Meet the Women Smashing Mexico’s Male-Dominated DJ Scene
Musas Sonideras may not be as well-known as their male counterparts, but they are making waves with fans and skeptics alike
Marisol Mendoza takes to the DJ booth in a personalized black-and-purple windbreaker. Her name, embroidered in bright block letters, adorns the right arm, and the left arm displays the flags of Colombia, Puerto Rico, and Cuba — three of the most iconic producers of tropical music. The back of Mendoza’s jacket flashes with several other embroidered logos, the most eye-catching a yellow-lined silhouette of a woman holding a microphone above bright pink letters featuring the name of the all-female music collective that Mendoza founded and runs: Musas Sonideras.
Mendoza is representing Musas Sonideras tonight along with another woman known as Sol Salsita. They’re playing music in the white-walled hall of SOMA, an art school in Mexico City’s upper-middle-class neighborhood of San Pedro de los Pinos. As they prepare to play, a chant arises from the crowd: “Musas! Musas!” They start off their set with a cumbia hit, “Oye Mujer.”
It’s not the typical crowd for musicians like the Musas, who represent the sonidero musical tradition born in Mexico City’s working-class neighborhoods in the 1950s. A sonido refers to a street dance with massive sound systems playing cumbia, salsa, guaracha, and other tropical rhythms. The sonidero — somewhere between an MC, a DJ, a party promoter, and a hypeman — brings the party. They typically set up the sound system and announce and spin the music, punctuating songs with saludos, or shoutouts that partygoers submit handwritten on pieces of paper. In many parts of the city, sonidos are a ubiquitous part of any neighborhood event: a celebration for the feast of a patron saint, a particularly blown-out birthday or quinceaños bash, or the anniversary of the local market.
Less ubiquitous, though, are women like the Musas. Mendoza founded Musas Sonideras in 2017 to bring together the small population of women playing music in Mexico’s sonidero scene. Mendoza says there are as many female sonideras in both Mexico and the United States as male sonideros in her neighborhood of Tacuba alone. The 34 members of Musas Sonideras are making waves in the notoriously misogynistic sonidero world. They’ve played inside the Santa Martha Acatitla women’s prison and at Los Pinos, Mexico’s former presidential palace turned cultural center. They’ve played queer bars and free HIV-testing sessions and the campus of the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
While posters for sonidero parties feature scantily clad women and offers of free entrance for women, the population of women in the booth is virtually invisible. That’s not because they don’t exist. The Musas take as their inspiration Sonidera la Socia, a woman from the sonidero hot spot of Tepito in the center of Mexico City who died over two decades ago. Most of the Musas got their start as sonideras because their husbands, fathers, or brothers were immersed in the sonido scene. All of them work other jobs; nearly all have children; and few make much money from their sonidero work or own their own equipment.
Mendoza says there are as many female sonideras in both Mexico and the United States as male sonideros in her neighborhood of Tacuba alone.
I meet Mendoza on an unseasonably warm November afternoon. She is helping her parents set up the stand outside the Popotla metro station where they sell snacks, gum, cigarettes, and soft drinks. The sun beats down as Mendoza’s mother and preteen daughter unload candy from plastic tubs. Mendoza ushers me over to a nearby cafe, where she orders a pitcher of agua de jamaica and begins telling me about how the Musas came to be.
The 42-year-old stands just about five feet tall, with her signature long ponytail trailing halfway down her back, but she carries herself with authority, and her encyclopedic passion for sonidero culture overflows. Mendoza grew up with her father’s sound system in the house, the looming speakers and subwoofers stored next to the dresser under a cloth her mother had crocheted for them. Her father, Ricardo Mendoza, is Sonido Duende, and Mendoza’s brother began playing as Sonido Duende Junior. Her mother’s friends would bring over their records to play on the family’s equipment.
