Más azúcar: UC Berkeley student Luna Velazquez on heritage, Spotify-published album

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Doug Smith /Staff

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Name: Laura Velazquez, but she goes by her artist name, Luna

Age: 19

Hometown: Butte County, California (Chico area)

Who she’s listening to: Most recently, SZA, The Internet, Kali Uchis, Jorja Smith, Snoh Aalegra and many others she labeled as “contemporary R&B.” “I often find myself reaching back to my early inspirations like Etta James, Brenton Wood, Michael Jackson,” she said.

“Of course, I listen to myself.” she added.

Who she is: An R&B vocalist who published her first LP, Still Life, on Spotify in late August, a UC Berkeley ethnic studies major and a passionate advocate of self-care (especially for people of color). Each of these identities informs Velazquez’s presence as an artist.

Luna Velazquez is astutely aware of the impressions she leaves upon others — this I understood even before our first meeting. A day after emailing an interview request to Velazquez, I received a response. “I sincerely apologize for the late reply,” she wrote after confirming her interest. “I know your time is valuable.” In this line, Velazquez demonstrated consideration and appreciation. Instantly, I was eager to learn more about Velazquez, about Luna.

When I sat down with Velazquez for our first in-person meeting, I posed one of the most obvious of questions — why the name Luna? As Velazquez meticulously explained to me, the choice was careful and the name is wrought with significance. Luna has carefully curated her appearance and name to reflect heritage and values alike.

“My family’s very, very spiritual. … We really use dreams as a way to analyze how we feel about things,” she explained about the significance nighttime holds for her, citing her indigenous Toltec ancestry. At the same time, the fact that Luna is Spanish for “moon” complicates others’ perceptions of her heritage. The Spanish, she said, were colonizers, and imposed their culture upon the Toltec peoples. “So really it’s about reclaiming that language (Spanish) again,” she asserted.

As our conversation continued, I began to wonder at the tension between Velazquez’s remarkable self-awareness and polished exterior and the unruly, unpredictable struggles she had to endure. Life has not been easy on Velazquez, and yet, from what I could gather from our talk, she has taken every opportunity to make lemonade out of lemons, as the adage goes. With her parents both coming from difficult backgrounds themselves, Velazquez was the one to push herself toward excellence. After receiving her hard-earned acceptance letter from UC Berkeley, the struggles continued.

Last semester, Velazquez’s grandfather died and her family was evicted, all in one fell swoop. Though they have since found an apartment, housing security continues to be a regular concern. On top of all the housework Velazquez does to help her mother take care of her five younger siblings, it can prove difficult to find time for schoolwork. And yet Velazquez is doing everything in her power to keep her grades strong: “I’m just really, really adamant about maintaining a strong presence,” she said. “I deserve to be here, and I want to be here. But in order to do that, you have to put the work in.”

Amid all of the chaos and distress Velazquez faces on the daily, writing has served as a sanctuary of sorts, a space to heal. Her Spotify album Still Life was borne out of despair, she told me. After a shattering breakup last year, Velazquez found herself in extreme pain, and from that pain came music. “(After the breakup), I was just broken. And the only way to really accept what had happened was just being able to write about it,” she said.

Still Life isn’t just an album about love or the loss thereof — it speaks to Velazquez’s commitment to empowering people, especially women of color, to find an outlet for the hurt they have internalized. “What my art does is it shows women of color, people of color, can use different outlets. … It really is about reclaiming that narrative of healing. … (People) are so obsessed with this idea of … being so individual that we forget that at one point, before everything, before settler colonialism, before contact, we were a community,” she said.

Velazquez has found ways to speak this message on campus as well as in her personal art. As an ethnic studies major and a regular visitor to the campus Multicultural Community Center, Velazquez works to deepen her knowledge of the past and present of the struggles of people of color. Through her participation in such groups, she has seen movement toward a more just space for such individuals, namely by virtue of the presence of “so much discourse around all of these issues.”

At the same time, however, she told me she worries about how few UC Berkeley students take ethnic studies classes. “That’s so dangerous, especially for privileged … kids … who don’t understand the struggles of people of color,” she said. All students, she told me, should be required to take Ethnic Studies 10 AC.

As I began to wrap up our conversation (glancing at the clock and noticing that we had been talking for nearly an hour), I asked Velazquez how she sees herself moving forward as a musician, as a student, as an individual.

“I really just want to incorporate what I have learned here at UC Berkeley to continue to create … and make space for people to come and share (their) narratives as well,” she said.

She explained to me that she and her cousin, with whom she currently lives, hope to one day open a café, which they plan to name “Más Azúcar” — more sugar. “There’s kids (at UC Berkeley) who don’t even have parents or a place to call home, … so we’re going to be that home … for the generations that are going to continue after us, to continue to push and to create spaces for other people of color.” And, of course, the space will feature music.

At the end of the day, what does Velazquez see for her ambitions and artistic goals moving forward? She smiled at me knowingly.

“It’s love,” she said, nodding. “It’s all love.”

Contact Ryan Tuozzolo at [email protected].