Linda Ronstadt encountered a pivotal problem when she teamed up with former New York Times writer Lawrence Downes to pen a cookbook featuring some of her family’s favorite recipes.
“It didn’t come together because I don’t cook!” said Ronstadt, 76, a National Medal of Arts recipient, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee and 11-time Grammy Award-winner.
“So, we decided to turn it into a book about the Sonoran desert and how it’s strikingly the same on either side (Mexico and the U.S.), even though they put that border fence in the middle of it.”
The result is “Feels Like Home: A Song for the Sonoran Borderlands,” which will be published Oct. 4 by Heyday and sometimes reads like several books intertwined into one.
Enhanced by the vivid photography of Bill Steen, a longtime Ronstadt friend, “Feels Like Home” is a celebration of culture, music, geography, food and family ties that know no borders. It is eloquently told by a singer who has devoted much of her career to transcending musical borders, from country, rock and jazz standards to Broadway musicals, opera and the Mexican folklórico music she grew up singing in Arizona with her family in Tucson.
The book — about which more in a moment — inspired a companion album of the same name, due out Friday from Putumayo World Records, curated by Ronstadt and Putamayo founder Dan Storper.
The 10-song collection features songs performed by her and such past and present musical pals as Lalo Guerrero, Jackson Browne, Emmylou Harris, David Hidalgo of Los Lobos and members of the Bay Area-based Mexican folk music group Los Cenzontles (The Mockingbirds).
“We worked on the album for many months because we wanted to make sure it was what Linda wanted,” Putamayo honcho Storper said.
“The CD includes a 24-page booklet with photos, some excerpts from her book and her comments about each of the songs. The way Linda expresses herself is the heart and soul of who she is.”
Luminous voice silenced
Hearing Ronstadt’s luminous voice in full flight on the “Feels Like Home” compilation album will likely be an emotional experience for many listeners.
Her final concert was a 2009 performance of songs from her Mariachi music-celebrating 1987 release, “Canciones de Mi Padre” (“Songs of My Father”), the top-selling non-English language album in U.S. history. She made her last recording, a collaboration with Ry Cooder and The Chieftains, in 2010.
Ronstadt was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2012. Her condition was rediagnosed in 2019 as also having progressive supranuclear palsy, an incurable degenerative disease.
Under either name, her singing career came to an abrupt end and her life was profoundly changed. Previously simple tasks, such as eating or brushing her teeth, are now challenges that require considerable concentration for this genre-leaping vocal legend. Walking is difficult and she uses hearing aids, although she attributes the latter simply as a sign of growing old.
“I can always harmonize in my head, even without music playing,” Ronstadt said, speaking by phone from her San Francisco home. “That’s all I can do. I can’t sing.”
Happily, her voice rings loud and clear on nearly every page of “Feels Like Home,” which was both a labor of love and a labor.
“I can’t type,” she said matter-of-factly.
“That’s another reason I needed a lot of help with this book. I have a lot of involuntary moments because of Parkinson’s and progressive supranuclear palsy. So, it was slow going. It wasn’t this bad when I was writing (her 2013 memoir) ‘Simple Dreams,’ because my condition wasn’t as advanced as it is now.”
Downes, the co-author of “Feels Like Home,” elaborated on Ronstadt’s condition in an interview from his New York home on Long Island.
“Linda can type, but very slowly and her fingers tremble,” he said. “She has an iPad and a Mac book that she types on, but it’s hard for her.”
Writing side by side
Even so, Ronstadt was completely hands on as she and Downes wrote and honed “Feels Like Home” side by side in her San Francisco home.
“I wasn’t ghostwriting or taking dictation. It’s her story and she wrote it in her voice,” he said.
“We went over the manuscript multiple times. I had my laptop and she had a print-out in a three-ring binder. We went through it page by page, and then we’d do it again — and again.
“I was never with her in the recording studio. But based on everything I’ve heard, the way she did this book is very similar to how she made records. She’s very particular about her singing voice and her written voice. She could have been a great writer.”
Does Ronstadt envision doing another book?
“No!” she said. “It’s too hard.”
While “Feels Like Home’s” focus goes far beyond culinary matters, including some heartfelt political commentary, the book does features 20 of Ronstadt’s favorite family recipes. They range from traditional Sonoran cheese soup and chiltepin salsa to carne asada and a more contemporary dish called tunapenos, which are jalepenos stuffed with tuna.
“I learned about them from my sister-in-law, Jackie. ‘What is this gringo food?’ I asked her. I was just shocked,” Ronstadt writes of her first encounter tunapenos. “And then I ate one and I went: ‘Okay, I am eating up the whole plate.’ ”
Letter to the Pope
The book also includes a chapter entitled “Wait a Minute, Your Holiness,” which recounts the letter she and her friend, Reverend Mary Moreno-Richardson, sent to Pope Francis seven years ago.
“When I learned in 2015 that Pope Francis had apologized to Indigenous peoples for the brutal harm done to them by the Catholic Church in colonial times but was also about to canonize the Franciscan missionary Junípero Serra, one of the brutalizers, the dissonance was too much to bear,” she writes.
The letter concludes: “Our concern is that to canonize him would not only be an affront to the California Indians that survive, it would tarnish the images of the saints we cherish. We implore you to reconsider the canonization of Junípero Serra.”
Serra was indeed canonized later in 2015. Did Ronstadt expect Pope Francis to respond to her written plea?
“I’m sure he never saw my letter,” she said. “But I felt I needed to write it no matter and put it in the book.”
Ronstadt sputtered good-naturedly when asked if she was no longer a practicing Catholic.
“I’m a practicing atheist,” Ronstadt said. “But I like this Pope and I think he would do more if he could. I think he’d let priests marry and would (OK) gay marriage.”
