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The Chicano Wave

Chapter 1: C'Mon Let's Go: Richie Valens

In the 1950s, Los Angeles was known to most of America as a shining city of freeways and movie stars.

But there was another Los Angeles, unseen by most of the country. There tens of thousands of Mexican-Americans lived in crowded barrios, many just getting by, working in tedious, often backbreaking jobs.

Then in 1958, the son of a factory worker from a tough, Mexican neighborhood just outside LA, rose out of the barrio and into the national spotlight.

Ritchie Valens had become the first Mexican-American Rock and Roll star.

["Go, Johnny, Go!" with Chuck Berry & Alan Freed; 1959]

TONY VALDEZ, Journalist Ritchie Valens comes out of Pacoima, California in the San Fernando Valley here in Los Angeles and he becomes the great brown hope. He is the man that is going to not just sit in the garage and play music, but maybe, maybe go to Carnegie Hall.

Valens — born Richard Valenzuelahad been unknown beyond Pacoima until a young record producer heard him play at a local movie house and invited him to his Hollywood studio.

BOB KEANE, Record Producer When he walked in and he got his axe out and started noodling around, you know, well, this one guy comes up to me and says, "What the hell is this? A Mexican Rock and Roll? There ain't no such thing." I said, "Hold on, pal."


BOB KEANE We changed his name to Valens, because I knew that if we put a record out and called him Valenzuela, they wouldn't even listen to it. They'd just throw it in the trashcan.

GIL ROCHA, Valens' Bandmate When Ritchie took off and -- his record came out and it hit the stations, we were all, "Yay!" We were excited. Not only because he was Ritchie, but because he was Mexican-American.

BOB KEANE After we worked together for about three months, one day he said, "Bob-o, I want you to come out and meet my mother." He took me to the little house, and under the house, they had a couple of sleeping bags, and he and his cousin, that's where they slept. And at that point, that's when he said to me, "Bob-o, the one thing I want is I want to buy my mother a home." (VO) So, I said, "Well, don't worry, Ritchie, you're going to be a big star and we'll get you a home for your mother."

Later that summer, as Keane drove Valens up the coast for an appearance in San Francisco, the song that would become a cornerstone of Chicano Rock and Roll began to take shape.

BOB KEANE (VO) I had a new Thunderbird and Ritchie was in the back with his guitar. And all of a sudden, there's this, "Dahl, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah-di-dah-dah-da." (OC) And I said, "Wow, man, that might make a hell of a record, let's do something with that"

[LA BAMBA - Recreation]

TOM WALDMAN, Author The irony is that the biggest hit that Ritchie Valens ever had and the song for which he will be forever known was sung in Spanish, La Bamba. (VO) and the audience, the Anglo audience seemed to look past that or didn't care.


TONY VALDEZ What greater moment could there be for us than to have this kid, this Mexican-American kid from Pacoima with a record that people in Poughkeepsie are singing to and they don't even know what the lyrics mean. It gives white America and black America the opportunity to look at some brown skinned people and say hey I like that music.


TOM WALDMAN (VO) He's one of the bright lights in Rock and Roll at the end of the 50s and he's invited to go on his tour with a guy named the Big Bopper and Buddy Holly of the Midwest, a real huge break for a 17-year-old Chicano kid from southern California.

After a performance in Iowa, a small plane carrying the three headliners took off for Fargo, North Dakota despite an approaching snowstorm.

["DONNA" - LA driving in car POV]

BOB KEANE (VO) I had my car radio on, KFWB, and they were playing the hell out of "Donna" and he said, "And, now, the late, great Ritchie Valens, (OC) and his number one record, 'Donna.'" That's, that was the biggest shock I've ever had in my life.


[The crash occurred in a light snow NorthWest of Mason City and also killed the pilot of the plane. Ritchie Valens' latest recording Donna is number one on the CHUM hit parade...]

It would come to be known as "the day the music died" — February third, 1959.

BOB KEANE (VO) I cried. I went in and cried. (OC) I still cry a little. Yeah. I...He was my son; he had become my son.

Four months after Valens' death, the movie that featured his only filmed performance opened at a drive-in near Pacoima.

GIL ROCHA (VO) Everybody in town came to see our Ritchie. (OC) And we're sitting there patiently waiting and waiting and waiting. Finally he came on. And we all, "Yeah, Ritchie," (VO) lookin' at him, lookin' at him. And then as it ended and he walked away, it was kind of-- kind of, like, a lull there. Ritchie's gone. We wanted more (VO) but that's all we got. Somebody in back starting honking, honking his horn. What it was, he was doing appreciation, and he started honking. So all of a sudden, the whole theatre just started honking, one big loud honk. And the people-- everybody was showing their appreciation. This was our way of saying, "Hi, Ritchie."


Valens was only 17. He'd gone from obscurity to having 4 hit records in a career that lasted barely eight months. It was a feat that has never been duplicated.

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