Tiarra Girls focus on healing their community with music, activism
Tori, Tiffany and Sophia Baltierra did not come here to be cute for you.
The sister act better known as the Tiarra Girls once charmed Austin audiences as precocious tweens who punched above their weight class in the rock chops department. They have grown into a fierce trio of poised young women with formidable musical skills and a sharp new approach to songwriting that blends incisive lyricism with catchy grooves informed by reggae, ska, rock, cumbia and other Latin sounds. They craft powerful anthems for turbulent times, and they’ve emerged as outspoken advocates for social justice and voter engagement.
March should have been a big month for the band. With a series of high profile bookings including daily South by Southwest performances and two dates at Rodeo Austin, the girls were poised for a breakout.
They were excited about the opportunity to share their music with new audiences, people “coming from different places around the country and even the world,” 18-year-old singer and guitarist Tori said, as the sisters clustered together in a bedroom Zoom chat in mid-April.
There were lucrative financial opportunities as well as “just being able to give our music to a wider audience,” she said.
We all know what happened next.
Now they are sheltering together at their family home, the band temporarily in the backseat while each sister finishes a semester of online college coursework. Tiffany, who at 22 is the oldest Tiarra, is balancing part time work as a patient care technician at a local hospital as she works on her nursing degree.
“I've always wanted to be in the medical field,” she said. She once dreamed of being a surgeon, but was daunted by the years of schooling. Through the girls’ shared alma mater, the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders, she landed an internship at Dell Children’s Hospital shadowing a NICU nurse. She saw the “highs of the day and the really lows of the day” and she came away with a clear understanding of the profound ways that nurses touch patients’ lives.
Beginning her career in medicine in the midst of a global pandemic was never part of the plan, but at the hospital where she works, co-workers have been supportive. “We kind of all know we have this fear and anxiety, but we're helping each other get through it,” she said.
As the gravity of the pandemic set in, the girls’ mother became nervous about her daughter’s work at the hospital, but Tiffany’s resolve was unshaken.
“I still want to help people and be there for the patients,” she said. Now, as hospitals have restricted visitors, her work supporting the hospital’s nursing staff feels more important than ever.
“Having that one on one with the patient and giving them somebody to just listen to what they're feeling and giving them that human touch and what they're missing from their family members is really, really important,” she said.
At the hospital, she washes her hands compulsively, every five minutes. At the end of each shift she changes into street clothes and calls her dad. When she gets home, “I have to put everything in a bag outside and, like, go straight to the shower, and make sure I'm not touching anything or touching anyone,” she said.
Even after the shower, she feels anxious.
“This thing’s invisible,” she said. Sometimes she worries about getting too close to her mother or her sisters. “But at the end of the day, I think about all those people that are in the hospital, and that need us to be there to help them,” she said.
Life in social isolation has been an adjustment for all the Tiarras. They’re on top of each other much more than they were before the pandemic and “there are times where we're aggravated or annoyed by being in each other's space,” Tiffany said. “But I'm very, very thankful to have my family. And to be in a house where we're all, you know, so loving to each other and supportive of each other.”
They’re also grateful to have a stable roof over their heads and food on the table.
“We don't have to drive to our local school to go get lunch like a lot of people are having to do. We don't have to wait in lines at food banks and different stuff like that putting ourselves in danger,” Tori said, noting “that's something I think about and I know that my sisters think about pretty much every day.”
The Tiarras were introduced to the power of music early. Their father, Hector Baltierra, was one of Austin’s original B-boys who traveled to NYC to take the title in a citywide breakdancing competition in the ‘80s. When the girls were young, he worked as a DJ at parties and weddings, mixing hits by artists like Beyoncé, Rihanna and Daddy Yankee with a wide variety of genres from hip-hop to country to traditional Mexican sounds. The girls liked to tag along to his gigs and they were struck by the way the “aura of the room kind of changed once the music started playing,” Tori said.
The trio of little girls charmed their father’s audiences. Sometimes they’d wander into the crowd where their father’s friends embraced them and taught them how to dance to cumbias and other styles of music. The music seemed to open doors and later, when they started writing their own songs, “we had that library of genres and lyrics and melodies in our brain already,” Tori said.
