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Episode 65: La abuela superstar (Grandma Superstar)

By Duolingo on Thu 13 Aug 2020

Irma Silva was born on a ranch, married young, and raised a large family — the traditional life of a rural Mexican woman. At 80 she thought that was it for her…until her grandson made an offer she couldn't refuse, and invited her to be the lead singer of his band.

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Martina: It was Mother's Day, 2019 and more than 16 000 people packed the Arena Monterrey in México to celebrate with live rancheras. That's a genre of traditional Mexican music. The emcee announced the next band: Buyuchek. The frontman, Jorge Loayzat, grabbed the mic.

Jorge: Yo les di la bienvenida: "Buenas tardes a todos. ¿Cómo están? Nosotros somos Buyuchek y la abuela Irma Silva. Hoy está con nosotros una cantante muy especial".

Martina: Then a grandmother in her 80s crossed the stage, with the help of a cane — she had short white hair, a long black dress, a sweet smile… She made her way to center stage and took a seat.

Irma: Yo les dije: "Hola, soy la abuela Irma". ¿Qué les puedo decir? Canté una de mis canciones favoritas: El ausente.

Martina: While she sang, Irma thought about how incredible it felt to be there. So many global superstars had performed on this very same stage: Beyoncé, Demi Lovato, Mariah Carey. It was a dream come true…but also a lot of pressure.

Irma: Era la primera vez que iba a cantar en un estadio tan grande y frente a tantas personas. Yo estaba muy nerviosa porque tenía muy poco tiempo en la banda, todo era nuevo para mí.

Martina: Irma never wanted to be famous. Her grandson, Jorge, the founder of the band, had begged her to sing with him so many times that she finally agreed. And now they were in one of Mexico's biggest concert venues.

Jorge: Cantar siempre había sido un pasatiempo para mi abuela. Juntos comenzamos un viaje muy emocionante. Mi abuela no se imaginaba que ese concierto iba a ser el principio de su carrera como cantante.

Martina: Bienvenidos and welcome to the Duolingo Spanish Podcast. I'm Martina Castro. Every episode, we bring you fascinating true stories, to help you improve your Spanish listening, and gain new perspectives on the world.

The storyteller will be using intermediate Spanish, and I'll be chiming in for context in English. If you miss something, you can always skip back and listen again. We also offer full transcripts at

Irma Silva always loved to sing. She was born in 1938 on a humble ranch, on the border between Mexico and the United States. Her parents didn't have a lot of money, and they worked in the fields. Little Irma would help them from a very early age.

Irma: Yo ayudaba con el trabajo del rancho, con las vacas y los cerdos. Nosotros teníamos muchos árboles y plantábamos frutas y verduras. Comíamos lo que cosechábamos en nuestro rancho.

Martina: Not many girls her age went to school, but Irma did. Her teachers taught her about a very popular type of regional music called rancheras.

Irma: Las rancheras eran muy populares. Todo el mundo las cantaba. Creo que mi voz era muy buena porque las maestras siempre me pedían cantar en los festivales de la escuela. La primera canción que conocí, y que ahora es una de mis preferidas, se llama La pajarera.

Martina: As a kid, Irma would sing all day long… While helping her mom in the kitchen, while milking the cows with her dad. Music ran in the family. Her uncle played accordion for one of the most famous ranchera bands in northern Mexico: Los Alegres de Terán. She wanted to be just like him. But there was a difference: he was a man.

Irma: En esa época, las mujeres no podían tener esas aspiraciones porque estaba mal visto. A mi padre no le gustaba ver a las mujeres cantar porque solo los hombres podían hacerlo.

Martina: Irma didn't understand why women couldn't sing rancheras. Two little girls from the next ranch over went to sing in Monterrey all the time. Their dad drove them two hours each way, to concerts and competitions. But Irma's dad was more conservative.

Irma: Mi padre no estaba de acuerdo. Yo les tenía mucha envidia porque también quería ser cantante. Pero yo nunca le dije nada de eso a mi padre. Simplemente acepté que las mujeres no cantaban.

Martina: Irma's fate was decided for her. At age 13, her dad sent her to learn how to become a seamstress, or costurera. She would be a homemaker first. A seamstress second. And nothing more.

Irma: Me casé a los 21 años. Yo me ocupaba de mi casa, de ayudar a mi marido en nuestro rancho y por la noche trabajaba como costurera. Yo era muy buena en mi trabajo y recibía muchas órdenes para hacer vestidos.

Martina: Irma went on to have five kids and 12 grandkids. For decades, she took care of the house by day and worked as a seamstress by night. But she never gave up on music. She sang for herself and her family.

Irma: Los domingos yo me reunía con mis cinco hijos y mis doce nietos. Después de la comida, mi nieto Jorge y yo siempre cantábamos rancheras juntos.

Martina: Jorge is one of Irma's 12 grandchildren. They have always had a special bond. Jorge's dad passed away when he was just a few months old. So he spent a lot of time with Irma, who would sing to him every day.

