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Ritchie Valens was a pioneer for Latino musiciansavatar

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I can’t help but think about the impact that a 17-year-old Ritchie Valens had on the music industry by the time he died in a tragic airplane crash in a frozen cornfield near Clear Lake, Iowa half a century ago.

When I was his age, I wrote for the Delano High School Live Wire but had just a miniscule fraction of the experience and ability needed to become a professional journalist. Valens – whose real name was Richard Valenzuela – was already a professional musician enjoying hit records like ‘La Bamba,’ ‘Donna’ and ‘Come On Let’s Go.’

It was not until the 1984 movie ‘La Bamba’ by Teatro Campesino founder Luis Valdez came out that the entire country found out that the airplane crash claimed the life of more than just one music titan. Buddy Holly, one of my favorites, perished along with the Big Bopper and the pilot. Holly and the Big Bopper had their hits and millions of fans throughout the country as well.

However, Valens’ death was harder to take (I was only three years old at the time) because of the potential career he could have had.

Here is my list of the most important Latino (U.S. born) musicians:

  1. Ritchie Valens. His music speaks for himself. He led the way for more successful Latinos to record in English. Although ‘La Bamba’ remains a big hit to this day, it is the music and words to ‘Donna’ that demonstrate Valens’ songwriting ability. If you want to get a taste of what Ritchie Valens was like, aside from renting or buying the movie, get a hold of ‘The Ritchie Valens Story’ (Del-Fi Records, 1993). The CD contains unreleased demos, photos and Ritchie’s story as told by producer Bob Keane. It includes a copy of the original photo that was used on a U.S. postage stamp.
  2. Lalo Guerrero. The godfather of Chicano music died a couple of years ago, but his humor and musical talents remain. He performed at Fresno’s Tower Theatre on Oct. 19, 2003 and the man was sharp, eloquent, humble, witty and delightful. You can’t imagine listening to ‘Zoot Suit Boogie’ without tapping your shoes to the beat, or enjoy ‘Pancho Claus’ without a smile breaking on your face.
  3. Little Joe. When I listen to Alma Garza on Saturday’s ‘Onda Tejana’ program on Radio Bilingüe, most of the requests are for Little Joe. Forget about the new Tejano sound that has none of the tight horn arrangements that keeps Little Joe favorites like ‘Las Nubes,’ ‘Cartas Marcadas’ or ‘Redneck Meskin Boy’ very much in demand today. Contemporaries like Rubén Ramos are musical jewels that remind us of our childhood and struggles to get to where we are today. (By the way, my father had his own Tejano band in San Angelo in the 1970s and 80s before he retired).
  4. Selena. She was just about to break big-time when she was killed in 1995. She inspired many Latinas to dream big. I remember interviewing her before a 1994 appearance on ‘The Gil García Padrón Show’ on the Fresno Telemundo affiliate at the time. She was finishing off a Carl’s Jr. cheeseburger and fries. She was on her way to becoming a diva, but had none of that diva snobbery. Sure, she dressed provocatively on stage, but it was her music that drew fans. She was making inroads as a crossover artist at the time of her death.
  5. Los Lobos. David Hildalgo (vocals, guitar), César Rosas (vocals, guitar), Louie Pérez (percussion), Steve Berlin (saxophone) and Conrad Lozano (bass) proved that you can mix Mexican traditional sounds with rock. Fans of Los Lobos will always point to early recordings of the group playing such traditional Mexican songs like ‘Ay Te Dejo en San Antonio’ and ‘Volver, Volver.’ The first time I saw the group play in concert was a New Year’s Eve performance in the Bay Area in the mid-1980s, opening for Huey Lewis and the News. Los Lobos was great!!! They continue to be one of my favorites.

If you think I’ve overlooked someone (Trini López, Vikki Carr, Los Lonely Boys, Pepe Aguilar), let me know. Remember, Pepe was born in Houston, Texas. No wonder he’s so big!!!

Written by Juan Esparaza

February 3rd, 2009 at 12:22 pm

4 Responses to 'Ritchie Valens was a pioneer for Latino musicians'

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  1. Hi Juan,
    Hello from an old friend/colleague!

