How living as an undocumented immigrant inspired musician Diana Gameros

Video produced by Kelly Whalen, KQED.

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, a way to be on my own and be okay,” Gameros said.

Gameros was born in Ciudad Juárez, a city on the U.S.-Mexico border where cartel violence and government corruption have affected daily life. Her birth city, where Gameros’ family still lives, inspires many of her songs, including her powerful, gut-wrenching “En Juarez,” which KQED Arts captured at a recent performance at MACLA in San Jose.

Gameros moved to Michigan and studied music for four years at Grand Rapids Community College. Her dream of becoming a musician “gave me all the drive to do whatever I had to do to be here,” she said.

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 month 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 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.

Along the way, she has used these hardships to develop as a musician, Gameros said. “It has allowed me to be more honest with my music, and to connect to others more deeply,” she said. “As people connect to my music, I feel a responsibility to keep writing songs that mean something.”

Local Beat is an ongoing series on Art Beat that features arts and culture stories from PBS member stations around the nation.