‘La Bamba’ At 30: Director Luis Valdez, Esai Morales Talk About Film that Redefined Latino Roles

LuisValdez

Luis Valdez with Lou Diamond Phillips playing Ritchie Valens in “La Bamba.” (Courtesy Columbia Pictures)

The 1950’s in America: Families would gather around the television every night, and young people sang and danced to the rock and roll of Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. For a short time, there was also a teen sensation from Pacoima, California, who made teen girls go wild.

His name was Ritchie Valens, and he was only 16 when his songs, “La Bamba” and “Donna” became Billboard hits. A year later, in 1959, his life came to an abrupt end in a plane crash, along with fellow rock stars Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper.

Few knew then that the singer’s real name was Richard Valenzuela and that he was Mexican American. At first, even award-winning Chicano writer and director Luis Valdez thought he was Italian, like other known singers of the time, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.

However, little did Valdez know then that in 1987 he’d be bringing the talented Valens back to life by writing the screenplay and directing the iconic film based on his short life. “La Bamba,” which made it to the top 5 in the box office on opening weekend and was nominated for a Golden Globe, turned 30 on July 24. In many ways, the movie redefined Latino roles in Hollywood and showed that a Latino teen who became a rock and roll star was as American as anyone else.

“It was significant, even more so then,” Valdez told NBC News, about the importance of a Chicano writer in the 1980s writing about a fellow Mexican American who became a music legend. “Latinos were traditionally cast as the villain roles, and I was able to tell the story of a rock and roll pioneer.”

Before entering the film industry, Valdez was already establishing himself as “the father of Chicano theater.” He won many accolades for his play about racism in 1940’s Los Angeles, “Zoot Suit,” and he founded El Teatro Campesino in 1965 in San Juan Bautista, California. Originally, it was meant as a cultural distraction for the tired, overworked farmworkers of Cesar Chavez’ United Farm Workers. However, it has since expanded to bring the arts to many communities, and all ages, for the past 50 years – ultimately earning him the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.

“One of the first things about writing is, you write about what you know,” Valdez said. “Ritchie was born in 1941, and I was born a year before that. We traveled very similar paths. Once I got to know his family, and where he lived, and where he grew up, I could see vast similarities.”

In the summer of 1958, Valdez said he remembers seeing Valens at 16 working in the crops picking apricots.

“It was only a couple of miles from where I lived,” said Valdez, who also grew up as a farmworker. “All of that rang very true to me…He was a diamond in the rough. He was his own composer. He learned how to play guitar from his uncles…I think all Latinos acknowledged the fact that he verified our presence in the world with the same tastes and interests.”

When Valdez was in college, he said he remembers vividly going to parties with his friend who would play guitar, and Valdez would sing, “La Bamba,” a Mexican folk song later adapted for rock and roll by Valens. The same song would have a strong significance later in Valdez’ life as well.

Valdez’s inspiration to make the movie took place 1979, decades after Valens’ death. Valdez was now a respected playwright, and it was the opening night of “Zoot Suit” on Broadway. Valdez, the first Chicano director to have a play presented on Broadway, said he and his brother were looking out of the theater onto the street, discussing what the next project should be.

“We were sitting up there pretty full of ourselves,” Valdez said, laughing heartily at the memory. “We heard mariachi, all of a sudden, in the heart of New York City – on the street. They were playing outside of my brother’s dressing room. The mariachi was sent by the president of Mexico for our opening night.”

The song that happened to be playing was, “La Bamba.”

“My brother and I looked at each other and and said [in unison], ‘La Bamba!’,” recalled Valdez. “As a matter of fact, “La Bamba” became our obsession for the next five years.”

Valdez and his brother started making contacts and looking for the late Valens’ relatives, the Valenzuelas, in Los Angeles. They ended up finding Valens’ brother, Bob Morales, at a bar in their local San Juan Bautista, up north. Through Bob, they met Valens’ mother, sisters, extended family, and even his high school girlfriend and song’s namesake, Donna.

“I have to give the credit to Bob,” said Valdez, about the film’s authenticity.

“When I interviewed him, I told him to be honest,” recalled Valdez. “He said, ‘I was a drunk and a womanizer and all of that — just tell the truth.’ So I did.”

Valdez credits the long-lasting success of the film to the talent of the cast, which were mostly Latino and not well-known at the time.

Lou Diamond Phillips played Valens.

“He was very shy. But once on camera, he was right on,” remembered Valdez. “He was so sensitive, and the camera loved him – he couldn’t play the guitar, but he could lip sync. We put him on training for the guitar before we started the movie.”

Together with the late Elizabeth Peña, who played Bob’s girlfriend, and Rosanna DeSoto, who played Ritchie’s mom, Valdez is still pleased with his cast three decades later.

