By Karen D'Souza
Good thing the San Jose of today feels a lot like the Tucson of the
1950s. Otherwise, the city might never have captured the heart of
The Arizona-born singer who shot to rock stardom in the '60s, only to
rediscover her musical roots mid-career, has come full circle with
the San Jose Mariachi and Mexican Heritage Festival, running now
through Sept. 27. She's also adopted the city at-large, emerging as a
staunch supporter of its cultural life, from community gardens to the arts.
In her second year as artistic director of the festival, the Grammy
winner has extended its scope to champion San Jose's Mexican-American
community and engage audiences on issues of social activism, health,
"She has taken the festival to another level that goes beyond music,"
says former Santa Clara County Supervisor Blanca Alvarado. "It's so
important that the next generation has an opportunity to connect to
their roots and their history, to understand the issues of social inequity."
Curled up on her pink couch clad all in black, the congenial
63-year-old Ronstadt says San Jose reminds her of her Tucson hometown
the way it used to be. It's why her bond with Silicon Valley runs so
deep. Besides heading the mariachi fest, she is a regular at Ballet
San Jose, she's a habitue of community gardens and farmers markets,
and she's a stalwart advocate for local arts groups in Washington.
"San Jose is a treasured place for me," says Ronstadt, who lives in
San Francisco. "I love the neighborhoods and the diversity. There's a
real sense of community there.''
Shift in life's rhythm
Chatting with Ronstadt is less like conducting an interview and more
like playing catch-up as she swings from one topic to another with
lightning speed. If she was once a sultry siren, she's now
down-to-earth, almost maternal, but there's a restless intelligence
beaming from those eyes. Ronstadt races from straw-bale houses (good)
to soil erosion (baby, you're no good) as fast as any search engine.
She also shrugs off questions that don't interest her, such as her
past as a sex symbol (Rolling Stone once dubbed her "Rock's Venus.")
Collaborators say her no-nonsense attitude is her strong suit.
"She is the ultimate professional," says Oscar-winning actress
Estelle Parsons, who performed with Ronstadt in the 1981 Broadway
revival of "Pirates of Penzance." "She takes the work very seriously,
unlike some celebrities, and I really respect that. She puts the work first."
Versatility has been her hallmark from the start. Although she came
to fame as the first lady of rock, hailed for her bruised-velvet
vocals from "Different Drum" in 1967 to "Adieu False Heart" in 2006,
Ronstadt will not stay in a box. She's won every award from the
Grammy to the Tony in a five-decades-long career that has taken her
from the court of rock aristocracy to the realm of mariachi.
"She should have been inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame
years ago," says playwright Octavio Solis, who has been a fan since
her Stone Poney days. "She gets on that mike and delivers. I also
find it admirable that she has not forsaken her cultural roots for
the sake of her career."
The singer, who got a lot of ink for past liaisons with Jerry Brown
and George Lucas, has never married. She has two children, both of
whom are now teenagers. Family is part of the reason she has no
regret about not headlining at this year's festival (she will make
cameos). The rhythm of her life has shifted.
"I'm 63. I can't sing forever," Ronstadt says. "Now is the time in my
life to focus on other things. I'm in the thick of it. If we survive
high school, it will be a miracle."
Certainly, she's not one to dwell on the past. In fact, for years her
children had no idea she used to be a rock star because she never
listens to a song once it's recorded. Ever.
"It's frozen, it's not interesting to listen to," she notes ruefully.
"It would be like staring at a picture of yourself when you were 6.
It's not you anymore."
Keeping up with issues
She's also no snob. She has no idea where her Grammys are. She
doesn't travel with an entourage. She dresses simply and seems to
relish every chance at anonymity. She even declined to have her picture taken.
"Age has given me my privacy back," the singer says. "I don't look
like I used to look."
But she certainly does not shy from the spotlight when it comes to
social issues. She ruffled right-wing feathers when she dubbed
Michael Moore a patriot during a 2004 Las Vegas concert. And she will
talk your ear off about everything from single-payer health care to
genetically modified seeds.
"You've got to fight if you want to make change in this world," she says.
This year's festival, which showcases musicians from Carlos Santana
and Joan Baez to Los Lobos, celebrates the legacy of farmworker
activist Cesar Chavez.
"Cesar is a hero, especially in San Jose, but it only takes a
generation to forget and I won't let them forget," Ronstadt says.
"The fight that he fought is still ongoing, the injustices facing the
migrant farmworkers is still an outrage."
To heighten the festival's grass-roots impact, she also has
programmed workshops on everything from straw-bale construction to
organic farming, which she sees as a way to fight diabetes in the
Latino community (she herself suffers from the disease).
Ronstadt's commitment to use the festival to spark discussion and
debate is what makes her leadership stand apart.
"She's been a great spokesperson for the community," Alvarado says.
"Someone of her stature lends credibility to the music and the
culture that we all have known and loved. That's been a real point of
pride in the community and an affirmation for all of us."
Despite her ties to the valley, rumors of her plans to move to San
Jose are unfounded, but she's intrigued by the gossip. She is quick
to sing the praises of the city.
"San Jose is quite a place," she says, "You can still see the sky and
the mountains there. Wonderful things are possible there. I might end
up there some day."
Contact Karen D'Souza at 408-271-3772.
SAN JOSE MARIACHI
Through: Sept. 27
Tickets: Free to $150; (800) 745-3000; www.san