"I write music to re-create some part of home for myself here in New York City," says San Diego-born Sandra Lilia Velasquez. "When I got here in 1999, I felt like there were no Mexicans compared to San Diego. I'd never lived where Mexicans weren't the Latino majority. I took it for granted — the food, the music, the accent.
"So Pistolera is a mix of sounds from my memories with my own personal spin about current topics with a rock attitude."
Most of Pistolera's songs have a political edge. Velasquez says that she has always been outspoken and that her bluntness carries over into her music. "Growing up 15 minutes from the border, being raised by immigrant parents and the fact that my mother is an immigration lawyer, activist and professor all influenced my world perspective and my political views," she says. Normal dinner-table conversation in her household included discussions of immigration, human rights and political asylum.
"Cazador," which means "Hunter," is Pistolera's most well-known song, and it protests vigilante-style organizations like the Minutemen who attempt to patrol the border. The lyrics are so straightforward, they sound like some of that dinner conversation: "The border is only a line that divides us, we all want the same things, to live in peace without having a hunter bother us."
But Velasquez was nourished on more than just political talk. "The musical style of Pistolera mostly comes from listening to my mother's living room stereo, which always had cumbias, merengues, salsa and pop Mexicano," says Velasquez. "Of course, I was also listening to Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and the Smiths in my bedroom. At some point I guess the rock and the Latin fused in my head."
Velasquez played in several rock bands growing up. "So that feels normal to me," she says. "I feel like I play in a rock band in terms of the energy and attitude we bring to the stage, it's just that I sing in Spanish and it has lots of Latin influences."
Not that she and her bandmates — drumming cousin Ani Cordero, bassist Inca B. Satz and accordionist Eileen "Maria Elena" Willis — do rock en español. "That conjures up images of North American bands singing in Spanish," says Velasquez. "In other words, unoriginal." She thinks the ideal record-store section for Pistolera would be "Latin alternative or world music."
Willis, who attended Wellesley College, majored in Italian, works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and is in constant motion during performances, says she "would love to see Pistolera in a bin marked 'great music,' because we honestly don't care or think much about genre."
First and foremost, Pistolera wants people to feel the dance beat. "When I first bought my accordion and went to Main Squeeze for some introductory accordion lessons, my teacher Walter Kühr's only real advice was 'groove like hell.' I carry that with me. This band grooves."
So, as the gringa in the band, is Willis down with Pistolera's political messages?
"We are all absolutely on the same page," she says. "I love that there's a message to the music, but it's still great on its own. It's great fun to see people getting down to a song whether or not they realize it's about human rights."
In balancing music against home life, Velasquez and Cordero (who also leads indie rock outfit Cordero) both have babies to contend with.
"Music is our passion," says Cordero, "but it's also our career, so we face the same issues as other working moms — mainly childcare and scheduling."
"Keeping the balance in life when you're a touring musician is something that is totally possible," notes Velasquez. "I have an eight-month-old baby, and she came on one tour, but now she's going to stay home with her daddy. It helps that our tour schedule is spread out and we're never gone for more than two weeks.
"We only accept gigs we think are good enough to be worth us leaving our families for," Velasquez adds.
The band just completed a new album and is shopping it around, but isn't counting on any label help. "It looks like we are going with a distribution deal for En Este Camino," says Velasquez, who is married to producer Charlie Dos Santos. "We have a great management team and booking agent. What else do you need besides distribution? We're open to labels, but so far the deals are no better than what we can do for ourselves."
Pistolera played Houston for the first time en route to this year's South by Southwest festival in Austin, and Velasquez was pleasantly surprised by the Bayou City.
"I always had a prejudice against Texas, which has a lot to do with George Bush and the state's death penalty policy. But after being in Austin and Houston, I have to admit there are cool people everywhere. We had a great time in Houston. Pete Mitchell at Under the Volcano was so kind, generous and enthusiastic about us playing his club, we'll know him forever."
There have been other gigs that were real eye-openers for the band. "We recently played this bizarre show at a lawn club in Connecticut. I'd never even heard of a lawn club before," says Velasquez. "It was totally weird and what you would expect at something called a lawn club. Not only was everyone white and wearing suits, but they were nibbling on sushi and fine desserts while we were given cold cuts in the basement."
The band probably won't receive any such crass treatment at their upcoming Houston venue, Talento Bilingüe de Houston Cultural Arts Center. After seeing them last year in Berkeley, California, Artistic Director Jorge Piña selected Pistolera for "A Night of Underground Sounds," the closing performance of its 2007-08 season.
"They had so much energy, and we want to end our season with an explosion of music from ska, rock en español, alternative rock and that unique style Pistolera brings. This program mixes traditional Mexican music and fuses it with the pop-rock sound."