I was born and raised in Tucson, Arizona, my childhood home situated on the outskirts of the city’s sprawl, tucked amidst saguaros, barrel cacti, ocotillo and the occasional palo verde tree, and hemmed in on all sides by a shimmering, visible heat and the dense, muffled hum of cicadas. But while the time that I’ve now lived outside of Arizona nearly equals the time I lived inside of it, traces of this place and this landscape seem to have been etched on me—quite literally in the case of the creosote bush that I have tattooed on my forearm. In fact, although I’d spent my whole childhood planning my great escape, as soon as I arrived in New York from Arizona some 14 years ago, any and all little markers of “home” became incredibly important to me.
Which is as good an explanation as any, I suppose, for why I found myself one cold, winter evening during my junior year of college, hunched over someone else’s laptop and drunk-googling Linda Ronstadt—herself a Tucson girl whose family has lived in the city for generations—singing “La Charreada,” a ranchera-style mariachi number, on Sesame Street. The song, written by turn of the century Mexican composer Felipe Bermejo, celebrates the opening procession of a charrería—a sort of traditional Mexican rodeo. For the purposes of Sesame Street, the lyrics had, of course, been anglicized and generally Muppeted, but the essentials of the original remained intact.
Which is to say that in any of its incarnations, Linda Ronstadt’s rendition of “La Charreada” is simply one of the most happy-making songs I’ve ever listened to. It doesn’t so much start as it simply is, the violins and guitars sync from the first beat and then twirl and tumble into a foot-tapping waltz. The jubilant grito—that high-pitched laughing patter and ‘aye, aye’ that you’ll hear in just about any ranchera song—jumps in seconds afterwards, cheerfully anticipating Ronstadt’s own glowing first note. Her soaring, powerful ‘Ayyyyyyyy-aaaaaaayyyyyyyye’ is so confident and full that seems to rise from her toes, stretching out in front of her like a banner unfurling. Then, of course, there’s the call and response refrain: Upa-Yupa-Yu! Yupa! Upa-Yupa-Yu! Yupa! It’s warm and invigorating and most of all, it is joyful.
Like many people who’ve lived most of their adult lives far away from their hometowns and states, I have a complicated relationship with mine. I tear up talking about the summer monsoon season in the Sonoran Desert, sure, but I felt lucky when I had the miraculous opportunity to Get Out and, in spite of my yearly bout of desert-homesickness, I have no plans of returning. Diverse as it is, Arizona remains an often aggressively conservative place, and is still characterized by a sort of Wild West homesteader mentality: it’s a state of people metaphorically (and yes, sometimes literally) standing on their porches, shotguns cocked, preparing to defend themselves from The Others. I’ll remind you, this is the state of Joe Arpaio and ‘Complete the Danged Fence,’ not a state that has, at least in the context of public life, traditionally celebrated its Chicano and Mexican culture or protected the rights of its Spanish-speaking citizens. And these facts tend to overshadow the affection that I feel for my home state.
But listening to “La Charreada,” I feel a glimmer of something different. Something hopeful and lovely and very, very Arizonan. Ronstadt’s Sesame Street performance aired, I later discovered, in 1991, when I was seven years old and watching the show while sitting on the grass-green shag carpet in our living room, and running around barefoot in the desert, and trying to make blow darts from cactus spines with my brother, and getting stung by a scorpion as it—true story—leapt out of the Exodus chapter in my Illustrated Bible.
And so, listening to this song makes me happy, but it also makes me feel rooted. As Ronstadt said herself upon moving back to Tucson to raise her children, “That sense of place… is something very hard to come by these days.” And so it is. Yupa!
This is one of more than 50 posts that make up our musical map of the United States, published by region—the West, Midwest, South, and Northeast—by writers who have strongly associated a song with a state.