De San Francisco Para El Mundo, La Doña’s Star Rises

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A Mexican American woman in a red dress and black eyeline holds a trumpet among tropical plants.
Cecilia Peña-Govea, a.k.a. La Doña, in Alameda on July 20, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

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he beat dropped and the crowd parted, revealing a handful of brave dancers—thumbs hooked under jacket collars, ponytails flying, bodies bouncing, crouching low to the ground and going absolutely dumb.

“Frisco bitches ain't no punks/We talk hella shit and we got hella funk/Starting the argument settling it too/Our heads hella hot and our hearts hella blue,” Cecilia Cassandra Peña-Govea rapped on “Algo Nuevo.” The chorus hit and an electrified dancer in a 49ers jacket dropped into the splits.

It was the first day of Carnaval—San Francisco’s 40-plus year resource fair, parade and celebration—and this was the singer, songwriter and trumpet player’s first show in over a year performing as La Doña. “Algo Nuevo,” her encore on the asphalt of John O’Connell High School, was both a mirror and a balm for the crowd who turned out to the neighborhood festival in late May after 14 months of grief and isolation—a distillation of what La Doña offers through her music.

“I was terrified,” Peña-Govea says of easing back into life after the pandemic. “But it was like, ‘Are you going to play like Carnaval with everybody who's known you since you were a baby, and everybody?’ … And after that moment, I was like, ‘Fuck, we're back in this.’”

Like for many artists, the COVID-19 pandemic derailed Peña-Govea’s plans for her career. The early months of 2020 were setting La Doña up to explode. Days before San Francisco announced shelter-in-place orders last March, she was set to celebrate the release of her first album Algo Nuevo with a party at The Chapel. A big album rollout and national tour were to follow. Then everything was canceled.

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“It was really heartbreaking,” Peña-Govea says.

But even during the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place orders, La Doña did her best to keep up the momentum: she was featured in the New York Times and Billboard, and performed for Red Bull’s virtual festival Estados Unidos de Bass.

Now, her career is gaining even more steam. La Doña opened the 89th season of San Francisco’s Stern Grove Festival in June, and is on the bill for Chicago’s RuidoFest, Austin City Limits and other festivals later this year. She even had a mural painted in her honor outside of Casa Guadalupe Market at 26th and Mission Streets in San Francisco.

Cecilia Peña-Govea, a.k.a. La Doña, stands at Alameda Beach on July 20, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Singing in English and Spanish, the Bernal Heights native makes music that spans Latin American musical traditions. Along with her band—her father Miguel Govea, Sergio Oriache, Esai Salas, Tano Brock and Naomi Garcia Pasmanick—Peña-Govea has been working up to this since the moment her parents ushered her into the family band at age seven.

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usic was the glue in the Peña-Govea household. It was fated from the night Miguel Govea was booked to play a benefit at UC Berkeley's law school in the 1980s. Musician and then-law student Susan Peña invited Miguel out to her car, pulled out a fiddle and played him “Jesusita en Chihuahua,” a Mexican polka said to be a favorite of revolutionary Pancho Villa. (The Peña-Govea family has deep roots in San Francisco. Susan represented members of the San Francisco Lowrider Council in the 1980s when they sued the city in response to the over-policing of cruising.)

Miguel and Susan’s friends, and their broader community of Bernal Heights and the Mission, were all musicians. When Cecilia Peña-Govea and her older sister were born, it was only a matter of time before they learned to play an instrument.

“That’s a way that we connect, through music,” Peña-Govea says. “It wasn't really a question. It was more like, if I wanted to hang out with my family than I had to play music.”

[Watch: Before she was La Doña, Cecilia Peña-Govea appeared in the below 2007 KQED Spark documentary about her family band.]

She settled on the trumpet, her dad’s main instrument, and joined her family’s conjunto, eventually singing, too, when her sister left for college. Together they played all kinds of gigs—private parties, festivals, libraries, schools—practicing and memorizing mariachi, ranchera, bolero and son jarocho standards to be ready to play any request that came their way.

“You’re like a magician, pulling out new tricks,” Peña-Govea says. “You have to know not only where your strengths lie, but also what is going to make people tick. So I think that’s one of the things that is appealing about my music cross-generationally and across borders. It does integrate a lot of different styles and traditions.”

This set Peña-Govea up for the particular kind of alchemy she does as La Doña, weaving together musical traditions from all over the Latin American diaspora.

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n La Doña’s discography you’ll find it all: the rasp of the guira central to Colombian cumbia; the agile congas that steady Cuban salsa; the sweet vibrato of the accordion of Mexican norteñas; the syncopated dembow of reggaeton from Puerto Rico by way of Jamaica; and the 808 bass drums that direct hyphy.

The joy here is that she isn’t following the clumsy, lazy lead of most Western media that seeks to sweep all Latino music and culture under the same restrictive label. Instead, Peña-Govea and her band make art that explores the differences in these deeply-rooted, often liberatory sonic traditions with reverence and curiosity.

