The Watsonville Film Festival will hold a free concert in honor of local farmworkers later this month and the lineup includes North Bay headliners “Los Cenzontles,” who also have a special connection to a film being screened at the festival.
In 1987, Linda Ronstadt — then one of the brightest female stars in the pop-music universe — released an album called “Canciones de Mi Padre,” a full-on embrace of the Mexican folk music deeply entwined in her family’s roots. “Canciones” won Ronstadt a Grammy and went on to become the bestselling non-English language album in American musical history.
It turns out there’s a straight line to draw between Ronstadt and what will be happening in Watsonville on Sept. 17. On that Friday, at the Watsonville Plaza, during the weekly farmers market, the Watsonville Film Festival will present “Celebrando la Cultura,” a live concert headlined by Los Cenzontles, a Bay Area-based band that specializes in traditional Mexican music.
The free outdoor show is the culmination of the four-day online Watsonville Film Festival (Sept. 15-18) that will screen an uplifting new documentary called “Linda and the Mockingbirds.”
The “Linda” in the title of the film is, of course, Ronstadt. And the “Mockingbirds”? That’s the English translation of “Los Cenzontles.”
Los Cenzontles is, in fact, a cultural organization based in the North Bay city of San Pablo and founded more than 30 years ago to keep alive the dynamic traditions of Mexican music and culture. It’s a kind of academy that connects young students, most notably those with Mexican family backgrounds, to many of the great purveyors of Mexican traditional music in its many forms and styles, from mariachi to corridos to son jaracho. The organization has now served generations of young people throughout Northern California. From that organization springs a professional touring band, also called Los Cenzontles. On Sept. 17, that band will perform its first post-pandemic public concert in Watsonville.
In 2019, Los Cenzontles participated in a musical journey that formed the basis for the new documentary. The band and many students of its academy traveled by bus from Arizona deep into the heart of Sonora in northern Mexico. Accompanying them was Linda Ronstadt, now 75 and struggling with Parkinson’s disease which has robbed her of the ability to sing. The destination of the trip was the birthplace of Ronstadt’s paternal grandfather, a musician and businessman who was a major figure in Tucson, Arizona in the early 20th century.
“It all fell into place in a beautiful, organic manner, and happened pretty fast too,” said Eugene Rodriguez, the academy’s executive director and bandleader. “Since it was all based on long-standing relationships, it all came together pretty nicely.”
Primary among those relationships is that between Rodriguez and Ronstadt. The pop singer was instrumental in the support of the establishment of Los Cenzontles in the early 1990s, and has been a supporter ever since. It was Ronstadt who negotiated to get director James Keach (the director of award-winning documentary “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice”) to follow the Cenzontles bus caravan to Mexico. Also along for the ride was yet another iconic 1970s rocker, singer/songwriter Jackson Browne.
Browne himself had a relationship with Los Cenzontles, having co-written the song on the DACA program called “The Dreamer” with Eugene Rodriguez, based on the immigrant story of Cenzontles vocalist Lucina Rodriguez (no relation to Eugene). As for Ronstadt, Browne was one of her oldest and closest friends in the music business, the two of them touring together as young unknowns in the 1960s, usually on the same kinds of rickety buses that the two superstars found themselves on in Sonora in 2019.
Los Cenzontles was preparing for a benefit performance in San Francisco with Browne when Rodriguez got a call from Ronstadt. “To my surprise, Linda is calling in the morning, which is not so common,” said Rodriguez. “And she said, ‘What are you doing?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, Jackson Browne just showed up.’ And she said, ‘Oh, invite him to Mexico with us.’ And I said, ‘Jackson, you wanna go to Mexico?’ and he said, ‘Sure.’ It was really that easy.”
Taken together, the online screening of “Linda and the Mockingbirds” and the live performance by Los Cenzontles in Watsonville make up the WFF’s “Celebrando La Cultura.” The band Los Cenzontles performs a wide variety of traditional Mexican song forms and has recorded with the likes of Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder and David Hidalgo of Los Lobos. Their songs are not necessarily all historical artifacts, many of them have a political edge still relevant today such as one of the band’s signature songs “Soy Mexicano Americano.”
The band will be the headliner in a show at the Watsonville Plaza that will also include the local folklorico dance troupe Estrellas de Esperanza, and the traditional harp band Los Originarios Del Plan. The entire program is presented by the Watsonville Film Festival.
The performance will mark the first for Los Cenzontles since the pandemic and since the release of “Linda and the Mockingbirds” in the fall of 2020. Which is not to say that Los Cenzontles is resuming anything.
“The work we do with kids, that never stopped,” said Rodriguez. “Throughout the pandemic, we did, like, 37 productions, videos or remote recordings.”
“Linda and the Mockingbirds” will be available for free streaming from Sept. 15 to 18, in honor of Mexican Independence Day at the Watsonville Film Festival’s site, co-presented by the McEvoy Foundation of the Arts in San Francisco.
Los Cenzontles will perform live at the Watsonville Plaza on Sept. 17 in honor of agricultural workers. Showtime is 6 p.m.