Everyone has songs they treasure — songs that evoke vivid memories and color different periods of our lives.
Sometimes, music ends up shaping who we become.
For Paola Villaseñor, better known as the influential border artist Panca, music from both sides of the border has been a lifelong companion whenever she’s painting. Sometimes, lyrics from songs or traces of the flow and melody of music can be found in her final works.
Today, we’ve got a story about one of our border region’s most well-known artists, told through the lens of music.
About the Show:
“Only Here” is about the unexplored subcultures, creativity and struggles at the U.S.-Mexico border. The KPBS podcast tells personal stories from people whose lives are shaped by the tension reverberating around the wall. This is a show for border babies, urban explorers or those who wonder what happens when two cultures are both separated and intertwined.
Everyone has songs they treasure. Songs that evoke vivid memories and color different periods of our lives. Sometimes, music ends up shaping who we become.
For Paola Villaseñor, better known as the influential border artist Panca, music has been a lifelong companion whenever she’s painting.
So…. Panca recently stumbled upon her parents cassette tape collection.
Jose Jose Starts
When she opened up the case, the albums she saw in front of her… portaled her back to her childhood home.
and I was like, Oh my gosh, these are literally the ones that were like in my home when I was a little kid.And I remember just like laying on the floor and like, and there was ….just things my parents listened to, Jose Jose
Juan Gabriel, the Bellas Artes tape was there.
Juan Gabriel Plays
There was some Luis Miguel.
Ave Maria Plays
Ave Maria Plays
I think the Miami sound machine came out when I was at that age. I guess it was like my get up and dance song. I was like really into like singing as a little kid. So like that would get me going
We all love music – it’s a great uplifter, especially in times like the ones we’re living through.
So, today, we’re gonna tell the story of one of our border region’s most influential artists through the lens of music.
Panca is a Chicana artist who was raised in Chula Vista and has now spent half of her life living in Tijuana. She has a very distinct style that she describes as “existential vomit”.
Panca’s work captures the beautiful chaos at the border here. Looking at one of her paintings, you’ll see influences from both sides.
I’m Alan Lilienthal and you’re listening to Only Here, A KPBS podcast about unexplored subcultures, creativity, and struggles at the US/Mexico border.
After the break, we talk to Panca about formative moments in her life and career, and the songs that soundtracked them.
Not long ago, when Panca was digging through her parents old collection of cassettes, she had a little epiphany. She realized just how much her mom and dad’s taste in music had influenced her.
Panca: It was awesome because I was able to see why I’m such a nerd and like why I like. I mean, I love rock and roll and I love hip hop and everything, but I realized why I was like, why the hell do I like opera? You know, why do I look like classical music?
There was one tape in the collection that stood out.
“Me Voy Pa’l Pueblo – Los Panchos
When I found the Los Panchos one, it really hit me because I remember I actually remembered like admiring admiring it as a kid
When I think of the most classic latin ballads, Los Panchos are probably the first group to come to mind. The one song by them that Panca keeps coming back to is “Me Voy Pa’l Pueblo”
Panca Clip 1 (part 2)
The first time I ever remember hearing that song was probably in my house and my parents were cooking and they’d always play music.
And that was like one of the tapes that they would always put on.
I guess there was a lot of things that you lose when you move to another country.
I think that growing up, music and, um, movies were like a big thing that kind of connected me and my parents because, you know, my parents were born in the forties and in the fifties in Mexico city and in Cuernavaca.
So there wasn’t a whole lot that I could connect with them, you know, like it was like little things like music. And when we would go back to Mexico every summer for like family trips or any type of family reunion, which was usually Christmas or summer, my parents really like, kind of came into themselves.we were really Americanized at that point. Um, you know, we were not totally, really pretty pocho.
We weren’t allowed to speak English inside of my house, but, um, that’s what I think, like movies and music was really important because, you know, like I would connect with my mom and dad through like, You know, the songs and stuff. And, um, it was kind of like a way to connect generations, you know.
That song like resonates with me still. Cause I ended up moving to Mexico, I think, to like kind of chasing that romantic dream.
Panca’s idea of Mexico wasn’t always romantic though.
She grew up in Chula Vista in a Section 8 apartment until she was 9. When her parents could afford a house, they moved the family to Eastlake – a more well-off, suburban part of South San Diego.
As a lot of young teenagers do, Panca rebelled against her roots and her upbringing.
She thought Mexican culture was too machista…
But at the same time, she thought Eastlake was too manicured and perfect… too cookiecutter American.
