“All American Girl,” the lead track from Lesly Reynaga’s sophomore EP, “Dual Passport,” is an open-eyed love song, dedicated to the fiery 27-year-old’s adopted homeland.
“En Espanol or en Inglés, I am an all American girl,” Reynaga declares with a soaring vocal flourish. “Haters going to hate, but I am here to stay,” she adds moments later.
There’s a defiant satisfaction in her voice that’s well-earned. In 2018, while politicians ratcheted up anti-immigration rhetoric ahead of the midterm elections, Reynaga, a Mexican national who began her naturalization process in 2008, triumphantly passed her U.S. citizenship test in time to vote.
The barrage of insults hurled at her birth country motivated her.
“It pushed me to do it faster and to make sure that it got done. It was a huge incentive for me,” she says.
In the four years since she graduated from the University of Texas, leaving her position as a featured soloist in the school’s celebrated ensemble, Mariachi Paredes de Tejastitlán, Reynaga has focused on finding her voice as a singer-songwriter. Her first EP featured songs written shortly after her 2014 graduation and established her pop sensibility. “Dual Passport,” recorded after the election of President Donald Trump and released in 2018, goes deeper.
“I’ve been very angry the last couple of years ... almost traumatized that there’s this rhetoric going on,” she says.
“It’s no secret that there has been discrimination going on since the beginning of time, but the fact that it’s so much out there right now and it’s so vocal and it’s OK to be open about being racist ... (to be) proud of it. It’s very traumatizing.”
Still, Reynaga refuses to relinquish her American dream, and by singing about it, she hopes she will inspire other young Latina women.
“There’s a lot of girls who are feeling ostracized and they’re feeling like they don’t belong and they don’t have anybody to speak their truth or tell their stories,” she says. “By speaking my truth and telling my story, I feel like there’s a lot of girls that can connect with that.”
Though her chosen genre is pop, Reynaga isn’t interested in creating empty dance tracks. Instead she strives to connect words and melodies in a meaningful way.
“As a musician and a community leader in a way, because when you’re given the opportunity to be on a stage in front of people, you’re leading ... you choose to either say something or not and I want to say something,” she says.
Like many Texas families, Reynaga’s straddles the U.S./Mexico border. Her parents are both from Monterrey, where she was born, but when she was 6 or 7 they divorced and her father went to live with her paternal grandmother in McAllen. He became a naturalized citizen, and regular crossings from country to country were a part of her childhood.
At home in Monterrey, Reynaga was surrounded by her mother’s massive family. Her abuelita, who took care of her during the day, was the first to recognize her talent. When she was about 4, her grandmother pulled an old songbook from a closet and taught her “Atotonilco,” a regional Mexican polka.
She was a fearless performer and the song became her school assembly standard. “Typically, they would dress me up accordingly with the Mexican outfit with the big skirts and I would dance along and sing,” she says.
Away from school, Reynaga, influenced by an older sister and a mess of cousins, became obsessed with pop music. She loved Britney Spears, Shakira and Christina Aguilera as well as Mexican pop outfits like the sister duo Ha*Ash.
“Monterrey is the third biggest city in Mexico and it’s very urban and since it’s so close to the border ... there’s a lot of American culture crossing over as well," she says. "The music is hugely influenced by American music.”
By the time she was in high school, Reynaga had earned a scholarship to a private academy, but a spate of kidnappings and daytime shootings around Monterrey spooked her mother. After a friend’s teenage son was kidnapped and held for a few days while the family frantically gathered ransom money, she shipped Reynaga and her sister to McAllen to stay with their father.
Reynaga was 16 at the time, and preparing to start her junior year in high school. She took the move in stride. She applied for a green card and pushed herself to improve her English.
“If you live in South Texas and the Valley you can easily get away without learning English. But that was one of my objectives when I moved there. I wanted to be able to learn English and just communicate better in English,” she says.
Her English was not great and at high school, the language barrier was a challenge. She entered an alternative learning program to avoid being dropped down two grades and managed to graduate on time. Outside of academics, she joined the high school mariachi ensemble. It was a life-changing experience.
“Holy cow, I loved it,” she says. “Because I was already able to play guitar, that kind of gave me that advantage, because in order to play mariachi music, you’re not always singing. So sometimes you have to play, sometimes you have to sing, sometimes you have to do both.”
