By Cynthia Gross
Elena Lacayo, frontwoman of Latin folk rock band Elena y Los Fulanos, is living her dream. Born in New Orleans and raised between the States and her native country of Nicaragua, Lacayo brings her diverse experiences and deep insights to bear in her music, where she has become a staple of the international DMV scene.
Learn more about Elena Lacayo’s exciting journey with contributing writer Cynthia Gross, including the unexpected circumstances that led to her pursuing a career in music, highlights from her recent tour with Latin Grammy-winning female mariachi band Flor de Toloache (she got to hang out with John Legend and Miguel among other things), and her special message in honor of Women’s History Month.
After attending college in Indiana, Elena Lacayo knew she wanted to stay in the States. “At the time, music was not part of my plan at all,” she shared. Her criteria for a new home away from home was simple. It needed to be a walkable city, which narrowed her options to places like San Francisco, Chicago, New York, and of course, Washington, D.C.
“D.C. just made sense for me,” Lacayo said. “When I got off the metro for the first time, I heard go-go being played on buckets. I think it was in Chinatown. I remember thinking, ‘This is a cool city, and I could see myself here.’”
Lacayo formed her band in 2011 while, at the time, working a full-time position in immigration advocacy. It was here that she was introduced to the District’s mariachi, Son, and punk scenes, where she met her future bandmates, Danny Cervantes and Andrew Northcutt. She credits the vibrant punk scene for empowering her to push the boundaries of who she believed she could be with its “anyone who has anything to say has the right to express themselves” spunk.
Although she has always been confident in speaking her truths, Lacayo discovered that some spaces did not welcome this authenticity. “Part of the reason I became a musician is that I found out you can only get so far by arguing with people,” she explained while reflecting on her tenure working in immigration advocacy.
“It was really hard on me, and it made me angrier and depressed. For my own health, I decided to step away and focus on music for advocacy. With music, you hit on a different place with a person. You’re not trying to win with reason and logic. You’re telling your story.” Her advice to anyone who feels that they are not in the right place is timely and spot-on: “The important thing is for individuals to figure out where their skills are best used in a way that’s sustainable for them.”
After leaving her job due to burnout, Lacayo took some time off to recover. Music had always been a part of her life as a pastime, and she decided to record favorites from her growing collection of original songs as a way to heal. Ironically, when she released her 2014 debut album, Miel Venenosa (later nominated for a Wammie Award), it immediately began to gain traction in the local community, and she thought, “Maybe I can just keep doing this.” And the rest is history.
In an unexpected turn of events, music became Elena Lacayo’s new platform for advocacy – one that offered a breath of fresh air from the contentious political front. “When people sing together, it is a very unifying experience,” she shared. “It’s something that doesn’t happen often enough in our movements. In the Civil Rights Movement, for instance, it was very important to sing together. Singing is an emotional experience that bonds you with the people you’re singing with.”
Lacayo has been winning audiences over with her distinct sound and captivating presence ever since. She is hot off the heels of a cross-country tour with acclaimed female mariachi band Flor de Toloache, where she got to record with John Legend and hang out with Miguel. Lacayo notes that she was introduced to the group when she played a show with band leader Mireya Ramos unknowingly.
Soon after she met Ramos, Lacayo’s violin player, Danny Cervantes, floated the idea that she should learn guitarrón (guitar bass) so she could play with Flor de Toloache, and immediately, a seed was planted. Over the next few years, Lacayo learned to play guitarrón, and down the road when Flor de Toloache was seeking new members, she was ready. “When you get pushed to a bigger stage, you either step up as a performer, or you don’t,” she noted.
When asked how she maintains a sense of belonging within her multicultural background, Lacayo shared, “The process of becoming a musician helped me to see myself fully in both reframing what my own identity is in relation to the different cultures I belong to and expanding the definitions in both. I realized I can be fully American and Nicaraguan. They are not in conflict with each other.”
Another added bonus of performing with Flor de Toloache is that it reconnected Elena Lacayo to her roots. “I didn’t really grow up listening to mariachi proactively, but my parents loved mariachi,” she said, noting that she traditionally gravitated toward bands like Smashing Pumpkins. “And look at me now. Genres are just constructions that we all engage in, and borders and boundaries, those are created.”
In addition to building her own legacy as an artist, Lacayo values giving back and uplifting other aspiring artists, especially women. “When women give other women opportunities, it allows us to step up,” she explained, reflecting on Women’s History Month. “People step into the roles that they’re given. Men more often than women are given opportunities to grow into bigger shoes. One of the most important things that we, as women, can do is ensure we are doing this for other women.”
Elena Lacayo performs with Flor de Toloache tomorrow, March 4, at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. Be sure to get your tickets before they sell out. Stay tuned for the band’s forthcoming album, which drops on March 8, featuring covers of their favorite rock songs recorded during the pandemic.
Maryland-based singer-songwriter Cynthia Gross seeks to inspire an awakening to all we are and all we can become. With a passion for language in all of its forms and more than a decade of experience as a professional ghostwriter, she is a light seeker who understands the power of each individual’s voice to create positive, meaningful change.
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