Tiffany started taking piano lessons with their grandmother when she was 7 and middle sister, Sophia, now 20 and the band’s drummer, always liked to “bang on things,” Tori said. “Ever since she was little, pretty much, she's always had that mindset of, like, making rhythms, making beats.”
The girls’ first attempts at making music were during epic sessions spent playing “Guitar Hero.” In their video game band, they always played the same instruments: Tori on vocals, Tiffany on guitar and Sophia on drums.
“Whenever we got, like, a low score, and the crowd would boo, we’d just start blaming each other and hate each other for the rest of the day,” Tori said.
“We'd always play it before dinner. So we always remember going to dinner, like, not talking to each other,” Sophia said
When Tori got her first guitar at age 8, the girls began playing music in earnest, with Sophia on drums and Tiffany begrudgingly agreeing to pick up the bass. Within a few years they were playing their first gigs.
“We were very shy,” Tori said. Lost in their nerves, they barely moved on stage. “Our parents would make fun of us and say that we were like the Chuck E. Cheese band,” she said.
With time, they learned to loosen up and enjoy the shows. From the beginning, the young girls were serious about their musical pursuits and they rapidly became regulars on the Austin scene, playing early spots at festivals and civic events.
As they grew older, enrolled in the Ann Richards School and began to come into themselves as young women, their sound evolved.
The 2016 presidential election was a sharp awakening for the sisters. They had never thought much about politics, but the day after Donald Trump was elected they were in shock.
“I remember going to school and everybody was crying,” Tori said.
“That's when I realized that, like, we should probably write music about the stuff that's going on. Because people are listening to us. We have a platform,” she said.
“And people also turn to music in times when they need healing, you know, so we knew we could make something to help people get through this time,” Sophia added.
Shortly after the election, Tori wrote the lyrics to “Leave it to the People,” a furious outcry that came from “a very real and deep” place, she said.
“Our skin is the color of the land/ Our love is stronger than you’ll ever be/ Together we can change it all,” Tori sings, her upper lip curling into a snarl, in a video of the girls performing the song on the band’s website.
The Tiarras felt it was important to speak up because of their position in their community. “We're young Latinas,” Tori said. “We're going to be affected by the Cheeto man.”
They collaborated to create an engaging sound bed that adds buoyancy to the protest song. They released the track in 2018, and while the response was largely positive, they also received their first real negative feedback.
“We didn't realize we had some people who were not gonna agree with our message,” Tiffany said.
“We (got) comments saying, like, ‘I really liked y'all, but then you had to mash politics and music ... stay out of it,’” Tori said.
“A lot of those comments came from a specific audience, one group of, you know, people who didn't believe in brown girls making music,” Sophia said.
With their parents' support, they refused to back down.
“In the beginning, people only saw us as like, little pretty girls who are going to sing,” Tiffany said. But as they grew, they realized “we had a bigger voice and had opinions about different things and we're putting that (in) our music,” she said.
“Leave It to the People” had a “big message that we really, really believed in,” she said.
For the past two years the Tiarras have become relentless in their political activism. They’ve performed at rallies for Beto O’Rourke, Austin City Council member Delia Garza and Senate candidate Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez. They played a 2019 Travis County Democratic Party Ceremony with Nancy Pelosi and have been involved with voter registration campaigns Rock the Vote, Jolt and Voto Latino. They’ve also recorded their own voter registration public service announcements.
Along the way, they’ve become role models for other young women coming up in the music industry. In 2019, they played a showcase for Chicas Rock, a summer camp and afterschool program for young Latinas in Corpus Christi. Backstage there were a gaggle of “trampling little girls” in “rock outfits” that reminded the Tiarras of the vests, knee-high Converse and jean jackets they used to don in their early days, Tori said.
The girls were playing “guitars that were, like, twice their size,” she said.
“It just kind of brought me to tears,” she said. “It was crazy ... kind of like a mirror reflection from the past.”
And it reinforced the band’s core mission.
“(It) motivated us to go on stage and show them what we can do now,” she said. “And just really give it our all.”
Band members: Tori Baltierra (vocals and guitar), Tiffany Baltierra (bass) and Sophia Baltierra (drums)
Releases: “Tiarra Girls” (EP), 2017