As part of the collective Proyecto Sonidero, Mendoza has curated museum exhibits, organized concerts and dances, and written about sonido culture for magazines and books. Despite growing up immersed in the sonidero scene, Mendoza never saw female sonideras emphasized in it. In 2015, Mendoza founded another collective of female sonideras, Sonideras de Corazón, which eventually gave rise to the Musas, who played their first gig in July 2017.
When the Musas play at feminist spaces, the hosts often hand them a list of dozens of banned songs — salsa and cumbia classics like “Talento de Television” (“she doesn’t have talent, but she’s good looking/she has a good body and something else”).
In a scene where women generally play the role of eye candy, the Musas have faced their fair share of pushback. Most people simply aren’t used to seeing women playing music, and many assume that they can’t. “In the bathroom, you hear other women say, ‘Oh, the women are going to play, let’s get out of here,’ and your heart shrivels up,” Mendoza says.
When the Musas first started out, some people in the scene called the group the Sonideras Panzonas — the “pot-bellied sonideras.” Mendoza chuckles as she recounts this. “Why can’t a female sonidera be fat? Men who are sonideros are fat, toothless, ugly, with bellies. We’re not models; our work is our music. Why aren’t we allowed to be ugly?”
The music itself is often drenched with misogyny. When the Musas play at feminist spaces, the hosts often hand them a list of dozens of banned songs — salsa and cumbia classics like “Talento de Television” (“she doesn’t have talent, but she’s good looking/she has a good body and something else”). Mendoza wants to reclaim some of those songs, like “La Loca.” “When someone tells me I’m crazy, I want to thank them,” she says. “There are a lot of us crazy women, and we’re coming together.”
On a Sunday morning, I join Mendoza and two other Musas, Sonido la Dama and Sonido Cataleya, to drive to Amecameca, a town about an hour and a half from downtown Mexico City. They’ve been invited as guests on a radio show hosted via Facebook livestream, a common phenomenon in the sonidero community. On our drive, Jaqueline Malagón, Sonido la Dama, tells me she’s known Mendoza for around two decades. Both of them have raised their children in the sonidero scene; they’re both part of what, in the sonidero scene, is referred to as a dynasty — a family lineage of sonideros. Sonideros often raise other sonideros, but dynasties tend to follow paternal lines. Malagón proudly claims a place as the matriarch of her own dynasty: Of her six children, four are involved in the sonidero scene as singers, dancers, and sonideros.
When we arrive, we meet the radio hosts and two other Musas: La China de Otumba from the town of Otumba just north of Mexico City and Fiesta Bacana from Texcoco, also just outside of the city. It’s rare for so many of the women to be in the same place, and their energy is contagious. After an impromptu photo session, we eat a lunch of beef and chorizo tacos then file into a room equipped with sofas and a DJ booth, where the hosts, who go by Abi Abichuela and Bichi Bichina, start the program.
Many people in the sonido scene see dancing as a way to keep young people out of more destructive activities, but outside of the working-class sonidero scene, street dances have become associated with crime, from public drinking to drug deals to shootings.
Over the next four hours, the room swirls with banter, music, and ruminations on what it’s like to be a woman in the sonidero scene. Between shoutouts to viewers and interviews with each member of the group, the women show each other their tattoos and laugh raucously over innuendos. The Musas christen Abichuela and Bichina as honorary Musas. Malagón pulls her boyfriend into the center of the room to dance a cumbia, then hands him off to dance with the other women. One by one, the Musas take turns playing music. Malagón steps behind the booth to announce a salsa song. She murmurs into the microphone — timing her comments to set off phrases of the music — a saludo here, a cooed “rico, papi” there.
Malagón boasts 22 years as a sonidera — one of the longest careers of any female sonidera out there and the second longest of the group. Like Mendoza, she grew up immersed in music. Her mother sang with Sonora Santanera, a Mexican salsa group founded in the 1950s, and Malagón grew even closer to the sonidero world when she married a sonidero. Even before Malagón took up the microphone herself, she’d been involved in political organizing around sonideros. Twenty-two years ago, amid a city crackdown on sonideros, she’d organized a group to sign a petition to deliver to a city representative. Someone else put her name down as Sonido la Dama, and she’s performed under that name ever since.
