On Tuesday, music icon Linda Ronstadt will add another award to her vast collection of trophies — the Hispanic Heritage Foundation's Legend Award, presented at the 33rd Annual Hispanic Heritage Awards. "It's a special award among awards," Ronstadt tells People CHICA. "I didn't sing to win prizes. That wasn't what I was doing. I was trying to play music, but it's also nice to be acknowledged so that we aren't working in a vacuum."
Though Ronstadt, now 74, got her start as a recording artist in the 1960s, she was not always recognized as a Latina musician despite her Mexican heritage. "I'm light-skinned and have a German surname, so it didn't occur to people that I was Mexican American," she explains. "But I grew up in the Sonoran desert. We disregarded the border very much in those days. We'd drive across the border to have lunch and go to parties or go to picnics, or go to the mall, quinceañeras."
Getty Images Linda touring the Canciones album in 1988.
She says it wasn't until the '80s, when she recorded her first Spanish-language album Canciones de Mi Padre, that people finally started to understand her as an artist with Mexican roots. Canciones, released in 1987, eventually became a hit, but getting it made was a struggle. "They said that I was crazy," she recalls of her managers at the time. "But I'd been asking to record in Spanish since the late '60s. And I finally just said, 'Look, I made all these records for you in English and you sold them. I'm going to do this just for me.' It was pure self-indulgence, because I had a whole list of songs that I loved that I wanted to learn."
Recorded with the mariachi bands Los Camperos de Nati Cano, Mariachi Sol de México, and Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, Canciones is made up of covers of classic ranchera songs that Ronstadt grew up singing with her father and grandfather. "I didn't know how to sing them, I didn't know how to find the lyrics," she says. "It wasn't like the days when you had the internet and you can just look up lyrics and find people performing it. These are songs that I learned from my family — a lot of them I had never heard a record of. So to get them learned up to professional level would take a real project. It was gonna take me months. I was going to have to find really good musicians to play with. And I did that by making a connection with [the mariachi bands]. Those guys mentored me, they were really generous about it."
Getty Images Receiving a Kennedy Center honor in 2019.
At the time, critics weren't universally impressed by Canciones — Rolling Stone called it "the party-gag album of the year" — but it became a touchstone of the genre, winning a Grammy in 1989 and becoming the highest-selling non-English-language album in American history. "I think the songs are really good," Ronstadt says now of the album's lasting impact. "The poetry is rich. The rhythms are interesting. The heart of Mexican music is profound. I thought the songs were much better than the songs that I was getting from contemporary writers."
Ronstadt retired from music in 2011 after complications from progressive supranuclear palsy made it impossible for her to sing, but she remains active in other ways. Last year she was the subject of the critically acclaimed documentary Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice, and she's worked as an artistic director for the San Jose Mariachi and Latin Music Festival. Later this month, she'll appear in another documentary titled Linda and the Mockingbirds, about a 2019 road trip she took with fellow folk icon Jackson Browne and a bus full of young singers and artists to Banámichi, the Sonoran town where her grandfather grew up.
But first, the Hispanic Heritage Awards. "It's most special if it's this kind of an award," she says, "because it reinforces who I am and where I came from."