Singer Alynda Segarra has tried on a lot of identities. She grew up in the Bronx in a Puerto Rican family, and her aunt and uncle raised her in what almost sounds like a time capsule.
"I grew up kind of, like, living in their era with like the media that I'd take in," Segarra says. "We'd watch like a lot I Love Lucy and West Side Story. My favorite comedian was Jerry Lewis. I was kind of living in the time period that that they grew up with."
That's part of the reason the 30-year-old Segarra says she always felt like an outsider. She didn't relate to neighborhood kids, didn't do well in school and didn't relate to her own family. She fell in with the punk rock scene on New York's Lower East Side and tried that identity on for a while, but started to tire of the city and dreamed about another kind of life.
"Just this idea of going out on the road and experiencing the rest of the country, I felt a lot of curiosity about, what is America like?" she says. "And what are small towns like. What does it feel like to be in the middle of nowhere and see stars, you know? I was just such a city kid."
So at 17, she left, literally thumbing rides and hopping trains across the country. She made New Orleans her home and eventually started the band Hurray for the Riff Raff. Their music sounds like those long road trips Segarra made in the West: A mixture of rock, folk and blues. But their new album is something different, because Segarra finally got to point where she was ready to grapple with the part of her identity that she'd pushed away when she was younger. She's a Puerto Rican woman, from a New York neighborhood, and that history is now part of her music. The new album is called The Navigator.
Read an edited transcript of Segarra's interview with NPR's Rachel Martin below and hear the full conversation at the audio link.
Rachel Martin: You've put together an album that has a concept. This is a story, and there's a character at the center of it who is the titular navigator. Can you fill out her contours for us a little more? Where does she come from?
Alynda Segarra: Navita is kind of my superhero. She is a 17-year-old girl who is Puerto Rican and lives in "The City," which is just kind of my Gotham City, and she feels very trapped by her place in society. So she makes a wish to wake up and not recognize anyone around her or anything. And when she wakes up, it's 40 years later and she's in the same city, and everyone that she knew and every cultural thing that she knew and every place that she knew is all gone.
So she got her wish.
She got her wish, and she realizes what she lost, and that then, she's on a journey to find where the remnants of her people are.
In the song "Rican Beach," you sing, "First they stole our language, then they stole our names, then they stole the things that brought us fame. Then they stole our neighbors, and they stole our streets and they left us to die on Rican Beach." You're talking about people being displaced in a lot of different ways. How has this played out in the neighborhood you grew up in?
Well, my neighborhood is still pretty intact. It's pretty far up there, in the northwest part of Bronx, so it's not really that convenient yet for people. But when I go back to New York city, a place that I was very drawn to that I spent a lot of my time was the Lower East Side.
The Lower East Side has such a rich history of Puerto Rican art and Puerto Rican activism. I didn't even realize that I was interacting with my ancestry; I thought I was just following the punk scene. I think it took me until about this age to really decide that I needed to learn about where I'm from and where I fit in my lineage of people. It was a very healing experience. I had to heal the shame I felt as a kid, and also really prove that kid wrong.
You use the word shame to describe how you felt — where did that come from? What did that look like when you were young?
Well, I think it had many different aspects. For me, I felt that I didn't really fit into any of the boxes that I saw created for Puerto Rican women in the media. I only saw representations that were very overly sexualized, not very intellectual, not very rebellious. It made me believe, for some reason, that that's what we were. That that wasn't just a representation, that that was the truth. And it made me feel like I needed to search through other cultures and other backgrounds to find people who might be like me.
It's kind of a spoiler question, but — how does the story end on this album? What happens to Navi?
Well, Navi realizes her place and her purpose. She finds her people on Rican Beach and she realizes that her purpose is to remember and to tell the stories that have been hidden from these future generations.
Barton Girdwood produced the broadcast version of this story.