The Los Angeles singer finds confidence in singing ranchera music

Portrait of San Cha

(Thalia Gochez / For the Times)

San Cha sings from a divine place. Ahead of her upcoming spring releases — double singles titled “Processions” — the ranchera queer artist details her journey to enlightenment through song.

I think music is very spiritual. It can be secular, but in indigenous cultures, music comes first from a sacred place. And if you sing the same things over and over again… how could that not be magic? Why isn’t a song 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 undocumented. They came here from Jalisco. We lived in a one bedroom apartment with my uncle who had his wife (and who had a daughter), my little brother and their little sister. I wasn’t really allowed to leave the house unless it was for school or church. It was all about that. I didn’t go to the cinema. I didn’t go to restaurants. I have done nothing that was not connected with the Church. My parents were so strict. They prayed the rosary every day.
My favorite hymns that I sing in church were the ones we sang during Lent – Christ’s last days, the 40 days and 40 nights. Then he loses faith in everything and everyone. I was like Oh, I identify with that: the most solemn minor chords. The Goths—. But that’s because you see his humanity.

We all have those moments when we hit rock bottom and have no hope of anything. My parents didn’t accept me, so I had to live in this kind of underworld. When I was 13, I learned to play the guitar from my choir teacher. He thought my parents would like to hear boleros—but my mom was like, ‘Why doesn’t he let you play rancheras? No, I gustan las romanticas.“It was very suppressed.

But there was this CD set my father had, 100 songs by different Mexican artists. That’s when I first heard ranchera music – like Lola Beltrán. Amalia Mendoza was one I really liked; Her voice was so urgent. She sang like many unf! Lots of feelings. I’ve never heard anyone sing like that before.

San Cha is standing in front of a church with a dog in a sequined brown dress and a yellow cowboy hat

San Cha sings from a divine place. “I think music is very spiritual,” she says.

(Thalía Gochez / For The Times; clothes by OLIMA, hats by Gladys Tamez Millinery, styling by Oscar Olima, hair by Tony Medina)

And there was Juan Gabriel, who had his choir – and a mariachi band and an orchestra – but he still had room to dance around and be theatrical and hold his goblet of wine. That’s how I wanted to be.

I studied music at St. Mary’s College in the Bay Area. I thought my parents would be happy that it was catholic. They only had four majors in music in the whole school. I took formal lessons – like in European classical music – but I thought they wanted to change me. I would have nightmares in music theory.
In college I saw all these white girls who were really slutty and naked. I had been so sheltered and [didn’t have] full sexual experiences before. I went from my first drink and making out with guys to my first boyfriend and moved in with him before I dropped out of school.

I never finished.

My best friend from high school went to UC Berkeley. Before he even got out he was taking me to the gay bars in San Francisco. At this point, I was already making out with girls — while I had a boyfriend. My boyfriend and I didn’t even have to talk about being queer. He already knew. I didn’t really get out. It was like… I just do what I do!

After dropping out of college, I stayed on my aunt’s farm in Jalisco for a few months. She said: “You are here with torn clothes. You have no money. And obviously what you did isn’t right – you should be singing rancheras.”

I had my recording device. So I took her iPod and found a couple of songs I liked. I covered a Linda Ronstadt mariachi song – I sang it in my lower register and doubled it, adding some harmonies. I played guitar and added these little fiddle synths. I recorded seven covers and burned a CD for mine tia – then she passed it on to all my others tias. Then they traded it all over the city. My music became this huge family thing that unified the genders – it brought everyone together.

I moved to Mexico City because my boyfriend offered me a room. I thought, “I’ll make it out there.” My neighbor said, “You only need to learn three songs to sing in restaurants. I was singing for these taqueros in this zona rosa when it hit me – a moment I just like it, buckled out. I let go of my voice and it felt free. Something clicked.

San Cha stares into the camera as she talks about her journey in music.

“We all have those moments where we hit rock bottom and hope for nothing,” says San Cha as she finds her way. “My parents didn’t accept me, so I had to live in that kind of underworld.”

(Thalia Gochez / For the Time)

“Sancha” means “lady” in Spanish; “san” is the word for “saint”. I started calling myself San Cha in 2009. I think it came naturally because I already had a first name and a middle name. My family called me Annabel and at school they called me Lisette. I was already living with a split personality.

