With Spanglish lyrics, the pluck of a banjo and strum of a guitarra de son, music by Charlottsville’s Lua Project is hard to place. The band defines its sound as “Mexilachian”—a blend of Appalachian old-time and Mexican folk music. But Lua members said their music also draws on Jewish and Eastern European traditions, with a dash of baroque and Scots-Irish influence.
Estela Diaz Knott and her husband Dave Berzonsky are the founders and lead members of Lua Project. Their music is especially personal to Knott, who grew up in the Shenandoah Valley to a Mexican mother and Scots-Irish father. Berzonsky has Jewish, Slavic and Appalachian roots. And together, they’ve made it their mission to merge their various identities into music—a fusion that Berzonsky parallels to food.
“Food wise, what’s Mexilachian? It’s beans, pork and corn, right? Those are really central to both of those cuisines,” Berzonsky explained. “And you start to see that they can filter together and interweave themselves in various ways that are totally organic and totally legit.”
He said it’s similar with music. The same rhythm that’s found in musical styles in Latin America is also used in Appalachian and country music. Since they’re made of similar elements, there’s room for creativity.
“Are we going to have banjo on this track? Or are we going to have accordion on this track? Or let’s be honest, we’re just going to have both, right? And that’s going to work,” Berzonsky said.
The Mexican and Appalachian sounds seem to blend together almost effortlessly, but both Knott and Berzonsky said this project has been a long time in the making. And it’s been hard work—musically, emotionally and even spiritually.
Growing Up Mexilachian
Knott’s father is from Virginia. Her mother’s from Ciudad Juarez in Mexico. After her parents married, they settled in her father’s hometown of Luray, Virginia in the Shenandoah Valley.
This was in 1967 and interracial marriage had only recently been legalized in Virginia. Knott said her mother was the first Mexican woman in Luray, and the relatively homogenous community didn’t know how to relate to her. In the first couple years, it was so hard on her mother, that they moved back to El Paso, Texas, across the border from her hometown.
“And that didn’t turn out so well, either,” Knott said, “because the people in her community were not accepting of the fact that she had married outside of her race.”
When they came back to Luray, Knott’s mother decided if people weren’t going to reach out to her, she’d reach out to them.
“She started to have fiestas in the community and taught our church kids how to dance Mexican dances and just created a really beautiful vibe. And eventually, more people started to come,” Knott said.
As an adult, Knott has followed in her mother’s footsteps as a cultural and community organizer, but she said she hasn’t always felt grounded in her Mexilachian identity.
“Growing up in any sort of dominant culture, you just want to blend in,” she said.
Knott wrote a song called “Mexilachian Breakfast” as a tribute to her childhood. In it, she sings about growing up with a mixed cultural identity, using the metaphor of her plate.
“We would have sausage and gravy and there were the tamales that we made for the holidays, so we just heat those up, too, and you throw that on the plate… these kinds of things always happened,” she explained.
Traveling Through Mexico: A ‘Genetic Memory’
Knott said she assimilated at a young age. But when she went off to college to study social work she felt like there was a piece of her that was missing. That’s when she found spirituality.
“Doing sweat lodges and going up on the mountain for fasts brought me to a space one time during a fast of dreaming about the native women of Mexico,” Knott said. “I had these visions of these women that I needed — I felt like I really needed to connect to. They were my abuelas [grandmothers]. They were women that I didn’t get to meet.”
Knott had visited the border town where her mother is from, many times. But suddenly, she wanted to spend time deeper in the country. So in her mid 20s, she went with her family to Puebla in south central Mexico.
“And I just couldn’t hold myself together. Like I get emotional just going back there. Like the smells, the sound of the streetcars, the food in the streets… everything was just like hitting me like a genetic memory or something.”
After spending a couple weeks there, Knott reluctantly came back to the U.S. But she was desperate to spend more time in Mexico. Knott and Berzonsky had recently started dating, and together, they hatched a plan to spend a year traveling through Latin America together.
They started in Mexico where they were introduced to San Jarocho, folk music from Veracruz, Mexico, which Knott said “inspired all of this Mexilachian music.” And they discovered the Fandango, a community celebration where San Jarocho musicians play traditional folk music and dance on a wooden platform called a tarima.
Knott said these Fandangos often take place outdoors, in fields or in the woods, and sometimes people camp out. She said it’s similar to an old-time festival in the Appalachians.
“Even though the styles of music are so different, the culture around it is very similar. It involves food, people dancing together, people singing and improvising, and playing in nature,” she said.
Putting The Pieces Together
When they came back to the U.S., Estela and Dave began experimenting with a fusion of Mexican folk music and Appalachian old-time. Eventually they settled in Charlottesville, Virginia where they had their two girls—Luna and Mareana. Having kids would change their music, and Berzonsky’s relationship with his cultural identity.
Berzonsky grew up in Northern Virginia feeling largely removed from his Jewish, Slavic and Appalachian heritage.
“At a certain point, you become assimilated into this sort of amorphous, secular, white-dominant identity,” he said.
But when he and Knott had children, Berzonsky felt called to address the different threads of his ancestry. He wanted his kids to be grounded in their cultural origins. That’s when he started getting involved with the local Jewish community.
“When I started hearing the traditional melodies from the prayers, I was like, ‘this is the music that has been inside me all this time,’” he said.
Berzonsky was even able to find Jewish and Middle Eastern melodies within music from Latin America.
A Bridge Across The Line
As Knott and Berzonsky began to feel more deeply rooted in their cultural identities, Knott said their musical purpose suddenly became clear.
“It was about documenting our people and history through music, and rooting that music in where we’re from—here in Virginia,” she said.
Berzonsky said he hopes their music encourages people to dive deeper into their own various threads of cultural identity.
“I think there are a lot of people who are profoundly lonely and profoundly culturally lost,” he said.
Knott and Berzonsky said they’ve both been there, and it was hard work to reconnect.
“You have to go back and look at old photographs, like talk to your grandparents or whatever, maybe go to the community in which you’re from,” Berzonsky said.
But they said it’s worth it—especially for young people, like their daughters who are now 13 and 11. They’ve recently started learning the Mexilachian songs.
“I wanted to give my girls the world, I want them to know where they come from,” said Knott. “And even more deeper than that is we want to be able to leave this behind for our community.”
Knott said she wants to inspire a sense of belonging that she didn’t have growing up.
“I always felt like I was just walking this line, that I didn’t belong here in the Mexican community and I didn’t belong in the white community that I grew up in. I just didn’t fit in anywhere,” she said.
But with time, and through music, Knott said she began to see her mixed identity as an opportunity to bring people together.
“That’s what I started to realize, as I started to get deeper into my roots, that I’m a bridge across this line.”
The Lua Project’s new album is coming out this fall.
This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.