sofia acosta, dj
“It’s GOOD TO BE MEXICAN.”
Each time I walk away from an interview, I feel such a profound sense of gratitude. For the time people so generously give this project, as well as the wisdom they share as we talk. I’m so often humbled, challenged, and inspired by the conversations and sharing that here with you has been such a pleasure the last months.
The conversation with Sofia Acosta is no exception. Sofia is a DJ from Mexico City who has called Portland home for the last six years. She talks about seeing the changes that have come with the rise in popularity of her home city, as well as how she has found a community of musicians who challenge her artistically. She also discusses how the feeling of being an outsider pushed her to shape her community, but also to find power from within herself.
Carly: Tell me about yourself.
Sofia: My name is Sofia. My mom said, "Keep in simple, your life. Don't change your name, just stick with your name your entire life." And one name she did.
Carly: Usually, isn't it tradition with more Catholic countries to have several names, two middle names or such?
Sofia: Yeah, but my grandma is American, so my mom grew up with a bi-cultural family. She moved from Ohio to Mexico City and that's where my mom grew up. In her house they spoke English and Spanish. My dad is from the north part. He grew up in a very small town called Navajoa. We used to go and visit there when we were small, to meet cousins . It was a lot of fun and different - we'd chase bulls for fun.
I was born in Mexico City. I have two siblings, my sister and my brother. I was born and raised there and moved to the US seven years ago. I never thought of it as permanent. I went to high school in Cleveland for my junior and senior year and have been in touch with my grandma's side of the family, my mom's side. My grandma's American, but she's Irish. When I was small I was always trying to see how much of this whiteness I had. From my dad's side there's a lot of Mexican, indigenous roots.
Carly: Your mom is half Irish-American and half Mexican?
Sofia: Yeah. My grandma is completely American-Irish and my grandpa is Mexican from Puebla. Then my dad is Mexican too. I met my husband in Mexico City and he's from Portland so that's why I'm here. He was studying web development, so all his course were online and he went for a little bit there.
Carly: What was it like to grow up in Mexico City? It's such a huge city.
Sofia: I never thought about it. Now that I go and visit, it's like, “Yeah, this is my city!" Or, this was my city because it's not anymore. It's a crazy place. There is always movement 24/7. It's in a sense dangerous, you never know what's gonna happen every day, but it's magical too. You walk around every corner and there's always something amazing happening. I grew up not in the suburbs on the way to Toluca. My parents moved to Roma Condesa when I moved here, so seven years ago. Now visiting Mexico City is kind of like I'm encountering a different experience. I've also lived in Roma Condesa before moving here, three years. In Mexico City, it's like, “What do you want? You have everything in walking distance."
Carly: What do you think of Mexico City now when you visit it again?
Sofia: I love it and, of course, I miss it. We want to move back. That's our plan, but we're not going to move like how we used to, where we just had an opportunity in San Francisco and went for it. Now it's like we're 33 years old, we want to go back prepared.
Living in Mexico City is not easy, bureaucratically. Personally, my family has dealt with a lot of legal, unjust situations. It's not only my family, it's everywhere. Corruption is so ingrained in the system - you have to take a bite of that, you know? I feel like now it has changed. I experienced the earthquake two years ago in the city.
Carly: Wow, were you visiting at the time?
Sofia: Yeah, I arrived a day before. It was weird because I've read about the experience that happened 33 years ago. That's when I was born, but I don't remember. Living that day again, the exact same day was shocking. I think people are fed up. People want a just life. It's terrible. It's really bad. We are very classist and racist too. I do feel violence is present all the time. The environment that my sister lives in is way more horrible than what I grew up with. She lives close to my parents. She went to school in Puebla, Puebla used to have the most feminicides she has really close friends who went through this.
I go back and I love it, the food, family, friends, and culture. But on the other hand there's still a lot to fight for.
Carly: Yet the international popularity of Mexico City seems to be growing exponentially.
