When we talked with Victoria “La Mala” Ortiz last week, the 28-year-old wouldn’t reveal too much about the video for her vengeful single “Vete Mucho.” She was keeping the details under wraps until it debuted on Tidal — the first music video from a Mexican regional artist to premiere on Jay Z’s streaming service. All she would tell us was that “it’s about a woman who is so sick of being mistreated that she loses her mind.”
The video is out today, and coming from La Mala, the storyline doesn’t surprise us; her moniker pays homage to badass women worldwide. She’s crafted an image of herself as self-reliant and brassy — an emerging player in the banda music genre who isn’t afraid to tell a guy “vete a la chingada.”
Her temperament is not so different from the tradition of toughness established by the ever-tenacious Paquita la del Barrio, known for her pointed query, “¿Me estás oyendo, inútil?” or Jenni Rivera, who left behind a legacy of empowerment when she died in 2012.
Rivera in particular is a personal hero of La Mala (she still cherishes a tweet Rivera sent praising the newcomer a few years ago). The hole Rivera left in the banda scene is in the giant, inimitable shape of a star, and it’s hard to imagine anyone filling it. Victoria knows this and doesn’t even seem interested in becoming that missing piece of the puzzle — she’s aware that her own size and scope is different. While she has taken her bold cue from the female greats of Mexican music, Ortiz has tried to carve out her own niche using both traditional and urban influences she picked up shuttling between the U.S. and Mexico. Her career reads like a catalog of experiences across borders, starting with her childhood in Mexico, family visits to Los Angeles, and early music efforts in New York.
“There’s a new generation that’s just like me — we grew up listening to all that kind of [traditional] music and it means so much to us, but we also have other influences. I feel like that’s what I want to represent. I don’t want to be really boxed in,” she said.
La Mala also tends to turn heads because of her personal style. She describes herself as what would happen if “Tupac and Selena had a child,” and her modern look isn’t quite what you’d expect from a banda artist in 2016. Some critics might see her image as a marketing ploy and question if she is an authentic representation of regional Mexican music. In some ways, she’s not — she tends to go pop instead of purely classic in terms of musical production — but she thinks of this as versatility. And indeed, both her attitude and artistry speak to her bicultural identity. The singer is believable belting out ranchera-style, but she probably wouldn’t surprise anyone if she decided to only sing R&B ballads (she recently covered “Love Yourself” by Justin Bieber).
“There’s a new generation that’s just like me. I don’t want to be really boxed in.”
Growing up in Mexico City, the entertainment industry never seemed like a pipe dream for La Mala. Her mother, Lupita Ortiz, was an actress who made Mexican films in the early 80s, including Pelea de Perros and Tres Contra el Destino. Lupita also sang, and La Mala says her clear voice rung out constantly at family parties and around the house. Her late father, Jesús Octavio Hernández Gómez, was a lawyer from Culiacán, the largest city in the state of Sinaloa, where banda originated. La Mala remembers how he would blast regional music at every opportunity.
The family had relatives living in Los Angeles, and La Mala boarded a plane frequently as a kid to visit a few of her aunts. In their LA households, wailing along to Mexican music wasn’t quite as common.“My aunts were the cool teenagers — they were pretty and fun and they loved listening to R&B and hip-hop and soul music,” the singer remembers.
The American records her aunts loved often fell into La Mala’s luggage and found their way into her bedroom back in Mexico. She would sit on her bed and play Toni Braxton, Whitney Houston, and Mariah Carey, trying to mimic the powerful register and vocal gymnastics of the divas. When one of her high school teachers organized a talent show called “English Unplugged,” La Mala won the entire thing with a rendition of Monica’s “Angel of Mine.”
Silly high school performances seemed like fun extracurriculars at the time, but they reinforced the idea that singing was a possibility for La Mala. She recorded a couple of demos in Mexico, and one of them got her a short stint opening for Nina Sky and NORE, back when they were promoting “Oye Mi Canto.” While the tour didn’t shoot La Mala directly into stardom, it helped her snag a few gigs in New York. She spent time living in the city and absorbing all its chaos and urbanity before ultimately deciding she wanted to try Mexico again.
