Fierce

With “Florecer,” LA Cumbia-Salsa Band La Mera Candelaria Celebrates Survivors Of Sexual Violence

In the United States, someone is sexually violated every 73 seconds. With each passing year,  more than 433,600 people, mostly women and girls, experience some form of this brutality, including rape, molestation, sexual harassment, sex trafficking and reproductive coercion. For many survivors, art is used as a tool to promote healing, providing them with a creative outlet to externalize their trauma and express themselves. With the upcoming album Florecer, Stephani Candelaria, of the woman-fronted cumbia-salsa band La Mera Candelaria, uses art, and music in particular, to work through her own history with sexual abuse and inspire holistic healing among her listeners.

The EP, which melds Caribbean salsa and cumbia with old musical stylings like cha-cha-chá and popular reggaetón rhythms, is a celebration of survivors of sexual violence. It includes songs like “Sonrisa,” which speaks to the fear and threat women experience daily by choosing to frequent public spaces, as well as powerful paeans like “Florecer,” a sonic love letter that praises women’s resilience while also encouraging them to flourish and lead the full, purpose-driven lives they deserve. 

We spoke with the Los Angeles-based Candelaria about the album (which drops on April 28), the curative power of art, holistic healing and the band’s partnership with LA’s Violence Intervention Program to raise awareness about sexual violence among the Latinx community and the services available to them. 

You’re no stranger to writing feminist songs, but I don’t think you’ve had a project as explicitly about and for women’s empowerment as this one. Why did you want to release an EP that celebrates survivors?

Honestly, I’m planning to do a lot more talking about this. This album was inspired by one of my therapy sessions. I’ve been seeing a therapist twice a month for several years. As a survivor of sexual abuse, a lot of our sessions focus on working through this. The message of La Mera has come up in my sessions, and she encouraged me to make music about this. I’m at a point in my healing path where I’m opening up about what I’ve gone through, and she suggested that music could be an effective avenue for me to talk about this with other musicians and my fan base, which is majority Latina. I know this is a prevalent issue that impacts all of us, whether we’ve personally experienced it or not. Everyone knows someone who has survived an abusive situation. I have never shied away from making feminist and LGBTQ-friendly music. I’ve touched on these topics in my music in the past, but this time – living through a global pandemic, thinking about the pandemic within the pandemic and how many domestic violence survivors have been forced to quarantine with their abusers, and not being able to perform for a whole year – I feel like it’s a good and natural time for this; to  open up and be more public about being a survivor and creating a more explicitly supportive space for women in all our wholeness. Yes, survivors have scars, but we are also resilient and can live whole lives again. 

One of the songs off the album, “Florecer,” speaks to the yearning of survivors to not just survive but also flourish and thrive. This is so important. Oftentimes, people don’t realize the hurdles women face upon leaving abusive relationships, from the difficulty of finding jobs, housing or even obtaining parental rights to children. How can art, music and dance help women flourish on their healing journeys?

Great question! I think that music and art can serve to help women from many different avenues, including being a creator, like myself, who is channeling my healing process through my art specifically. I’ve been growing leaps and bounds while working on songs and talking with my group. But my community, my fan base and my new fans can grow, too. It can be healing to see someone open up about their truth. It doesn’t necessarily feel good but it does help to hear these stories reflected in the music you listen to. Unfortunately for Latinas, how we hear women framed in our popular music does not reflect the complexity of our lives and the things we live through. Instead, it’s a very one-dimensional and sexualized portrayal. Through this EP, I hope to create a platform for dialogue, action, thorough reflection and hearing other people’s stories on how they navigate this healing journey. “Florecer” is less about the specific examples of abuse and more about saying, “yes,  abuse has happened. I will have scars. It may take time to navigate through this journey, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel. There is more for me than just getting by day to day. It is possible for survivors to flourish, not in spite but rather because of the pain and trauma they lived through.

I know Florecer is being released in partnership with LA’s Violence Intervention Program to raise awareness about sexual violence and the services that exist for survivors. Talk to me about this partnership. How did this come about? What will it look like?

