Denzel’s Melody, DACA dance & Disappearing Dad
Denzel Mendoza loved his student model King 606 trombone so much he would shower and sleep with it as a sixth grader, his mother, Melody Lumbang-Stevens recalls.
“He’d come back from school and take a shower and clean the trombone, and he’d sleep beside the trombone,” she laughs, still marveling. “The trombone was always in his bed.”
The instrument would become a part of his highest highs—including winning a GRAMMY with John Daversa—and lowest lows.
The day Denzel Mendoza found out his father Eduardo was gone for good—leaving the country to be with a girlfriend—came hours before his first big performance, at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.
“He called around 8:30, because we were waiting for him for dinner,” Lumbang-Stevens recalls of that day, March 17, 2005. “He was already over in San Francisco. Denzel said ‘What!?’”
“I said, ‘OK, why don’t you talk to your son?’ The only thing I heard from Denzel [was] ‘What!?’ And then he cried, and then we cried.”
Plans had been laid for 36 family members to come to the show the next day.
“The only empty seat was my father’s,” Mendoza remembers.
For Lumbang-Stevens, Denzel and his sister Gabrielle, the trials and tribulations of a dad’s disappearance were unforeseen, unforeseeable. They would reshape the family’s lives for many years to come.
“Eddie sent letter from airport with $100 in it,” Lumbang-Stevens recalls. “He said ‘take care of the kids, I’m not coming back, and I keep in touch,’ and then that’s it.”
Mendoza’s and Lumbang-Stevens’ story illustrates how misguided President Donald Trump’s attacks on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program really is. Mendoza qualified for DACA, a law passed to make an exception for immigrants who came to this country as children, in 2013. He now lives in Portland. DACA’s sure to be back in the news this Spring as the Supreme Court issues a decision expected to follow the court’s rightward tilt. Perhaps the most glaring example of how entrenched the nation’s battle over immigration has become, DACA recipients’ neverending story began with temporary legal status granted by President Barack Obama in 2012; the original DREAM Act has been stalled in Congress in various forms since 2001.
Just a few months ago, Lumbang-Stevens got her green card. She’s living in Pahrump, NV, and recently started working as a hospital cook.
President Donald Trump is married to a Slovenian immigrant—Melania Trump, formerly Melanija Knavs, a model he helped obtain a coveted “genius visa.” Even so, he seems determined to spit on the very Statue of Liberty and the nation’s storied immigration history.
Meanwhile, the 700,000 DACA recipients like Mendoza, are the pride and joy of many immigrant families, and truth be told, they’re as American as it gets. How American?
- As American as Mendoza’s working as a landscaper while winning a GRAMMY playing jazz trombone.
- As American as Mendoza’s departed dad posting Ronald Reagan’s “Torch of Lady Liberty” speech to immigrants on his social media, from somewhere in Singapore, next to the words “American Dream.”
- As American as Mendoza marrying Aurora Dachen the morning of January 1, 2020 at Portland’s Grotto, hours before a trip to see his mom in Las Vegas—because, he explains, “we didn’t want to get married in Vegas—that’s silly.”
- As American as Mendoza’s new wife, Aurora Mendoza, née Dachen, having to deal with the loss of her brother, Taliesin Namkai-Meche, to a horrific crime perpetrated by a man named Jeremy Christian, who slashed three men’s throats in 2016 after a racist rant on a light rail train. (Here’s my story about it for the L.A. Times.)
- As American as this insanely hilarious Facebook post by Mendoza.
- As American as a woman doing the hard work of cleaning up the mess left by a man: Lumbang-Stevens sold her gold jewelry to feed and shelter her kids after her husband left.
“I am as American as apple pie,” Mendoza says. “The only thing that separates me is a piece of paper.”
Poverty has at times been a byproduct of, that lack of paper.
“He didn’t leave us anything,” Mendoza recalls of his dad. “In fact, he took our passports. Reason being, he didn’t want us to go follow him back to Singapore. “He didn’t just leave us, he trapped us.”
Denzel fought to succeed in school while “trying to figure out why my classmates had really nice pencil bags.”
Years later, he would drop out of the New School in New York City because as a DACA recipient, he couldn’t qualify for federal financial aid. He even briefly became homeless, he recalls, becoming “my mother’s worst nightmare,” because he “didn’t want to take the flight of shame back to Las Vegas.”
Waving his slide, using a homemade aluminum pie tin mute, weaving breathy polytones, elephantine blasts and 64th notes cascading over standup bass and drums, Denzel Mendoza channeled Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
It was November 2019, at the Portland Opera building, and Mendoza’s jazz trio Illegal Son was performing after an emotional, musical Artists Repertory Theater show “La Ruta,” Mendoza channeled Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
Stalking, pacing and sweating in white Reeboks and plaid, he spoke intimately of immigration and deadbeat dads.
