“Sometimes we look at each other and we're like, 'Fuuuck,'” La Santa Cecilia's frontwoman Marisol Hernandez says, shaking her head. “At La Cita, sweating our asses off and maybe a little bit tipsy. You can feel something in those moments, you know?”
Now that the group is nominated for a Latin Grammy, they seem to be making a case for why they won't lose their close ties to L.A.'s intimate clubs and neighborhood corners.
We're seated around a big table in the back corner of La Luz del Día, a Mexican cafeteria tucked between the plaza and vendors' stalls on Olvera Street downtown. It's known as “La Placita” to most Angelenos, draws masses of tour groups, and was part of the city's earliest settlement.
It's also home to Hernandez's and accordionist Pepe Carlos' earliest musical memories. “This is where we started,” Carlos says. “Marisol and I grew up here.”
Every weekend during their high school years, they played traditional Mexican music for the souvenir shoppers along Olvera street's cobblestone walkways, and in its popular restaurants.
“It wasn't a job,” recalls Hernandez, who is known by her stage name La Marisoul. “But I guess it was. I had to be here and sing from 11:00 to 5:00 and pass the basket around.”
She adds, “But it was a good school because that's where I learned music and singing and that's where I met Pepe.”
The group's other bandmates ― drummer Hugo “Juice” Vargas, bassist Alex Bendana, guitarist Gloria Estrada and percussionist Miguel Ramirez ― had similar experiences. In the evenings and on weekends, their ears were saturated with traditional and popular Mexican ballads, rancheras, boleros and the “Rock en Español” of the 1990s. But during the day, Hernandez says with utmost seriousness, “I was a total MTV kid, dude. I loved it.”
“Growing up on MTV, you would see everything,” Estrada notes. “You had, like, 'Headbangers Ball' one night, hip-hop, pop, rock, emo, Madonna, all that stuff.”
“Did you know Beavis and Butthead are back?” Vargas asks. “They make fun of reality shows.”
“Oh they're back?” Ramirez is pumped. “I gotta catch that shit, dude.”
La Santa Cecilia's tagline is: “de todo un poco.” Their traditional Mexican roots are front and center, but other influences including jazz, rock and popular American music are thick throughout. The band's appeal across generations and genres has made them a hometown favorite.
Meanwhile, their unique embodiment of everything L.A. has caught on around the country and abroad. On a recent tour to New York, Miami and Mexico City, they say, the band members were embraced by an enthusiastic Angeleno diaspora.
As a testament to the band's exploding international popularity, La Santa Cecilia ― named for the patron saint of music ― was nominated for a 2011 Latin Grammy in the “Best Tropical Song” category for their romantic-but-dancy cumbia number “La Negra.” (Check the video for scenes from Olvera Street.) They're up against Puerto Rico's wildly popular hip-hop trio Calle 13, who received the most nominations of any group at this year's show.
For this reason, Hernandez and her crew haven't gotten their hopes up for tonight. Still, they consider it an honor, and they're proud to be the only act at this year's Latin Grammys with rich Angeleno roots.
Estrada says she ran into an old friend recently who'd been following the band's success. “She was all like, 'Honestly, we feel like you're representing us here in LA,'” Estrada says. “They feel like it's their nomination. Friends, family, fans ― they feel very much a part of it.”