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Music legend Linda Ronstadt honors her Mexican roots — and has a lot to say about our politics

"It's time for Latinos to stop being invisible and to stop being dismissed as unnecessary, deficient or less than," said the groundbreaking female pop star — and lover of ranchera music.
Linda Ronstadt performs circa 1970.
Linda Ronstadt performs in around 1970.Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

She is one of the country's most famous female vocalists, and she has been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Linda Ronstadt — dubbed the "Queen of Rock" for her 1970s hits "You're No Good," "Blue Bayou" and "Hurt So Bad" — is also fiercely proud and outspoken about her Mexican heritage.

"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.

Ronstadt spoke to NBC News ahead of an awards celebration that "feels more special because of my background." The Hispanic Heritage Foundation is honoring Ronstadt with its Legend Award and a special musical tribute during the 33rd annual Hispanic Heritage Awards, which will be broadcast Tuesday on PBS.

Ronstadt retired in 2009 from her decadeslong singing career after she was diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare and incurable brain disorder similar to Parkinson's disease. Since then, she has been receiving a bevy of honors, including the Kennedy Center Honors, lifetime achievement awards from the Recording Academy and the Latin Recording Academy and the National Medal of the Arts.

In a wide-ranging conversation, Ronstadt discussed how her background influenced her music, her alarm over the current state of politics and the parallels she sees between current times and darker periods in history.

Rock songs — and canciones

Many saw Ronstadt as the quintessential American female pop singer — and they had a hard time reconciling the fact that she was Mexican American, Ronstadt said.

"I come from the Sonora desert, which exists on both sides of the border, and I've always felt very deeply affiliated with Mexican American culture," said Ronstadt, who was born in Tucson, Arizona. "Mexican music was a tremendous influence on my singing style.

"One of the first few interviews I did with rock publications like Rolling Stone, they just were sort of dismissive about it," she said.

Ronstadt remembers growing up in Tucson at a time when children would be punished for speaking Spanish publicly at school or on the playground. But that didn't discourage her from learning her father's Mexican canciones, or songs.

Her father, Gilbert, knew a lot of beautiful Mexican love songs rooted in his childhood, and he would serenade her mother, Ruth, while attending college in Arizona. The songs were passed down to Gilbert by Ronstadt's grandfather Federico, who was born in Sonora, Mexico, in 1868 to a German father and a Mexican mother. He had moved to Tucson to work as a wagon maker, eventually forming his own wagon and carriage company in the state.

Federico, who was also a guitarist and a vocalist, channeled his passion for music by founding what may have been Tucson's first professional orchestra, the Club Filarmónico Tucsonense, in 1896.

Throughout her career, Ronstadt sang everything from new wave and rock to country ballads and opera. But her ultimate passion project was the 1987 album "Canciones de mi Padre" ("Songs of my Father"), a Spanish-language traditional Mexican music album paying tribute to the songs she learned from her dad.

Ronstadt made the album despite her music label's disapproval. It sold over 2.5 million units and became the biggest-selling foreign-language album in the U.S. at the time, effectively helping pave the way for artists like Selena Quintanilla and Gloria Estefan in the 1980s, as well as others, like Ricky Martin, Shakira and Jennifer Lopez, who became the central figures of the Latin music explosion during the 1990s and the 2000s.

IMAGE: Linda Ronstadt on 'The Tonight Show'
Linda Ronstadt performs with a mariachi band on the "Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" in 1987.Steffin Butler / NBC

The canciones from that album were the last ones she sang at her last live concert in November 2009 before she officially retired.

Over the past 30 years, Ronstadt has been working with a cultural center in Richmond, California, called Los Cenzotles — meaning "the mockingbirds" in Nahuatl, an indigenous language from Mexico — to help Mexican American children connect with their heritage through music, dance and other forms of art. Ronstadt and Los Cenzotles will be featured in a documentary coming out this month documenting their trip to Mexico to reconnect with their roots.

"They learn the true, deep traditions of Mexican music. And then if they want to, if they want to become professional musicians later on and they want to break the rules, they know how to break them," Ronstadt said.

Pandemics and politics

Ronstadt, like many Americans, is spending more time reading at home as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic.

Amid a national racial reckoning triggered by nationwide protests over George Floyd's death and presidential election, Ronstadt has been "reading everything I can about the current situation," as well as revisiting the history of Black people in the U.S. She has also been reading about the Weimar Republic — the German government before Hitler's Nazi regime.

The exercise, she said, has allowed her to see many parallels between the past and the present.

"I think that anybody that has read Black history couldn't argue with the idea that reparations are in order," said Ronstadt, a longtime political activist. "I think that anybody who learns about the Weimar Republic can't disagree that the years before the Nazi takeover were alarming like ours right now, when you have people convinced that they were being screwed and they were being mistreated and that somebody was to blame. Back then, they blamed it on the Jews. Now, they're blaming Mexicans, and it's just so obvious."

IMAGE: Linda Ronstadt in 2013
Linda Ronstadt poses in New York to promote the release of her memoir, "Simple Dreams," in 2013.Amy Sussman / Invision/AP

Ronstadt said that "once a democracy fails, it almost never reinstates itself."

"It almost always goes into a totalitarian government, and there's nothing you can do about it," she said.

She said, "It's time for Latinos to stop being invisible and to stop being dismissed as unnecessary, deficient or less than."

Ronstadt, who grew up near the southern border, said recent changes in immigration policies have endangered the lives of many people trying to seek asylum in the U.S. That motivated her to get involved with the charity One Story at a Time. It works to help migrants who have been affected by the Trump administration's "Remain in Mexico" policies, which require those seeking asylum in the U.S. to wait in Mexico while their cases go through U.S. courts — a process that could take years.

"When you see injustices, when you see somebody being harassed on the street or children locked up in cages and separated from their families, thousands of children getting lost in the system," Ronstadt said, "when you see terrible irregularities — you have to say you won't stand for it."

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