For Mexican-born singer-songwriter Diana Gameros, music has always been a deeply personal endeavor, acting as both a lifeline and a retreat from the world’s complications. Her soulful, emotionally-charged music, recorded on her debut album Eterno Retorno, tells a journey of love, loss, and hope, rooted in her own coming-of-age story as an undocumented immigrant in America. “Music for me has always been an outlet,” Gameros tells KQED Arts, “a way to be on my own and be okay.”
Born in Ciudad Juárez, Gameros spent most of her childhood in the border city, where over the last decade, the forces of globalization, cartel violence and government corruption have turned it into one most dangerous places on the planet. The realities of her birth city – where Gameros’ family still lives – inspire many of her songs, including her powerful, gut-wrenching “En Juarez,” captured by KQED Arts’ cameras at a recent performance at MACLA in San Jose.
But Gameros’ American story has an innocence, involving a Michigan boy she fell in love with and wide-eyed dreams of becoming a professional musician. “That gave me all the drive to do whatever I had to do to be here,” says Gameros, who moved to Michigan and studied music for four years at Grand Rapids Community College.
When Gameros came to the Bay Area in 2008, she gave herself one month to land a steady gig, and found a weekend stage at Roosevelt Tamale Parlor on 24th Street in San Francisco’s Mission district. (The restaurant closed this week after being a fixture in the neighborhood for nearly a century.) For years, to help pay the rent, Gameros sang Mexican ballads and other Latin classics for diners, all the while finding and developing her own voice wherever she could, whether at the Red Poppy Art House, the annual Mission Arts Performance Project festival, or on street corners.
Today, the Berkeley-based Gameros has become a go-to opening act for Latin superstars with tour dates in the Bay Area, including Brazilian bossa nova singer Bebel Gilberto, Mexican pop singer Ximena Sariñana and Los Angeles-based La Santa Cecilia band. And Gameros’ exposure is only growing, having collaborated with an eclectic list of Bay Area musical institutions, including the Awesöme Orchestra Collective, the Oakland East Bay Symphony, Magik*Magik Orchestra, and the Chamber Music Society of San Francisco. She’s currently working on her second album, produced by Mexican pop star and three-time Latin Grammy Award-winner Natalia Lafourcade.
Gameros, now 33, credits her growing success to an “I’ve-got-nothing-to-lose” attitude, nonstop performing (she’s rarely said no to a gig), and a deep gratitude for the opportunities she’s found in the U.S., despite a challenging 13-year-struggle for legal immigration status. For years, Gameros has been unable to travel freely and visit family in Mexico, lest she risk never being able to return to the U.S. Last year, she at last received an immigration visa, putting her on the path to American citizenship.
Despite the hardships, Gameros says she wouldn’t have had it any other way. “It has allowed me to be more honest with my music, and to connect to others more deeply,” she says. “As people connect to my music, I feel a responsibility to keep writing songs that mean something.”