Cecilia Peña-Govea, a.k.a. La Doña, in Alameda on July 20, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

There are also aspects of tradition that Peña-Govea rejects—namely the misogyny and machismo often embedded in the ranchera classics she and her family played. “In our reproduction of that culture, I think every member of my family felt an urgent responsibility to do work in other ways that would counter that,” Peña-Govea says, adding that these belief systems were so counter to the LGBTQ-inclusive and feminist space she grew up in.

Sure, she’ll sing a crowd pleaser that’s dripping in misogyny like Tierra Cali’s “Yo Fui Quien Te Hizo Mujer,” but the center of power gets flipped when she sings it. And in her capacity as a songwriter, she’ll turn around and write her own song skewering machismo.

“I feel a joy engaging with traditional music. And I get even more excited to be appropriated in a way that is radical and true to me,” she says.

In that way, La Doña is part of a wave of younger Latino musicians who are upending the strictures placed upon them by outdated conceptions of their identity. Artists like Cuco, San Cha, Combo Chimbita and Reyna Tropical—and even Natanael Cano, with his muddy corridos—are taking the music they grew up on and recontextualizing it. They’re subverting the deep-rooted machismo, probing at power structures or bringing in modern trap into folk ballads. And they’re figuring out ways to do it on their terms.

Cecilia Peña-Govea, a.k.a. La Doña, sits at Alameda Beach on July 20, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

For Peña-Govea, her musical upbringing was formative to her conceptualization of her identity as a Mexican-American, both revealing the vast and dynamic nature of all it can encompass and the way American culture struggles to see that.

“San Francisco and the Mission District is unique in that it's a hub of a lot of Central and South Americans as well,” Peña-Govea says. “I know I'm Mexican, and I know the food that we're eating at home is Mexican. I know that a lot of the music that I grew up learning was Mexican, but at the same time, we're playing nueva cancion, we're playing vals criollo, we're playing salsa—we're playing all different types of music for all different types of people.”

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atinidad as a label is too constricting to be accurate, either for music or as an organizing principle.

“Being a working musician, I came to understand my identity first through being consumed,” Peña-Govea says, recalling that at a very early age she was aware that their gigs were an exchange of culture for capital. She had to reconcile the tension between the connection she felt performing Mexican music and the eagerness with which the wealthy white people who booked the band commodified it.

She built a self-protective filter. “A way to not endure the heartbreak of that, and the pain of that, is that with this hand I take, and with this hand I give back,” she explains. “What the exchange was here at the white person's Mexican-themed party means that I get to show out and play at 24th Street BART and play for my people and be celebrated and feel a sense of belonging.”

Cecilia Peña-Govea, a.k.a. La Doña, poses for a portrait in Alameda on July 20, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

This dance, of finding ways to pour into yourself and community in the face of a system built on extraction, is one that weighs heavy on Peña-Govea’s mind. She’s been steadily juggling three to four jobs since her graduation from UC Santa Cruz in 2015, following the examples of her parents, family and friends she’s seen all her life, hustling to stay afloat in a city that gets more expensive and more inhospitable over time.

“San Francisco is probably [my] biggest influence, besides the extensive study of traditional music,” Peña-Govea says. The city shapes her sound figuratively and literally, because all her collaborators are people from San Francisco.

Her hustle has paid off—the 28-year-old recently fulfilled her dream of buying a house in Oakland. But what’s the cost?

“I think that part of being a resident or native of a contested area is that you always have a lot of outside forces that are going to be exerting extreme amounts of pressure on you,” Peña-Govea says. “That influences the pervasiveness of gangs and gang violence. It has to do with displacement and hustle culture. It has to do with how you see yourself as worthy, right?”

It’s the root of all these symptoms—the crushing and relentless weight of capitalism on working class people of color—that she probes through her music as La Doña. Sure, Peña-Govea is perfectly adept at crafting the kind of anthems about loving and leaving that beckon your homegirls to the dancefloor. But she’s also got the acerbic perspective to articulate the rage and sorrow that displacement and exploitation leave in their wake.

Cecilia Peña-Govea, a.k.a. La Doña, sits at Alameda Beach on July 20, 2021. ( Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“De dónde vienen y cuando se van/Ratas que quieren comer nuestro pan,” Peña-Govea muses on the second track of her EP, “Cuando Se Van.” She laments how her beloved city has been transformed into a barely recognizable space by gentrifiers who show up empty-handed, or rats eager to eat the bread of others.

The song functions like a protection spell, with a desperation and fervor in Peña-Govea’s voice punctuated by horns that are conjuring up the strength of San Franciscan’s past and present as she calls upon mother nature to do the unthinkable.

“Sueño con terremotos, la ciudad pa’ nosotros/Sueño con temblores y ellos se van.” (“I dream of earthquakes, the city for us/I dream of tremors and their departure.”) It almost sounds sinister, if you could ever forget the damage decades of gentrification has wrought on the city and the people who shaped it.

“I think that the overall fear of displacement has deeply affected the psyche of every single person from the Bay Area. And that's just something that my generation has to live with,” Peña-Govea says. “If you are able to stay in the Bay Area, then you hold that as the ejemplo of success, right? And if you leave, then it's a heartbreak of displacement.”

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La Doña performs at the Palo Alto Art Center on Aug. 7 and 111 Minna Gallery in San Francisco on Sept. 10.