AT AGE SEVEN, a severed fingertip nearly kept Margarita Cordero, who performs as Nacha Mendez, from a career in music. Inspired by the ranchera songs her grandmother (the original Nacha Mendez) taught her, she already yearned to be a performer at that tender age. In the small border town of La Unión, her working-class parents not only managed to pay her medical expenses, but also saved up to buy Mendez a new guitar. Their support launched her career as an award-winning pan-Latin musician who has collaborated with celebrated composers, including the late Robert Ashley and the Pulitzer Prize winner Raven Chacon. These days, the Santa Fe–based chanteuse is performing, working on a new album, and pouring her heart into the Nacha Mendez Music Scholarship for New Mexican Girls of Color. This year, the nonprofit granted 12 financial awards to young women throughout the state.

GROWING UP, I must have had some kind of learning disability. I didn’t speak, and I was not able to read. But I was never diagnosed.

MY GRANDMOTHER was a guitarist. In the summer, while my parents were working, she would take care of us. There was always a guitar at home, and she would play it and teach me songs.

IT WAS THROUGH GUITAR and art—drawing pictures and playing music— that I started to feel like I could see the world in different ways. When I was 10 years old, I started singing, too, and I wrote my first song. It was always music that brought it all home for me.

IN JUNIOR HIGH, at talent shows, I would win first place. It was very encouraging.

BUT WHEN I GOT to high school, I was still not communicating. I had a great speech teacher who really helped me overcome the shyness and helped me to speak in public.

WHEN I MOVED to Santa Fe, in 1978, I got together with a bunch of creative women in the city. We were the only all-girl band in probably all of New Mexico that was doing punk music.

IN THE EARLY ’90S, I was living in Chimayó. I didn’t have a lot of money. What I had access to was the Santuario. Every day I’d sit in the church and meditate. I would say things like, “I hope to someday be able to travel the world. I hope to be making good money from my music and performing.”

A FEW MONTHS LATER, I got a call from a friend in New York. He said, “I have a good friend. He’s a composer, Robert Ashley. He’s very famous, and he’s coming to Chimayó to meet with people about doing an opera about lowriders.”

I TRANSLATED his libretto for Now Eleanor’s Idea. A month later, he called and said his tenor couldn’t tour and offered me the role.

THE NEXT THING you know, I’m traveling the world making some decent money.

“CUCURRUCUCÚ PALOMA” is my absolute favorite song to perform. It’s hard. That’s why I love it.

I RECEIVED the New Mexico Platinum Music Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018. My brother said, “This is a big deal. You should do something with it.” I said, “Like what?” And he goes, “I don’t know, start a scholarship.”

WE’RE REACHING OUT to impoverished New Mexican girls of color who don’t have access to funds. They have to show a real dedication to music.

WE ALSO CAME UP with the Más Música fund. We awarded one young lady an additional $1,000 recently because she wanted to pay off her cello.

I’M KIND OF LIVING vicariously through these girls because they’re so serious about music. I love it because that’s how I was. And they’re so happy. You can tell they have this real joy in them.

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See Nacha Mendez perform at Hotel Santa Fe ( on Fridays, 7–9 p.m., and at La Boca ( on Sundays, 6–8 p.m. Learn more about the scholarship at