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How Tom Petty’s music made me feel free

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By Judith Ritschard

When I heard that rock icon Tom Petty passed away, it hit me harder than I expected. He somehow felt like a friend who helped me get through some tough times. I know, that’s totally ridiculous because I never even met the dude. But his music brought me comfort through the prickly years of adolescence and solace during the anxious years when I found myself living away from home for the first time. There was confusion and maybe even hesitation in growing up, and songs like “You Don’t Know How it Feels” seemed to lighten my emotional load just a bit.

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But perhaps the most substantial influence in his music was how it helped me feel more connected to American culture. Maybe it was because I found something so utterly human in his down to earth music. I felt it was music like Petty’s that made it easier to immerse myself; whether it was consciously or not, into a culture that sometimes I didn’t feel was my own.

Growing up in a vibrant Latin household, I sometimes would question just how American my family was. Often I’d feel we were more at the edges than comfortably within. My world at home with my parents had a different rhythm than the world on the outside, and I’m not just talking about the music we listened to. My mom played everything from traditional mariachi to salsa beats, to old Mexican ballads that sounded like joy and pain all rolled into one.

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Her vinyl record collection included artists like Celia Cruz, Julio Iglesias and Vicente Fernandez. With every spin of the record she’d help preserve a little bit of our heritage. Through these songs we’d hear the importance of love and community, or the value of living life and having fun as in the song La Vida Es Un Carnaval.

At that time I was too immature to fully appreciate or identify with my mom’s music.  Her tastes seemed too exotic and foreign to me. I wrongfully thought they were part of her world and not my own. Sometimes I wonder if I wouldn’t have snubbed such great music if anyone outside my familial circle also listened to Latin music.

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But Latin music was not popular. The Latin pop explosion didn’t happen until 1999 when Ricky Martin took over every radio station with “Living La Vida Loca.” Regardless of what you think of this song, it put Latin music on the map and allowed for other Latino artists to break into the American music scene. Artists from all over Latin America continue to top the charts with songs like this summer’s wildly popular song “Despacito.”

All I have to say is where were all these popular Latino voices when my insecure-ass was trying to fit in?! Oh well, better late than never.

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So I didn’t have Shakira or Ricky to help me fit in, or give Latin culture a cool edge, but luckily I did have something else — musicians like Petty. While listening to “Free Falling” and “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and memorizing the entire Wildflower album I didn’t have to think too much about differences in cultures, or fitting in. It just happened. Music is a powerful thing like that. It taps into the unconscious part of our brain that transcends culture, language and economic status. It enters through the backdoor of the brain, if you will, and leaves us with a true connection to something deeper — our souls, no doubt.

The week Petty passed away, I spent some time in the land of nostalgia. As I played all his songs I love, I was suddenly 16 years old again driving my first clunker of a car, windows down, Tom Petty on the stereo. I was thrilled to have my license and the freedom to drive to places I needed to go — my first concert for one. That concert just happened to be Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and they rocked everyone at Fiddler’s Green that rainy night.

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So, thanks, Tom Petty, not only for providing the soundtrack to some great memories in my life, but also for giving me wings that carried me freely across two cultures. I’m pretty sure I know what you meant by, “You belong somewhere you feel free.”

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