10 Years On, Javiera Mena’s ‘Esquemas Juveniles’ Still Captures the Sweet Desperation of Youth

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Javiera Mena’s Esquemas Juveniles, a defining album for Chilean pop. To celebrate the record’s influence, artists from across Latin America banded together to create Adolescente perpetuo, a tribute album featuring Balún, Fakuta, and more. In this piece, Richard Villegas processes what Esquemas Juveniles meant for him and a generation of indie fans.

Depression had set in. Bad.

It was less than a month since I had moved back to New York City in the fall of 2011, after three whirlwind years in South America: one in Argentina and two in Chile. The latter had been the apogee of my expat experience, with a cushy job and lots of new lifelong friendships. Santiago de Chile had been like a dream: A sprawling city with small town energy. Wealthy and stable, artsy but not obnoxious. New York City saw me jobless and sharing a bedroom with two friends and an air mattress; I wanted my romantic self-imposed exile back.

I was sitting in my host’s living room one night, thirsty for any taste of home, and remembered a friend had gifted me a copy of Dënver’s Música, Gramática, Gimnasia. He had set up their website and assured me it was a stellar album. I’d actually seen Dënver perform twice while in Chile, and could place them in my memory, but in my state of general gringo obliviousness, I hadn’t given them a second thought.

That record ended up changing my life. Before the night was out, I had fallen head first through the Chilean rabbit hole, completely floored by acts like Astro, Gepe, Adrianigual, Francisca Valenzuela, and Ana Tijoux. My favorite discoveries from that night were Alex Anwandter and Javiera Mena. They were the queer royalty of Chilean synth pop, offering visibility and empowerment that spoke to me on every level.

Mena, Javiera’s second album (third if you count her release with Prissa – which I do), was still fresh then. It was the one I encountered first, and I was in love. I danced and sang and cried, and when I gushed about her online, my friends chided me for being so late to the party. Not just that, they all argued that Esquemas Juveniles, Javiera’s official debut from 2006, was the album I should be absolutely gaga over. Esquemas got people through their awkward teen years, and Javiera helped them feel more at ease with their queerness, since she’s been out from the start. Esquemas Juveniles was and remains infinitely relatable – the ultimate statement on the uncertainty of youth.

The 10-track collection is hopelessly cinematic, capturing the overblown dramatics of teenage angst. “Camara Lenta,” my favorite cut, evokes the clammy-handed nervousness of a day out swimming with friends and your crush. “Cuando Hablamos” hovers like the butterflies in your stomach as you finally engage with said crush, and “Como Siempre Soñé” is the exhilarating rapture of shared glances and first-time hand holding. “Sol de Invierno” is the aftermath of that bliss, after it has crashed and burned, and the realization that you’ll somehow make it through the ensuing drama. For teens with hyperactive insecurities, the album feels like a comforting talk and hug from your favorite tí@.

Esquemas Juveniles still feels like the ultimate statement on the uncertainty of youth.

I wasn’t a teen when I came to this album, but I vividly remember the awkwardness of adolescence, which Javiera exudes in the album’s musicality. The synths on Esquemas Juveniles seem deliberately raw and juvenile, especially under the watchful guise of Chilean production mastermind Cristian Heyne. “Al Siguiente Nivel” is urgent and playful, an anthemic Javiera classic that revels in 8-bit whimsy. And “Perlas,” with its droning synth melody, reeks of a Saturday afternoon backyard reefer session with your high school crew. Even her cover of Daniela Romo’s classic “Yo No Te Pido La Luna” hints at sweet desperation; it’s reminiscent of those make-it-or-break-it school slow dances.

Ten years down the line, many of the emerging artists in Chilean indie hail Esquemas Juveniles as a turning point for the scene. The album altered the scope of songwriting and reintroduced synthesizers as viable (if not essential) to a new community of local musicians. Javiera wasn’t the first to break ground in either field, with pivotal moments in Chilean music easily traced back to Los Prisioneros and Violeta Parra (both of whom she has covered). But Mena is at least partially responsible for the renewed energy and fresh new direction of the scene. Esquemas Juveniles continues to inspire young indie pop acts across Chile.

As an anxious person, I still defer to the soothing powers of Esquemas Juveniles. Javiera lays it out clear as day in the title track: “Es fácil definir llegar a un mismo destino…y difícil llegar…al unísono…” It’s a reminder to chill – we’ll get where we’re going eventually.

Adolescente perpetuo is available to stream below.