Seconds later, when the drums come in for the chorus, the song transforms from ballad to anthem. We were always tipsy enough, and the volume turned up loud enough, that we couldn’t resist chanting along to “Driven the backroads so I WOULDN’T! GET! WEIGHED!” and crooning, “weeeeed, whiiiiiiiites, and wiiiiiiiiiiiiine.”
During those short drives — the song’s quick 3:02 came to an end just before we pulled into the driveway of the family’s stucco bungalow — “Willin’” felt like it encompassed the very essence of Southwestern Americana. Driving, movement, drugs. She’s “driven every kinda rig that’s ever been made.” The song’s place names plotted out a geography that connected my Colorado upbringing to their Central Valley family: “Tucson to Tucumcari, Tehachapi to Tonopah,” Ronstadt sings. Those were familiar towns, roads we all knew, views we all loved. Just as Ronstadt assumed the identity of the song’s narrator, for those three minutes, we did too.
At the time, I was beginning my career studying and writing about the US Southwest. As I formalized and deepened that effort, I realized that my understanding of the region lacked an expertise in its Spanish and Mexican influences. I learned Spanish, and my interests and the topics I wrote about shifted. For a while, I left behind my fascination with Americana, at least in its Anglo instantiations.
I didn’t know then that Ronstadt was decades ahead of me in that endeavor. Ronstadt’s life blurs the US-Mexico divide. Her father’s ancestors were German and Spanish immigrants to Northern Mexico; her paternal grandfather moved to Tucson, Arizona, where she was born in 1946. After making her name as a folk singer out of California, she had a Mexican American coming-out with the 1987 release of Canciones de mi Padre, an album of old-style Spanish and Mexican music passed down through her family. She’s as convincing as a fugitive in prison in Cananea, Sonora, as she is the weary trucker on “Willin’.”
Ronstadt’s new book from Berkeley’s Heyday Books, Feels Like Home: A Song for the Sonoran Borderlands, is about the piece of the Sonoran Desert spanning from Tucson to the Río Sonora that she considers her “foothold in the world.” The book is co-authored by Lawrence Downes (Ronstadt’s supranuclear palsy, a condition similar to Parkinson’s, prevented her from completing it alone) and accompanied by photographs from Arizona photographer Bill Steen, about whom Ronstadt writes she is “laced together at the roots” because their families’ relationship goes back generations.
On one level, Feels Like Home is a book about Ronstadt’s roots. For borderlands readers, it’s also about ways to understand more deeply and live in the Sonoran Desert. And for more distant readers, it’s about learning to see the borderlands’ invisible imprint on American life. “When you call someone ‘buckaroo,’ you are mispronouncing ‘vaquero,’” Ronstadt writes. “Cowboying is like surfing and rock-and-roll, something white people picked up in their travels and liked so much they eventually started to think they […] must have invented it.” In each layer of the book, her deep thoughtfulness and sharp intellectualism are on display.
Feels Like Home opens on the Mexico side of the border, in the plaza of the small town of Banámichi, Sonora, as Ronstadt eyes the historic church where her great-grandmother, Margarita Redondo, was baptized. She narrates the austere frontier life that Margarita shared with her husband, Friedrich Augustus Ronstadt, a mining engineer who “had immigrated to [Sonora] from Hanover, Germany, in the early 1840s.” Though they were not poor, life was nevertheless challenging. Photographs and translations of letters written by Margarita to her son, Ronstadt’s grandfather Federico, include descriptions of the pain of losing multiple children, first to diphtheria and later to a heart-wrenching accidental scalding; of money woes at the family’s remote ranch; and of the loneliness of being the wife of an engineer frequently called away to work. That grandfather, Federico, moved to Tucson and owned a hardware and carriage business, and raised Ronstadt’s father in a Spanish-speaking household that maintained close social ties to Sonora.
Though Ronstadt is Mexican American, her ancestry is European, rather than the mix of European and Indigenous that has come to define Mexico’s national identity. “I learned that the world looked at my dark-skinned Latina friends and classmates much differently than it looked at me,” she writes of learning to recognize the privileges afforded by her whiteness as a schoolgirl. “I realized even then that having white skin and a German surname gave me special privileges.”