Irma: Yo he tenido una relación muy especial con mi nieto Jorge desde que él era pequeño. Mi hija, su mamá, trabajaba lejos del rancho, en la ciudad de Monterrey. Entonces, él vivió conmigo durante los primeros dos años de su vida.

Martina: Growing up surrounded by music, Jorge started singing rancheras from an early age, often along with his grandma. At age ten, he learned to play a special type of 12-string bass guitar. It's called sixth bass or bajo sexto.

Jorge: En México, tener una carrera en la música siempre ha sido más fácil para los hombres que para las mujeres. Mi abuela no pudo hacerlo, pero yo no tuve ningún problema.

Martina: As a teenager, Jorge formed a band with a friend who plays the accordion. They started playing rancheras in their state of Nuevo Leon. They invested the money they made on a couple of tours in Europe. They took their rancheras to Spain, France, Bulgaria, and Turkey, where they played in a town called Büyükçekmece.

Jorge: Por esa razón, llamamos a nuestro grupo Buyuchek.

Martina: Irma was very proud of her grandson's career. It felt like he was fulfilling her dream of being a singer.

Irma: Yo veía a Jorge cantar y sentía que mi pasión por las rancheras había pasado a otra generación. Estaba segura de que Jorge iba a tener mucho éxito con su grupo.

Martina: In 2018, Irma was going to turn 80, and Jorge wanted to do something special. He had an idea: What if he recorded an album with his grandmother? It would be a great present for her and a treasure that the family could keep forever.

Jorge: No había ninguna grabación de la abuela cantando y yo pensé que podía ser lindo tenerla grabada para el futuro. Una joya para la familia.

Martina: But Jorge was a professional musician, and he knew that recording an album was not cheap. So before telling his grandmother, he saved up money for more than a year.

Jorge: Yo trabajé mucho para poder hacerlo. Cuando tuve el dinero, hablé con mi mamá. Ella me dijo que le encantaba la idea y que me iba a ayudar a producirlo. ¡Ahora sí, era el momento de hablar del proyecto con la abuela!

Martina: At one of the family's weekly Sunday gatherings, Jorge decided it was time. He took Irma aside and told her about the album.

Jorge: Yo le dije a mi abuela que quería grabar un disco con ella.

Martina: Irma was shocked, and she flatly refused.

Irma: Yo no entendía cómo una mujer de 80 años como yo iba a grabar un disco. Le pregunté si estaba loco y le dije que mis amigos iban a pensar que yo estaba haciendo el ridículo. Recordaba algo que mi papá siempre decía: "Las mujeres no deben cantar en público".

Martina: Irma refused to record the album because she didn't want anyone besides her close family to hear her sing. But Jorge kept insisting. He would go to her house to rehearse and would ask her to join him for a couple of songs.

Irma: Jorge venía a mi rancho a practicar conmigo todas las semanas. Él se sentaba con su bajo sexto en un sillón y yo en otro. Nosotros cantábamos las canciones que yo había cantado toda mi vida, como La pajarera.

Martina: Jorge even asked his uncles to help. They talked to Irma, and tried to convince her that her age and gender no longer mattered! "Times have changed," they told her. "What can you lose?"

Irma: Ellos insistieron tanto que, al final, yo acepté. Le dije a Jorge que sí y él se puso muy contento.

Martina: Jorge immediately booked a studio. Irma had never been to one before. She was amazed. And a little intimidated.

Irma: Yo entré al estudio de grabación ¡y era impresionante! Yo nunca había visto tantos micrófonos y equipos de sonido. Al principio, yo tenía mucho miedo. Pero cuando empecé a escuchar las melodías, cerré los ojos y me imaginé cantando en mi rancho.

Martina: Irma sang all of her favorite songs, all the classics, including La pajarera. The recording session went very well.

Irma: La verdad, me gustó la experiencia. Fue mucho mejor de lo que esperaba.

Martina: Besides his singing gigs, Jorge was earning some money doing administrative work for a record label, Universal Music. His band wasn't well known, but he had big dreams.

Jorge: Un día, mi jefe me llamó para una reunión. Yo le dije que quería mostrarle un disco que había grabado con mi abuelita y que quería su opinión y sus consejos.

Martina: When his boss heard the demos, he was silent for a couple of minutes…and then, to Jorge's surprise, he started crying. He said: "Jorge, this is a gem. This can't be in the family vault, your grandmother's voice is incredible! We have to sign her."

Jorge: Yo fui corriendo a decirle a mi abuela que nos habían ofrecido un contrato con Universal Music. Le expliqué que era algo muy importante.

Martina: But the record label had a request. They wanted the band to record their first album live…and…on video.

Jorge: Me pareció una excelente idea porque la gente iba a poder ver a mi abuela, el pueblo y el rancho en el que había vivido toda su vida.

Martina: Again, it took a lot of convincing.

Irma: El disco estaba bien, el contrato también, pero un video me parecía demasiado. A mí me daba mucha vergüenza.

Martina: Jorge explained that there was no shame, or vergüenza, in being filmed. They would record a short concert of a dozen songs, on Irma's ranch, surrounded by family and her closest friends.

