I feel like a lot of that has to do with her never stopping.


SAYRE: Did you just love it? Like, why? Why the...?

MARTÍNEZ: I just loved the feeling. Like, when I would hit the notes, I would be like - when Mando would hit the notes too, I'd be like, damn. Like, how do you do that, you know? Like, it's crazy to me how he sings so good. Like, I want to be like him.

SAYRE: Yahritza would know best. Family is the greatest love story.

MARTÍNEZ: Also, because my heart is like - I've always been with them. I grew up singing with them, and I wouldn't be more comfortable with anybody else than being on stage with my brothers.


SAYRE: The next episode of our series, Regional Goes Global, we travel to Sinaloa, Mexico, to explore yet another tension living within this explosion, the struggle over tradition.


CONTRERAS: You've been listening to ALT.LATINO from NPR Music. This episode was edited by Joaquin Cotler with production help from Janice Llamoca, Natalia Fidelholtz and Suraya Mohamed.

SAYRE: The editor for the series is Jacob Ganz. Grace Chung is our project manager. Hazel Cills is the podcast editor and digital editor for this series. Keith Jenkins is the VP of music and visuals for NPR. I'm Anamaria Sayre.

CONTRERAS: And I'm Felix Contreras. Thank you for listening.


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