Denzel’s Melody, DACA dance & Disappearing Dad

An immigrant story of trauma and love

Melody Lumbang-Stevens holding her newborn son Denzel Mendoza. Photo courtesy Mendoza.

“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.

Denzel Mendoza and his mom Melody Lumbang-Stevens. Photo courtesy Mendoza.
  • 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.

Photo courtesy of Mendoza.
Mendoza with another GRAMMY-winning Portland jazz artist, Esperanza Spalding. Photo courtesy Mendoza.

“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.

“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.”

Sometimes the rake replaces the trombone. Photo courtesy of Mendoza.

“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.’”

We are all poor due to the broken social safety net in the United States, the world’s richest nation. Portfolio, bio, contact:

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