Again, my therapist has a role in this. She is amazing! She recommended this program to me because I had been considering joining a support group. When I saw the website, I knew it was a perfect fit. They work with young people and adult survivors, but more than that they work with the entire family to create a holistic healing journey for survivors of abuse. A lot of the time, when people come out to their families about what happened, the family members don’t know how to be supportive. The program believes that abuse doesn’t just impact the person being abused but also the entire community they are a part of and, because of this, they believe the community must be a part of the healing process as well. Knowing this, I really wanted to partner with them. We shot one of the music videos at their center, where we followed a young woman attending the facility for the first time. The video really highlights the space and the services it offers with the hopes of inspiring local viewers to visit and start or continue their healing journey. We’re also doing a live virtual fundraising event on April 30 via Twitch, where all proceeds will be donated to the Violence Intervention Program to help fund their crucial services. 

Another song I had the pleasure of listening to is “Sonrisa,” which is truly a sonic treat. But more than that it’s powerful, especially because the lyrics speak to the darker experience of street harassment that women encounter. Catcalling can seem harmless to some, but women understand the real fear and danger that comes with this. What message are you hoping to spread with this song?

It’s toxic behavior. This song is about an experience I had. I was walking my dog down a street, really having a beautiful moment, when a car of dudes rolled past me and yelled things at me. Now, I’m a feisty person, so naturally I yelled back. But then they stopped the car. At that moment, I realized that I could die. Thankfully, nothing happened. They ended up driving off. But this isn’t the case for all women. Just last month in New York, a woman was groped on the street. When she confronted the man, he killed her. A few years ago, a man killed a woman who refused to give him her phone number. These moments of street harassment seem so innocuous to men but yet are so impactful and traumatizing to the women experiencing it, especially at the rate that we experience it: daily. As you said, any time we step out of our homes or cars, there’s a potential for this harassment. And I wanted the song to feel true to this experience. You’ll notice that in the song, there’s no resolution. I keep walking, feeling icky, violated and traumatized, while the men in the car drive off and probably tell themselves something like, “she was ugly anyway.” Ending the song without a happy ending felt honest and like a good way for listeners to reflect and consider how we can denormalize this form of harassment.

How can bilingual art, like this album, raise awareness about violence in our communities? 

The Latinx community is a musical community. Music plays a huge role in our daily life. As kids, we grow up watching our families sing and dance cumbia and salsa while they’re in the kitchen. And I thought, how can I use these catalogs that are a part of our DNA to talk about issues, create visibility and spark dialogue. In the past, we’ve released songs about LGBTQ issues. While performing these lesbian love songs, I see my audience listening and dancing to these songs and how their faces change when they realize it’s non-heteronormative. I’m having the songs speak to you. With cumbia, and now reggaetón, the body responds to these sounds. You want to move. But as you move, you also begin to mentally reflect on the lyrics, and this is vital, especially for our community. 

While things are getting better, many Latinx families still don’t believe in airing so-called dirty laundry, which forces many survivors to suffer in silence. What do you hope this project provides to survivors?

That’s exactly one of the larger goals of this project: to provide the language to survivors about how to speak to family members about lived trauma and advocate for yourself. It’s also about providing points of reflection for the community, people who don’t understand and abusers, including the men who might not consider themselves abusers. The focus is on survivors, but it’s for everyone because we are all either complicit or impacted by abuse, where we realize it or not.  

This is the band’s fourth EP. How do you think you have grown, or flourished, to keep in the theme of the album, since then?

So many ways! I’ve been doing a lot of reflection on this through my process of recording, where I’ve been listening back to older releases and songs I love. I used humor a lot to talk about feminist issues. You can’t just jump from A to Z without going through the alphabet, and humor is a great way to make points that are digestible and palatable, especially as a Latina in a male-dominated industry. This album doesn’t incorporate humor, though. That side of La Mera isn’t present in this release. It’s more serious in tone. 

Musically, I think we’ve also grown so much. We’ve really spent these last releases and performances we’ve done honing our musical style. Previously, we stuck to the cumbias and salsas we were comfortable with. But now, with “Florecer,” for example, we are doing reggaetón, and it’s intentional. We’re talking about sexual abuse survivors through a genre that has been one of the biggest enforcers of the sexualization, and sometimes even violence, women experience. The same is true with “Sonrisa.” A lot of the older cha-cha-chás of the ‘50s and ‘60s were songs about catcalling women that had coros that were catcalls. This song about street harassment had to be a cha-cha-chá. It’s another way of sharing our message. By using these genres, we’re also calling them out for the harmful ways they’ve taught our community what is an acceptable way to treat women and girls.

Follow La Mera Candelaria on Instagram for more information about the album’s release and their virtual fundraising event for LA’s Violence Intervention Program on April 30.

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