Irma: Le dije que sí porque en el público solo iban a estar mis amigos y mi familia.

Martina: The video crew set up the stage next to Irma's favorite spot on her ranch: an old oak tree. She was dressed to the nines, with a grey embroidered shirt and a pearl necklace. Jorge wore dark jeans and a black hat that he likes to wear on stage.

Jorge: Yo dije: "Buenas tardes, amigos. Es un gusto estar con ustedes en esta bonita tarde. Hoy les vamos a cantar las canciones de la época de la abuela que ella nos ha transmitido de generación en generación".

Martina: The accordion began to play. Irma smiled, she was happy. It was her very first song in front of a real audience.

Irma: Después de cantar la primera canción, mi nieto me abrazó. ¡El público no paraba de aplaudir! Yo estaba muy emocionada y quería seguir cantando. Yo quería regalarle a toda esa gente la música que había llevado dentro de mí durante toda mi vida. ¡Me empezó a gustar el escenario!

Martina: Soon after that concert, their first album was ready. The band had a new name, too: Buyuchek y la Abuela Irma. For the debut album they chose the title Las canciones de la abuela, or Grandma's songs, and uploaded it to Spotify and YouTube.

Irma: Yo no sabía mucho de internet, pero el efecto fue inmediato. Mucha gente conocida empezó a llamarme y yo estaba muy contenta.

Martina: Unfortunately, Irma's joy lasted for exactly two days. Just 48 hours after launching the single, her eldest son, who had been ill with cancer, passed away.

Jorge: Fue un momento muy difícil para toda la familia, pero sobre todo para la abuela. Ella estaba deprimida y triste.

Martina: It was devastating news. Jorge and the rest of the family thought Irma might give up on singing altogether. But she proved them wrong.

Irma: Cantar era lo único que me ayudaba a sentirme mejor en ese momento. Yo le dije a mi nieto que quería seguir cantando porque me mantenía ocupada.

Martina: Jorge started taking Irma to sing at village fairs. Soon, she was a regional sensation. When she took the stage, the crowd would chant: ¡A-bue-la! ¡A-bue-la!.

Irma: El público me daba mucha energía. Jorge siempre me acompañaba al escenario porque yo camino con dificultad. Él me ayudaba a sentirme cómoda.

Martina: It was around this time that Buyucheck y Abuela Irma were invited to be part of a Mother's Day concert at the Monterrey Arena. It was Irma's first time backstage in a dressing room, or camerino.

Irma: Cuando entré a los camerinos, ¡no lo podía creer! Eran enormes y había luces y espejos por todos lados. ¡Era como estar en un sueño! Nunca olvidaré ese día porque sentí una emoción muy grande. En ese momento, supe que los tiempos habían cambiado, que ser mujer ya no era un problema para cantar.

Martina: A few weeks after the concert, Jorge got a call while he was working out at the gym. It was an old friend, a representative of a music company. He didn't think it was important, so he didn't take it right away.

Jorge: Yo llamé a mi amigo y él me dijo: "¡Felicidades!". Yo no sabía de qué hablaba, así que le pregunté: "¿Felicidades? ¿Por qué?". Imaginé que se había confundido con mi fecha de cumpleaños. Me dijo: "¡Recibiste una nominación para los Premios Grammy Latinos!" ¡Yo pensé que era una broma!

Martina: After hanging up, Jorge googled the 2019 Grammy nominations. And there it was. Under "Best Norteña Music Album:” Buyuchek y la Abuela Irma. Jorge drove for two hours straight to Irma's ranch. He was anxious, and couldn't wait to deliver the news. When he saw her at the door, he screamed:

Jorge: "¡Abuela no lo vas a creer! ¡Estamos nominados a los Premios Grammy Latinos!"

Martina: But Irma didn't understand.

Irma: "¿Qué es eso de los Grammy?", le pregunté.

Martina: Jorge explained, and then Irma finally understood. The most important music award in the world. She cried. She still did not fully understand how she got there, but she was thrilled!

Irma: A los 80 años por fin descubrí que soy cantante. Gracias a mi nieto Jorge, he aceptado que ese siempre fue mi sueño y que nunca es tarde para cumplirlo. Ahora, lo único que quiero es pasar los días que me quedan de vida cantando rancheras en los escenarios.

Martina: Irma and her band did not win the 2019 Grammy, but the night of the Grammy Awards, she was a sensation on the red carpet. Today, Irma and Jorge continue to perform together, and they're getting ready to record a new album. Irma says she's happier than ever.

This story was produced by Tali Goldman, a journalist, and writer from Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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The Duolingo Spanish Podcast is produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media. I’m the executive producer, Martina Castro. ¡Gracias por escuchar!


This episode was produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media.

Producer: Tali Goldman
Narrator & Protagonist: Jorge Loayzat & Irma Silva
Script Editor: David Alandete & Cata May
Mixed by: Andrés Fechtenholz
Sound Design & Mastering Engineer: Antonio Romero