As the bus headed north and the Naco Port of Entry disappeared in the southern distance, Tucson-born singer Linda Ronstadt comfortably reclined in the rear row as her emotions and newly minted memories from the past four days nestled inside her.
She had spent the weekend with a group of musicians and music-loving family and friends in Banámichi, Sonora, a small town along the Río Sonora several hours south of the U.S.-Mexico border. Her grandfather, Federico José María Ronstadt, was born nearby in Las Delicias, before migrating to Tucson in the early 1880s.
Ronstadt has previously visited this land — an accordion of jagged mountain edges on whose slopes saguaros and organ pipe cactus stand as silent sentinels and the lush valley floor is covered with fava beans, garlic, cottonwoods and palo verdes. The history and culture of the indigenous Ópata and Pima, Jesuit missionaries and Basque colonizers, and the Mexican ranching families courses through her soul like the water that runs through the valley.
Over the years, Ronstadt has created friendships and relationships with people whom she considers long-distant kin.
“Well, it’s so beautiful here and people are so nice,” she said softly over the low murmur of the bus that headed to Tucson last Monday evening. “And it’s just an ideal town. The people are so very cordial. They remember my dad and grandfather. I’ve met people who didn’t know my grandfather personally but remember his name and what he stood for. That means something.”
Being in Banámichi is something special for Ronstadt, who first visited the area with her father, Gilbert Ronstadt, before he died in 1995. Her connection to the land and the people is strong.
But now at 72, she no longer sings in public. She is dealing with the incrementally debilitating Parkinson’s disease, which was diagnosed in 2013. Ronstadt, considered one of pop music’s greatest voices and who was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2014, cannot easily travel.
This trip to the Rio Sonora, organized by longtime friends Bill and Athena Steen of Canelo, could be Ronstadt’s last. Then again, given her profound appreciation for the people and the culture of the Río Sonora, she’s likely to return again.
Ronstadt returned to Banámichi on a mission. She was joined by a group of 17 folkloric dancers, ranging in age from 8 to 20, and four adult singer-musicians from Los Cenzontles Cultural Arts Academy in San Pablo, California, north of Berkeley. Ronstadt has been a key supporter of the group for nearly 30 years. Also on the trip were her cousin Bobby Ronstadt and nephew Petie Dalton Ronstadt, both Tucson musicians and singers, and her longtime friend, pop-rock icon Jackson Browne from Los Angeles.
In addition, a film crew accompanied Ronstadt. Documentary filmmaker and actor James Keach (“The Long Riders,” “Walk the Line,” “Razor’s Edge”) is making two documentaries, one on Ronstadt and the other on Los Cenzontles. The Ronstadt documentary is expected to be a theatrical release and also would be shown on cable.
The trip was filled with impromptu singing and staged dances on the plazas of Banámichi and the neighboring town of Arizpe, where Juan Bautista de Anza, the 18th-century Basque explorer of California and New Mexico, is buried. On the bus, the Cenzontles students sang and strummed their stringed instruments; in the small town of Cucurpe, Bobby and Petie Ronstadt sat at a doorway and serenaded in English and Spanish during lunch; and on the second evening, Browne, with guitar in hand, joined Cenzontles’ vocalists Fabiola Trujillo and Lucina Rodriguez, singing lilting harmonies late into the evening in the dining room of the comfortable La Posada del Río Sonora, the colorful hotel facing the Banámichi plaza.
“The music of the countryside is best sung in the countryside,” said Eugene Rodriguez, founder and director of Los Cenzontles.
The musical and dance component of the trip reflected Ronstadt’s long love affair with Mexican music and culture imbued in her by her father, known to many as “Gibby.” She has supported Mexican music as a singer, collaborating with Tucson-born Mariachi Cobre and as a performer at the annual International Tucson Mariachi Conference as well as other mariachi festivals in the U.S. and in Mexico.
More than 30 years ago, Ronstadt, who has sung rock, country and American standards, released her landmark recording, “Canciones de Mi Padre.” It was a collection of classic Mexican songs backed by mariachi, inspired by Ronstadt’s childhood days, her music-loving father and a unique friend, Tucson-born icon musician and singer, Eduardo “Lalo” Guerrero. Having sold up to 10 million copies, “Canciones” is considered the best-selling non-English language record in the U.S. and served as Ronstadt’s platform to promote and preserve Mexican music worldwide.
In Arizpe, fans surrounded her, taking selfies as soon they unexpectedly spied her on the plaza on a cold, windy afternoon. “We all have her music,” said Alejandro Manteca Elías of Phoenix, who attended Salpointe Catholic High School with some of Ronstadt’s cousins, and who was with two siblings visiting family in Arizpe. “We grew up with her.”
But it’s Ronstadt legacy that makes its lasting impact on the students who were possibly on a trip of their lifetime.
Verenice Velazquez is a 20-year-old student at UC San Diego who sings, dances and plays several instruments with Los Cenzontles, which she joined when she was 7. It was her first time performing with Los Cenzontles in Mexico, the country where her parents were born. Being with Ronstadt and sharing Mexican music in Mexico was beyond special, she said.
“It means a lot. It’s really amazing to just be able to know these traditions and perform them in California and it’s even more amazing to bring them back to Mexico where they are from,” she said during a lunch break on the bank of the Río Sonora on the final day.
“It’s a dream to be on this trip with such a well-known artist that my parents know really well and listen to her music.”
The magic of Banámichi, where years of tradition remain as strong as the tiny red-hot chiltepines that grow wild, and the fiery bacanora distilled from Sonoran agave plants, has lured Ronstadt back and will continue to pull on her emotions.
“What I remember is seeing a house on the corner,” she said as she recalled a memory from a visit with her father. “We looked at the church. He said his grandparents were buried there in that church. (She couldn’t remember some details and names and she chuckled at herself a bit.) Anyway, first thing I did was look at the church and then I saw the house to the right of it on the corner and I thought if that was our house.”
Her emotions haven’t changed over the years and several visits, she said.
“I still have that same sense of pride. That is where I’m from. This is what I stand for,” she said. “There is something real special and magical about the Rio Sonora valley. It has a different mix of cultures. It’s tangible.”
Ronstadt’s connection to the Río Sonora is similar to that of countless families in Tucson and Southern Arizona. Arizona license plates are common, and it’s not rare to see a decal with the University of Arizona’s block “A” on a pickup decorated with horseshoes hauling supplies or livestock. Families go back and forth from the Río Sonora valley to the deserts and mountains of Arizona.
Ronstadt explained it this way: “There’s kind of homesickness that we all have inherited genetically. Maybe I inherited some from my great-grandfather Friedrich August when he came to Mexico from Germany or my great grandmother (Margarita Redondo Ronstadt) who was from Mexico. ... But maybe she had some homesickness leaving her comfortable hacienda.”
Bill Steen, whose grandmother was also born in Banámichi and who grew up in Tucson with the Ronstadt family, was pleased that the tour, with all its parts, came together. The difference between this trip and previous ones he’s accompanied Ronstadt on, he said, is that the “potential wildness that teetered on falling into complete chaos fell into perfect harmony.”
For Ronstadt, her visits to the Río Sonora are indeed full of harmony. The memories abound. And from this last and possibly final trip, she said she’ll keep as her favorite image when the dancers from both groups joined in an impromptu, joyful celebration to the song, “La Bamba,” in the cold Arizpe air.
“We have lots to learn from each other,” she said.
But will this be her last trip? Will she return?
“If I can hitch a ride,” she said with a laugh.