Ritchie Valens, the teenager hailed as the first Hispanic rock star, is perhaps best remembered for the enduring Spanish rock song “La Bamba.” Alongside immortal rockers Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper, Valens died at just 17 years old in a plane crash on Feb. 3, 1959, now immortalized by songwriter Don McLean as “The Day the Music Died.”
“La Bamba” (1987), directed by Luis Valdez, a biographical drama about Valens’ life, immortalizes Valens’ impact on rock and roll.
“He took a Mexican folk song and turned it into rock and roll,” said Valdez, who will appear at the screening tonight. “What he did then, just with that single act alone, is that he included the rest of America into American rock and roll.”
Valdez’s film follows Valens’ life as a 16-year-old San Fernando High School student and after-school farm laborer, from his preternatural musical talent to the challenges of interracial dating in 1950s America through his relationship with Donna Ludwig (the muse behind hit singles “Donna” and “We Belong Together”).
By then, Valens, born Ricardo Steven Valenzuela, had already anglicized his name at the advice of his producer, hoping that his music would appeal to a broader (read: whiter) American audience.
Featuring an electric soundtrack, including Santo & Johnny’s “Sleepwalk” and the bluesy trills of Carlos Santana, and Lou Diamond Phillips’ breakthrough performance, “La Bamba’s” monumental impact ushered in a new era of Chicanx productions in Hollywood. One year later, “Stand and Deliver” premiered to critical acclaim. In 2017, “La Bamba” was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.
But Valdez’s film is about much more than a dramatic depiction of Valens’ eight months in the public eye; it’s a tender portrayal of immigrant dreams, Chicanx history, and a testament to the “other America” often left out of mainstream media.
In citing his inspiration for making the film, Valdez recalls the moment he discovered the true identity of “La Bamba’s” singer.
“All of the obituaries mentioned that his real name was Ricardo Valenzuela from Pocoima, California. San Fernando Valley. So then I knew instantly that he was a Chicano. I mean, he was one of my people. He was like me, you know, and I could identify with him. So ever since then, I thought that his story should be told.”
Valdez is a legendary Chicano trailblazer in his own right. Before “La Bamba,” his play “Zoot Suit” was the first Chicano play on Broadway, later made into a film. Alongside his brother, musician and actor Daniel Valdez, he founded El Teatro Campesino in 1965 at the height of the Delano grape strike as the cultural arm of the United Farm Workers and Chicano movement.
Over the course of his career, he has worked alongside the likes of Cheech Marin, Richard Pryor, Santana, and Cesar Chavez. More recently, Valdez was the voice of Tío Berto in Disney’s “Coco” (2017) and continues to direct Obie-award-winning El Teatro Campesino in rural San Juan Bautista. In 2015, President Barack Obama recognized Valdez with a National Medal of the Arts.
Early life, United Farm Works and El Teatro Campesino
Valdez was born in 1940 to a migrant farmworker family in Delano, California. He spent a nomadic childhood following the harvest throughout the Central Valley, before attending San Jose State University, where he wrote his first play, “The Shrunken Head of Pancho Villa.”
After graduating with a degree in creative writing, Valdez moved to the Haight-Ashbury and began performing as a member of agitprop collective the San Francisco Mime Troupe, where his involvement with political theater nearly got him arrested.
He shares a story of a particularly boisterous Mime Troupe fundraiser at the Fillmore Auditorium hosted by Bill Graham.
“There was a young Chicano that was trying to get in to see Bill Graham. And the only way he could get in was to climb in through the roof. He came in through a fire escape and insisted on seeing Bill Graham to hear his music. And that Chicano was a guy by the name of Carlos Santana.”
Decades later, Santana contributed to the soundtrack of “La Bamba.”
In 1965, a strike in Valdez’s hometown of Delano was gaining momentum, led by none other than Cesar Chavez. Valdez turned to the arts as an avenue for collective organizing.
He learned from the Mime Troupe’s use of masks, body work, and direct contact with audiences in public parks before founding El Teatro Campesino.
“They set up their own stage. All of that seemed, to me, a great way to do theater, and that laid the foundation for my idea for El Teatro Campesino.”
El Teatro Campesino performed on flatbed trucks, developing short plays that could be performed in the fields with minimal pageantry.
“There were no curtains; there were no lights. It was all out there in the middle of the day, under the sun. And so it had to be very vibrant and alive on its own feet. But it came from the people. It came from the heart.”
Valdez continues to see theater as a fulcrum for community organizing.
“We have to address our problems honestly and directly. And this is where, for me, the arts come in. Once kids learn how to use theater — once they learn how to sing, once they learn how to express themselves — the truth comes out.”
“It doesn’t cost anything to do Teatro. You can do it in the street, you can do it in any classroom, you can do it in a church community hall. But this is the beginning of democracy, for me. These are where the roots lie. When you get an audience to get to watch you play, they’re not just there to be entertained. They’re there to reinforce the power of the community. And so this is really the message. And that idea really extends from Teatro and flatbed trucks all the way to the places where I have been, all the way to Broadway, or the sound stages of Hollywood. It’s the same process, and the same need that you’re satisfying.”
The opening scene of “La Bamba” shows Ritchie and his step-brother (played by Esai Morales) biking from school to work in the fruit fields. Valdez recalls the first days of production.
“When we put up the labor camp set, it was done here in Hollister. We started shooting on a Monday, so everything was already set up by the weekend. On the Sunday before we started shooting, I took my dad out to see the set, and he walked around and his eyes opened up and he said, ‘you’ve recreated the […] Ranch!,” one of the ranches where we worked in San Jose. And he knew what I was doing. He knew that we had created for a movie a reality that we had lived. Anybody can do that if you take your memories — your thoughts and ideas and impressions — and translate them in a way where people can see them.”
San Francisco ties and the Mission arts scene
Valdez is quick to credit the support of Mission District artists and organization, including El Teatro’s enduring involvement with Galería de la Raza. He recalls a meeting in the 1970s with La Raza’s René Yañez and the Royal Chicano Air Force, which ultimately led to the development of the influential satirical performance troupe Culture Clash.
“All of that, you know, is part of the creative energy of the Mission District, which is where Culture Clash came from: a vital resource.”
Leading up to the 35th anniversary celebration of “La Bamba’s” release, Valdez recalls a special screening of the film with friends in San Francisco after its initial premiere.
“It was a very emotional experience for me, because they had tears in their eyes and they saw it was a real movie. You know. We finally have a real movie. Because we had documentaries on PBS, but this was a Hollywood movie. It made a difference.”
“We need plays. We also need movies, and we need young people that are going to pick up the mantle and fight for representation through their own creative talents. And I hope that ‘La Bamba’ will continue to inspire new generations to tell their own stories. In some ways, [‘La Bamba’] is my story. I was also a migrant farm worker.”
The Q&A with director Luis Valdez will be moderated by Luis I. Reyes, author of “Viva Hollywood: The Legacy of Latin and Hispanic Artists in American Film.”
“La Bamba’s” 35th Anniversary screening with director Luis Valdez takes place at the Roxie Theater on Nov. 16. A book signing reception with Valdez and Reyes will take place at 6 p.m. at 518 Valencia St. The film screening will begin at 7:15 p.m at the Roxie Theater.
Tickets for the screening and Q&A are $14 for general admission, $9 for seniors. VIP tickets, which include an additional book signing reception and a copy of Reyes’ “Viva Hollywood,“ are $55. VIP tickets for two are $70.