Sofia: Oh yeah. It kind of bothered me, to be honest with you. The favorite places that I used to go, restaurants for example, now you need a reservation. Before, you could just walk in. Now it's all tourists. It's becoming so trendy. it kind of made me sad because I felt everything was tailored to satisfy the tourists. To show how cool Mexico is.
Mexico City had always been as amazing place to be, culturally. There's always so many amazing things happening all the time.
It's popularity used to bother me a lot, but now I see it now with outside eyes, I live my life and that's it.
I'm a DJ, I've been DJing for ten years now. I go into some clubs just tailored to, "Experience Reggaeton Latin", and there's a lot of music happening but I felt ingenuity there. But I think I was seeing the city change. It happens everywhere, you know? It's happening here in Portland.
Growing up in Mexico City of course, you may have friends who think it's so cool and want to live there. You don't need any paperwork to move to Mexico. The government is pretty flexible with you just going as tourists and staying for a while and whatever. For me to come in the U.S.? There is no way. I had to wait almost seven years to get my green card. I just got it. Sometimes it hurts in that way. Things are easier there when you see it from the outside, but try living it. Like really, pay taxes, deal with banks, deal with the cops. It's not easy.
Carly: When you go back to Mexico City what are some of the things that you always do?
Sofia: I always make sure to go to my favorite museums. Of course eat, always try to explore new places, but for some reason we always go back to the same ones.
Spending time with my family, walking around, maybe taking some days with no plans. You just walk around and things happen. I kind of like re-exploring the city that I knew. Every time I go it's different and it changes.
Carly: Your husband was the reason that you decided to leave Mexico City?
Sofia: Yeah. We moved to the US because he had an opportunity to work in San Francisco and it was great for us so we moved. San Francisco kicked our butts. It was so expensive to be there. When he got a job opportunity here in Portland, where he's from, we decided to move. We've been here for six years.
Carly: What's his background?
Sofia: He was born in Corvallis, in Oregon. He's always been into computers. He was very lucky, his dad always made sure he had a computer around him. He's a web developer. He loves Mexico. He feels he's more Mexican than anything.
Carly: Is he Mexican?
Sofia: No, not at all!
Carly: Ha! Does he speak Spanish?
Sofia: Perfect Spanish.
Carly: How did he learn Spanish?
Sofia: Living in Mexico. That's it. When we met he was like, "Habla Espanol?" And I'm like, "No you don't." He had very little Spanish but he was forced. We lived together there for two years before moving here. All my friends speak English, but, at home, it's 100% Spanish.
Carly: That's great. I know it's hard sometimes if people speak English really well, to help other people with a language.
Sofia: It's so hard. Honestly, the only way you can submerge yourself 100% in the language is going to the country and struggling. You have to struggle. Go to a restaurant and order food, or go ask for directions.
Carly: How often do you go back to Mexico City?
Sofia: We try to go 1-2 times a year. We would like to go more often, but we can't. My family comes to visit me here, too.
Carly: Tell me about your background with music. How did you become a DJ?
Sofia: I've been a DJ for ten years. When I was in Mexico growing up, I started collaborating with a friend's agency. They did booking and concerts and shows, it started very small. They used to have a shop in Polanco. Eventually we moved to Roma. Roma was not cool, there were no lights in Alvaro Obregón. There was this really famous rock club called El Imperial, which actually closed this year after ten years. A lot of big clubs have closed in the past two years mostly because of insecurity. Right now big spaces in Mexico City struggle because the bad guys come and they want a piece of everything.
We were doing shows and also branding, design, and other stuff. We started booking for this very awesome club in downtown called Pasaje America. I was doing PR and booking. I started DJing there and I loved it, I've always loved music.
I've always known that I want to do something with music even though I'm not a musician.
I started doing that, and then eventually DJing as a resident in different clubs in Mexico for the next years.
