Nacha Mendez is in a tizzy. She’s setting up for her regular Thursday night gig at La Boca, planning for the Hispanic Arts Festival just a couple of days later in Dixon and, oh yeah, she’s also stretching her painter legs and taking part in a two-person Canyon Road art show on Aug. 10.
Any given night, Mendez performs one to two shows, displaying her flamenco and ranchera-infused bravado. Folks have dubbed Mendez (real name Margarita Cordero) “the reigning diva of Latin world music” and “the hardest working woman in Santa Fe.” Regardless, the La Union native feels she should do more.
“I feel underexposed,” Mendez tells SFR in an email. “I come from a working-class family with a strong work ethic. I value what I do and take pride in my work. Yes, performing music is my work.”
Carving her name in the local music scene and surviving in Santa Fe, Mendez says, has been no easy task. “If more club or restaurant owners paid me what I ask for, then I wouldn’t have to work four, sometimes five nights a week,” she points out. “Ideally, one gig that pays my rent, bills and puts food on my table would be a dream come true...or even scoring a film soundtrack kind of gig to give me a break from performing would be ideal. Or, better yet, starring and singing in a film and living off the royalties for a little while.”
Still, she remains grounded, and lives up to the hard-worker moniker.
“Someone asked me recently if singing [several] nights a week would cause me to become oversaturated, spread out too thin or too thick,” she says. “My reply [was that] diversifying is the key to staying alive in this town as a working musician.”
It’s a challenge she’s overcome while staying true to her genre. “Latin music is already so diverse,” Mendez explains. “I can choose from the vast amount of repertoire that is out there and, depending on the venue or event, I can perform salsa, tango, Latin world or my own compositions.”
For people who can’t get past their Come on, shake your body, baby, do the conga! rut, Mendez provides a true education. Both sensual and haunting, her rendition of visceral love song “Malagueña”—included in her 2004 release Volando—is one of the best ever laid down. 2011’s Angelitos Negros delivers an equally poignant message, this time speaking against racial discrimination in Latino communities. The maxi-single contains four versions of the anthem that revolves around a gut-punch plea to a santero to paint black angels, as “they too go to heaven.”
Based on a poem by Venezuelan-born Andrés Eloy Blanco, “Negros” would become a song and film in 1948, starring golden-age Mexican cinema leading man Pedro Infante. This succinct infusion of history in Mendez’ performance put her head and shoulders above many of her contemporaries on the restaurant/hotel circuit.
“Let’s be realistic: the city of Santa Fe is a tourist-driven city, with tourist dollars making a lot of people happy, including myself,” she says. “The tourists keep me employed, as do the restaurant and club owners; locals, too, but I don’t see a lot of my friends at gigs, and that is OK.”
For the up-and-comers, Mendez advises weathering the storm. “I’ve lived in Santa Fe since 1978 and have seen the trend when gig work picks up and when it slows down,” she says. Versatility is also key. “Each venue where I sing at is unique and different, and I’m able to establish a wide range of fans,” she says. “Certainly, there are different fans, and enough if not more [than enough] to go around for each venue.”
Now, the Nacha train seems unstoppable. “I don’t feel overexposed,” she reiterates. “It only appears that way since my name is always in the weeklies.”
Mendez is ready to translate the same drive to her visual art, a passion that flourished during her teenage years.
“Painting is another one of those things that grounds me,” she says. “Music and painting are very different expressions: Painting complements my musical life, and music feeds my painting life. And, in the process, both become instruments of my healing.”
Though the local music scene has its flaws, in between her seemingly never-ending gigs, Mendez continues to be a staunch fan and supporter.
“Sadly, I don’t get out much until very late at night. I am lucky if I can catch the last set,” she says. Asked who she has her eye on, she replies, “Right now—and I mean, because it’s very recent—I am liking the work of Andrew Tumson and Miranda Scott.”
Minimalist punk-poppers Evarusnik, whom she recently saw live for the first time, are also on her radar. “I caught a couple of their songs at El Farol when we had a power outage throughout the city. They kept performing...and were great even in the dark!”