By Al Carlos Hernandez
Herald de Paris
SAN FRANCISCO — Linda Ronstadt is an iconic international singer. Her many vocal styles, in a variety of genres, have resonated with the general public over the course of her four decade career. As a result, she has earned multiple Grammy awards, two Academy of Country Music awards, an Emmy award, and an ALMA award.
Her numerous United States and internationally certified gold, platinum and multiplatinum albums have included a Tony Award and Golden Globe nominations. In total she has released over thirty solo albums and more than fifteen compilations or greatest hits albums.
Ronstadt has charted thirty-eight Billboard Hot 100 singles, twenty-one of which have reached the Top 40, ten have reached the Top 10, and three peaking at No. 2. Her number 1 hit was “You’re No Good.” In addition she has charted thirty-six albums, ten Top 10 albums, and three Number 1 albums on the Billboard 200 Pop Album charts.
Linda Ronstadt was born in Tucson, Arizona. Her father, Gilbert, came from a pioneering Arizona ranching family and was of Mexican-American descent (with some German ancestry); a family that has contributed much to the arts and culture of the American Southwest. Her mother, Ruthmary, was of German, English, and Dutch descent.
Beginning in the mid-1970’s, Linda Ronstadt’s private life was given major publicity. It was fueled by a relationship with the then governor of California, Jerry Brown. Since that time, she has adopted two children, Mary Clementine and Carlos Sangria. Since 2007 Ronstadt resided in the San Francisco area while also maintaining her home in Tucson, Arizona.
In 2009, in honor of Linda Ronstadt, the Martin Guitar Company made a 12-fret, 00-42 model “Linda Ronstadt Limited Edition” acoustic guitar. Ronstadt has appointed the Land Institute as recipient of all proceeds from her signature guitar.
In August of 2009, Ronstadt, in a well publicized interview with Planet Out Inc. entitled Linda Ronstadt’s Gay Mission, championed gay rights and same sex marriage. She stated that, “Homophobia is anti-family values. Period, end of story.”
On January 16, 2010, Ronstadt converged with thousands of other activists in a “National Day of Action.” As a native Arizonan and coming from a law enforcement family, Ronstadt stated that her “dog in the fight” was the treatment of illegal aliens. She has serious concerns with Arizona’s enforcement of the rule of law and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s immigration efforts.
On April 29, 2010 Ronstadt began a campaign (including joining a lawsuit) against Arizona’s new illegal immigration law, SB1070, calling it, “A devastating blow to law enforcement. The police don’t protect us in a democracy with brute force.” This is something she said she learned from her brother Peter, who was the chief of police in Tucson.
In May, 2009, Ronstadt received an honorary doctorate of music degree from the prestigious Berklee College of Music for her achievements and influence in music as well as her contributions to American and international culture.
Recently, Linda Ronstadt has emerged as a major arts advocate in the United States. In 2008, Ronstadt was appointed Artistic Director of the San JosÃ© Mariachi and Mexican Heritage Festival held in San Jose, California. She continues to present the festival this year, a festival that is touted to be the biggest and best ever.
Now in its 19th year, the San JosÃ© Mariachi and Mexican Heritage Festival presents a week long schedule of music and educational events. To celebrate Mexico’s bicentennial in 2010, the festival has expanded to include terrific cultural programming throughout the year.
The Mexican Heritage Festival has recently won an $800,000 grant to run three summer music and dance camps for children of low-income families in San Jose. This year’s theme of the Festival is Solderadas (a solderada is a female soldier). They commemorate the centennial celebration of the Mexican Revolution from 9/15 until 9/26 with a week’s worth of cultural activities consummating in a stellar concert.
Ronstadt, as well as festival guest special honoree United Farm Workers Union founder Dolores Huerta, believe that Mexican woman have fought side by side with men against social injustices, as they do to this very day. Strong women of political action and awareness should be celebrated and appreciated for all of their important work and lifetimes of sacrifices.
Herald De Paris Deputy Managing Editor Dr. Al Carlos Hernandez (AC) was invited to Linda Ronstadt’s (LR) San Francisco home by dear friend and festival creative director, Dan Guerrero* to talk about her latest endeavor. She is quite the gracious host.
AC: We live in a post-ethnic society. Why the Mexican festival? Who is it for – us or another culture?
LR: In our culture you can’t say that there is Mexico and there is USA. There are Mexicans in the USA but there is also this third culture. It is the conversation that is back and forth between the Americans and the Mexicans.
It was hard for the guys in Los Lobos, for example, because they are in between two worlds, They are not fully Mexican, yet, they are fully American with Mexican culture and ancestry, Where do they fit in?
I remember going to Mexico as a young woman. My accent is very good but I cannot speak much Spanish. While talking to the cab driver he asked me where I was from, I said I was from Arizona and he said, “So you are an American.” I said, “No. I’m Mexican. My Dad is Mexican.” he asked where my dad was born and I said that he was born in Arizona.