What in Ronstadt’s lifetime manifested itself as white privilege in her ancestors’ time was settler colonialism. Ronstadt consulted history professor Cynthia Radding to trace the history of the Redondo family’s “fine expanse of real estate” in northwestern Sonora. In the 1770s, she writes, “a Spanish rancher named Prudencio Salazar and his brothers filed a claim to [the territory, which was considered] ‘tierras realengas,’” or Spanish crown land. The Salazars wrote that they had established their possession of the land “by virtue of occupying it with our livestock and building corral”; the royal treasury charged them 156 pesos for 150,000 acres. (Indigenous Sonorans were never consulted.) In 1795, half of the land was sold to Ronstadt’s ancestor, Francisco Xavier Redondo.
Ronstadt’s knowledge of this history makes one of the key questions of Feels Like Home how to validate long-term attachments to and senses of place that are nevertheless those of settlers. This is an important question for US readers, whose familial connections to this country’s legacy of Indigenous dispossession are often left unknown or are blurred behind the discourse of a nation of immigrants. Ronstadt holds the two in tension: she denounces colonial, anti-Indigenous violence (Feels Like Home includes a reprint of a letter she penned to Pope Francis denouncing the Catholic Church’s canonization of violent missionary Junípero Serra), while also acknowledging the reality of her attachment to place.
Rather than appealing to roots to validate her sense of belonging in the Sonoran borderlands, Ronstadt then appeals to the senses. Feels Like Home treats taste, sound, smell, and touch on an equal plane with sight for understanding place, achieving a rare level of sensory immersion. Ronstadt’s advantage in this regard likely comes from the fact that her first vocation was not that of a writer, but a musician — one in which sound, not sight, is primary.
Sound ties the book together, and ties Ronstadt to the border. Music courses through Ronstadt’s family tree, which had so many musicians that they had rules about “owning” songs: “[I]f you sing the song first, it’s yours forever, unless there is some really good reason to switch.” (Ronstadt got the family rights to sing “I Never Will Marry,” which had belonged to her sister Suzy, for instance, because Suzy married.)
On the fifth page of the book appears a photograph of Ronstadt’s grandfather Federico playing the guitar with his daughter, her aunt Luisa, just months before his death. Luisa, an opera singer, became fascinated with the folk music of Spain and Northern Mexico, and developed a repertoire of regional folk songs and dances. Fans of Canciones de Mi Padre have her aunt Luisa to thank, writes Ronstadt: in 1946, she published a book by the same title, of songs taught to her by Federico.
But even more than sound, Feels Like Home originates from taste: Ronstadt’s initial plan was to write a cookbook. Recipes appear in inserts, forming something like a Sonoran appendix to The Art of Simple Food: fundamental dishes that privilege fresh ingredients and instruct the reader on how to both cook with and appreciate them. Part of Ronstadt’s binational habitus is having taste buds that surpass the tricks of the US food system — and the ways that it has industrialized Mexican cuisine. “It’s easy to taste the effects of industrialization in the tortillas and bread you get today,” she writes as she describes the ruins of Banámichi’s flour mill. “Modern commercial flour performs differently from the old-fashioned kind I grew up with.”
One of the book’s familiar dishes comes directly from those mills: Sonoran flour tortillas, also called “sobaquera tortillas,” or armpit tortillas, because they are tossed and stretched until they are gigantic, spanning from one’s fingertips to one’s shoulders. Though they are “made from nothing much — flour, water, fat, and salt,” Ronstadt’s description of their preparation betrays a finely tuned technique required to transform the dough from “cold rubber” to “hot silk.”
Elsewhere, writing about the preparation of pot beans/frijoles de la olla, “the workhorse recipe of every Mexican household,” Ronstadt offers a simple fix to avoid toughness: wait until the beans have simmered at least two hours before salting them. In her recipe for red chile sauce/salsa de chile colorado, the basis of many Sonoran recipes, she writes that many people cook with a version from a jar, but that she never liked it; making it from scratch is worth it. Like the taste of tortillas without preservatives, the taste of fresh salsa, made from the tomatoes and herbs and chiles the season dictates, is one of the great rifts between home-cooked Mexican food and American attempts to replicate it. Though the difference is not subtle, it’s one to which American tongues are often oblivious.
