In the summer of 1987, the surprise success of La Bamba, a film about teenage singer Ritchie Valens (born Valenzuela), inspired a news media celebration of the role of Hispanics in our national life.
But several ironies surrounding the film went unnoted. For example, the writer and director of this commercial success was Luis Valdez, former director of the agitprop-inspired Teatro Campesino and professor of Chicano studies at Berkeley. Valdez had once denounced “the subversive onslaught of the 20th-century neon gabacho (gringo) commercialism that passes for American culture” and rejected “efforts to make us disappear into the white melting pot, only to be hauled out again when it is convenient or profitable for gabacho…politicians.” Yet La Bamba paints a very typical picture of American life, one of aspiration and assimilation. It is a bittersweet success story of a clean-cut Mexican-American kid who loved his family and his Anglo girlfriend, sang his way to rock ‘n’ roll stardom, and died young in a 1959 plane crash. And this young man who grew up in a migrant labor camp, whose big hit was a Mexican folk song, La Bamba, in fact spoke little Spanish.
To complicate matters, in the film Valens was played not by a Mexican American buy by a young actor, Lou Diamond Phillips, who was born in the Philippines and raised in Texas, and who describes his background as a mixture of Filipino, Hawaiian, Chinese, Scotch-Irish, and Cherokee. A Puerto Rican, Esai Morales, played Valens’s half brother. The next year Phillips again portrayed a Mexican American, in Stand and Deliver, a film about Jaime Escalante, the math teacher acclaimed for his work with East Los Angeles high-school students. Bolivian-born Escalante was played by Mexican-American actor Edward James Olmos, who grew up in East Los Angeles. The film was co-written and directed by Ramon Menendez, a Cuban-born graduate of the UCLA film school.