Photo by Alberto Sanchez
Mónica Mendoza (center) performing with Le Ra at GRRRL event
There's a good chance Mónica Mendoza has been a part of a concert you've gone to in San Diego or Tijuana. She might have been in the crowd or onstage. She also might have been instrumental in booking the show. After a decade of sensing a lack of support for females in the bordertown music scene, though, Mendoza felt the need to create a hub for women like her to meet.
"I'm 32 years old, I'm still young, I am involved in music—how do I bring people together?" she says. "How do I begin to blur the border wall?"
Mendoza's solution? She created Grrrl Independent Ladies, a bi-cultural project to document and showcase female musicians from the cultural hubs of San Diego, Tijuana and Los Angeles. Through performance, video and influences from the riot grrrl scene of the '90s, Mendoza hopes to create a supportive community for female musicians on both sides of the border.
Grrrl Independent Ladies evolved from a festival that Mendoza hosted in 2015 on International Women's Day featuring female musicians from Tijuana. Originally, it was planned as a one-off event at Mod's Bar in Tijuana but as Mendoza continued booking shows and community organizing, the Grrrl Independent Ladies label continued to fit.
Although a new project, Grrrl Independent Ladies is welcomed by female-fronted bands on both sides of the border, such as garage rockers Soft Lions from San Diego, who played a Grrrl festival in Tijuana last March.
"A lot of the institutions and venues and things in town are very heavily male-dominated," says Megan Liscomb of Soft Lions. "You don't have the same connections that your dude friends do because their homies give them a hook-up on a show. So it's really important for women in the scene to support each other because it's not very clear to me who else is going to."
Some groups like pop-rock quartet No Girlfriends from Los Angeles appreciate the community that Grrrl Independent Ladies has provided them.
"I've met so many bands through Mónica," says Janelle Orbert of No Girlfriends. "Not that I don't love guys in bands, but it's just really great to support and have a camaraderie with other female musicians because I feel like we're definitely in the minority in the industry."
Orbert adds that this thriving community is partly a result of Mendoza's friendly disposition and visibility in the cross-border music and art scene. At a show at Tijuana's Mous Tache Bar, Orbert recalls all the patrons and bands greeting Mendoza like an old friend.
Mendoza's idea to create such a community was informed by efforts of icons in the '90s-era riot grrrl punk movement she was exposed to during her formative years working in record stores and playing in bands. "It's a homage to what the riot grrrl movement was doing and what Kathleen Hanna started," Mendoza says of her work.
Beyond booking female-centric showcases, Mendoza takes other cues from riot grrrl such as DIY video documentation, designing her own fliers, embracing the triple "r" in Grrrl and using designs popular during the era in Grrrl's logo.
But Grrrl Independent Ladies does something that riot grrrl didn't: it embraces non-American cultures. As a musician who grew up in Tijuana and frequently crossed the border into San Diego, she wanted to create a community riot grrrl didn't offer her while growing up. So she sought to bring Mexican and Californian bands together on the same stage.
"The disadvantage of [the riot grrrl] movement even during my time was that it lacked a lot of different cultures," says Mendoza. "It was mainly white female oriented, so there wasn't support for Latinos or the black community."
Besides empowering Mexican and American women, Josemar Gonzalez of Tijuana's psych-rock band Some Kind of Lizard (whose drummer Cynthia Virgen is a woman) also noted the cultural understanding Mendoza's shows encourage.
"I know music is something that people understand," says Gonzalez after Some Kind of Lizard played a Grrrl fest in Tijuana. "You don't necessarily need to understand the lyrics. I feel that the music helps to communicate in a different form...I think it's worthwhile bringing people from different cultures together just to understand each other."
According to Gonzalez, who also books trans-border shows through his project GNAR, there aren't very many showcases like Grrrl Independent Ladies.
"At least in Tijuana it's really only like Grrrl Independent Ladies, [GNAR] and Mous Tache Bar who are in charge of bringing bands from the U.S. and combining them with Mexican bands on both sides of the border," says Gonzalez. "I don't think there's a lot of people doing it."
To share the talents of the bands in her showcases, Mendoza creates short films of her shows. With help from her friend Alberto Sanchez (who films under the moniker Acidtones), Mendoza has created two documentaries featuring shows at San Diego's Black Cat Bar and Mous Tache Bar in Tijuana. Clips of bands such as No Girlfriends, Soft Lions and Some Kind of Lizard are cut together with sets from Mendoza's own bands: Le Ra and Lhabia. Behind-the-scenes interviews give viewers an insider look at the bands and at Mendoza herself.
These videos also provide information on women in bands that people might not otherwise be exposed to. "My friend was like: 'All-girl bands are sort of interesting. I want to know so much about them!'" says Janelle Orbert. "I was like 'My friend Mónica documents them.' And my friend was like 'I wanna watch those!' So there's definitely a market for it. It's a world that people don't know about."
Grrrl Independent Ladies is now a regular showcase the second Tuesday of every month at the just-opened Blonde Bar in San Diego. Their first show on September 13 will continue Mendoza's mission of fostering a supportive community for women in an overwhelmingly male-dominated music industry. "I think that deep down," she says, "it was something that I always wanted to do."