Los Cenzontles is having a very good summer.
On the heels of receiving a million-dollar, no-strings grant from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott last month, the scrappy San Pablo-based Mexican cultural arts academy finally got to celebrate its latest cinematic triumph in person with the theatrical premiere of Linda and the Mockingbirds at a sold-out performance in mid-July at the Roxie.
In the process of teaching working-class East Bay kids about their Mexican cultural roots through classes in folkloric music and dance, Los Cenzontles (“the mockingbirds” in the Nahuatl language) has connected with a panoply of musical heavyweights on both sides of the border, including Los Lobos, Jackson Browne, Ry Cooder, Flaco Jimenez, son jorocho masters Mono Blanco, and Chicano music patriarch Lalo Guerrero.
But no artist has played a more important role for Los Cenzontles than Linda Ronstadt, a relationship that’s the focus of the documentary Linda and the Mockingbirds. While HBO broadcast a 40-minute cut of the film and Amazon is streaming the full 60-minute version, the July 18 Roxie premiere offered the first chance to experience the documentary in a theater, and many of academy’s featured musicians were on hand.
“We’ve known Linda since 1993,” said guitarist/composer Eugene Rodriguez, who founded and runs Los Cenzontles Cultural Arts Academy. “Over the years she’d visit the kids and sing with them. She doesn’t make a big deal about it. She hangs out and it’s very natural. And over the years she’d sometimes say ‘Let’s go to Sonora,’” the state in northern Mexico from which her family hails.
The bus trip that Ronstadt eventually organized with a contingent from the Los Cenzontles ensemble–the accomplished musicians who came up through the academy as kids and now teach on its faculty–ended up serving as an important component in James Keach’s hit 2019 documentary Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice. And in many ways Linda and the Mockingbirds is a companion piece to that kaledescopic portrait of a pop superstar who reinvented herself again and again over five decades.
Ronstadt first encountered Los Cenzontles in the early 1990s when she came across a group of students performing traditional dances from southern Mexico and singing in the indigenous language of Mixtec at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. “I started talking to Eugene and he told me they were trying to get enough money to go to Oaxaca and Michoacán to study with the masters,” Ronstadt said.
She was in the midst of celebrating her Mexican roots on a tour performing mariachi standards from her massive hit Canciones de Mi Padre, her first album focusing on Spanish-language songs. By adding a benefit concert to the end of her run she funded the first of many Los Cenzontles trips south to study with elder traditional Mexican artists.
Rodriguez and his creative team have chronicled some of these experiences on a series of self-produced documentaries, starting with 2004’s Pasajero: A Journey of Time and Memory. The hour-long film followed Los Cenzontles students as they studied with Mexican musicians, master who were largely overlooked at home. He was ready to start a new film focusing on the Sonora trip with Ronstadt, who had chartered a bus and invited a 22-member contingent from the academy, including star vocalists Fabiola Trujillo and Lucina Rodriguez (no relation to Eugene), and Jackson Browne for good measure.
Ronstadt had held out on giving the key on-camera interview to veteran documentary producer James Keach for The Sound of My Voice, and essentially maneuvered him into coming along and filming the documentary’s central conversation in Sonora. If he happened to discover a new film subject along the way, like Los Cenzontles, well, she wouldn’t be displeased.
The timing of the trip ended up fraught with drama. The bus crossed into Mexico on Feb. 15, 2019, the same day that President Trump declared the situation on the United States’ southern border to be a national emergency. Some members of Los Cenzontles had harrowing stories of their own about crossing the border heading north, “but Keach still didn’t see the story,” Rodriguez said. “When he finally came up in August to our center, I set up all the interviews with people we’ve known for 15 years. At that moment, he realized there was a story and he brought an editor on full time.”
Keach didn’t just get the essential interview with Rondadt for The Sound of My Voice on the trip to Sonora. He shot gorgeous footage of Los Cenzontles musicians and dancers performing in the town square of her familial village, Banámichi. The first people on screen after the title appears are Trujillo and Rodriguez, harmonizing while adorned in brightly-hued traditional dresses designed and sown by Rodriguez’s wife Marie-Astrid Dô-Rodriguez.
Both Trujillo and Rodriguez are featured prominently in Linda and the Mockingbirds, talking about how learning traditional Mexican art forms instilled pride in their heritage, which in turn makes them more confident and comfortable Americans. Ronstadt echoes their tales with her own vivid acount of growing up surrounded by the sights, sounds and tastes of northern Mexico.
“When we were children my dad’s rancher friends would come over and we’d have a party, a pachanga, where you slaughter a steer and get a feast together with all the corn, squash, fresh roasted coffee, and wheat tortillas, from a certain variety of wheat,” she recalled. “Music is always part of that and I learned rancheras when I was a little girl. My singing style doesn’t come from blues or the Black church. I’m a belter.”
The documentary’s premiere comes in the midst of a steady stream of new music by Rodriguez and the ensemble Los Cenzontles. Throughout the pandemic the academy produced videos featuring the students, including eight for the Front Porch Sessions and another batch for the Backyard Sessions (both directed by James Hall).
Los Cenzontles collaborated on a video with San Francisco Symphony and another project with the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, creating an epic 10-minute music video, “El Corrido de Anza,” that details the 1,200 mile journey with music by Rodriguez and lyrics by Gilberto Gutierrez Silva, the founder of Veracruz’s beloved son jorocho revivalists Mono Blanco.
Rodriguez has continued to create new music with longtime friends, like the just-released “Lo Siento Mi Vida,” a collaboration with El Teatro Campesino’s Daniel Valdez and Los Lobos’s David Hidalgo. The song was composed by Ronstadt and her father Gilbert Ronstadt, and the video was released on July 15, Linda’s 75th birthday.