Back in Guadalajara, one of Mexico’s epicenters for banda music, La Mala met producer Ivan Diaz and recorded a cover of Olga Tañon’s “Ahora Soy Mala.” The demo would kick off a kind of fairy tale story for the reality show generation: The song ended up in the hands of hitmaker José Pepe Garza, who helped discover artists such as Rivera, Chalino Sánchez, and Yolanda Pérez. He contacted La Mala about competing on Duetos, a Top Model-on-steroids-type program, where participants had to dance, sing, and act each week before a panel of judges. As an added bonus, he started circulating her version of “Ahora Soy Mala” around the airwaves.
If you watch YouTube videos of Duetos, La Mala appears simply as Victoria. She’s tall (even gangly), simply dressed and a little shell-shocked. The show required her to perform alongside a better-known Mexican celebrity — in her case, it was the 90s heartthrob Lorenzo Antonio, who the judges doted on the entire series. But La Mala got it pretty hard: “Estaba muy grave — te quedó bastante arrastrada,” judge Graciela Beltrán told her on one episode after she sang La India’s verses in “Vivir Lo Nuestro.”
“I was so scared and nervous,” La Mala remembered. “We were there for three and a half months. It was like bootcamp — sometimes, it was 16-hour days filming and doing everything.”
And yet, even when La Mala would get bad feedback, the show’s live audience would jump to her defense and boo the critical judges. People liked her, and she had also made fans out of producers Adolfo Valenzuela and Omar Valenzuela, known as The Twins, who arranged music for the show. Although she didn’t win the competition’s first place prize (an album contract), the Twins were so smitten by her that they helped her produce her first album, MALA, anyway.
“I felt really alone, and that’s why I wanted to do music that would empower women.”
This is where La Mala was really born. She had learned how to stand out as a shy reality show contestant, and understood the process of grooming herself for fame. People had taken to calling her “La Mala” after her song, and the artist thought she could use the nickname — and some sass — to propel herself up the industry ladder, clad in four-inch stilettos.
At 5’7″, La Mala is practically Amazonian in heels, and she’s never afraid to vamp it up when it comes to fashion. All of the edge she’d absorbed from her time in L.A. and New York City seeped out in her personality and on social media, where she’s attracting followers faster than you can say “double tap.” And while that packaging takes traditionalists by surprise, La Mala argues it’s an extension of her artistry.
“I love to get involved with everything — the hair, the makeup, and the aesthetics of what the look will be. It’s a complement to the music to show those opposites sides and the mix of cultures coming together,” she said.
But she also explains that her good-girl-gone-La-Mala transition was more complex than just nailing a certain image. Around the time she was living in New York, she says a relationship turned emotionally abusive. “I felt really alone, and that’s why I wanted to do music that would empower women. When you see that you have nobody, you say, ‘Well, I have myself.’” She doesn’t just sing about not needing a man who doesn’t treat you right. She believes it.
She doesn’t just sing about not needing a man who doesn’t treat you right. She believes it.
Now, La Mala seems to be doing everything to keep the industry walls from closing in on her: She’s talked about collaborating with other artists to keep her sound fresh — and that could mean veering from banda and exploring everything from reggaeton to hip-hop. Still, there’s plenty of growth left. Her songs are catchy, albeit not always the deepest, and La Mala wants to get more personal. She has started dabbling with writing, an attribute that will undoubtedly pack some power and authenticity to her repertoire so she’s not just singing pieces given to her by producers — and she insists she has a lot to say.
“People don’t expect me to sing traditional music, but I think that’s part of what has made me stand out in the genre. I am a city girl with parents from the countryside, I’ve seen both sides, and all of this has given me my own story,” La Mala says.