Nuevo Culture

‘This Is How I Want To Paint My City’: Flores’ Debut EP ‘The Lives They Left’ Is a Gorgeous Tribute to El Paso

The R&B singer Flores opens her tender debut EP, The Lives They Left, with “915,” an ode to El Paso that feels like flipping through a scrapbook. She traces quiet teenage memories, like sneaking out at night, missing curfews, and wandering around parking lots at 3 a.m. “We said we would find a way to make it out someday,” she sings.

The song is a poignant introduction that gently leads into the rest of the project, which captures the complexities, beauty, and pain of growing up in a border region. El Paso links Texas and Ciudad Juarez, and as a kid, Flores — who identifies as Mexican and indigenous — was aware of the trauma and struggles her ancestors had been through. Her childhood is filled with images of CBP apprehensions and news of factory raids, and she’s watched constant attacks on immigrants continue today. But she’s also seen how beautiful and resilient her community is, and she made it her goal to represent El Paso in a full, thoughtful way. “I wanted to try and convey all that  on this project,” she says on a recent Zoom call. “If this place was an album, what would growing up there sound like?”

Ambient sounds — the buzz of cars, the voices of friends and loved ones, the sound of Mexican musicians playing their instruments — bring the city to the production and ground her unabashedly politically songs in real-life experiences. Flores is soft-spoken in person, but she’s sincere, and that honesty comes through on tracks like “Sangre” and “American Dirt,” which confront how immigrants are treated in this country. She had some apprehension about being so direct on the EP, but she knew there were things that had to be addressed. “I let go of any scared feelings or fears,” she says. “If this is the first and only body of work I make, I’d feel OK with that. It said what it needed to say.”

Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

So much of The Lives They Left focuses on growing up in El Paso. What was your upbringing there like, and how did it lead you to music?
I got into music very young. I played piano, and I’m mostly self-taught. I didn’t get any types of lessons — my parents really didn’t have the money.  And I don’t have any musical people in my family. My mom can’t sing at all [laughs]. She was a social worker, and now she’s working with young teenagers who have social disorders. She’s always helped people. I was exclusively raised by her, and she’s been an activist who’s always out there helping people. Growing up, sometimes you don’t understand it — it can be a bit much for a young person — but she’s a person I deeply respect, and that’s what prompted me to write so viscerally in this way for my first project.

Since about 2018, I’ve been very involved with civil disobedience and civil resistance against the Trump administration. I feel like we all kind of knew they didn’t like Mexicans in the White House, and now it’s front and center. Immigration is a huge issue, and today — in El Paso especially — .01 percent of asylum seekers get granted asylum. You have a place that’s 85 percent Mexican-Americans, and .01 percent are granted permission to live in the U.S. It’s harsher than a lot of other places, and I think we should talk about that. My existence is political, and of course it comes out in my music.

What revelations about yourself did you have as you talked about these subjects tied to your identity?
Being considered Latino, indigenous, and also being raised on the border, there’s always this sense of being treated like the invaders or like we’re not part of America. Even if you look at the Smithsonian museums, we’re hardly a note in the area. It feels like they’ve cut us out of everything, and it’s like, “Wait. We’re here. We have existed here since the beginning.” And I feel like that is so intrinsically part of who I am. That’s been one of  the biggest revelations: “Why do they keep saying we’re illegals? This is our land.” I feel like there’s so many stories that need to be told and I always want to uphold them and pay homage to our ancestors. Survivor’s guilt is what it feels like sometimes, but I think if I don’t say something for them and keep saying it, then I’m not doing the small bit that I can do.

Did you find that any of these songs were challenging to get out, especially because these issues are so emotional and tied to ancestral trauma?
I would definitely say “Sangre,” because it’s spoken word. I’m not a poet in that way normally, so it’s a very foreign place for me. But I had a lot of things on my mind that I’m so angry about. When I go back home and when I live there, I see apprehensions all the time, and it is never easy to see. It’s never easy. It does not get easy to see children being thrown in the backs of white vehicles with armed men. It doesn’t. I just feel so angry. Whenever I hear “Sangre,” it just bubbles up inside of me, all the things that I’ve had to experience as a border dweller, because it’s not fair. And it just feels like America is becoming more and more virtual in the way that they’re monitoring us. That song — “American Dirt” as well — are a little bit close to the chest. I don’t usually say what I feel, so this was my alternate vessel to speak up.

You did “Sangre” in one take. How did that one unfold?
I was watching the news. They had done a raid, which is one of the audio excerpts that we used in the actual song. And they raided 700 immigrants who were working, who were undocumented, at Oscar Mayer and a few of these other meat companies that had been hiring out in the South. The workers wanted to unionize, apparently because of sexual abuse and poor treatment and terrible hours. They’re living on location, and they live in these tiny houses, and they basically have to be subjected to any type of housing they get — whether it’s a train car, or there are rats, or there are roaches, it doesn’t matter. There could be no running water.

For me, it’s just knowing that this still goes on. It’s 2022 and we’re still right back to the 1900s, the 1800s. They scooped up all of the immigrants and they deported them, and they left all the children at home. They were interviewing these children, and there were four children in a home like, “Where are my mom and my dad?” And then, they take the children, they put them in these holding centers, and then they deport them. Then they leave it to other countries to put them together. They have terrible documentation, so they can’t find their parents. It kills me. I’m a mother myself, so I was just like, “The least I can do is put this on paper.”

The album was made between London, Texas, and Norway, where you live now. How did being in those three places impact the way that the album sounds?
I would say it just makes you miss everything. I feel like “915” is that. There was a lockdown, so I couldn’t travel back home to El Paso, and I was like, “Am I ever going to get back home?” There’s another track called “Nopales,” which is about the deep wound of separating from your people, whatever tribe you’re from. It’s like something you can’t fill, I guess. It’s nice here, but there’s just something about your people and where you’re from and the smell in the air. There’s creosote, which is this bush that smells amazing. It smells so aromatic in the summers when it rains in El Paso, and it’s unlike anything you’ll smell. I missed those things.

I’ve been here in Norway for about 10 years. I fell in love —there’s a military base in El Paso, and I met someone and came out here. When COVID hit, we didn’t know what would happen with our parents, especially in our communities, and El Paso was really, really bad. It was hit quite badly. In 2019, I had also visited, and the week that I was leaving was when that Walmart shooting happened. We’re making a documentary and we’re releasing it this summer — it’s more of an artistic documentary. They made a kind of monument to the 23 people who were murdered on that day, and it’s quite beautiful. We got some beautiful shots of that. It’s been nice going back for filming.

How have these projects help you heal and reconcile with everything that’s happened in El Paso? It’s not just the history of border apprehensions, but more recent traumas on top of it.
It’s been one insult to injury after the other. It made me feel like, “This is how I want to paint my city.” We’re really beautiful people. We’re really kind people, really giving. We take care of each other. It’s a very close-knit group. I do think there’s a sense of responsibility just being from El Paso to represent.