The difference about DJing in Mexico City and here, for instance, is you can making a living being a DJ. Music is such an essential part of life. When I moved to Portland, it slowed down and I was looking for my music people. I did find S1, that space, which had been incredible for me to discover that Portland is one of the main places and builders of modular synthesizers.
I met my friend Alyssa who is the founder of S1 and also Felicia, and kind of got more and more involved in that. For me that was a scary situation I saw that and I'm like, “I want to make music but this is extreme. I cannot do this.”
Sofia: Because it's very intimidating, looking at a modular synthesizer is like making sound out of nothing. Out of frequencies. It's like the base of music. I've always wanted to make my own music so I've been learning to do other systems like Abelton, Logic and simultaneously learning the synthesizers and collaborating in this space. I started doing shows here in Portland and supporting people that I knew from Mexico who were touring here and opening a space for that, but also for people locally who have that kind of musical background. So at our show I met my friend Michael Bruce and we both started the Gran Ritmos party. We did it at Holocene and other places. It was great, but we're not doing that party series anymore because it was too much. We wanted to focus more on our personal projects.
Now I'm focusing on making my own music. I'm not DJing too much. I love DJing, but also I'm more interested in that practice, making music.
Carly: I listened to your stuff on SoundCloud. It's really nice to put it on and then go into my editing and creative space, it was really conducive to it. How would you describe your music?
Sofia: My DJing varies. I really like playing techno, industrial, and really hard sounds. I like textures. A lot of it is very experimental, very chaos-driven.
What I love about modular synthesizers is it talks about many things, it talks about math, about physics, about distribution of sound and math. You have this system that makes sound and then you can fold it into different things.
Right now I'm really into music with textures. I love techno, I love dance music, that's like my main thing. I like to make people dance and play with different sounds.
There is an amazing community of music people here. It's one of the things that I really love about Portland is the community. Whatever you get into. Coffee? There are amazing people who make great coffee and you can get into all these different techniques and all the theories of making coffee.
Carly: Yeah, people are very passionate about their thing here, whatever that is.
Sofia: For music it's the same thing. I think the dance music community is evolving because, when I got here, I thought there was nothing here. It makes sense. Historically, Portland has been the place of metal and punk. Now a lot of those people are now making music with synthesizers. It's evolving.
Carly: Does being Mexican influence your music at all?
Sofia: Yes, 100%. It's been really hard for me. People thought that because I'm from Mexico, I play cumbias. I can, but that's not really what I do. If course I have influence from Mexico. We like rhythms, I know amazing people who make techno music in Mexico and it's like nothing you've heard. It's more melodic and rhythmic. Being Mexican 100% affects what I do. There is no way to deny it.
Carly: So you're more working on making your own music now?
Sofia: I wanted to focus on having my own voice. Making my own music, well, this is what I am. Sonically, this is my voice. It's been a lot of fun. I have a couple of releases coming out soon. It's been a trip because it's not only learning how to use one synthesizer, but also learning how to record it. I love it.
Carly: You mentioned that being a Mexican woman here in Portland has influenced your work. Do you feel people expect certain things?
Sofia: I think so, but I feel more comfortable with that. And I've also been better about saying no. I'm like, alright this is my hourly wage, I'm just going to DJ at the places I want for this amount. If you don't want it, that's okay.
Carly: Do you think maybe people didn't value you as much?
Sofia: I was doing a lot of events and wondering why am I doing this in the first place? Do I want to make money or am I focusing on the artistic thing that I want to achieve? I love DJing so much, so I would say yes to everything. Identity wise I was just lost. But at the end I was like, alright, now it's time for me to grow artistically, I don't want to just do everything. There will be shows that I'm not going to make any money, but I want to make the show because it's interesting. There's other places I'm like, alright, yeah, I'll do this show, but this is what I'm charging. Portland is not very culturally diverse. I always was trying to find it too. But at the end I'm like, no, I'm just gonna be comfortable with me. Do what I like to do.