Naming yourself is powerful. Back then I didn’t know anything about gender politics and stuff like that, or even queerness. But later I saw how all my friends changed their names and presented as different genders. I’ve already done it without knowing it.

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Back in San Francisco, at the Q Bar, we met Persia. She’s my drag mom now. I thought she was pretty. From the start she was very kind and generous and introduced me to all her artist friends who did drag. And as soon as she heard that I make music, she said: “Come and do it in my gallery.She used to perform at this bar called Esta Noche. I don’t think it still exists but it is on the 16th and mission. And she performed there every Thursday and Saturday for two shows on Saturdays. They were all Latina queens. Eventually they let me down with the girls to get me down with them. And they don’t let anyone down there.

It was interesting to watch these queens. When I wasn’t completely drunk, I studied themher femininity femininity. Seeing them exaggerate femininity. I thought, “Me too! Boobs up!” But I wasn’t a lip sync. I wanted to sing with my own voice. I joined this band called Daddy’s Plastic in the Bay – we all dressed in drag and performed and jumped around in shorts.

When I took a gender studies class in San Francisco, something I read stuck in my mind: Gender is performance. I was taught to portray femininity strictly. When I said, “I don’t want to wear that dress,” my mom would say, “Well, now you’re going to wear that 10 days straight.” It was a way of asserting her dominance. She wanted me to be this normal femme queen. The gets-a-husband kind of femme.

Portrait of the singer San Cha in a green suit.

“Sancha” means “lady” in Spanish; “san” is the word for “saint”. She started going to San Cha in 2009. “Naming yourself is powerful,” she says

(Thalia Gochez / For the Time)

But then I had this aunt who came to visit us from Mexico and stayed with us the whole time. She is one of my father’s younger sisters. She was definitely the cool Tía. We always called her Tía La Güera because she is so fair skinned. She bleached her hair and wore really skinny 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 took me shopping because she wanted me to translate. She made me smell all those perfumes that hurt my head. She would tell me about the club. She turned on the light to flash it and she said, “This is the club!” I looked up to her a lot.

I moved to LA in 2015 and immediately joined a band. I found a band before I even found a job. When I got here I said, “I’m going to start my band with no men” – unless they’re gay men. But now I’m thinking… are you kinda weird? If you are an alien making alien sounds? You’re perfect. you will be with me forever

I was invited to play at this party called SCUM at the Echoplex in 2018 and it was like a queer brown punk party. Limp Wrist performed with two other punk bands and this mariachi trio called La Victoria. I sang two rancheras with them before Limp Wrist. And I was so surprised – the punk kids were exceptionally quiet – and they sang along with the songs and really identified with them.

That was the moment I thought, “This all fits together!” Because [in Mexico] My aunt told me it doesn’t. … Even in San Francisco, I felt like none of it made sense. But when I got to LA it was like I found the right space me.

And it keeps finding me, you know. As Bardia Zeinali, the director of [Kacey Musgraves’ 2021 film] Star-Crossed scouted me, I thought I was an extra. On a Zoom call, still drunk from a friend’s birthday party, I realized it was actually an audition. The paper said they were looking for someone like Amanda Lepore or Queen Latifah to sing outside a church to the people in the pews. Your choice fell between a lesbian and a queen? I guess I was somewhere in the middle!

San Cha poses for a photo shoot in front of a shop front.

For San Cha, singing is linked to her experience of spirituality. “Church is different for me now,” she says.

(Thalia Gochez / For the Time)

It felt very fitting to be back in the church. I felt like I had come full circle. But church is something different for me now; When I moved in with my partner, one of my dreams was to have this place where my friends could come over and we could sing all night until 4am. That feels like church to me. My queer church.

I was thinking of those moments as I wrote mine [series of] Double singles – there are four of these and they are each called “Processions”. They all lead to this ceremony that 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. Ebb and flow. The water. Every time I write a song I feel like I’m imitating the movement of water. Wanting to be in tune with that because we are water. And when your voice is connected to the air in the right way – and you just feel it coming out of you Ohhh! — Then heaven took you. The Los Angeles singer finds confidence in singing ranchera music

Russell Falcon

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