    Nice piece on Richie V.

    And I would agree with your List of Five US-born.

    I would add:
    Tito Puente (born in NYC)
    Jose Feliciano (born in Puerto Rico, sort of part of the US)

    And while Carlos Santana he wasn’t born in the US he’s certainly identified with the 60′s/San Francisco scene.
    With his non-stop touring (since 1969!) he’s done so much for making fans of Latino music around the world.

    Keep up the great work. I’m reading out here in DC!

    -Felix Contreras


    felix contreras

    6 Feb 09 at 10:23 am

  2. Sorry, one more:
    Poncho Sanchez (Laredo, Texas), Latin jazz icon


    felix contreras

    6 Feb 09 at 10:25 am

  3. Richie Valens does certainly deserve the recognition and I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one who thinks so. Honorable mention could go to Sam the Sham (Wooly Bully), Freddie Fender, Johnny Rodriquez, Tierra, and many, many others as well.



    8 Feb 09 at 5:12 pm

  4. Hello Juan. My name is Sarah and I’m with Justice for Hispanic Farmers. I was reading your blog (which I greatly enjoy) when I saw this blog post you wrote. I started thinking that maybe you would be able to help me with a cause that is close to my heart, and that I desperately need help with. Just like the tragic deaths of some of the musicians you listed above, many wonderful Hispanic farmers have also literally died while trying to succeed in their careers due to farm loan discrimination from the USDA. We’re working to end this sad chapter in American history, for farmers like Lupe Garcia whose story is below. Would you consider posting a link to our petition ( on your blog? Information on the discrimination law suit, Garcia v. Vilsack, can be found at
    We’re doing everything we can to generate enough signatures to get President Obama’s attention. He was left a lot of messes by the previous administration but this is one injustice he could easily rectify. Congress has already directed the Justice Department to settle the matter in the 2008 Farm Bill but Justice Department lawyers refuse. If we can get the President to weigh in we can close the books on a sad chapter of American history that began in the 80’s when President Reagan dismantled the Civil Rights division within the USDA—an agency known as the “Last Plantation”. Thanks for your consideration.
    Lupe Garcia is a third generation Hispanic farmer. Since 2000 he has been fighting to bring accountability and transparency to the USDA-administered farm credit programs as the named plaintiff in the Garcia v. Vilsack law suit.

    Garcia & Sons– Lupe, his father and brother– owned two farms in Dona Ana County, New Mexico where they grew onions, lettuce, wheat and corn. The family operation repeatedly applied for the operating loans farmers depend on to stay in business; loans the Farm Service Agency was set up to make. Despite positive cash flow, profitability and sufficient collateral, Garcia and Sons was unable to obtain the loans that were supposed to be available to them under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act. This systematic deprivation of operating capital continued until they were foreclosed upon in 1999. The foreclosure was the result of the USDA’s refusal to grant the Garcias the same loans, disaster relief and advice they were providing to other, less qualified farmers.

    The Garcia family’s story is one of thousands of cases of admitted discrimination by the USDA against minority farmers and ranchers. African American, Native American and women farmers were similarly discriminated against. In the case of African American farmers justice is being served. That group is being compensated with $2.25 billion. Justice for the others has been deferred. In the words of former Congressman Kika de la Garza “It is simply untenable logically, legally, morally or politically that four minority groups can suffer the identical discrimination from the same federal agency and yet only one of the four groups be compensated on a class-wide basis.”

    The issue is simply whether the decades of admitted discrimination by our government against these farmers should be rectified by granting a fair settlement of their discrimination claims. We believe there is no place for discrimination within a tax payer funded federal program and that a settlement like the one already granted to African American farmers is long overdue.

    Since the beginning of Lupe Garcia’s fight over nine years ago, untold numbers of farmers and ranchers have gone out of business- lost their farms, been foreclosed upon, or just quit. Some have faced retaliation. Many, like Lupe’s father, have literally died waiting for relief. Help us win justice for Hispanic farmers and ranchers. Sign our petition now!


    Sarah Smith

    23 Oct 09 at 8:09 am

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