As a singer-songwriter, I am constantly asked to put myself and my art into neat boxes. These days, when asked, I describe my music as “Boston Boricua Chicana emotional crybaby funky jazzy folk.” It’s a mouthful, I know, but it’s better than erasing parts of myself to fit what’s left into one genre.
My songs, like me, defy pigeonholing. They are informed by my upbringing in the Boston area as the daughter of Latin folk musicians. The Boston I know is multilingual; it’s one of transplants, like my parents, and wanderers. All this makes its way into my music.
This May, I got news that my song “Milonga accidental” had won the NPR Tiny Desk Contest — the first Spanish-language song to earn that prestigious honor. What a poetic twist of fate that after four previous entries into the contest, and seriously considering leaving my music career behind, this song was chosen. It’s about yearning to fit neatly under one label, but failing again and again — and ultimately embracing your contradictions, celebrating who you are, and making a home within yourself.
It’s a lesson I have learned from the city of Boston and its people.
When we were young, my twin brother and I spent endless hours squeezed into the back of the minivan, among guitar and percussion cases, or hiding behind the velvet curtains of music venues across the country. Wherever our parents, Rosi and Brian Amador, and their band, Sol y Canto, went, so did we.
You might think this would create a sense of displacement, but the opposite was true. The more we traveled, the more connected we felt to Boston. This may be because our communities were full of transplants, like my mother and father (from Puerto Rico and New Mexico, respectively), and others who ended up in Boston by chance and circumstance.
Some of those wanderers were my parents’ bandmates: Renato, the eccentric percussionist from Panama; Bernardo, the Argentinian saxophonist who could have had a comedy career; and Jorge, the soft-spoken, epically talented bassist from Peru. They came here for the music schools: Berklee College of Music, New England Conservatory, and Longy School of Music of Bard College, to name a few. These men were sometimes my cool uncles, sometimes my annoying older brothers. They helped raise me, and immersed me in the Spanish language and in the music of the Spanish-speaking world.
Then, there were my schoolmates, with families from places such as Colombia, Haiti, Ethiopia, and Ireland — as well as Medford and South Boston. These were families that had just arrived in the United States, or who had been here for generations, or even those who had been on this land since time immemorial. Being among them, who was to say we weren’t all right where we were supposed to be?
At home, my parents enforced a strict Spanish-only policy, to instill a connection to our Latin culture and to allow us to communicate with our grandparents and the Spanish-speaking community. In the back of the minivan, I learned the words for Latin folk instruments — such as the quijada and güiro — long before I learned any swear words in English, an important rite of passage for many Bostonians, don’t you think?
One day when I was in preschool, my mom forgot to pack a fork in my lunch box. I didn’t know the word for fork in English, so I ran through the school looking for my brother, to ask him if he knew the word for tenedor. I was 4 years old, and everything was new and unfamiliar. But not speaking the same language as everyone else wasn’t so hard. Many of my peers were in the same situation.
It was only later, when I was 7 or 8 years old, that I began to wonder whether I fit in. When we’d go to Puerto Rico, I was called “la Americana” — the American girl. When we visited my father’s family in New Mexico, I was a city girl from the Northeast. As I got older, when I met people for the first time, they’d often say something along the lines of, “You’re not a typical Bostonian” — it was sometimes code for “You don’t fit in here.”
There has always been one place, however, that I haven’t felt these struggles. Whenever I’m onstage, performing, I’m just me. Music became a refuge for me as early as the age of 4, when I was singing backup vocals on my parents’ children’s album. I still feel it today, as a solo artist, when I play house concerts or at music clubs and band shells. Those boxes defining who I’m supposed to be — none of which I fit into — disappear.
Music is just good, regardless of what genre it is or what language it’s in. It moves you, it makes you feel less alone, it makes you feel right exactly as you are. The music industry is full of boundaries, red tape, and gatekeepers, but music itself is free of all of that. Like Boston, music is a home for me and my family.
I can’t say that it’s always been easy growing up here. The dominant culture of New England can be guarded and quietly judgmental. I’ve lost count of the school friends — from grade school through college — who suddenly stopped being my friends, never telling me why. At the same time, I am aware of my own privilege, stemming from, for example, my unaccented English and light-skinned, cis-gendered appearance.
Still, no matter how much I tour, I never feel settled until I’m back here in Boston. I think it’s because this is where I’ve created my own identity, one that includes being a Bostonian, a New Englander, and a Latina. This is where I have a group of friends who are gentle, kind, silly, and not trying to fit into what someone says they’re supposed to be. I have family and community through music, art, and school that affirm there is room in this city for me. And through my music, I can amplify my story.
I can sing who I am — without fitting into any boxes.
Alisa Amador is a Cambridge-based singer-songwriter and winner of the 2022 NPR Tiny Desk Contest. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.