 Screenplay writer and director Luis Valdez. Columbia Pictures

Actor Esai Morales, who is now busy playing a lead role in the Netflix series, “Ozark,” and running for president of the SAG/AFTRA union, played Valens’ brother Bob, a memorable character whom he understood.

“I realized I had a lot more in common with Bob that resonated – I too grew up without the presence of my biological father, and I’ve always felt like an overlooked talent,” Morales said. “I think that explains a lot of the pain of Bob’s character — it’s always about Ritchie.”

“I view Bob and Ritchie as two parts of the same force,” said Morales. “I view Ritchie as the treble and the melody, and Bob as the bottom, the depths.”

Morales was only 23 when he scored the role of Bob. At the time, he knew it could be a very special project with a potential to be a classic. Three decades later, he is very proud of the movie’s significance.

“I feel honored and blessed to have been part of a truly representative and historic piece where we as Latinos are portrayed in a more complete light and manner that Hollywood usually affords us,” Morales said. “We are not the side dish, we are not the problem. We are the American dreamers embodied by Ritchie.”

The film’s two main actors, Phillips and Morales, are not Mexican American; Morales is Puerto Rican and from the Bronx, and Lou Diamond Phillips is of mixed – mostly Filipino – ancestry. But the struggles of life as a minority in America was a shared experience that transcended the actors’ different cultural origins.

“We were a real family. We were real close,” Morales recalled. “I owe a lot of my performance and what I was able to absorb from Bob – that Chicano pride nod — he gave me that. It’s something that I don’t think I’d be able to come up with on my own.”

Morales is still broken-hearted at the loss of his co-star Elizabeth Peña, who passed away three years ago, at the age 55.

“I still miss her,” said Morales, after an emotional pause. “She added another dimension. She gave the female energy of the film.” Peña and Morales were classmates in New York’s prestigious High School of Performing Arts, and he had a crush on her since he was 14; his role in “La Bamba” was a dream come true in more ways than one.

“I got to make out with her,” said Morales. “She had a way with words and was quick to laugh and make a joke. We just loved making each other laugh. I didn’t know we’d have such a short time with her.”

Morales wants to see more roles like these for Latinos in Hollywood, which is part of the reason he has thrown himself in the ring to be president of SAG/AFTRA, the union that represents actors, announcers and broadcast journalists, among others.

“We [Latinos] have so many good stories but so little support,” he said. “I think the time has come that our community demands to see more of who we are – so we can get to know each other better,” said Morales. “We tell certain stories over and over again, yet other stories are completely neglected, and I’d like to see a balance of the Latino American experience. We are also American and just as American as others. If you don’t know your history, you don’t know your value.”

For Valdez, it was a privilege to be able to tell this part of the Latino American experience which shaped an entire generation in the U.S.

“To take the 1950’s of my youth and turn it into a movie – the whole process of making art is it allows you to look at your life from the highest perspective.” said Valdez. “You’re able to see that you’re absolutely connected to everyone else. It helps you to deal with your past resentments, and I was able to look at my migrant farmworker life with affection…It’s backed up by a lot of heart. That’s what determines the success or failure of a film.”

Originally published on NBCNews.com.

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25 years of El Vez, the Chicano Elvis

El Vez, aka Robert Lopez (Photo/Randall Michelson)

El Vez, aka Robert Lopez (Photo/Randall Michelson)

August 16, 1977 was the day the world lost its hip shaking, soulful singer with slicked black hair, sideburns and a quivering lip — Elvis Presley. But for the past 25 years, Robert Lopez — otherwise known as “El Vez” — has been resurrecting the rock and roll icon with a Mexican-American flair and sharing his songs worldwide with a political twist.

Since 1988, Lopez has been touring the U.S. and Europe singing Elvis songs, except he changed the lyrics to tell a different story and titles to “Viva la Raza,” instead of “Viva Las Vegas,” and “En el Barrio,” replacing “In the Ghetto.”

At 52, he is still touring and making new fans. He also added yoga to his schedule — as he says that’s the secret to maintaining himself “Elvis size.”

“I’ve been on the road every week since April — San Francisco, Los Angeles, Arizona, Texas, the East Coast, Chicago, Italy, Spain, Virginia, Australia, and San Diego this weekend,” says Lopez.

In 2011, he was made part of the “American Sabor: Latinos in U.S. Popular Music” exhibit at The Smithsonian for taking the “Elvis-impersonation phenomenon and reinventing it into a cross-cultural live performance combining a love of Elvis with an impressive knowledge of popular music and a pro-Latino political agenda.” One of his gold suits is displayed in between of the memorabilia of the iconic Ritchie Valens and Celia Cruz.