Malagón’s pro-sonidero activism continues to be relevant in a city that often criminalizes noncommercial uses of public space. Starting about 10 years ago, it became difficult to get permits for street dances in Mexico City. Many people in the sonido scene see dancing as a way to keep young people out of more destructive activities, but outside of the working-class sonidero scene, street dances have become associated with crime, from public drinking to drug deals to shootings. It’s not uncommon for people to consume alcohol or controlled substances at street dances and, as with any large street gathering of people, fights occasionally break out. Mendoza says this led the city to indiscriminately criminalize sonidos. “Now when you set up a sound system, the police immediately appear and check what’s going on,” she says. Before, Mendoza says, you didn’t even need a permit: A sonidero showed up, blocked off the street, and hosted a dance. “You could walk out of your door and be at the dance,” she says, “instead of spending money to go to a dance hall, spending money on drinks, spending money on the bathroom.” In an expansive city, where working-class neighborhoods line the periphery, sonidos make music and dance accessible. The sonido is a way of claiming and celebrating the right to public space.
With fewer street dances, sonideros have turned to playing more in closed spaces, like dance halls and clubs. Sonideros have also found recent popularity with upper-middle-class hipster types. It started a few years ago, Mendoza recounts, when her co-collaborator in Proyecto Sonidero managed to get several sonideros on the lineup for the hip Vive Latino music festival. Sonidero parties at those spaces are wildly different from those in the street, though. Lately, the Musas play indoor parties more often than traditional sonido street dances. That move has its pros and cons. Mendoza appreciates the safety a closed space can provide, given the expensive equipment that sonideros lug around. But, she insists, sonideros are from the street, and the essence of sonidero culture remains there.
The Deportivo Oceania dance floor is one of the city’s sonidero landmarks. The paved cement underpass lies below the metro on the edge of the Peñon de los Baños neighborhood, known as the birthplace of sonido culture. On the cement pillars around the dance floor, a spattering of murals depict stylized tropical rumberas, zoot-suit-wearing pachucos, and dancing couples. Early on a Sunday afternoon, the esplanade is nearly empty save for Mendoza and Carmen Mejía, who goes by Sonido Yare, and about a dozen dancers who form the dance group Chucho y sus Traviesos. Sonido Yare, one of the several U.S.-based Musas, has come to town from San Diego for a family commitment, and she’s taken advantage of a few free hours to promote an upcoming event she’s playing in Tijuana. While someone streams her on Facebook, Sonido Yare announces a few songs, to which the dancers perform impeccably choreographed routines.
After Sonido Yare finishes her set, Mendoza and some of the dancers chat about the struggle to keep sonidero culture alive in the midst of city opposition. “They think we’re low-class, the drug addicts, the drunks, prostitutes,” Mendoza says. “The authorities come and tell us that we’re dancing in their public space, but it’s also our space.” To dance in the street is to assert the right to the city. For Mendoza and the Musas, taking a place as sonideras — playing music, not just dancing on display — is asserting that they have just as much right to that space as men do.
By late afternoon at the Deportivo Oceania underpass, taco stands have set up shop for the evening, the sonidero of the day has mounted his sound system, topped with multicolored spinning lights, and a few dozen shiny-shoed dancers have arrived. The Sunday dances usually start with danzón, a sedate ballroom style more popular with older people. It’s a rainy, cold evening, but the growing crowd warms up by dancing. Mendoza confers with the sonidero in charge, who agrees to let her play a few songs. As the temperature drops, the crowd grows, and Mendoza steps up to the DJ booth, clad in her black-and-purple jacket. She grasps the microphone with a grin and speaks over the cumbia’s accordion line, “Dance with flavor! It’s your first time with Marisol Mendoza!”