By Enrique Lopetegui
Flowers for Lou Dobbs: Linda Ronstadt is mad as hell, and she's not going to take it anymore.
The short story: Linda Ronstadt performs her best-selling Canciones de mi padre with Los Angeles’ Los Camperos de Nati Cano, one of the world’s finest mariachis. The show is tomorrow night at the Municipal Auditorium (100 Auditorium Circle, 8:30 pm, $35+, ticketmaster.com), and it will benefit the Community Sustainability Partnership.
The long story: She couldn’t care less about her “Queen of Rock” years in the 70s, and is more than ever committed to singing what she always wanted to sing: rancheras.
But even more than that, what she wants is for people to understand what’s happening in the U.S.-Mexican border and other places that make the life of border-crossers miserable.
She talks about her love of mariachi music, but also about Arizona's private prison system, Lou Dobbs, Rush Limbaugh, the Minutemen, the dormant political power of the Mexican American community, and her dreams of a border-awareness concert tour.
If this Q & A were a song, it would be called “We Need A Lot More Rancheras (And A Lot Less Rock And Roll).”
And, of course, it would take up a whole album side.
You recorded Canciones de mi padre with Mariachi Vargas, but have been performing with Los Camperos for a while.
Right. I’ve been working with Los Camperos de Nati Cano for 20 years. They’re just brilliant players. I think Mariachi Vargas and Los Camperos are the two best in the world. There’s nobody better. Of course, it’s not about “who’s better,” because art is not a horse race. Los Camperos and Vargas are equally and evenly matched, they’re fantastic players and wonderful showmen. They really know their tradition, and they do their own section of the show. I’ve also got really good folclórico dancers with me, and I think it’s the best show I’ve ever hand on the road.
That’s a bold statement…
You know, I always felt the Mexican show was the best show I ever did. The production values are great, the music is solid, there’s tradition… I’ve played that show in Carnegie Hall and I’ve played that show at state fairs, and it’s equally effective. No matter where you put it, you can’t kill it with a hammer. You always get your money’s worth.
But you’ve sung everything, from rock and country to gospel, opera, you name it. But you’re particularly fond of rancheras. Not anyone can really attempt it unless he/she has a huge voice.
I’ve been listening and singing these songs since my early childhood. We always sang in Spanish. I always thought Spanish is what you sing and English what you spoke in. But to learn it on a professional level I had to do some work. I knew the songs my whole life. I listened to Lola Beltrán, Mariachi Vargas, the Trío Calaveras, Amalia Mendoza, Miguel Aceves Mejía… My father was a good singer, and he would come with all these records under his arm every time he’d go to Mexico, and that’s what we’d listen to. We sang in harmonies and, whenever there was a dinner party, or just being around the house at night, my dad would get his guitar out and sing one of those songs. That’s what we did, and I always wanted to record those songs, but I was always told by the record company that I didn’t have a chance of selling them, they weren’t interested. It wasn’t until I sold so many hits for them, that I felt I had the power to tell them, “This is what you’re getting. I’m going to do this.” (laughs) And they sold it. To their credit, they stepped up to the plate and they really tried to help me sell it. They were shocked as to how many [copies] they sold.
If I’m not mistaken, [Canciones de mi padre is] still the best-selling non-English album in U.S. history, with more than two million copies…
I don’t know anything about those kinds of things… (laughs) I just knew I had to sing those songs, and we put them on a record, because it was the recording that made it possible for me to learn them properly. The recordings are really me trying to learn them, and the performances are me already knowing them. (laughs)
How hard did you have to fight in order to record those songs?
Oh, they did everything they could to talk me out of it. But I just wasn’t going to be talked out of it. I had waited my whole life to do it, and I tried to record in the 70s in Spanish. You know, we’d written some stuff, and I recorded a Spanish translation of ‘Blue Bayou,’ which wasn’t a very successful translation… I wanted to do all my stuff in Spanish, but not only that: I wanted to do rancheras. I love Lola Beltrán, she was the biggest influence on my singing, of any of the singers. There’s an old Rolling Stone interview, and they asked me, “Who’s your biggest influence on your singing?” I said, “Lola Beltrán.” They didn’t know how to spell her name, so they wrote “Laura Beltruan.” (laughs). They didn’t check spelling in those days, I guess.
