I was 7 or 8 when Mary came over and excitedly shared a must-listen new tape, pills Linda Ronstadt’s Canciones de mi Padre. I’d never heard of Linda Ronstadt and was a little confused by her name. Ronstadt didn’t sound Mexican. I soon came to learn that she was US-born and didn’t speak much Spanish. My parents didn’t care. Linda could sing the hell out of some rancheras and soon they were playing the tape constantly.
The music was as beautiful as the woman on the cover of the tape and I loved it. I already had been introduced to rancheras through José Alfredo Jiménez classics like “Volver, volver”, “El Rey,” and “Caminos de Guanajuato” thanks to my Guanajuato-born father. While Linda Ronstadt was not my introduction to mariachis or rancheras, she was the first woman I’d heard sing backed up by a mariachi. It would be many years until I found out about singers like Lola Beltrán or Chavela Vargas. Until then, Linda was the pinnacle of female rancheras songs in my eyes.
I wasn’t strong enough a singer to emulate her as a kid — or even as an adult — but Danny gave it a shot. He learned to sing “Y ándale”, a song about not caring that your fianceé´s parents will see you as a drunk when you come over to see he. Danny practiced with dad and gave his big performance at tía Nelly’s wedding backed by a full mariachi. His performance was a hit. Ironically, dad quit drinking soon after.
In college, I bought my own copy of Canciones on CD and listened to it countless times. I’ve learned the songs since then and sing along… or try to. Five years ago, I went to a concert at UCLA’s Royce Hall by Linda Ronstadt and Mariachi de Nati Cano on the bill. I was so excited to hear live versions of the songs I grew up listening to with my dad, but came away feeling confused and let down. Linda didn’t sound like the woman on the albums I’d come to love. It didn’t make sense how her voice could have changed so much as she aged.
As the Parkinson’s news broke out last month, I realized I couldn’t name any of Ronstadt’s hits in English. All I knew was Canciones which I still sing on the regular. In fact, all I could think about was the songs I loved on the first album and the follow-up, Más Canciones.
I sing Hay Unos Ojos frequently to Xavier. I hold in my arms and sing as we walk around the apartment. He stares up at me with eyes that seem to get brighter and wider. When I got pregnant, I was a little sad that I never took the time to learn how to play the guitar. I wanted to be like my dad who would entertain us for hours with the guitar and a short list of pop and children’s songs. I may not have the guitar (for now), but I do have my voice and a love for singing. Hopefully Xavier will remember the songs I sing for him with the same fondness I think of songs like Cri Cri’s “Los Tres Cochinitos” or the Cascades’ “Listen to the Rhythm of the Falling Rain.”
If I had to list 10 albums that changed my life, Canciones would definitely be on it. I’m grateful Mary introduced my parents to Linda Ronstadt. They played the album and actively sang along. I don’t think dad ever expected that 25 years later I’d follow his example and would sing the same songs to my son.