I viewed myself as Mexican. We had tamales and we would serenade people on their birthdays. We would wake up my grandma at 4 o’clock in the morning singing Las MaÃ±anitas. We followed these little forms and traditions; sometimes it is hard to discern your place. Where you are is your place and that is fine as long as you are doing something good with it.
Culture, heritage, and tradition are great to sort out for many of us. There is this amazing root. There are all of these different regions in Mexico which, for many who live here, are a significant part of them.
This is what this festival is all about. For some, we celebrate the cooking or maybe the music of Vera Cruz or Jalisco. There are mariachis from Jalisco who have absorbed different currents of all kinds of music so we are trying to sort all of these influences, these flavors.
There is a tremendous diversity of culture that comes from Mexico – it came up here and got entangled with what was going on in the USA and became a hybrid culture.
There is a lot of good music, good food and good will that can be created from all of that stuff. We intend to showcase this in the best possible light.
AC: With this festival, then, is it your intention to integrate the Mexican culture into the American mainstream?
If you look at the Italians, Irish and other immigrants who came here, they have assimilated on whatever level. Their culture becomes a part of the American fabric. So is it the goal of the festival? Do you want to say: this is Mexican culture but also American culture at the same time? Do you want to educate other Americans?
LR: I think it does two things. First of all it brings awareness of Mexican culture to the greater Anglo, Asian, African American whatever-is-out-there population. Really the most important thing that it does is it creates a sphere for people who are of this culture and tradition. It is an experience of who we are and what we represent.
Kids today are in a vacuum. They don’t know who they are and there is no cultural resonance or village around them that says, “You are the person that makes this or builds that.” They don’t know who they are, and so this gives them a chance to find out that their background is Mexican. This resonates, saying what you are.
It is something to be proud of and it connects them back to their grandparents. It and connects generations together. A good example is the Cuban musical group Buena Vista Social Club. Oh my gosh! The culture with the grandparents, mother, and father – it’s all there. Families become one larger and extended family unit. They all enjoy the same traditional music; the music means different things to various family members at the same time. We don’t have that so much here. Everybody is living in their own pod. Teenage pod, toddler pod, a grandparents’ pod – and they are not connected. I think Mexican culture automatically connects generations.
AC: Is that why you did Canciones De Mi Padre back in the Day?
LR: There were some great discoveries I made when I took my Mexican Canciones De Mi Padres show on the road a while back. I didn’t know if anybody was going to show up.
I had played this circuit around the country at all the outdoor pavilions. We did this every summer with rock and roll and we had forty thousand people at each show. Then I came back around this time with mariachis! I didn’t know who was going to come.
I was accustomed to people yelling, “Hey! Do Heat Wave!!!” It wasn’t like that for Canciones. It was people giving gritos and they brought everybody. They brought children and grandparents – they brought the whole family. I said, “Wow! Look at them!”
In all of my rock and roll touring years I’d never seen any kids or grannies – ever. I was thrilled. The other cool thing was they knew exactly where to yell. Not like the rock people. It is one of the favorite audiences I have ever had. That what’s this festival is for. It’s that resonance that’s letting people have a sense as to who they are. Who you are has to be reflected back to you. When I hear mariachis I never tire of it. I get that feeling in my heart and it just straightens my spine.
AC: So it’s about Familia Cosmica then?
LR: Now we’re getting back to the idea of families showing up for these concerts. In the meantime, since I did those Canciones shows, there are corporations that have come in and bought up all of these tickets.
They have a monopoly on ticket sales so now a ticket for a concert is between 75 and 500 dollars – or God-only-knows-what they want to stick you with. People can’t afford to go and take families anymore. In our festival we have an entire day on a Sunday that is free and this year we have the best groups.
AC: Why Solderadas?
LR: This year’s theme of the festival is Solderadas. This is the 100th anniversary of the Mexican revolution. I wondered what the women’s experience was during that time?
The hindsight is that it was the men who get the glory. What were the effects on these women who stood with them and took care of them and their children? They were widowed. Their children were slaughtered or died of diseases and they followed along supporting the soldiers.
There was no government to support the revolutionary armies. They had to go along with flour and lard and make tortillas. They had to go out with their rifles and shoot something like a rabbit to eat.
They actually picked up rifles and started fighting as well. If you were married to the colonel and he got killed, you would take his 30/30 and you commanded the troops. The guys were too busy fighting to realize that they were taking orders from a woman. They were happy to listen to someone who knew what they were doing.
I thought it was important to see what they war was like from a woman’s point of view. The children were always the most horrific victims of war. In Mexico they would steal the boys as young as eight or ten and turn them into soldiers. They are doing this in Africa today and the boys are totally traumatized.
