12:01am

Wed October 19, 2011
Music

Girl In A Coma: Rockers Tackle Their Second Language

Originally published on Fri October 21, 2011 4:19 pm

Girl in a Coma is a trio of young women from San Antonio who play rock music — loud rock music — in both English and Spanish. Lead singer and songwriter Nina Diaz, 23, is the youngest member of the band. Her sister Phannie plays drums, while their longtime friend Jenn Alva slaps the bass. Girl in a Coma is signed to Blackheart Records — a label owned by rocker Joan Jett — and takes its name from the song "Girlfriend in a Coma" by The Smiths.

While the members take pride in their Latino heritage, there is another thing they have in common: None of them is actually fluent in Spanish. They aren't alone: According to a national survey by the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, D.C., 23 percent of adult Latinos in the U.S. are English-dominant. Nina Diaz says that growing up, she often felt left out in her family.

"When the grandparents were talking to my older sister, or even adult conversations, you could hear them talking and it felt like a foreign thing," Diaz says. "It's like, 'What are you saying? I want to understand you.' But then I would go off and play with my toys, and was like, 'Whatever, I guess I'll understand it later.' "

Diaz says she grew up very much like the slain Tejano singer Selena: an English speaker who listened to English-language radio and didn't pay attention in Spanish classes at school. She says she often regrets not taking the time to learn her elders' language when she was younger.

"Now I realize I kind of messed up," she says. "There are times, especially when I'm singing [a song] in Spanish, that I'm basically teaching myself how to speak Spanish by singing it."

Diaz says that when she writes a song in Spanish, she studies the lyrics exhaustively, singing them to herself as many times as possible before performing the song live. But even outside of the music, communicating without Spanish can be difficult.

"It's hard enough as it is, being an all-girl band, two-thirds gay, all Latinas," Diaz says. "Whenever they ask us a question in Spanish, all of us are like, 'Can you repeat it again in English?' I admit that it's a little embarrassing. I want to be able to stand up and say, 'I am Latina and I know what you're saying and I'm going to answer you back.' "

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Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

And now a rock band that's using Spanish to grow its audience, Latino-style. The members of Girl in a Coma grew up listening to Selena, the late singer who had huge hits on Spanish-language radio in the '90s. She sang a style of Latin pop music called Tejano. Like Selena, the members of Girl in a Coma are Mexican-Americans from Texas. And like Selena, they are English speakers who are learning Spanish by singing it. NPR's Felix Contreras has more.

FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: Girl in a Coma is a trio of young women from San Antonio who play rock music. Loud rock music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

GIRL IN A COMA: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

CONTRERAS: Twenty-three-year-old Nina Diaz is the main singer and songwriter and the youngest member of the band. Her sister Phannie plays drums and their long-time friend Jenn Alva plays bass. They are singed to a label owned by rocker Joan Jett. They take their name from the song "Girlfriend in a Coma" by the '80s rock band The Smiths. They are very much like other rock musicians, working hard to make a name for themselves. They are also like many Latinos in the U.S. who don't speak Spanish.

According to a national survey by the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, D.C., 23 percent of adult Latinos here in the U.S. are English dominant. Nina Diaz says she often feels left out.

NINA DIAZ: You know, when the grandparents are talking to the older sister or just even adult conversations, you hear them talking and it seems like such a foreign thing and like - it's like what are you saying? I want to understand you. But then you go off and you play with your toys and you're like whatever, you know, I guess I'll understand it later.

CONTRERAS: Diaz says she grew up very much like Selena, an English speaker who listened to English-language radio and didn't pay attention in Spanish classes in school.

DIAZ: I wish I would have paid more attention then because now I realize I kind of messed up and there's times, like especially with singing the songs in Spanish, I'm basically teaching myself how to speak Spanish by singing it. I'm doing it kind of like the Selena way.

CONTRERAS: The slain Tejano star became a musical and cultural inspiration with songs like her 1994 hit "Si Una Vez."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SI UNA VEZ")

SELENA: (Singing in foreign language)

DIAZ: I would always just listen to the music. I never really understood what she was saying. So when it came to doing the song, I wrote out the lyrics, studied it, fell asleep to it, and did it as many times as I had to in the studio. And performing it live is the best way because you get different feels for it, different vibes, it becomes your own.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SI UNA VEZ")

COMA: (Singing in foreign language)

CONTRERAS: Diaz says learning Spanish by singing is helping all of the musicians of Girl in a Coma communicate beyond their generation.

DIAZ: It's hard enough as it is, you know, being an all-girl band, two thirds gay, all Latinas. And whenever they ask us a question in Spanish, all of us are like, can you repeat it again in English, please? I'm sorry. You know, it's a little embarrassing, I admit that. So it's also just to be able to stand up and say I am Latina and I know what you're saying to me, I'm going to answer you back.

CONTRERAS: Nina Diaz says she envisions a day when Girl in a Coma might even produce an entire album in Spanish. Felix Contreras, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SI UNA VEZ")

COMA: (Singing in foreign language)

SHAPIRO: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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