It took her time to find a place where she felt she fit in.
Panca clip 11
I went from living in an area that was like, You know, like there was legit problems going on and then all of a sudden I’m like 15, 16 driving around East Lake. There’s no target. There’s nothing. There’s like golf courses.And like, we would draw wieners on this, on the grass and just like throw bubbles, just like mayhem, stupid dazed and confused stuff. And I just started thinking. This is fun, but I don’t know. I just realized how freaking sheltered and, um, privileged I wasn’t this like little area and I was just hungry for exposure of other things.
So I started seeking out, um, venues and places where I could go and meet people.
They were kind of. In sharing, sharing this interest because I went to a school that was like, Oh, my dad bought me this car, or I got this. Or, you know, and I didn’t care about those things. I, you know, it was just like, I didn’t relate to many kids.
Punk music came at just the right time.
GENERIC BUNK BEAT
Panca had just started getting into politics, and her teenage angst needed an outlet.
The rawness of punk music can express frustration and pain way better than language can – especially for young people who feel things very intensely and are just figuring out how to process grown-up reality.
Panca clip 3
First I got into black Sabbath and then my parents were like really worried. And then he went into like punk music. And I really liked the sex pistols.
And then I really got into the Ataris
“San Dimas High School Football Rules – The Ataris”
Back then it was like, I dunno, it was like 14. So it was like, ahhh, all this teenage angst.
The thing about San Diego, though, is there aren’t many punk venues if you’re underage.
There’s the Che Cafe, which Panca would go to a lot in high school, and others that have and come and gone over the years, but the options have always been pretty limited.
In Tijuana, though, it’s a totally different world. Punk venues have always had a place here….
And if you’re a teenager who’s hungry for new experiences and raw energy and a little danger, it really doesn’t get much better…
Panca clip 5
In East Lake at the time, there was a call center called MDI. And that please paid you bank.
Like you would get paid like 13 bucks, 12 bucks an hour because you were bilingual. So it was just like, yeah, you would go there and I didnt speak Spanish that great, like that, that great. And there I met my, one of my best friends munchies. And he didn’t speak Spanish that, well, I mean English, so like we would constantly just make fun of each other and then eventually became really good friends.
And he was like, Oh, you can’t get into anything in SD? Why don’t you come to TJ? Come to TJ, come to TJ. And I met a friend there and she was a little, like one or two years older than me. And she started sneaking me in the porkies at 16, 17 years old so that’s how I got taken to TJ.
Panca clip 7
Porky’s always had that eternal scene playlist, you know, the, uh, it was almost like the same playlist, but it was like eighties, like new, new wave and, um, You know, a little dark Depeche mode, that kind of stuff
all the good stuff, the cure
My parents knew about it.
You know, they were kinda like, Oh, it wasn’t so bad in TJ yet. But I mean, I was being honest with them. I was like, Hey, I’m going to TJ. I’m going with these older friends. And they’d be like, Hey, we’re going to take care of her. Don’t worry. And they were, they were standup friends, you know, so my parents were sort of okay with it.
These early trips to Tijuana would prove to be pretty monumental for young Panca.
Her growing interest in politics had inspired her to get to know where she came from, and to be proud of that.
The more she went to Tijuana, the more she fell in love with the energy of the city.
This was at a time when Tijuana’s creative scene was starting to establish a reputation around the world.
Nortec collective – a group of musicians and artists who blended electronic music with norteño inspired sounds – was taking off.
And even though Panca hadn’t committed herself to becoming a full-time artist yet, these early encounters with other artists were planting the seed.
Panca clip 6
I was about 17 when Nortec was like, kind of like hitting. I remember they played at las pulgas . It was this crazy show. So cool. And I snuck out with my friend from high school and like, we, like, there was the line around like all revolution was so nutty
To see that. And then I remember I left San Diego and TJ, I went to Portland when I came back, I was just like, When I was in Portland, I would listen to, to the Nortec CD. And I was like, I was like, Oh my God, like I wanted to come back. And when I came back, Oh shit, the coffees. And I got really invested into like the music scene.
And I started, you know, like meeting a lot of these guys and like working alongside a lot of the people and realize how connected they were to the community. Still like. You know, yeah. They’re really famous and stuff, but they still play for their friends at parties and I’m pretty humble and decent people.
And so, I kind of saw that whole, do it yourself energy. And, during the time, there was a thing called radio global.
Radio Global was the first internet radio station in Tijuana. It was very influential in the city from the early 2000s through about 2010.