She was your biggest influence, more than any other singer, for any of the styles you sing?
She was the biggest influence on my vocal style, without a doubt. The way that I phrase… That’s why my style was a hard fit for rock and roll, because my phrasing was based more on ranchera than rock and roll. It incorporates a lot of the son, which is the staple of ranchera. It’s a really fiendishly difficult rhythm to learn and to sing over. Fortunately, if it hadn’t been for the fact that I was able to learn it from an early age, I don’t think I would have been able to learn it. It’s written in 6/8, but it’s really not in 6/8, it’s an indigenous rhythm. It’s not even West African, which we know really well in the United States.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I can only compare ranchera singing to opera, despite of the differences…
Yeah, they’re operatic in style, I agree.
But besides that, what do you listen to now? What’s left if the “Queen of Rock” of the 70s?
I never felt I was a rock artist. I never felt that defined me in any way, shape, or form. I never tried to sing any song that I didn’t hear growing up in Tucson before I was 10 years old. And most of it was stuff that I heard before I was five. I didn’t even hear rock and roll until I was about six. So the Mexican style, the standards, that was more who I was. And even the operatic Gilbert & Sullivan, my mother used to play some of that at the piano when I was growing up. Rock and roll I came to rather late in the game, and I just never felt that’s how I wanted to be defined.
But did you start singing rock and roll because of labels or producers telling you, “You have to sing this,” or…
No, I always chose the songs, but I sang rock and roll because I like to eat, you know? I could’ve sung rancheras until the cows came home, but they wouldn’t have paid me anything. I tried to, but the record company said, “We’re not going to have that stuff.”
Still, your very first album, Hand Sown … Home Grown (1969), which I love, is neither rock nor ranchera, but an alternative country gem. What do you think of that album?
(pause) I never heard it since the day I made it. (laughs) I never listen to my records after they’re finished. I don’t know what they sound like. I don’t think I know how to sing them, so I don’t know…
Have you seen Capitalism: A Love Story, the new Michael Moore film?
I loved it. I love Michael Moore. I thought it was great. I wish he’d do something on the border, because it’s so important. I’d love to tell him, “Look, we need to do something about the border.” It’s so awful and people just don’t care. I’ve never seen such an ungenerous heart from the United States in relation to the migrant workers, the Mexican, salvadoreños, Guatemalans… They have such a terrifically difficult journey, they risk their lives in every possible way, and they’re the smartest, and the strongest, and the best, the hardest working. They send the best ones they’ve got, they don’t send the weak ones. We have a chance to take advantage of this wonderful pool of labor and smart minds that are trying to migrate up from the south, and we’re not getting the best of it. We’re making it so hard for them that they’re trapped, they can’t advance themselves once they get here. And they’re paying taxes and doing jobs that Americans won’t take. They’re paying into the health-care system by paying their social security, so they’re actually swelling the financial pool for the rest of us. They’re doing us good in a lot of ways, plus they’re buying goods and services once they get here. But people don’t see that, they don’t see what a benefit it is to have them here. They don’t treat them fairly, they don’t pay them fairly, they arrest them and harass them and put them into the private prisons, which are operated for profit. You saw in the Michael Moore movie about the prisons for profit. In Arizona they’re going to make all prisons for profit. It’s a total and complete scam to steal out tax dollars. They taking sometimes $20 million a year in profit out of those private prisons. And the biggest customers for them are the undocumented workers.
Will those be general prisons or only for undocumented aliens?