Her voice was well suited to the passion and drama of mariachi music and she loved performing. When she enrolled at UT a few years later she approached the university’s mariachi ensemble and was invited to join. The group played tailgate parties, gigs for Texas Exes and “all kinds of really awesome campus events.”
“That changed the game for me in town, here in Austin,” she says. “That actually got me connected with my first producer, Michael Ramos.”
The Butler School of Music put together a compilation of the university’s world music ensembles in 2014 and the mariachi portion was recorded at Ramos’ studio. Impressed with the young singer, Ramos gave his card to Reynaga and invited her to reach out for future collaborations. Ramos produced Reynaga’s first EP and collaborated on a few tracks on “Dual Passport.”
“What was so beautiful about the whole thing was that I wasn’t aware where my life was going ... it was like this big blanket was being (woven) without me realizing what was going on,” she says.
A communications major, Reynaga wasn’t really planning to pursue a career in music until she crossed paths with Gavin L. Garcia at her final gig with the university’s mariachi ensemble.
“I don’t know how or why, but he just really adopted me and he just had this crazy idea that I could be a really great musician and that I could do something with my talent,” she says.
Garcia, a former Austin musician and chair of the Austin Music Commission, began managing Reynaga’s career and, she says, the two became like family.
She began gigging around town and managed to get her first EP out in 2017. Then in 2018 everything began to take off. Through a collaboration with Troy Campbell from House of Songs, she traveled to Northwest Arkansas to work with Stax Records producer Al Bell on two songs for “Dual Passport.” She performed at the launch party for the new Austin non-profit One Road Austin and recorded a video session at the Clubhouse.
2019 is shaping up to be even busier. Reynaga plans to spend much of the year touring. One leg of her tour will route her through Mexico and she hopes deeper into Latin America.
“I haven’t gotten to perform in Monterrey yet, my hometown,” she says.
Having her family in the house for the gig will make it particularly meaningful. Because of a decades-old immigration violation, Reynaga’s mother is unable to enter the United States. She has never seen her daughter perform.
Beyond helping her get her career in order, Garcia also pushed her to expand her musical reach.
“What Gavin put in front of me was this whole other idea of you can do something good with that voice, with your intelligence, and it’s not just about you singing for people and singing pretty. ... What if you had something to say and they were hearing your pretty voice, but at the same time you were getting through to them?” she says.
On “Dual Passport,” the song “The Beast” embodies this ideal. The track was a collaboration with local composer Graham Reynolds that was remixed by producer A.J. Vallejo and includes a feature from local rapper Harry Edohoukwa. It’s a reggaeton number with catchy dance beats that carry powerful lyricism.
The song was inspired by “the struggle of immigrants,” Reynaga says.
“I’m very fortunate, because I come from a middle class family and I was able to move to this country legally and to do things through a process of legal citizenship, but there are so many of my people out there who don’t have that opportunity and they would give everything and anything to have that opportunity,” she says.
The Beast is a freight train that runs through Mexico. For decades, Central American migrants have used it to traverse the 3,000 miles from the southern tip of Mexico to the U.S. border.
“The reason why they call it the Beast, in Spanish they call it La Bestia, is because it’s brutal and these migrants who are hopping on this train — the back of this train literally, because it’s a freight train, it’s not a passenger train — they are facing horrible horrible circumstances along the way,” she says.
The narrative that dismisses migrants as dangerous criminals masks the desperation people fleeing their homelands face. “There are so many reasons why people are moving here … they’re afraid for their lives and they’re poor. They’re dirt poor and they can’t feed their families and their children are starving,” she says.
In “The Beast,” Reynaga takes on the character of a young woman “hoping for a better fate” riding on the top of the train. She hopes to humanize the experience.
“Everybody is living their lives and going through society in the best way they can, but I think education and information is so important and that’s something that I’ve realized I can do through my lyrics,” she says. “I can tell stories. And I can communicate with people and not only sing to them but tell them stories and hopefully have them connect with that and understand better.”
MORE AUSTIN360 ARTISTS OF THE MONTH
A lifetime of experience fuels rapper Kydd Jones
Andrew Nolte brings grand visions to life with orchestral pop
Brash, bold and hilarious: Sailor Poon creates their own punk style
Black Pumas: 'Let's come together with all we have'