I can’t remember exactly why I walked into the living room the one and only time I saw my Dad crying. Actually, I didn’t walk into the living room so much as pass by when I noticed Dad. There he was, sitting in his favorite chair, crying.
He had the record player on which was a rare thing for Daddy. He preferred reading over any other past time except watching football. Next to the record player was Linda Ronstadt’s new album, “Canciones de Mi Padre.” Canciones, as most US Latinos of a certain age will tell you, was an album that changed their lives and America simultaneously. It made it OK to be Mexican American in U.S. mainstream society – suddenly we were cool and Americans fell in love with a Mexican heritage that was not described in their history books. Everyone was playing Canciones. Everyone became simpatico.
When I was 27 I traveled home to visit my parents after moving to New York City to begin a new job. I didn’t get home often, which was a combination of insufficient finances and an attitude that placed New York over Tucson as the center of coolness. My parents were semi-retired and their social circle consisted of our Mexican family and Mexican American friends they’d known since high school and the sprinkling of anyone not Mexican they knew from work or school or Mom’s Spanish club students.
And there was Dad, listening and crying. I asked him what was the matter and he looked at me and all he said was, “this is the music of my childhood.”
I remember feeling extremely curious about Dad’s Mexican boyhood. This was a man so intensely proud of his American citizenship that he insisted we speak only English at home. “We are Americans,” Dad frequently reminded us, “of Mexican descent.” I remember his sing songy Mexican accent as he said this, with the accent on the last syllable of “descént.” My Mother, because she was Mom and, well, Mexican, never abided by this rule. She openly spoke to us and him in Spanish which I suppose was a reasonable trade in Dad’s eyes, for her love and us. As for us kids, we had our secret identities. I was a treehouse adventuress of my own descént.
But Dad was a hybrid – the product of his Mexican Mother and American Father and although he was born in Mexico, he always emphasized his American roots. It was like that little village in Sonora where he was born never existed. Until the Linda album.
Dad came of age in the early 40’s and the big bands – Glen Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, Les Brown – played him into WW II and back. Back then, to be part of American society everyone had to fit in, speak English, and not look like the enemy. His coming of age music was patriotic and dreamy – “Begin the Beguin,” “String of Pearls,” “In the Mood” – these were some of this favorites. Rock music, like Spanish, was something that snuck into the house. Dad would say something to Mom in English, she would respond in Spanish and before you knew it he was responding in Spanish and the Rolling Stones were on in my brother’s room.
So when Canciones came out, he was clueless about Linda Ronstadt’s career – as far as he was concerned she was from Tucson, her Dad owned the local hardware store and that was good enough to buy the album. But the rest of the nation knew Linda as a rock superstar who was on the cover of Rolling Stone. The rest of the nation listened to Canciones because Linda was rock royalty and her opinion on music, even strange music in another language, mattered.
And thus a unique and historical American convergence was formed – mainstream America bought the album because Linda was and is a pop culture living legend – she validated our American Dream. Mexican Americans bought her album because Linda was family and loved her heritage – she was one of us.
The surprise for all concerned was the music itself. Mainstream America had never encountered it before. Mexican Americans knew it as once and future music – from a radio in their Grandparent’s room, or from an old Mexican movie. And in 1987 the stories and melody of Mexico’s bygone days blew into the mainstream zeitgeist like a fairytale – it was unfamiliar and familiar, it was new and old, it was the smell in the air after it rains in Sonora’s desert.
Listening to that album, America learned how to pronounce the words mariachi and besotted. I remember thinking it was like the whole nation had become enchanted. Everyone was listening to these Mexican acoustic harmonies and the catch in Linda’s voice and you read the liner notes because you needed to know what that was about, and then you discovered the songs were not songs they were stories but they were songs.
Dad loved one song in particular, called “Dos Arbolitos.” It was my Grandmother’s favorite, then his favorite, then my favorite. It’s the reason he was crying that day. The sound of it reunited him with his culture, and he remembered he was Mexican. After that, definitions of descent didn’t seem to matter. What mattered was he remembered the village where he came from, and he wanted me to know about it. He wanted to share his story.
Dos Arbolitos was written by Chucho Martinez Gil in the early days of the 20th century and its lyricism has bonded countless lovers, families and migrants to each other. To listen to it is to enter a world where land and the human soul are joined and melody is an idealization of desire and nostalgia. The lyric does one thing only: it tells a story. It’s not a tag line, not a hook, not a jingle. It isn’t subservient to the beat. It does what a ballad does best – it spins a tale with a beginning, a middle and an end. Check out the open – it describes a love of nature, a love of yearning, a love of love:
Han nacido en mi rancho dos arbolitos
(On my ranch one day two little trees were born)
Dos arbolitos que parecen gemelos
(Two little trees who appear as twins)
Y desde mi casita los veo solitos
(and from my own little house I see them all by themselves)
Bajo el amparo santo y la luz del cielo
(Under holy protection and the light of the sky)
Nunca están separados uno del otro
(They are never separated, one from the other)
Porque así quiso Dios que los nacieran
(Because that is how God intended for them to be born)
Y con sus mismas ramas se hacen caricias
(And with their own branches they caress each other)
Como si fumeron novios que se quisieran
(As if they were betrothed and in love)
Thirty years ago Canciones became the biggest selling non-English language album in the history of recorded music. It transcended language, geography and politics and brought people together. Today, Latin dance music is bigger than ever and hip-hop has been called the most important cultural voice of our times. But in these times I’m recalling Lincoln’s parable that a nation divided against itself can’t stand. Is Lin Manuel Miranda the only heir to Maria Grever, Yip Harburg, Violetta Parra, Arlo Guthrie, and Chucho Martinez Gil? That’s another column, about another artist.