For any criminal, but the most number of arrests… If they don’t get a lot of immigrants, then their business isn’t good. The want to make the laws as Draconian as they can, and what they do is arrest them and they put them in these private prisons. [Maricopa County Sheriff] Joe Arpaio has ten city jails in Southern Arizona, and I’m telling you: There’s no air conditioning, no heat in the winter and no a/c in the summer, which can be 115 degrees, and in the winter you can get 12 degrees. It’s freezing or it’s just unbearably hot. They brag about $0.75 cents a day they spend on food for the prisoners; they keep everybody hungry all the time. People come out of those places after three or four months and they’ve lost 40-50 pounds sometimes. It’s like the Arizona Gulag. And if there’s a bigger person that wants to take your food, you get nothing. It’s a terrible, cruel thing. And, in addition to that, [Arpaio] only allows The Food Channel and The Weather Channel, so that they can see how bad the weather is going to be the next day, and he works them in chain gangs in the full hot sun for 12 hours at a stretch. So people are dropping dead from strokes, and heart attacks, and heat exhaustion. If you’re an illegal immigrant, it shouldn’t have a death sentence on it. (…)
You should do an album about it, like what Johnny Cash did for Native Americans with Bitter Tears, or Ry Cooder with Chavez Ravine...
(laughs) What I’d really love to do is a series of concerts at the border, to give people awareness of what’s going on, how people are being arrested, treated very badly and then thrown back across the border with no money, no identification, often no shoes and no belt, into a town like Juárez, Nogales, or Tijuana. And they’re just stuck. They can’t wire home for money because they don’t have id to collect the money. It’s very cruel. And it’s happened every single day, I’ve been there. It’s deliberate, cruel, and unnecessary.
How do you envision those shows? Would it be you and some guests?
Maybe not me at all. Maybe just get a bunch of acts to do it. We’re just starting to talk about it. I just spoke to Little Joe y La Familia. Doesn’t even have to be Mexican acts, but anybody who is interested in social justice. People are going off to Africa for causes of social justice. You don’t have to go that far! (laughs) Go to the border, man! You’ll see plenty of bad stuff going on that needs to be paid attention to and needs to be remedied.
Have you encountered any Minutemen in your visits to the border?
Oh, my God…! There’s so many Minutemen! My father was a rancher and my grandfather was a rancher. We used to go to areas where we would hunt, and fish, and have picnics and pachangas, and it was empty. And now it’s so crowded in the desert. You see groups of Minutemen, Border Patrols, border-crossers, and other groups of Samaritans like us trying to help. It’s just unbelievable out there. But the Minutemen are just disgusting. They’re smug, they’re generally not from that area, they generally moved from the East or from the South, and they’re just angry people who are looking for a cover for their anger and their cruelty. They’re looking for ways to act on their anger and cruelty and make it look like they’re doing something righteous.
If the immigrants were Canadian, do you think there’d be so many Minutemen out there?
No! There wouldn’t be any! There wouldn’t be one. If those were blue-eyed blonds coming across the border, no one would even raise an eyebrow. Of course, they’re doing this as a justification of the Homeland Security Act, but the people who came and attacked the World Trade Center came across the Canadian border. They didn’t come through Mexico. It’s just a cover for blatant racism and nothing else. It’s racism. And somehow the hate mongers like Rush Limbaugh and, who is that guy…?
Lou Dobbs… They’re getting people killed. They’re the real terrorists, because they’re inciting anger by spreading lies and distortions. They’re spreading all this wrong information and they’re causing school children to be attacked on their way to school. It’s a terrible thing. We need to organize a boycott of the sponsors of the Lou Dobbs show, because he’s making things unsafe for our communities. He’s doing a terrible disservice that’s un-American, uncharitable, ignorant, and racially prejudiced. We don’t have to put up with that.
Well, they’re already organizing boycotts…
The Bastadobbs.com thing? Yeah… We Mexican Americans have great buying power in this country that really could influence the government. I saw a documentary of César Chávez recently, where he says he had a dream, and the dream was that the farm workers weren’t being treated so badly because the bosses were so powerful, it was because [the workers] were weak. So we’ve being pushed around because we’re weak, not because they have such power. We have more power than they do; we’re just acting weak.
But I’ve seen too many Mexican Americans blaming the Mexicans for a lot of things.
They’ve probably been here for a couple of generations and are prejudiced against the newcomers.
That’s very widespread, and that’s something that needs to be addressed. We all got here the same way, and we all need to help each other.
Come to the show, get informed about what’s going on in the border, let’s flex our vote and pocketbook, and let’s do some progress and get some laws made.