And, more than just music, Radio Global was more like a creative collective. They organized and promoted concerts, art festivals and other events. And part of what made them so popular was their focus on graphic design.
For awhile back in the day, it felt like Radio Global stickers, fliers and posters were everywhere in Tijuana. Like, you couldn’t walk out of your house without seeing at least one or two.
And Panca was part of that. She helped spread the Radio Global brand through its visuals.
It was very, very inspiring for me to one be like, kind of become part of this like creative group that partied, but also put like art into the. I dunno it wasn’t like, yeah, come party was like, Oh, we’re doing these stickers. And there’s these characters. And it was, was awesome. You know, and their thing was to put stickers everywhere.
So one day, you know, I ended up going to New York and they were like, Hey, llevate unas stickers. And I was like, yeah.
So I’m in New York putting stickers up and I go, I should be doing this with my artwork at some point. And that’s kind of where I, boop, like right there.
Panca came back from New York super inspired by street art and ready to work on developing her own style.
Tijuana had been left pretty deserted by years of drug violence, so Panca and other artists had the entire city as a blank concrete canvas on which they could experiment.
She started running around with some friends and putting up tags, wheat pasting…. adding some color to a grey city.
They’d go out in the middle of the night and even learned police schedules so that they could time their tagging while the cops were changing shifts. She was almost always the only girl in the crew.
This period was really the first time Panca had started putting her art up publicly.
And as unofficial and probably illegal as it was, it began solidifying the style she has come to be known for.
It’s a style she calls “existential vomit”.
What I really love about Panca’s art is how colorful and alive her work is.
She uses bright pastels and the little worlds she creates are super textured and chaotic. In the forefront, though, there’s always some kind of grotesque creature, sometimes doing ugly things like throwing up or things u dont normally wanna look at but somehow she paints it in a friendly way and you just want to be friends with these creatures.
Panca clip 8
I sometimes look back like the other day I was watching an episode of Ren and Stimpy and I know Ren and Stimpy is like Canadian. And they had like a lot of really like dark humor.
REN AND STIMPY CLIP
What I loved about ren and stimpy at the time was like, and I go, Oh, that totally molded my personality was like “cagar el palo” or to be a little bit like, you know, like kind of laugh at the American way of life and the, you know, all that stuff.
And I definitely identified with it because I kind of was living it a little bit.
REN AND STIMPY CLIP
If you’ve never seen Ren and Stimpy – it’s a cartoon from the early 90’s where a psychotic Chihuaha and a dumb cat have a series of unusual adventures.
And visually, the cartoon became known for zooming in on these really gross things…like Stimpy’s hairballs or Ren’s rotten teeth.
It’s easy to find the influences of Ren and Stimpy in Panca’s work.
She says moving to Tijuana and coming face to face with ugly realities that no one wants to look at, while at the same time loving the warm and welcoming energy that Tijuanenses are known for, is a dynamic that has hugely influenced her art.
ALAN: Do you listen to music when your painting?
Panca clip 12
All the time. I am either listening to music or I’m playing a VHS in the background and that’s like a really weird thing. That I have done since I was a kid. I mean, you probably grew up with VHS or some, you know, the TV. And so like, that’s a very, like, it’s almost like the TV took care of me.
So like when I have the VHS on, even like the “coming soon to video..”
All that crap is like the most comforting thing ever. Cause I feel like I’m still in my house and I’m still like, you know, like protected and stuff. So it’s like a weird thing where I remember being a little kid and just drawing for hours, you know?
VHS Recording From Panca
ALAN: How does the sound of the music or the VHS, how does that influence the final piece of art or the flow of what you’re painting?
Panca clip 13
I think where you can notice it the most is in my studio in bread and salt because good God, I’m so glad they’re gonna erase that wall. But like at some point they were like, we want to preserve this wall. And I was like, Oh my God, you guys, please don’t do that at all.
Because the freakin wall is like a exhibition of craziness, you know? And I’m like, dude, this is what I was writing on the wall with like pressure and it was fear, impending doom feeling. And also like I would write down something somebody said in a movie that I was like, Whoa, I was watching Saturday night fever..
SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER CLIP
And there’s a part where the guy’s like, he’s like, fuck, fuck the future. And then the guy tells him no, Tony, the future fucks you.
SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER CLIP 2
So stuff like that, I would write on the wall
SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER CLIP 3
Or um, you know, like a song, you know, like Chavela Vargas “Ni De Aqui, Ni De Alla”
Chavela Vargas – “No Soy De Aqui, Ni Soy De Alla”
And so that actually even became the background. I wrote it into my painting. So it actually ends up being like the, the melody, actual melody of my paintings. You know, a lot of my paintings have like quotes from these songs, these bands.
Chavela Vargas – “No Soy De Aqui, Ni Soy De Alla”
Because of the colorful, cartoon-y nature of Panca’s art, kids tend to really resonate with what she does.
Before Covid hit and threw everyone’s plans into a blender, Panca had been picked as the artist-in-residence at the New Children’s Museum in San Diego.
They had a lot of great plans for Panca-led community art-making workshops….so, of course, almost all of those plans have shifted.
Panca clip 9
Everything’s kind of changed because of the whole, you know, we can’t be in crowds. When is the museum going to open? You know, there’s obviously a lot of things changing because of the staff and this was like a group thing. So now I’m working with mostly one person or about maybe less than five people.
And we’re doing like a Bob Ross kind of thing for kids.
Like I made like a world called El Mas Alla and in this world, this like, um, there’s some characters and these characters live here and it’s like, I created the world. And the characters and every week I show kids how to draw it pretty much like Bob, which is kind of amazing.
Cause I absolutely love Bob Ross, but I come nowhere near to his talent.
Clip from Panca Zoom recording from NCM workshops
Panca clip 14
Zoom can be kind of nerve wracking, but after I hear like all these little voices go, thank you.
And like you, their drawings are just like, like I’m trying not to cry on camera. Cause it’s like the sweetest thing ever. So like kids actually like come back to watch the next episode and we’re actually pretty good. Some kids are pretty good at drawing, so it’s been really cool.
For now, Panca is quarantined at home in Tijuana.
She is still going out to do commissioned murals every once in a while, and is also working on paintings for the new children’s museum residency.
She also just released a book of her artwork called “Los Perdidos” through Bread and Salt Press. Bread & Salt is a gallery and community space in Logan Heights.
As prolific as she continues to be, sometimes Panca just paints things she’ll likely never show the world.
For her, it’s a way to process all the challenges this world keeps throwing at us.
Panca clip 10
I get really, really disappointed and I just feel like. You know, like I look back at all the protests I’ve been to and I’m like, hell yeah, politics is in my work. But sometimes I have to like put it in the background, you know, right now in my studio, literally half of the studio is like, you know, the bright, colorful side, like the stuff.
And then the other side, it’s like, if you saw it, you’d be like, Oh, it’s just really, really like, there’s literally a guy like a dead body, like tide. And it’s just like paintings that I it’s like, who the hell is going to buy that, you know, like it’s just stuff that I do to get out and I have it there and like, then I kind of cover it, but I’m glad I made it. And it’s really good. But at the same time, sometimes it’s not to, I don’t know, to show off. I just want to like expose it for what it is. Yeah.
Sometimes Panca’s mind takes her to dark places. But somehow, in her art, even the darkest imagery is made beautiful and colorful.
When Panca is really feeling the heaviness, like she is right now because of the pandemic and the country grappling with systemic racism… she often turns to soul music.
Marvin Gay Mercy Me
From panca pre interview Mercy Mercy Me
Music has been like the freakin Dumbo feather that, you know, that I hold since, since I think I can remember. Um, but I think like this, but I’m going to go more with, like, I think the song that has been resonated resonating with me mostly right now has been, um, an and I’ve always loved, uh, is, uh, probably the mercy mercy me by Marvin Gaye
Mercy Mercy Me
Panca’s mom loved soul. And now Panca does, too. Because the music is so full of pain sometimes, but that’s what makes it so absolutely gorgeous.
Mercy Mercy Me
Panca’s mom passed away when she was a teenager. But everytime Panca hears soul music, memories of her mom come alive.
Clip 15 She Shaped My Heart
I feel like she shaped like, not my heart, but she was had, she had a really great heart and she didn’t judge and I loved how she would always expose you to music like that.
Mercy Mercy Me
This episode of Only Here was written and produced by Emily Jankowski, Kinsee Morlan. And myself- Alan Lilienthal. Emily Jankowski is the director of sound design. Lisa Morrissette is operations manager and John Decker is the director of programming. We love hearing from you. Right now, we’re looking for border stories about how the pandemic has impacted you. Give us a call at (619) 452-0228 and leave a voicemail. Tell us who you are, where you live and how COVID-19 has changed the way you live your life at the border. Again, the number is (619) 452-0228.