One of the most famous mariachi trumpet players was a child soldier. Pancho Villa kidnapped him. In this beautiful artist soul . . . Lord knows what he had to do and what he experienced.
After the war, the women were put right back into the kitchen and never got the credit they deserved. I am a great believer In the domestic arts. My sister is a career homemaker and she was a homemakers for many years.
My God! I had to hire six people to do what she did in half a day. I have great admiration for her. She is a wonderful cook, knew how make her house beautiful, took care of her kids, and ironed that shirt just right so that philandering husband of hers would look good.
She was my example of why not to get married. I admire the fact that being a domestic is full time work but now there are a lot of things for women to choose from. My mom wanted to be a scientist. She told us to never to learn to type because then you would end up being a secretary.
AC: What is your highest expectation for the festival this year?
LR: What would be perfect is if some kid comes in with his violin, trumpet, or guitar and he gets to meet one of those really great players from one the major Mariachi groups – one of the great masters.
He hears someone blowing his horn exactly the right way and he says, “Oh man! I really want to do that! I want to learn how to play just like that!” To me that is a tremendous success. It’s the next generations wanting to play that incredible music. Maybe they want to be just like Los Lobos – like Caesar and David. I just love those guys.
AC: How important has music been in you life and why is it important for our kids?
LR: I grew up in the desert in Tucson, Arizona on what was then a rural route. My grandfather’s cattle ranch had been whittled down considerably as a result of the financial storms of the last depression, but we were pretty happily established there amid the cactus and the cottonwoods.
My family had built a little compound with my grandparents in one house, my father and mother and the four of us kids in the other. I don’t remember when there wasn’t music going on in some form – my father whistling while he was figuring out how to fix something, my older brother practicing the “Ave Maria” for his performance with the Tucson Boys Choir, my sister sobbing a Hank Williams song with her hands in the dishwater, my little brother struggling to play the huge double bass.
On Sundays, my father would sit at the piano and play most anything in the key of C and sing in his beautiful baritone. He would sing love songs in Spanish for my mother. He’d sing a few Sinatra songs while he remembered the single life before children and responsibilities, and before the awful war that we won that time.
My mother would play ragtime or something from Gilbert and Sullivan. Evenings, if the weather wasn’t too hot or freezing, and the mosquitoes were not threatening to carry us away to the land of Oz, we would haul our guitars outside and sing songs until it was time to go in, which was when we had run out of songs.
There was no TV. The radio couldn’t wander around with you because it was tethered to the wall and we didn’t get enough allowance to buy concert tickets. In any case, there weren’t many big acts playing in Tucson so if we wanted music we had to make our own.
The music I heard there, in those two houses before I was ten years old, provided me with enough material to explore for my entire career. A career which has stretched from the late sixties until now.
It gave me something else too, something even bigger than that. It gave me an enormous yardstick to measure my experiences against generations of other people. It placed me in a much larger cultural context and helped me to locate my humanity.
In the United States we spend millions of dollars on sports because it promotes teamwork, discipline, and the experience of learning to make great progress in small increments. Learning to play music together does all this and more.
JosÃ© Abreu, the founder of El Sistema (the children’s music curriculum currently considered to be the best in the world) says this: “An orchestra is a community that comes together with the fundamental objective of agreeing with itself. Therefore, the person who plays in an orchestra begins to express the experience of agreement. And what does the agreement of experience mean? Team practice and self expression. The practice of a group that recognizes itself as interdependent. A group where one is responsible for others and the others are responsible for oneself. Agree on what? To create beauty.”
Music exists to help us identify our feelings. Through music, one can safely express strong emotions like anger, sorrow, or frustration that might otherwise find a release in violence.
Just as bad, it can cause one to seek solace in the numbing relief of drugs. I’m continually stunned and deeply concerned when I hear groups of school children trying to sing something as simple as “Happy Birthday” and they are unable to match pitch.
Many recent school children’s performances that I have observed have sounded like a gray wash of tone-deaf warbling. Not the children’s fault. For thousands of years, human history was passed down the generations using music as a way to remember long sagas before they could be written down.
In these modern times, we tend to think of music as an entertainment or something that helps a troop of soldiers to step out smartly in a parade. Music is not just entertainment. Music has a profound biological resonance and it is an essential component of nearly every human endeavor.
Oliver Sacks, the noted neurologist, wrote a book called “Awakenings” in which he describes his patients whose brains were severely damaged by Parkinson’s disease. These patients were unable to walk, but when music was played they were able to get up and dance across the floor.
Music has an alternate set of neurological pathways through our bodies and our brains. Currently, I am acting as the artistic director of the Mexican Heritage Foundation in San Jose, California. We have a mariachi program that has functioned successfully in the schools since 1992. We also have an exciting math and music program in development.
For ‘under-served’ families, indeed for all families, participation in music and the arts can help people reclaim and achieve the American Dream.