This is Tucson pop star Linda Ronstadt’s great aunt in a publicity photo taken in the 1920s. Her stage name was Luisa Espinel. She was a national entertainer—a contralto who performed opera, sang Spanish folk songs and acted in movies.
She was born in Tucson in 1892 to Federico and Sara Levin Ronstadt. She inherited a love of music from her father and was sent to San Francisco for vocal and dance training. While there, she discovered the library of Juan Cebrian, a musician who had a collection of rare volumes of Spanish folklore and music, and developed an interest in her Spanish cultural heritage. She traveled to Paris and Madrid to further her studies, and while in Spain collected songs and folklore in the countryside.
One of her earliest performances in Tucson was for a Red Cross Benefit on April 29, 1917. She also presented a concert at the Tempe of Music and Arts for the Saturday Morning Musical Club and starred as Azucena, the gypsy mother, in a local production of the opera Il Trovatore, directed by professor Jose Servin.
During the 1920s, she acted in movies. She was a gypsy dancer in the Marlene Dietrich film “The Devil is a Woman.” An advertising poster shows her in a flamenco pose, with one hand on her hip and the other above her head, glaring at Dietrich.
She performed Spanish folk music at the famed Edith Totten Theater in New York City in 1917. After the program, critics wrote that “cognizant Spaniards declared . . . it was the first time the folk music of Spain had been presented in its pure form without the pernicious influence of Broadway or the boulevards of Paris.’’
In 1946, she published Canciones de Mi Padre (Songs of My Father), a collection of Mexican folk songs dedicated to her father, Fred Ronstadt. She retired in Los Angeles, where she had performed at the Olvera Theater to widespread acclaim, and filled her days teaching music and serving as the hostess at the Casa Blanca, an historic early-California hacienda.
She returned to Tucson periodically, but once wrote that “going back to Tucson always leaves me with conflicting emotions. I love seeing the country, the desert, my family, my friends, but sometimes it makes me a little sad.”
Luisa Ronstadt Espinel died in Los Angeles on February 2, 1963.
— Photo courtesy Arizona Historical Society, Tucson; research by Jane Eppinga.