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Silvana Estrada moves from fear to defiance in Latin Grammy-nominated 'Si Me Matan'

Silvana Estrada performs onstage at 2022 Best New Artist Showcase during the 23rd annual Latin Grammy Awards in Las Vegas.
David Becker
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Getty Images for The Latin Recording Academy
Silvana Estrada performs onstage at 2022 Best New Artist Showcase during the 23rd annual Latin Grammy Awards in Las Vegas.

MEXICO CITY — When Mexican singer Silvana Estrada was as young as 5, she learned the first of many lessons about how the world would treat her as a woman. She and her mother were walking by a construction site in her hometown Coatepec, in Mexico's Veracruz state.

"The guys were catcalling my mother and I saw her reaction and I felt she was so scared and uncomfortable with her body and ashamed," she says. "It shocked me."

As she grew into adolescence, Estrada, now 26, understood that being a woman, especially in Mexico, meant being vulnerable.

"I grew up with fear," she says. "That's something that I can relate to with almost all the women I know."

This fear is the basis for Estrada's "Si Me Matan," which means "If They Kill Me," an emotional song that has inspired defiance in women's movements across the Spanish-speaking world. It is nominated for best singer-songwriter song at the 2023 Latin Grammys, which takes place Thursday in Seville, Spain.

As Estrada grew into her teenage years, the lessons kept rolling in. Her mother told her she had to say "no" to men "thousands of times," until they understood no means no. She had to be careful who she was around, where she went, who she talked to online.

When she went to study jazz in Xalapa, Mexico, her teachers often dismissed her and she recalls them saying she was "just a pretty singer."

She dropped out and went home to pursue a career on her own.

Estrada performs in New York City on Jan. 17.
Rob Kim / Getty Images for The Recording Academy
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Getty Images for The Recording Academy
Estrada performs in New York City on Jan. 17.

Gender-based violence continues to be rampant in Mexico. An estimated 10 women or girls are killed by their partners or family members in the country every day, the United Nations says, citing Mexican government data. Despite laws levying harsher punishments for gender-based violence, less than 1% of such crimes are prosecuted under the more severe penalties.

In 2018, Estrada was traveling around Mexico mostly by herself to play small gigs where she could find them. One day, she saw a trending hashtag on Twitter: #SiMeMatan (If They Kill Me). A recent wave of murders of women showed a disturbing trend in which authorities and social media users tried to blame the victim.

"What shocked me the most was all the comments and the media trying to make her guilty of her own death," says Estrada.

#SiMeMatan was a way to push back. It allowed women to tell their own stories online or preempt the slander that might be told about them if the worst were to happen. It sparked something in Estrada.

"I just wanted people to know that if they kill me, I was living my dream," she says. "I had the courage to live my passion."

Estrada began writing. "I wrote that first part in a day," she says.

"If they kill me," she sings in Spanish over soft acoustic guitar. "Like all women / I grew up scared / But even so / I went out alone / To see stars / To love life."

Estrada knew how to write about the fear inherent in being a woman. But she didn't know where to take the song.

"The second part took me like two years to write because I was so angry," she says. Then she laughs. "I remember having like five notebooks trying to finish that song."

In the meantime, Estrada focused on her debut album, Marchita, which became a hit after its release in January 2022. She became a sensation in Mexican music, following behind other women like Natalia LaFourcade, Mon Laferte and Julieta Venegas, who broke into the international market.

In November 2022, Estrada won the Latin Grammy for best new artist, a prize she shared with Cuban-born singer Angela Alvarez.

And she says she finally figured out how to finish "Si Me Matan."

"It took me two years to understand that what I wanted was to keep my own hope," she says. "So that's why the second part is all about the future, a better world. And that healed me so much. I'm so grateful to this song. It took me to a place I needed so much."

The second half of "Si Me Matan" gives voice to women not just scared, but defiantly hopeful.

She sings: "If they kill me / I will become a seed / For those to come / Now no one silences us / Nothing contains us."

After the song's release, Estrada never expected where it would go.

"This song has her own life," she says. "And it has been insane and just beautiful to see all these women making this song their own."

Estrada poses with the award for Best New Artist at the 23rd Annual Latin Grammy Awards on Nov. 17, 2022.
Frazer Harrison / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Estrada poses with the award for Best New Artist at the 23rd Annual Latin Grammy Awards on Nov. 17, 2022.

Across Latin America, the song has been sung at March 8 International Women's Day marches. The lyric "They've taken so much from us / They even took our fear" is common on protest signs. Women from across Mexico as well as Colombia, Argentina and Spain have written Estrada to tell her they play her song at shelters for women survivors of domestic violence and in women's prisons.

It has been covered and adapted many times, including one grand rendition by a women's group at the Catalonia College of Music in Barcelona. In a video of the group performing the song, along with an orchestra, dozens of women put their arms around each other and sing: "May the songs sound / Like a warm cloak / Healing our wound / Of what we have lost."

In making her own music video for the song, Estrada says she had "the most beautiful experience I've ever lived in my life."

She sits in an empty courtyard with her guitar. She begins playing and singing to a woman sitting across from her. As the camera spins around, Estrada is singing to a different woman. And then another. Old. Young. One rubbing her pregnant belly. Another holding her young daughter. Estrada says she performed the song for more than a dozen women, none of whom she knew.

"I felt so human at the moment, singing to all these women, all of us crying," she says. "It taught me so much about empathy and community and music. We were all just feeling that because of a song. Music is insane! I love it."

Despite the impact the song has had among women's movements, Estrada doesn't see herself as a feminist leader. She says she is trying to learn and understand more so she can continue being an advocate for women.

But she does recognize the importance of her music.

"We are living in this world where so much horror and terror is happening," she says, "and I think the act of creating beauty, whatever beauty means for you, is politically important."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

James Fredrick