For the second year in a row, singer Linda Ronstadt has inspired a documentary. In contrast to 2019’s broader Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice, however, the newly released Linda and the Mockingbirds zeroes in on the 74-year-old’s often-overlooked Mexican heritage and her longtime support of the Los Cenzontles Cultural Arts Academy, which teaches traditional music and dance to Mexican-American youths music in the Bay Area.
It’s a collaboration very close to Ronstadt’s heart, given her own struggle to assert her Mexican-American identity as a white-passing rock star famed for her soulful ballads. Speaking to the Guardian, the “Ooo Baby Baby” singer recalls various ways her efforts to represent her culture were rebuffed or undermined, including Rolling Stone butchering the name of her biggest influence, Mexican singer Lola Beltrán, in an interview during the ‘70s.
“They didn’t bother to get her name right because they didn’t think it mattered,” says Ronstadt, who also cites Jane Pauley’s reaction when she appeared on the Today show in traditional Mexican dress during the late ‘80s. The news anchor reportedly asked Ronstadt if her father was “half-Mexican,” prompting the Tucson native to reply, “Actually, he’s all Mexican.”
“She was trying to soften the blow of the word Mexican,” Ronstadt tells the Guardian. “That’s typical of what happens. Mexican-Americans are always made to feel invisible.”
That includes Ronstadt, whose light skin had many assumed she was white.
“People didn’t have a clue I was Mexican unless they grew up with me,” she tells the paper, adding that others would disparage Chicanos in her presence, not realizing her background.
“I heard plenty of it,” she says. “I’d straighten them out fast.”
And while her 1987 album Canciones de Mi Padre, in which she recorded many of the classic Mexican songs she’d grown up singing as a child, went multi-platinum, won her a Grammy and remains the biggest selling non-English language album in American record history, it only came after years of persistence and pushback from record executives.
“[Executives] were horrified. But I had to sing those songs or I was going to die,” she says.
Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in late 2012, Ronstadt no longer sings, but she’s certainly not afraid to use her voice to fight prejudice against her people.
“I get especially angry when I see how people are treated when they come up here looking for work, especially the farm workers,” she said. “I challenge any prep school white boy to spend an hour picking strawberries in the full sun where you’re bent over and somebody sprays pesticide on you. And without them, we can’t eat.”
She’s also critical of President Donald Trump, who she says is fanning the flames of violence and hatred toward Mexicans.
“As soon as Trump came down that escalator and called Mexican rapists, I said, ‘This is the new Hitler and Mexicans are the new Jews,’” she says.
Ronstadt also disputes the “state of emergency” the Trump administration declared at the border, having arrived to film Linda and the Mockingbirds there that very same day.
“We got to see exactly what the ‘emergency’ was,” Ronstadt says. “It was a few citizens walking around the streets shopping for groceries or picking up the newspaper. There were no hordes of brown people clawing to get across the border. But, all along, the Trump administration has been encouraging resentment of people from Mexico.”
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