“To be named at the same thing as Ritchie Valens,” says Lopez about one of his biggest inspirations, “I felt really proud.”

Lopez’ career impersonating “The King” started while working as a curator at an art gallery, La Luz De Jesús, on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles.

“I curated a theme on Elvis Presley,” says Lopez. “I hired an Elvis impersonator, and he wasn’t very good. I started showing him what he should be doing, and I thought ‘I could be the Mexican Elvis.’”

Lopez says he was such a hit with the hardcore Elvis fans passing by the art gallery, they urged him to go to Elvis Tribute Week in Memphis. There, he competed in an Elvis impersonator contest, made it to the finals and the rest is history.

“I was listening to Elvis since I was a baby,” says the Chicano performer, who currently resides in Seattle and has a restaurant named after him in Philadelphia and one coming this fall to New York City. “When I was 16, I was moved by punk rock, but Elvis was the punk rock of ‘56…I knew I wasn’t a regular Elvis impersonator, I think my punk rock attitude made me feel I could do this and do it my way.”

One of the biggest hits, of his more than 20 albums — “Immigration Time” — talks about immigration to the tune of Elvis’ “Suspicious Minds.”

“It was the hot topic in ‘88, and it’s a sad thing that 25 years later nothing has changed,” says Lopez. “It just shows you that things don’t change, but no reason to stop trying. I go through different phases with my material — I reinterpret it — it’s gone through angrier versions and lighter versions…”

He says he likes to sing as a way to give tribute to Elvis but also to Latino culture.

“It is funny and it is political all at the same time in one song,” says Lopez. “I’ve always been doing music, but I’ve always loved the idea of parody. The best parody is when you really love the subject.”

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.

Cheech Marin turns 66 and wins Arts Patron of the Year Award

Cheech Marin (Courtesy Cheech Marin)

Cheech Marin (Courtesy Cheech Marin)

This is a big birthday weekend for one of America’s favorite funny men, Cheech Marin. In addition to celebrating his 66th birthday tomorrow, the ArtHamptons International Fine Art Fair is awarding him with its Arts Patron of the Year Award.

Who knew this third generation Mexican-American actor who has been in countless American movies, such as the famous “Cheech and Chong,” and who is particularly known for his heavy Mexican accent, is not really fluent in Spanish? He’s also the world’s largest collector of Chicano art.

“It’s really an honor, because I get it in the Hamptons,” says Marin about what receiving the award means to him. “They don’t really know Chicano art.”

The ArtHamptons, a three-day international art fair in Bridgehampton, NY is expecting 12,000 art lovers to visit during the weekend. Rick Friedman, president of the Hamptons Expo Group, the organizer of ArtHamptons, says Chicano art was brought to the Hamptons for the first time in honor of Marin.

“The reason he was chosen was because he has a 30-year commitment to the arts and giving back to the arts,” says Friedman, who adds that Marin has been integral to the Chicano arts movement in America. “He’s taken a lot of artists under his wing, he’s done 15 museum tours, and written books. We felt that he should be recognized…”

On his birthday, Marin will doing one of the things he loves most, talking about art and new Chicano artists.

“La Reina de las Mascotas” by Ricardo Ruiz (Thomas Paul Fine Gallery)

“La Reina de las Mascotas” by Ricardo Ruiz (Thomas Paul Fine Gallery)

He says he’s loved art all of his life and he started collecting Chicano art in 1985.

“When I got to the point when I had enough money to buy it, I started collecting,” says Marin who also wanted to help starting artists. “I started doing shows so they can be seen more.”

Today, he says he probably owns around 400 pieces of Chicano art.

“It’s all over my house,” says Marin who just recently moved to a new home in Pacific Palisades, Calif. “It’s like a gallery.”

He says he enjoys spending his days lately traveling the world sharing his art exhibitions, but he can’t bare to pick a favorite.

“It’s like choosing your favorite child…,” says Marin. “It’s a window into another world…It’s like watching movies but at a slower pace.”

He urges everyone to come out and see him on his birthday, or at least check out his website. He also mentions Carlos Donjuan and Carlos Ruiz, both from Texas, as being two up-and-coming Chicano artists to be on the lookout for.

“You don’t need a lot of money,” says the experienced art collector about buying art, although the pieces at ArtHamptons range in price from $5,000 to $30,000. “…just some knowledge. Art fairs are a good place to do some research.”

As far as what he is wishing for when he blows out his candles tomorrow?

“Peace in the Middle East,” says Marin. “Can we all just get along?”

“Tierra Nueva” by Carlos Donjuan (Thomas Paul Fine Gallery)

“Tierra Nueva” by Carlos Donjuan (Thomas Paul Fine Gallery)