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Ritchie Valens' Roots

July 19, 1987|GREGG BARRIOS

WATSONVILLE, Calif. — "I still remember the first time we heard Ritchie sing on the radio," the mother of the late Latino rock 'n' roller Ritchie Valens recalled about that distant day, almost 30 years ago.

"I told his brother Bob, come on, let's go to Saugus. I had some business there. I had a 1950 Olds then. The body wasn't too good, but I paid $50 for each tire and I bought five. I pulled over to the side of the road when 'Come On, Let's Go' came on the radio. We just sat there looking at each other amazed."

In those days, before son Ritchie became a star, the family lived in the San Fernando Valley. Mrs. Consuelo (Connie) Valenzuela would often take her kids to the Spanish-language movies, especially to the Million Dollar Theater in downtown Los Angeles where they would see master comic Cantinflas and Mexican charro/singer Tito Guizar. "I always thought you had really arrived when a film made it to that theater," she remembered.

Connie Valenzuela said she plans to return soon to the Million Dollar Theater with her now grown daughters. But this time they'll be seeing the Spanish-language version of "La Bamba," the new movie about her son's all-too-brief singing career and her family.

The Valens family now lives in the Central California farming community of Watsonville (south of San Jose). Over the July 4 weekend, "La Bamba" had a "hometown" preview for Valens' family and neighbors at the Fox Theater here, a typical Art Deco-styled movie house from the '30s that usually plays Spanish-language films today. The preview was given by Columbia Pictures to herald the nationwide opening of the film in English and Spanish this week.

The Valens family's on-screen counterparts were also at the screening: Lou Diamond Phillips, who plays Ritchie; Rosana De Soto, who is seen as Connie Valenzuela, and Esai Morales, who portrays the jealous half-brother, Bob Morales--the role that is pivotal in the film. But away from the excitement of the screening, Connie Valenzuela, 72, sat in one of her daughters' homes, surrounded by her several children and grandchildren. The two-story tract home has a wall devoted to photographs of Ritchie. One hand-tinted studio portrait shows a grinning teen-age Valens in a sport coat and bow tie, another of him standing next to a black-and-chromed '57 Thunderbird.

She was reflective, if a little dim, about memories of her son, who died Feb. 3, 1959 in a plane crash during a snowstorm in Iowa. That crash also killed two Texas rockers, Buddy Holly and J. P. (The Big Bopper) Richardson.

Connie Valenzuela said many of Ritchie's early songs came from things around his barrio when the family lived in the San Fernando Valley community of Pacoima. " 'That's My Little Suzie' was about a crippled neighbor girl. 'She rocks to the left, and rocks to the right' described her." Another, "Hurry Up," came from an expression that Valenzuela said she used to get her kids to do chores. (Her memory falters here, since the song wasn't actually written by Valens but appeared on his first album.) However, "Come On, Let's Go" did indeed come from an expression used by both Ritchie and his mom whenever they went somewhere.

"Later, when he started going out to play at different places, I would worry. After all, this 16-year-old kid was often out until midnight. So I'd call up one of the deejays, because at that time they would sponsor dances. Once, I called Art Laboe and told him it was time to get the guys home. Laboe never listened to me. But whenever I'd call up and ask to speak to Jerry Wallace (of "Primrose Lane" fame), he'd see that Ritchie would be back before I knew it." As she remembered, Connie Valenzuela, seated by the kitchen table, smiled.

Her children listened to her recollections, some for the first time. One of Valens' favorite songs, Mrs. Valenzuela said, was a child's lullaby he called "The Paddi Wack Song," which he sang accompanied by his guitar to his young sisters in the family's backyard.

In the summer of 1986, New Visions (Taylor Hackford's film production company) began filming the story of Ritchie's life, as written by Luis Valdez. Ritchie's grown up and married sisters Connie Jr. and Irma had small parts as farm workers in the opening sequence. Their own daughters, Gloria and Kristin, played their mothers (Ritchie's sisters) as young girls. (Mrs. Valenzuela and Ritchie's brother Bob also have small roles in the film.) Having seen the film several times now, both sisters have mixed emotions about the movie.

"I was too young to really know my brother," Connie Jr., 36, admitted. "He died when I was barely 7. I never knew all the problems poor Bob went through or all my mother had to put up with him at the time. After the film was over I just wanted to hold on to both of them. It's brought us all so much closer."

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