Chicano Rock! The Sounds of East Los Angeles

Chicano Rock! The Sounds of East Los Angeles premiered December 2008.

Rising like a sleeping giant, music from the barrios of East Los Angeles began to get heard. Whittier Blvd was brimming with excitement. It was a wonderful time to be young... — Little Willie G, Thee Midniters

Ritchie ValensThe first Mexican American rock star, teenager Ritchie Valens (born Valenzuela), best known for his rendition of "La Bamba," died along with Buddy Holly in a plane crash on his first national tour.
Chicano Rock! The Sounds of East Los Angeles, produced, written, directed and edited by Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Jon Wilkman, tells the lively and inspiring story of how generations of young people in America's largest Mexican American community — caught between two cultures and not fully accepted in either — created a unique musical voice and in the process found and proudly expressed their cultural identity.

Narrated by Edward James Olmos, this lively one-hour documentary combines intimate interviews, rare archival film and photographs with exuberant music. Chicano Rock! is also an entertaining and informative journey through more than half a century of America's multicultural past. The story begins with Lalo Guerrero, a National Medal of the Arts honoree known as the Father of Chicano Rock. Arriving in Los Angeles in the late 1930s, Lalo found a city bursting with ambition, even in the last days of the Great Depression. During the war years that followed, many young Mexican Americans defied prejudice and stereotypes, adopting zoot suit fashions and a Spanglish slang called calo. Lalo Guerrero and his friend bandleader Don Tosti captured their spirit in music, mixing swing and boogie woogie in a cross-cultural dialog between African American, Anglo and Mexican American influences.

El Chicano with Ersi ArvisuEl Chicano, with Ersi Arvisu as lead singer, gained national fame in the 1970s and still performs today.
The 1950s brought rhythm and blues and the roots of rock 'n' roll. Mexican Americans were among first to catch the beat. Ritchie Valens, born Richard Valenzuela in the San Fernando Valley, introduced a Latin flair to early rock. His death in a 1959 plane crash, when he was only seventeen, left a tragic legacy, but only inspired a new generation in the 1960s.

East Los Angeles witnessed a surge of creativity, and a renaissance of art, music and politics. Leading the way in music was the band Cannibal and the Headhunters, five guys from the projects who recorded a national hit, "Land of a Thousand Dances," and almost overnight found themselves opening for the Beatles on the British superstars' 1965 tour. That same year, Thee Midniters hit the charts with "Whittier Blvd.," an anthem to East L.A.'s most famous street, the home of a late-night cruising scene that expressed the California car culture that Mexican Americans were making their own.

Los LobosGrammy Award-winning Los Lobos, the trail-blazing band that "put it all together," began in 1973 as Los Lobos del Este Los Angeles.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, when civil rights and the Vietnam War were compelling issues, young Mexican Americans proudly called themselves Chicanos (once considered a derogatory term), and many took to as the streets to stand up for their rights. Bands like Tierra and El Chicano created new music that "said something" about Chicano heritage and their struggles for equality and social justice.

In the 1970s, the cross-cultural threads of Chicano heritage — American and Mexican, English and Spanish — came triumphantly together with Los Lobos, the Eastside band that realized the promise first expressed by Lalo Guerrero, Don Tosti and Ritchie Valens, and brought the unique blend of Chicano music to Grammy Award-winning international prominence. Today, new bands such as Quetzal and Ozomatli continue East L.A.'s innovative musical traditions.

Chicano Rock! The Sounds of East Los Angeles is a long overdue celebration of more than 60 years of music and social change, but it also offers inspiring and unexpected insights into America today and our new multicultural nation in the making.


Funded by:


Produced by:


 © 2008 Wilkman Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Text by Jon Wilkman. Photos courtesy of the Valenzuela Family, El Chicano and Los Lobos.

    Providing Support for Learn More

    Sign Up for Program Reminders & More

    Get the latest information about upcoming PBS programs, sneak peeks, tune-in reminders and web extras delivered to your inbox every week.