The First Latino Rockstar
by: María R. González
The 1950s decade was not always easy for the Mexican-American community in the United States. It was the brewing time for the fight against social injustices that triggered the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, and like the African-American community and other communities of color, we faced the scourge of racial discrimination, segregation, and economic and educational disadvantage.
“No Mexicans allowed” signs still adorned restaurant and public facilities across the Southwest. Segregation was on its way out in the legal system but still a struggle in everyday life for many. We were not seen as equals, a sentiment horrifically exemplified by President Eisenhower’s shameful “Operation Wetback” that was instituted during this idyllic (to some) decade of soda fountains (albeit segregated), quiz shows (also segregated) and rock and roll. And yet, one of the most powerful and visible legacies of the 1950s, the rock and roll golden age, would not pass by without being infused by Latino blood.
During the tail-end of this decade, in 1958, Richard Steven Valenzuela walked into Del-Fi recording studios in Los Angeles, California, to record “Come on, let’s go,” an upbeat, bouncy rock and roll song that launched the career of the artist who is known as the first Mexican-American to crossover into the mainstream American music scene.
With jet-black hair coiffed in the iconic 1950s rock star style, dimpled cheeks and guitar in hand, the 16-year-old Mexican kid from Pacoima, California, burst into the American rock and roll scene and prepared the stage for generations of Latino recording artists to come.
“Come on, let’s go,” which Valenzuela wrote, launched his whirlwind, successful music career. Valenzuela became a rising star during a decade when Mexican-Americans and Latinos across the United States suffered social injustices, and he likely faced discrimination and disadvantages at a time when his worth and place in this nation was questioned because of his race, his skin color and last name.
By all accounts, Valenzuela, whose name was re-tooled by his manager to “Ritchie Valens” to appeal to a broader audience, didn’t question his talent or cower to the phantom of racism. A self-taught musician, talented singer (he was known as “The Little Richard of the Valley”), and innovative songwriter, he performed at par with Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, Jackie Wilson and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. His second single “Donna” made it to number two on the music charts nationwide and sold millions of copies, solidifying his status as one of rock and roll’s favorite stars. He made his national debut on American Bandstand and headlined tours throughout the nation during his career.
An icon in every sense of the word and an influence for an array of artists that range from Los Lobos to The Beach Boys, and the father of rock en español, Ritchie was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001. His recording career was meteoric and meaningful but brief, ending only eight months after he walked into Del-Fi studios to record “Come on, let’s go.” In February 3, 1959, Ritchie died in a plane crash during “The Winter Dance Party Tour”, along with fellow rock and roll legends Buddy Holly and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, a grim day that became known as “The Day the Music Died.” He was only 17.
One can only wonder how much more Ritchie would have contributed to the American musical landscape. Beyond his prodigal guitar-playing ability and gifted voice, Ritchie was also a visionary who was ahead of his time: he pioneered cultural fusion in music.
To complement the single “Donna,” Ritchie chose to record a revamped version of “La Bamba.” He ‘modernized’ the music, infusing the traditional huapango sound with the amped rock and roll guitar, but he kept the lyrics in Spanish. What he did was a first in American and Latino music history. Ritchie introduced mainstream America to a traditional Mexican song and united two cultures in one. The song made it to number 22 in the music charts. The American audience had heard the first rock en español song, and they loved it.