Lila Downs aims to keep culture alive through her music.
Lila Downs aims to keep culture alive through her music.
Elena Pardo

Lila Downs Fights to Keep Native Languages Alive Through Her Music

Sometimes we look to our parents' lives to find guides for our own future. Some of these guides trace our path directly; others are more circuitous. Mexican-American singer Lila Downs followed her parents' paths in that second sense, from traditional Mexican singing to academia and back again.

Downs is the daughter of a Mixtec cabaret singer and a British-American professor of art and cinematography. She found her voice at a young age but spent many years finding her identity. "I was about 8 years old," she says, "and I began singing and imitating the great ranchera singers, like Lola Beltrán." Downs expanded her style from there, dabbled in traditional Mexican songs, and eventually performed professionally with mariachis. But while she attended college in the States, her career had a hiccup. "I actually dropped out of the classical voice program at the University of Minnesota and ended up getting a degree in cultural anthropology," she says. Her concentration was on the symbolism of textiles, a study with intimate ties to her indigenous roots.

Once she completed school, Downs followed her mother's heritage home to Tlaxiaco, Mexico. Ofrenda, her independent debut album, blended traditional Oaxacan and Mexican songs with self-written tracks in the Spanish, Mixtec, and Zapotec languages. The variety of languages was part of Downs' approach from the beginning — though she admits she has preferences for which to use when. "Spanish is my favorite — it's a very musical language," she says. "Singing in native languages is also important to demonstrate that these languages are very much alive and an important part of Native American life in many places in the Americas."

Downs describes herself as sentimiento — a mood that translates into her lyrics and results in an inclination for activism. Along with her mixed heritage, her sensitive attention to others reinforces her connection to disenfranchised indigenous peoples. She believes the survival of native languages and the fight against discrimination are issues of utmost importance. "There are many deep philosophical concepts that are alive and developing about indigenous thought towards mother nature," she says, "and it's important that this be known... It's amazing that so many groups have survived in spite of all the historical impediments, and we have learned that diversity is an essential part of human health and well-being."

Outside of preserving languages through lyrics and motivating people through music, Downs raises funds for student scholarships and empowers individuals — particularly of indigenous descent — in her home state of Oaxaca. "Right now we are working with Voto Latino to register voters at our shows this fall and encouraging people to be engaged in the process of choosing who leads our communities and the country."

Asked for her thoughts about the current Republican frontrunner so keen on building a fence around her native country, she says, "He's an ignorant millionaire who is instigating hate, and hate can only lead to more hate."

Lila Downs 8 p.m. Saturday, October 3, at the Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; 305-673-7300; fillmoremb.com. Tickets cost $50 to $120 via livenation.com.

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