Ronstadt’s sense of smell brings food and the borderlands ecosystem together. The two photographs that open Feels Like Home are of a picnic and a storm. Food smells good — charred meat has cameos throughout the book — but so does the desert, especially when activated by water. The “waxy green leaves and pea-sized fruit” of creosote plants that fill the air with their pungent aroma; the hay bales of the rodeo arena near Ronstadt’s childhood home; and the wood shavings in her family’s swamp cooler pads, which “gave off a wonderfully sweet, fibrous, planty smell when the air flowed through them,” all make the desert for Ronstadt.
The sense of touch similarly unites the human and nonhuman aspects of the region. Ronstadt celebrates the textures of surfaces that humans make using natural materials. She describes the plaster of San Xavier del Bac, the baroque mission church south of Tucson, which was made from a mixture of limestone, sand, and “la baba de nopal,” the slimy mucilage of prickly pear cactus. At the Canelo Project, the artisanal home of photographer Steen, she celebrates the mortared stone walls, “concrete-riverstone grout,” and the “smooth and cool” lime plaster surfaces.
The Sonoran region’s juxtaposition of constancy and change is the core of Feels Like Home. They are present in the food, the smells, the surfaces, and the vistas. The lyrics that provide the book’s epigraph attest to the same: Randy Newman’s “Feels like I’m all the way back / Where I belong” contrasts with Lalo Guerrero’s dirge for the Mexican American neighborhoods lost to Tucson’s urban renewal efforts.
The change that Ronstadt laments the most is the transformation of the borderline from a “chain-link afterthought” to “a gash in the landscape that made you feel like you were doing something bad when you crossed in either direction.” Amidst her nostalgic extolling of the region, Ronstadt pulls no punches when she writes about US border politics. Calling the present-day United States “snarling and afraid,” she says that “[i]t would be more honest if we called our country ‘the United States of Who the Fuck Are You?’” She diverges in style and tone from the rest of the book when she talks about the border, but the anger and directness are necessary; to have not included them would have been a grave omission. They underscore the elegiac beauty of the other chapters, and make it seem all the more miraculous that the region’s culture and ecology persist in any conjoined form.
Other things have changed, too. Much of the Tucson of Ronstadt’s memory is gone. The Tucson she left at 18 was one where “[w]hen you walked out the door, you were in the desert”; today, where her family’s home once sat on six acres, you are “not far from a Wendy’s and a Dollar General.” But amidst descriptions of the changes of modernization, urbanization, and the intensification of the border, she buries the lede on another. “Climate change has made it a few degrees too hot for me to want to have a house there again,” Ronstadt writes. Tucson hit 100 degrees in mid-April this year, and its summer minimum temperatures — what used to be a reliable nighttime cooldown — were the warmest in history.
As Ronstadt writes, the unique culture of the Sonoran borderlands has survived over centuries, largely thanks to the work of the people she identifies as the region’s heroes: farmers and ranchers, migration volunteers, artisans and musicians. Now, climate change — an effect and continuation of the colonial violence that created the political and cultural geography of the borderlands as we know them today — threatens their very existence. The fact that it has driven away a native daughter as loyal as Ronstadt speaks to the already heightened harshness of life in the region. But as we feel powerless in the face of climatic shifts that challenge everything we thought we knew about place, Feels Like Home offers a spiritual salve. We can retain, and enrich, our senses of place by returning to the senses. Place is something made of sounds, tastes, smells, and surfaces.
Caroline Tracey is a writer whose work focuses on the US Southwest, Mexico, and the US-Mexico borderlands. She is currently the climate justice reporter at the High Country News and an editor-at-large at Zócalo Public Square, and holds a PhD in geography from the University of California, Berkeley, and lives between Tucson, Arizona, and Mexico City.