Lila Downs' New Song Is About Indigenous Workers' Invisible Labor Downs speaks with Rachel Martin about "Dark Eyes," a song inspired by essential workers from Native American communities who are often overlooked.

Lila Downs' New Song Is About Indigenous Workers' Invisible Labor

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All right. Let's get back to the MORNING EDITION Song Project with Rachel. We have asked musicians to write original songs about the COVID era.


LILA DOWNS: (Singing) Grandfather sung to me, the weeping woman spoke, down beneath the trees is wisdom of the old.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Today we're talking with Lila Downs. She grew up splitting her time between Minnesota and Oaxaca, Mexico, where she lives now. Culturally, she always felt pulled in three different directions.

DOWNS: Indigenous - Mixtec - Mexican national, of course, and U.S - I have always questioned things about my society and growing up between these three cultures.

MARTIN: So when we asked her to write a song for our project, that tri-cultural identity played a big role. Her song is called "Dark Eyes." She's singing about essential workers, in particular workers from Native American communities who are often overlooked.

DOWNS: To somehow pay homage to my Indigenous roots, which I think are something that are very trampled on in general - so it's something that I still continue to feel like a force that pulls me to continue to write songs and also write stories about this.


DOWNS: (Singing) I've seen plenty disrespect for the knowledge of the land. It's my people who have seemed lost in other people's hands.

It's very easy to become comfortable and somehow be oblivious of all the things that make our life the way that it is, especially in the cities. And I think that both the farm workers and service workers are the people who still are connected to that. And for me, it's very important to always remember. I think I was - my mother is to blame for a large part of that because she comes from that background. My mother is an Indigenous woman who migrated with my father to Minnesota to this very foreign and white with snow place. And so I think I live through her vision and through the concern that she always had to not forget her origin and, therefore, my origin.


DOWNS: (Singing) I'm losing the fear 'cause the work is here. Ojibwe and Yaquis, hope is in our ways. We show our sanity. Nobody sees us, but we are running things. The bats and the land are sacred beings.

MARTIN: Are you harkening back to something that has been perhaps lost?

DOWNS: Definitely. I do remember that my grandmother and also my mother, she will talk about, oh, this is the year of the locust or a particular butterfly. You have certain species that announce a particular event in nature. That's what I'm referring to, some wisdom from the past.

MARTIN: There's another line in the song - everybody's hoping to see you at their door, taking care of people you don't know.


DOWNS: (Singing) Staying inside, in their homes whispering to the dark eyes outside the door.

MARTIN: It is a tribute to people who just do the work and don't get the recognition.

DOWNS: Yeah, this is - you know, you see the harsh way that sometimes people are treated in the U.S. There still is a lot of discrimination and racism. And it's a difficult thing to face, especially when they are the people who are providing our food.

MARTIN: Is there someone who inspired this song?

DOWNS: Oh, yeah. I think there are several people. But I remember - there was a young man that we knew. He was from an Indigenous group. I believe he was Zapotec. And he came to Mexico City when I first moved there, and he wanted to go to the U.S., of course. I somehow felt like I was a mother figure to him. And I think of so many people like him that are off to the U.S. to find a better place in their lives.

MARTIN: What do you want people to take away from this song?

DOWNS: I want people to think about history, but through the vision of many visions, you know, plural and multicultural, just as all of the U.S. is, and to be respectful and loving to the ways of others. I really do believe it would be a better place in the world if we thought that way a little more.

MARTIN: Lila Downs, we so appreciate you talking with us, and thank you so much for bringing this song to our project.

DOWNS: Thank you.


DOWNS: Everybody's hoping to see you at their door, taking care of people you don't know.

MARTIN: That's Lila Downs. Her song for the MORNING EDITION Song Project is called "Dark Eyes." You can hear it in full at our website.

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