When “La Bamba” premiered in the summer of 1987, the expectations for its success were low. The film was based on the life of Ritchie Valens, the Mexican-American teenager (birth name: Richard Steven Valenzuela) who was one of the first Latinos in rock ’n’ roll. It covered his beginnings as a farmworker in Delano, Calif., his bond with his contentious big brother, Bob, and the complexities of having to hide his background to make it in the music business with hits like the title tune. At its core, it was the story of two brothers working to achieve the American dream, a dream that was usually reserved for white Americans.
Valens died in 1959, just a year after being signed to Del-Fi Records, in a plane crash that also killed two other stars, Buddy Holly and J.P. Richardson, better known as the Big Bopper.
The short-lived career of a Latino teenager didn’t exactly bring Hollywood executives running. What were dubbed “ethnic” stories weren’t considered box office draws. An early article in The Los Angeles Times paraphrased marketing specialists who privately feared that “La Bamba” — written and directed by a Latino playwright, Luis Valdez, and starring an unknown actor of Filipino descent, Lou Diamond Phillips — would fall “fatally short” of expectations and would “sour” Hollywood on other films about Latinos.
Yet the biopic, made for just $6.5 million, went on to gross more than $54 million. Adjusted for inflation, that’s more than $120 million.
“La Bamba became the flagship of what many thought was going to be a Latino wave in Hollywood,” Phillips said by video chat. “But it never took hold enough to where it became a mainstay.”
Valdez added, “In that sense then, ‘La Bamba’ is unique and fresh because not very much has been around to compete with it.”
With “La Bamba” playing on HBO Max and making a brief return to theaters, Valdez reunited with Phillips to discuss the film, and its impact, 34 years later.
These are edited excerpts from our conversation.
“La Bamba” is still considered one of the must-see Latino stories in cinematic history. How does it feel that a film you created over three decades ago is still so influential?
VALDEZ It feels both good and bad, in a way. It’s good that the movie is relevant, that it’s up-to-date and that people can enjoy it because of what it is. At the same time, there should be dozens of movies like “La Bamba” representing the Latino experience. Not just the Latino experience, but the minority experience as a whole in America. Because I think what makes the movie strong is that it references a new consensus in America, what it means to be American. It most definitely has multicultural roots, but it subscribes to the same basic universal concerns in every person’s life: the family, work, hope, ambition, dreams, desires, and it’s relevant in that sense, because those things never go away. Those are human and eternal.
PHILLIPS I agree with what Luis said. We would like to have been further along at this point in time. What we have seen, I think, for the last 20 years is a very vocal African-American community and very motivated and determined producers, directors and writers. When you have Tyler Perry, Ava DuVernay or Shonda Rhimes, you had these creators who became touchstones to opening up your own shop. Luis was the pioneer in that. He just didn’t get enough people to follow up in his footsteps.
Señor Valdez, you mentioned that the film was an American story. It inspired many first- and second-generation American Latino kids to dream big. Why is there such a barrier to putting an American label on what is considered an “ethnic” story?
VALDEZ I think it is a question of the American narrative. What story are we telling here and from whose point of view? We’ve all been sold on the idea of the pilgrims and 1492 and Europe coming and so forth, right? Well, that should include the story of Mexico, which is another country altogether as far as the American narrative is concerned. But actually, the whole thing has to be reviewed again. There’s a need to rewrite the narrative, to look at the narrative again and say, “OK, what is an American? What does it mean to be an American?”
We all live ordinary lives. We don’t have to be gang members. We don’t have to be criminals. We don’t have to be drug addicts. We don’t have to be violent. We can be normal people that go to the shopping centers and buy food and clothes for our kids, and just send them to school. We have the life that is represented in all the movies that deal with white people. They get the whole range. Minorities don’t; they get locked into a stereotype. And the more violent and the more exotic and the stranger it is, supposedly the more commercial. Well, that’s a lie.
I am curious about what happened to your filmmaking career after “La Bamba.” You directed and wrote a few TV movies, but then went back to theater and stopped making movies. What happened?
VALDEZ I became a filmmaker years after I was union organizer and the founder of El Teatro Campesino and a college professor. I went to a number of other things. I went back to teaching as well. As one of the founding professors at [Cal State University] Monterey Bay, I started this thing called the Institute for Teledramatic Arts and Technology, which anticipated some of the changes that are going on now, with streaming and such. But frankly, there was a great deal of difficulty in trying to get new projects that I wanted to do. They offered me things I didn’t want to do and so I decided not to because I had other options.
In the late ’90s, you said you were going to start working on a sequel to “La Bamba” that would follow Ritchie’s brother, Bob. What happened to that project?
VALDEZ It seemed to me that there was an extension of the story. I had followed Bob for the movie, God bless him, he died a couple of years ago. He was 81 with a Mohawk and an earring. He was just a sensational person to know, and to enjoy really as a friend. There was a story there that had to do with the extension of the history of rock ‘n’ roll, how we went from the ’50s into the ’60s. The vehicle to get there was really Bob’s through line. So I pitched this idea to a number of producers and I couldn’t get a hook.
I think quite frankly, we don’t have enough producers that understand the minority experience in America. They always go to the same things — the violence, the drugs and the sensationalism, thinking that that’s what’s going to sell. More often than not, it’s the quiet human story that finally connects with people, which I think is the secret to “La Bamba.”
Did the story change you? Did it inspire you to do something that you might not have done before?
PHILLIPS It underlined and galvanized my own dream. I was reading for Bob for a few days and then one day Luis walked past me. I was sitting in the hall. He goes, “Tomorrow you read for Ritchie.” I remember walking along Pico Boulevard thinking, “Man, oh God. I’ve been wrapping my head around Bob. Now, how do I play Ritchie?” The epiphany that came to me was, I’m already Ritchie. I’m a kid with a big dream, the desire to go after it. The whole process of becoming Ritchie and having that catapult me the way that it did, it changed my life.
I had a philosophy: It’s going to change my life, but it’s not going to change me. The experience made me introspective for the rest of my career and not feeling like I was entitled to this, that I was fortunate, and to never, ever be less than grateful.
VALDEZ Ritchie and I were part of the same generation. I was in high school when rock ‘n’ roll hit back in the ’50s, and I can understand Ritchie’s ambitions because I had the same ambitions. We were all gung-ho Americans back then, and I dreamt that all the opportunities were available to me. If I wanted to do whatever, if I want to be a rock star, I could, and Ritchie had that dream and he acted on it. And the same thing happened to me in the theater. I mean, there was no Latino theater when I started, and I realized, no one else has done it, so I’ll do it. I began to write plays in 1960. It was a whole different world then. This is why I identified with Ritchie: he died for it, but he lived his dreams.