La Doña Is the S.F.-Born Musician for This Moment

The Bernal Heights native’s meditations on the city reach their peak in the Afro-Mexican genre known as son jarocho.

Live here long enough and you’ll eventually experience emotional whiplash. It’s possible to be overwhelmed by the singular beauty of this city and then, minutes later, become consumed with existential terror over where next month’s rent is supposed to come from. 

This juxtaposition underpins the work of San Francisco native La Doña, whose growing body of work reveals a lifelong engagement with Latinidad and a sense of urgency over just how much is required of it even as it’s being squeezed out of the city. The result is a bittersweet alienation, something that two songs from her 2020 debut EP, Algo Nuevo (or “something new”), crystallize just so. 

“San Francisco, sí me mata,” La Doña sings on “Quién Me La Paga,” while on “Cuando Se Van,” it’s “San Pancho, te quiero.” In other words, “I love you, San Francisco even though you’re killing me.”

“To be from San Francisco is to know the biggest heartbreak,” La Doña tells SF Weekly by phone. She translates the full verse on “Cuando Se Van” as “San Francisco, I love you. / I was born here and I owe you everything / but I no longer recognize you in this form that you are.”

Her struggle with maintaining a sense of place is brutal, but the music that grew out of it is beautiful indeed. On the strength of Algo Nuevo, and an upraised fistful of singles, La Doña will join Red Bull’s Estados Unidos de Bass this Saturday at 9 p.m. at its inaugural Bay Area mini-fest (Dec. 4-5) celebrating Latinx culture, reggaeton, and hip-hop. 

She had been in talks with Red Bull to do a showcase around Algo Nuevo’s release, but as with so much else, COVID nixed that. The burst of activism in the months that followed make that delay seem almost fortuitous in hindsight, though, as La Doña — born Cecilia Cassandra Peña-Govea — creates music for exactly this moment. As an educator, activist, and lifelong trumpet player, her work pushes for unity among people of color in San Francisco in parallel with its exploration of son jacocho, an Afro-Mexican genre hailing from the state of Veracruz.

“I’ve been actively resisting and continuing to be part of the movement against police brutality in San Francisco much longer than I’ve been making music as La Doña,” she says.

Her newest song, “Chuparrosa” — which translates to “hummingbird” and carries a delightfully onomatopoeic sense of buzzing about — is a plaintive response to the death of Sean Monterrosa, the 22-year-old killed by Vallejo police barely a week after the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. That Monterrosa’s death came in response to his work protesting police violence should be bitter enough on its own, but La Doña knew him personally.

“Sean was from Bernal Heights, and he and his sisters are around my age. We came up in the same circles, the same artistic, creative, activist community,” she says. “When something like this happens, it’s not just the family that’s impacted. We all feel their pain — and that’s been the case in countless of these murders.”

That neighborhood is no stranger to tragedy at the hands of law enforcement. In Bernal Heights Park in March 2014, SFPD officers unloaded 59 shots at Alex Nieto, who had been eating a burrito on a bench before work, because someone walking a dog had reported a man with a gun. (It was a Taser he carried for professional reasons, and no charges were filed against the officers.) La Doña and her team shot the video for “Chuparrosa” near Bernal’s other green space, Holly Park, where Monterrosa’s sisters held the initial memorial, a ride-out, for their brother. From there, a caravan of low-riders made its way to Vallejo police headquarters.

“The song is a celebration of the Justice for Sean movement,” La Doña explains, calling Monterrosa’s sisters “warriors” whose rhetoric and actions have consistently grounded their brother’s death in terms of allyship between Black and Latinx people.

“It doesn’t take such physical proximity or such emotional proximity to feel the terror and the violence of police brutality, but it definitely makes it more tangible to organize around and engage in the work in ways you know are useful and going to move the cause forward,” she summarizes.

Son jarocho, the genre of “Chuparrosa,” is important, she says, because more enslaved people arrived in what is now Mexico during the first 50 years of the slave trade than were brought to the U.S. during the entire history of slavery, resulting in a Black and indigenous culture that isn’t always properly acknowledged. (“I myself grew up within that practice,” she says, adding that “there’s a pretty healthy culture of son jarocho in the Bay Area as well.”) As for the hummingbird metaphor, it’s not merely because Monterrosa was gone too soon. 

“When Sean died, everybody started seeing hummingbirds everywhere,” La Doña says. “A hummingbird showed up at Horizons in the Mission, where he would attend programs. At his memorial at Holly Park, there was a wounded hummingbird that was also hanging around. Everywhere, everybody started reporting hummingbirds that would uncharacteristically be around — not just over there in the tree, but hanging on the sidewalk, in places where you don’t normally expect to see them.”

Comforting visitations aside, white supremacy and police brutality remain weighty topics. But weightiness doesn’t represent the fullness of La Doña, who is equally capable of songs about tropical vacations, and disposable romances tinged with a kind of “boy, bye” feminism. The trumpet is still her primary instrument, taught by her father, who also taught her sister the accordion. Both grew up hearing people casually lament that it was too bad he didn’t have any sons to teach these quote-unquote male instruments to.

“It’s a very interesting role to play as a female horn player,” she notes. “I’m a trumpet teacher, and I’m so excited by this new generation of female trumpet players that I have. I teach them, ‘No, the trumpet is not easy. Yes, it’s loud and it’s going to sound bad sometimes. Yes, it’s going to be extremely difficult — but so are a lot of other things in life, and that doesn’t mean you can’t do them and you can’t do them great.’” 

La Doña
Sat., Dec. 5, 9 p.m.
Red Bull’s Estados Unidos de Bass 

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