MY ENTIRE CHILDHOOD took place in the heart of San Antonio. We lived near downtown, in the King William neighborhood, and I went to school smack in the middle of the city. Our family’s church, St. Mary’s, was downtown also, and my very first singing jobs were on the River Walk. It’s wonderful for memory’s sake, because so many people nowadays have only memories of suburbs. It’s why I still love San Antonio so much, because a city’s heart doesn’t ever really change.
I was the youngest of thirteen. My parents were both from Mexico, so our home life was very traditional: the radio always tuned to a Mexican station, Mexican food every day, speaking in Spanish. By the time I was born, my oldest siblings were married and had their own children, so I grew up seeing my nieces and nephews more as my cousins. My sisters—I have ten older sisters—have always been sort of like my “fairy god-aunts.” We’re all still close. A few have ventured out to places like South Dakota or New Jersey, but the core of the family still loves being in San Antonio.
When my parents came from Mexico, the border was much more open, and becoming an American citizen was an easier thing. But a lot of my parents’ friends—my mother’s in particular—would come looking for work, most of them undocumented. So our house was always sort of the halfway home for everyone that came to San Antonio; they’d stay with us and look for jobs until they could move out on their own. This was entire families sometimes. Our family was big enough already, but somehow there was always room. My mother took care of everyone. The life of undocumented workers was something that I got to see up close, and this connection to border stories is something I’ve ended up writing a lot about in my music. My mom’s sister was a farmworker in California with her family, so a few of my songs also deal with those issues. It’s through my family that I’ve felt a connection to Mexican American culture and what it means to believe in causes and struggles.
Once I was in high school, my mom would pressure me about getting a job. What’s hilarious is that when I was little, I used to romanticize being a checkout girl; I couldn’t wait until I was sixteen so that I could be a cashier. But by fifteen, I had learned to play guitar, and I decided I didn’t want to just be a cashier. The folk music of the seventies was popular at the time, and that’s the kind of stuff I got my first singing jobs with. I’d heard that there were clubs on the River Walk that had folksingers, so I’d walk into clubs down there and ask for a manager and ask if I could audition. I was never an assertive or outgoing person, but when it came to music, I figured this was the way I could earn money. Eventually I got hired and ended up working there three or four years. It was great stage experience. I’d do mostly covers, of Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, James Taylor, Neil Young. And because of my upbringing, I could sing the songs of San Antonio, or of being Mexican, with a pretty honest voice. I knew the Mexican love songs, but I also could sing the American protest songs.
I left Texas soon after all that, in my early twenties, to go live in the mountains of New Mexico and then in Nashville, and it was then that I started writing my own music. I think it was important for me to leave, so I could look back and reflect on my Texas. Not only was it a good experience to leave home—everyone should do something like that—but New Mexico is where I began to learn and appreciate more about Texas. Texas music was popular there, and a lot of it had to do with the hippie thing and the music culture of Austin—Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Michael Martin Murphey, all that. Everybody knew about the Armadillo World Headquarters. So it wasn’t until I moved away that I saw that a lot of art, a lot of what Texas is about, didn’t come only from San Antonio.
Life wasn’t what I expected it to be in these other places. Even in New Mexico, as close as that is. For one thing, the Hispanic culture is not like the one in South Texas. The language, the customs, the food—everything was different from my Tex-Mex roots. I grew to really love it, but I’d also get homesick, and so food became sort of an obsession for me. I’d call my mom at least a couple times a week, and she’d give me recipes. She’d be laughing the whole time, saying, “Why didn’t you ask for these before?” As the youngest in my family, I was always the one that got kicked out of the kitchen, so I’d never thought much about cooking. My mother was an incredible cook. I loved her chiles rellenos and her enchiladas.
Some ten years later, when I had two children and a husband in law school, it was time to go back closer to home, and we moved to Austin. I’d always felt that it was a songwriter’s town. It was the first time I’d had a real audience that wasn’t like a country-music-dance-hall audience or like the tourist audiences on the River Walk. Austin audiences know what they want to hear; they know they like something unique and sincere. I sang about the things that had been the most common to me: border crossings, social commentary, Spanish love songs. I felt that my culture actually mattered and that the things I had to say mattered. One of the first places I played was Raven’s Garage, which is Emo’s now. It’s funny, because my kids hang out at Emo’s all the time now;