Linda Ronsladt is one of the country’s most famous female vocalists, she’s in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, dubbed the “Queen of Rock” for her 1970s hits “Blue Bayou” “You’re No Good,” and “Hurt so bad”. She is fiercely proud and outspoken about her Mexican heritage.
Linda, said half-jokingly once, that she sang like a German and thought like a Mexican and wished it were the other way around. Listening to her beautiful, long-awaited album of Mexican mariachi music, ”Canciones de Mi Padre” (Asylum 9 60765-1; all three formats), however, one hears no conflict between music and concept. Immersed in the rancheras, huapangos and other Mexican songs that span nearly a century, Ms. Ronstadt sounds as at home as she did singing the country-folk songs that made her a star in the late 60’s and early 70’s. ”Canciones de Mi Padre” (”Songs of My Father”) may in fact be the most deeply felt album the singer has ever made.
Ms. Ronstadt is of Mexican-German descent on her father’s side. The family homeland was Sonora, Mexico, but her branch moved to Tuscon, Ariz., where she was born and grew up. The record jacket bears an inscription written by her father’s sister, Luisa, in 1946, the year Linda was born, which recalls ”those long summer evenings of my childhood, when the moon made strange patterns on my father’s guitar as he sang enchanting songs to me.” Luisa Ronstadt goes on to compare the sweetness of these songs to ”the fragrance of wildflowers dried in herbs.”
“Most people in rock ‘n’ roll come from blues or from traditional Black church gospel, but I learned rancheras,” said Ronstadt, referring to the popular Mexican folk music genre.
“I learned a lot of my singing from Lola Beltrán,” she said, speaking about one of Mexico’s most acclaimed ranchera singers.
Previous generations of American entertainment giants downplayed their ethnic heritage to appeal to as wide an audience as possible.
Ronstadt was the biggest deal of them all. She had used Español before in her career: a Latin American version of “Blue Bayou,” her own composition, on the 1976 LP “Hasten Down the Wind,” and a duet with salsa legend Rubén Blades in 1985. But with “Canciones” she did something revolutionary. Previous generations of American entertainment giants downplayed their ethnic heritage to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. Now came Ronstadt, deep into her career, with a bold announcement: I’m Mexican, and what of it?
The album isn’t perfect. In “La Charreada,” you can tell Ronstadt’s primary language isn’t Spanish because she pronounces words too exactly and doesn’t elide like a native speaker.
But 30 years later, “Canciones” remains a classic. It’s an education, as songs span genres from huapangos to sones huastecos, corridos to rancheras, feminine confessions to macho boasts.
Critics at the time couldn’t understand the album. Multiple interviewers asked Ronstadt if it was a cheap ploy to capitalize on her distant heritage at a time when “Hispanics” were hot. Rolling Stone dismissed “Canciones” as “the party-gag album of the year,” and complained that the cover art “makes her look like an El Torrito waitress who’s been nibbling at the guacamole.” (The Times, to its credit, praised the “purity of spirit” in her efforts.)
Ronstadt was unapologetic. “I wanted [fans] to know,” she told a newspaper in 2008, “that they had something that really was strong and it was pure Mexican and that they should feel proud of that and they don’t have to sell [their culture] down the river.”
To promote the album, Ronstadt appeared in all tiers of American pop life: the hip (“Saturday Night Live,” where she performed two tracks with Mariachi Vargas), the august (PBS’ “Great Performances,” for which she recorded a special), and the muy mainstream “Today” and “Good Morning America.” Her best performance was on “Sesame Street,” where she sang “La Charreada” in English to Elmo backed by a Muppet mariachi that nailed it. That appearance, in particular, stuck with me: Nothing normalized seemingly foreign concepts in the 1980s more than “Sesame Street,” so seeing a Mexican on it taught my child’s mind that we were really, truly cool.
“Canciones” won a Grammy for best Mexican American performance in 1989, and an Emmy for the PBS special. But the album did much more than help Ronstadt’s career, or my sense of place.
She was there in 1990 when Mariachi USA hit the Hollywood Bowl for the first time; every summer since, the largest such festival in the U.S. has drawn crowds to the most L.A. of concert venues. Ronstadt “revive[d] the mariachi tradition for both old and new audiences,” wrote UCLA musicology professor Steven Loza in his 1993 book, “Barrio Rhythm: Mexican American Music in Los Angeles.” She also “brought to [mariachi] an even larger, international level of commercial recognition and diffusion.”