The subject of indigenous peoples is near and dear to her heart.
Ronstadt’s grandfather, Federico José María Ronstadt, was born in the Sonoran town of Banamichi. He migrated to her hometown of Tucson — about 200 miles to the north — in the early 1880s.
Her new 218-page memoir is a valentine to her family and the Mexican heritage she has long celebrated in words and music.
Growing up, Ronstadt and her family traveled often and freely between southern Arizona and northern Mexico. The physical landscape was the same on either side of the border and so were many of the people.
“For me,” Ronstadt writes in “Mi Pueblo,” “Feels Like Home’s” fourth chapter, “Spanish was the language you got scolded and praised in, and the language you sang in. Since I always sang in Spanish, it was always more natural for me to sing it than to speak it.”
But Spanish was not, she continues, a language embraced in her hometown or its schools, including the Catholic school she attended.
Passing for White
“You might ask why a place as indelibly Mexican as Tucson would punish schoolchildren for speaking the local language,” Ronstadt writes. “Or how members of a family like mine would mostly lose their mother tongue after my father’s generation. The Tucson of my childhood was segregated, both by law and hardened practice. The divisions by color, race and class, though not always talked about, were sharply drawn.”
Discrimination was rampant in Tucson, she writes. But because of her complexion, she was not subjected to the biases that her darker-skinned Latina friends and classmates encountered on a regular basis.
“If you are White, it’s different,” Ronstadt said in response to a question about her ability to pass. “I had very light skin and a German surname, so it was easy for people to think I wasn’t Mexican.”
By design, “Feels Like Home” also provides Ronstadt with a platform to deliver her cautionary tale about how a great nation that once welcomed immigrants now treats them as invaders to be feared.
In the most impassioned moment of her book, she takes aim directly at the actions initiated by then-President Donald Trump on Feb. 15, 2019.
“The forty-fifth president declared a national emergency at the border,” she writes, pointedly declining to identify him by name.
“It was a fake crisis, meant to stoke panic and anger over Central American migrants, many of them children, who were walking to Texas seeking refuge from murderous violence in their home countries. They posed no threat to the United States, but that meant nothing to the administration.
“The border ‘emergency,’ like the fortified border wall, told a very different American story. It said to people who are from south of here: ‘We fear you and hate you and we will do all we can to keep you out’ It would be more honest if we called our country the United States of Who the F— Are You?”
The use of that word is all the more powerful for the fact that Ronstadt has almost never been known to use any profanity, at least not in the countless interviews she has done since earning her first Grammy nomination in 1971.
The fact that an editor at Heyday, the publisher of “Feels Like Home,” voiced concerns about the potentially jarring impact of her uncharacteristic use of the f-word — which, for the record, appears one other time in the book — did not dissuade Ronstadt in the least.
“I didn’t go back and forth,” she said. “I was adamant. It was the right word for the story.”
Does she use the f-word much in her day-to-day life?
“I use the word as a noun, a verb, and an adjective!” Ronstadt replied puckishly.
Co-writer Downes chuckled when told of her response.
“Linda doesn’t go out of her way to sound consciously, aggressively fowl or raunchy,” he noted. “But if she’s annoyed or angry, and the word is right, she’ll use it. Before this book ever got started, the bulk of our conversations were about immigration.”
Downes was an editorial writer for the New York Times who focused on immigration issues. He and Ronstadt became friends after his 2013 article about her, “Linda Ronstadt’s Borderland — A Road Trip Through Ronstadt Country.”
In 2019, the two reunited for a similar road trip. This time, though, they were accompanied by her longtime musical pal, Jackson Browne and the Bay Area Mexican folk music group Los Cenzontles (The Mockingbirds), which counts Ronstadt as a key board member and benefactor.
Also along for the ride was a film crew that chronicled her return to Banamichi, the Sonoran Desert hometown of her grandfather. The resulting documentary, “Linda and The Mockingbirds,” won acclaim after its release in 2020.
“I stayed away from the film crew,” Downes said. “I was there to do research for the book.”
How easy or difficult was it for Ronstadt and her co-author to weave together the array of different themes that course together throughout “Feels Like Home?”
“Well, it was hard,” she replied. “But it was a true collaboration. People are just on the other side of the border (in Mexico) and and it’s a wonderful culture with wonderful people, food and music.”
Asked what message in her book she hopes will most resonate with readers, Ronstadt replied: “That (Mexicans) are just people, really nice people, especially in that particular (Sonoran Desert) valley.
“And that the whole idea of having a border fence is ridiculous, because people will get over it. If you can build a 20-foot-fence, they’ll build a 21-foot ladder. Most ‘aliens’ fly in and overstay their visas. The border is is an expensive tragedy.”
Ronstadt’s well-documented history of political activism dates back to the 1970s. A proud liberal, she realizes “Feels Like Home” could offend those with a more conservative point of view — assuming they read the book in the first place.
“Most of those people aren’t open to any kind of reason, but you never know,” she said. “You just put it out there and don’t have any expectations for it. I just did it together with Lawrence and I’m really proud of it.
“I just put in what I felt like and if anybody doesn’t like it, too bad. The politics are a real important part of my personal life.”
And if her life were to inspire any noted film directors and actresses to seek her approval to make a Linda Ronstadt bio-pic?
“There’s nothing I can do about it,” she said glumly. “They can do it whether I would like it or not.”
Has she been approached?
“Oh, yeah, a lot of times,” Ronstadt replied.
“I can’t keep it from happening, I can just not cooperate.”
“Because all bio-pics are terrible!” she said. “Except the one about the Queen of England, ‘The Crown.’ I liked that.”