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May 25, 2022

Living Beyond Legendary ‘La Bamba’

Family honors their legendary brother in rock ‘n’ roll
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By Danielle Smith, Staff Writer

Hollister – Ritchie Valens is often hailed as the first Latino pop star, whose easy charm and catchy music would help bring Hispanic culture into the American mainstream and pave the way for future generations of musicians. His tragic death at the age of 17 would serve to solidify his place in rock ‘n’ roll history.

But for one Central Coast family, Valens’ legacy, immortalized in the movie “La Bamba,” is intensely personal in nature. He was more than just a musical legend, he was family, and every winter the Valenzuelas honor their brother the best way they know how – with song.

“Music was always at the heart of our family,” said Hollister resident Connie Lemos, the middle of the five Valenzuela children. “Whether it was Mexican music or rock ‘n’ roll, the record player was always on in our house.”Keeping in the spirit of their family’s musical traditions, the Valenzuelas have organized a tribute concert for their brother, which will be performed in their adopted home of Watsonville in early February.

“People scream and jump up and down,” Lemos said. “Just like they did in the ’50s.”

In the late 1950s, at the height of Valens’ fame, older brother Bob Morales was already living on his own and Lemos and her little sister Irma were in primary school. While hearing their big brother’s songs on the radio was a thrill, they say the family had known he was special all along.

“We knew he was famous when he started bringing piles of photographs home to autograph,” Lemos said. “We would take some to school and sell them for a nickel a piece.”

The Valenzuela family was only able to enjoy Valens’ fame one short year. On Feb. 3, 1959, Valens boarded a small airplane with rock icons Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper, who were touring with him. The three musicians perished in a crash over rural Iowa, and the event was later memorialized in the Don McLean song “American Pie.”

Lemos and her sister learned of the crash from another student on their way home from school.

“When we got home there were tons of people outside, and Ritchie’s friends were standing around Mama,” Norton said. “And when we looked at her we knew it was true.”

The family went into a period of deep and painful mourning. Nobody spoke of Valens, but their mother Concepcion Valenzuela, constantly played his music.

“People would ask her, ‘Concha, why are you listening to that music?'” Lemos recalled. “And she told them ‘No, I’m not listening to music. I’m listening to my son, because I’m nothing without him.'”

In 1962, Valenzuela decided to move her family from their southern California home to Watsonville, looking for a fresh start and an escape from the often painful memories of her son. As the children grew up, they stayed on the Central Coast, but no one spoke of Valens or listened to his music for more than 20 years. It was not until Mario Ramirez, the youngest of the Valenzuela clan, was introduced through a mutual friend to Daniel Valdez – brother of Luis Valdez, founder of the San Juan-based Latino theater company El Teatro Campesino. Daniel Valdez was a longtime Valens fan, and before long he and his brother approached the Valenzuela family about telling the story of his life.

“First they wanted to make it a play,” Lemos said. “But soon they wanted to rush into a movie. They had to convince my mother that it was the right thing to do, but she loved it. We all did… There were painful parts, but watching that movie being made was like reliving the whole experience. It let us say good-bye to Ritchie.”

The Valenzuela family had been told that “La Bamba” would be a “small summer movie” at best, one that would earn critical acclaim but not a lot of money at the box office. No one was prepared for the success of the film, which starred Lou Diamond Phillips as Valens and earned a Best Drama nomination at the 1987 Golden Globes.

“It was successful because people could relate to it,” Ramirez said. “It’s the story of the American Dream.”

“La Bamba” secured Valens a place in the American musical consciousness, after which the family accepted numerous honors on his behalf. To date, Valens has a place in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, a star on the Walk of Fame, a United States Postal Service Commemorative stamp series and numerous public buildings in Southern California named in his honor. Many prominent Latino musicians credit Valens as a source of inspiration for their work, including Carlos Santana and Los Lonely Boys.

Still, the Valenzuelas wanted to honor their brother on their own terms.

“Everybody is always putting on tribute concerts for Ritchie,” Ramirez said. “So we thought, why don’t we?”

Last February, to commemorate “The Day the Music Died,” the Valenzuela family sponsored a “Winter Dance Party” just like the tour Valens, Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper had put on. And they spared no expense, booking the top impersonators in the country to play the parts at the Henry J. Mello Center for the Performing Arts in Watsonville.

The same show will be held this year at the same venue, with Ramirez’s Backyard Blues Band opening. A portion of the profits will benefit Guitars Not Guns, an organization that provides instruments and music lessons for at-risk youth.

“It’s a rockin’ show,” Ramirez said. “The music makes you feel good, even years later.”

The Valenzuela family remains close to this day, and tied to their communities on the Central Coast.

“This is a wonderful place,” Lemos said. “This is where our mother wanted us to be, and where our family’s heart is. Why would we ever want to leave that?”

The family is always looking for ways to further honor their brother through their corporation, the Hi-Tone 5. Currently they hope to stage a similar tribute concert in Valens’ native southern California, to commemorate his birthday.

“Ritchie was a role-model for youth, and he still is today. That’s his legacy,” Lemos said. “And as adults, our role is to preserve that legacy. Forty-six years later, people still look up to him, people still dance and sing along to his music. He’s timeless.”

Join the Party

The Winter Dance Party runs Feb. 3 and 4 at the Henry J. Mello Center for the Performing arts at 7:30pm. Balcony seating is $20, Orchestra seats are $25, and Gold Circle reserved seats are $75 per couple. For more information about the Ritchie Valens Winter Dance Party, visit www.ritchievalens.com or call (831) 763-4047.

Danielle Smith covers education for the Free Lance. Reach her at 637-5566, ext. 336 or [email protected]

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