In between songs, he took questions from the audience, some of which were about the trio’s name: a reference to the sensitivity, trauma and power of being an “illegal son.”
“Ever go back?” an audience member asked.
Nope. Mendoza recently missed a cousin’s funeral, and can’t tour internationally. He plays with Haley Heynderickx, another Portland Filipino musician, and has suffered financially while turning down dozens of opportunities in faraway places.
As a young DACA recipient who has both suffered from and overcome the challenges of a quixotic immigration policy, Mendoza’s far from alone. There’s 21 Savage, a.k.a. Sheyaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, a British rapper who can’t fly internationally and could face deportation. There’s Sebastian Silva, a Portland DACA recipient and guitarist for internationally-touring metal band Idle Hands, of whom I wrote for Vortex Magazine, who gave up his life here and moved to a Mexico where he’s an outsider so he could tour, play, and survive. There’s “Black Panther” actor Bambadjan Bamba, and Pulitzer-winning Filipino journalist Jose Antonio Vargas. The list goes on.
“Ever hear from dad?” came the next question. A nerve seemed to throb.
“Ooo hoo hoo,” Mendoza paused, shaking his head. “Eddie. Eduardo. You Casanova. I don’t talk to him. And that makes me real sad. I feel erased from his life, and I’m erasing his from mine.”
Mendoza’s anger and hunger spilled out in unfiltered words. And in equally improvisational music, steered through the discipline of countless hours of practice, technical power voiced through an instrument that is more often a role player than a lead.
“He’s ridiculous,” Mendoza said. “He sends cheesy motivational videos to me every four or five months on Facebook.”
“The only thing I have from him is this mustache, and I’m not going to shave it because I look like a potato.”
Melody Lumbang-Stevens’ response to her husband’s departure, her newfound economic uncertainty and immigration quandary?
She sold her jewelry. Worked twice as hard. Was there for her kids. Kept her head down and her kids out of trouble.
“I keep on telling them, you are not illegal, you are not. And then I keep on reminding them, don’t do bad things.”
“For a few months I’m selling all my jewelry,” recalls the native Tagalog speaker in nearly-fluent English. “Gold, because the gold in Singapore, I worked in Singapore for 14 years. That’s what I had at the time.”
“Denzel always say that, I am not going to go, we are not going to go anywhere, this is our home. That’s why I keep it. I promise to them I try my best. I told them, ‘I cannot afford to buy nice clothes, but I make sure you have always food on the table, and we have the bills is paid off.’”
Somehow, immigration agents never knocked on her door, or otherwise came looking for her and the kids, even after their visas expired.
“I never received any letter from the government, never,” she said. “Maybe I just be lucking out. Or maybe because I never do bad.”
“If I want to take my kids back to Singapore, I don’t think I can afford to do that. I don’t have money,” Lumbang-Stevens said, slipping into present tense. “I only have to survive, to make the day, today big for them.”
“Denzel and [his sister] Gabi [Gabrielle], I keep on telling them, You are not illegal. You didn’t come here as illegal, you come here with the proper paper, that’s why we’re not worried about it.
“Yeah, I know it’s illegal for us to stay here, but for me, I have no choice. I keep on telling myself, ‘I didn’t do nothing.’”
Eventually, Mendoza got his DACA papers. “I was able to live like a normal person for the first time in my life,” he recalls.
In Portland, he kept making music, becoming a key part of Haley Hendeyrickx’s ensemble and other performance and recording projects.
When John Daversa brought Mendoza in on his album “American Dreamers,” Lumbang-Stevens recalls, she was excited. When he went to the GRAMMYs, Mendoza “videoed me live from the thing.”
She was overwhelmed when he took home music’s top prize.
“Oh my God,” she said, when asked about it. “I really cried. I’m so happy for him, I’m so proud. I’m a proud mom.”
She has reservations about his Illegal Son project, though. It’s the name.
“I keep on telling him, ‘are you sure? You are using the name, but you are not illegal.’ [But] he’s not thinking about himself, he’s thinking about everyone.”
Lumbang-Stevens recently got her own green card, and soon after took a job as a cook at a Las Vegas hospital. Her favorite vegetables to cook with include chili, eggplant, okra, long beans and something called “malunggay,” the leaves of the drumstick tree. “Denzel, he likes it.”
She and her husband live in Pahrump, NV.
Mendoza says he and Aurora plan to begin the long journey of seeking his green card after they finish the grieving and trauma involved in the Jeremy Christian trial. A sentencing hearing is scheduled for March 27, 2020.
The continued attacks on the DACA program confuse the mother.
“I don’t know why they’re doing this [trying to cancel DACA],” Lumbang-Stevens says. “For me, just please: give them a peace of mind. We are normal here. No worries for these kids. Give them a peace of mind.”
For his part, when the anger recedes, and the politics stop making sense, Mendoza returns to music. But he sometimes uses a different word.
“The root of it all for me is, it’s about love.”
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