Another important thing that I think has to happen is collaboration to learn new things. If you grow in a horizontal way, there's no way of growing vertically. It's important to say no and do what your heart dictates.
Carly: I'm sure as you lived in other cities you also take inspiration from different places?
Sofia: You're like a little sponge of everything. I love talking to people, I love to like go and discover things. You can put me in the middle of Wisconsin and I'll figure out what to do. It's funny, "Becoming Mexican" - I did the reverse, I was becoming an American. And that hurt a little bit.
Sofia: When they gave me my papers, my passport, you have to go through these ceremonies and there's this video of Trump welcoming you to the country. There's a very insincere message to all the people who become nationals. And I felt sad. I don't want to stop being Mexican. It kind of hurts, I came out of that very sad. Like, am I betraying myself and like my parents and who I am? But no, people just look for opportunities.
Carly: Do you have a green card or did you become a citizen?
Sofia: No, citizen.
Carly: Did you have to give up your Mexican citizenship?
Sofia: No. That's very good. That would've been really hard. I think I wouldn't ... Yeah. I mean America right now it's in a very obscure place.
Carly: When did you get your citizenship? What was that process like for you to go through that?
Sofia: I got my citizenship last year. It took seven years. In order for us to move back to Mexico, there are three things we have to do. One, I have to have my citizenship because that way we can guarantee we can be more flexible moving. Two, we have to save money, and third we need to figure out our health insurance. Citizenship is one mark checked, so that's like one step forward to possibly going back.
Carly: What's the draw to go back to Mexico City?
Sofia: Family, friends, an opportunity for a better life. I miss my family so much.
Carly: That's interesting. I feel like the story is usually reversed. People from Mexico want to come to America for a better life.
Sofia: It's funny, you know, because that's the case. There's money here. You have a better future here because you can make money. I was reading recently about how older people from America go to Mexico to live. And it's true, because they have a better life there. Things are cheaper in some way, it's sunny all the time, there are different opportunities. There are amazing things that can happen here and there. But in America you have to work, work, work.
Carly: I just feel like there's a depth to the culture in Mexico that we just don't have here in the States because it's so focused on what you need to survive in the future. There's no time to relax and just settle and enjoy daily life because you need to make more money to survive and keep moving forward. In Mexico there's a depth to the culture because there's such a value for family and history.
Sofia: Something that I always try to remember myself is that we're living in the main place of capitalism. It's crazy for me. One of the most shocking things for me was when I had to go to the grocery store, one of the first experiences I had in the US. My husband asked me to get some mayo. I went to the store and there's mayo, low sodium, with lime, with vegan, with whatever. So many choices. As soon as I put one foot here in the US, I was in debt. That's the system we live in. This is why we are always trying to work, work, work.
Carly: Is there anything else that you want to share about your background or your family?
Sofia: This is really interesting that I'm talking about this now because I did struggle with it a lot when I moved here. I was always trying to look for Mexico. That's how I got very involved in mezcal, then doing this party for Latin American artists. I was always trying to find that community because I was very alone. I felt that I'm different. People relate different here.
After 2 or 3 years, I decided I was going to focus on my practice. How I thrive in this new environment. Of course, I'm still Mexican, that's who I am. But I also have felt more comfortable embracing what I truly love, new experiences and trying things instead of looking for my past.
I emigrated here because I wanted to. There are people who are coming here for necessity. It is a very hard struggle and I think like I'm lucky to be surrounded by like super talented people where I can collaborate musically, artistically. I work at Ataula which is amazing and I speak Spanish with Chef Jose. I do have a family there at two things. It's good to be Mexican.
Carly: At the beginning of each interview I have a quote from the interview that sets the tone. That's going to be yours: "It's good to be Mexican."
Sofia: It's important to look for your roots and know where you come from.
This interview has been edited and condensed. First published on April 10, 2019.