Remembering Ritchie Valens Legacy & Impact 

Born in 1941 in Los Angeles, CA, and raised in the San Fernando Valley, Richard Valenzuela is known as a pioneer in rock music history, being the first Chicano (Mexican-American) to have merged Spanish with the rock n’ roll sound with his version of the traditional folk song “La Bamba.”  A self-taught musician and singer-songwriter, he was renamed “Ritchie Valens” for easier and anglified pronunciation, (common at the time) by producer and President of Del-Fi Records Bob Keane. At just 16, Valens was signed to a record deal and went on to become a teen sensation playing gigs around the country while still in high school. He notably appeared on some of the most historic shows in music history including Dick Clark’s renowned  American Bandstand, The Dick Clark Show, and concert promoter and DJ Alan Freed’s Christman Show. During high school, Valens began dating Donna Ludwig who became his high school sweetheart. The song Donna” was penned by the singer for his first love, and remains a fan favorite to this day.

In 1959, Valens had the opportunity to tour with some of music’s hottest acts, ultimately leading to his untimely passing. At just 17 years old, the musician tragically passed away 65 years ago in Clear Lake, Iowa. Last month marked the 65th anniversary of the tragedy which occurred on February 3rd, 1959 resulting in a plane crash due to hazardous weather. Others killed were Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and pilot Roger Peterson. The musicians had also been touring with Dion and the Belmonts, Frankie Sardo, and more while on The Winter Dance Party Tour of 1959. The tour was set for 24 dates throughout the Midwest and was to showcase rising talent in the rock n’ roll scene which was developing with new innovative sounds and artists of the time. Other artists such as Elvis Presley, Hank Williams, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry had played a huge role in the rise of rock n’ roll and had inspired countless musicians during the 1950s and after, including Valens. Inspired by American rock, Valens also took inspiration from the sounds of traditional Mexican Mariachi music. Known for other songs including “Come on Let’s Go,” “Ooh My Head,” “Little Girl” and his rendition of “We Belong Together,” Valens has continued to inspire new generations of musicians after his passing, especially other artists in Chicano and Latin Rock that have come after him such as Carlos Santana, Selena, Led Zeppelin, and newer artists including DannyLux. 

Levi Ponce Mural in Pacoima, CA: Photo Courtesy: James Peuster

At a time when Latinos in American mainstream music were scarce, Valens became a true pioneer and visionary of his era and displayed maturity and talent beyond his 17 years. In 1987, the biopic La Bamba‘ by Luis Valdez was released starring Lou Diamond Phillips and Esai Morales. The film depicts Valens rise to stardom, adolescent years, and conflict with brother Bob Morales who passed away in 2018. The film has gone on to become a classic and was preserved by The National Film Registry for its cultural impact. During the month of February, music fans also flock to Clear Lake, Iowa for the annual Winter Dance Party which takes place in the Surf Ballroom, sadly the last place where Valens, Holly, and the Bopper performed. Every year, the event features classic artists and tribute artists who perform songs of Valens, Holly, The Big Bopper, and other retro tunes. 

Today, Ritchie Valens’ legacy continues to live on and there have been various tributes that have commemorated the musician around the country including a stainless-steel monument near the crash site, and multiple tributes in Valens hometown of Pacoima in Los Angeles such as the Ritchie Valens Post Office, Ritchie Valens Memorial Highway, and the Ritchie Valens Recreation Center. In 1971, the song “American Pie,” by Don McClean commemorated the tragedy, and the line “The Day The Music Died,” has been synonymous with the accident. Legendary singer Dion of Dion and the Belmonts recounts memories on the Winer Dance Tour and interactions with Valens, Holly, and The Big Bopper during a YouTube interview. He confirms he won a coin toss to fly to their next gig, but gave up his seat to Valens after finding out the flight was to cost $36 and due to Valens being sick.  It was also widely known in Valens circle how afraid he was of planes during his pre-teen years after a plane had crashed over his school when he was 15.

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways for fans to pay their respects to Valens today. Attending the Winter Dance Party in Clear Lake is ideal or visiting his gravesite at The San Fernando Mission Cemetery in his hometown, or just simply listening to Valen’s music and appreciating his talent is also enough to reflect and show gratitude. As we look back on 65 years ago, we celebrate Valens legacy and remember his contribution to music and for making such a strong impact on Chicano culture.



  • Jenny Castro

    Jenny Castro is a part of the editorial team for Latinitas Magazine. She has a Bachelor’s Degree in Law and Justice from Central Washington University, and also holds a certificate in women’s entrepreneurial studies from the University of Washington. Jenny has a passion for storytelling, and loves highlighting diverse topics such as historical events, pop-culture, music, film, and leaders in the Latino community. She strives to provoke thoughtful and factual genuine storytelling in her pieces and takes pride in researching truth and authenticity. In her free time, she spends time reading her favorite books, and watching classic Hollywood films. In 2020, Jenny also appeared on the Turner Classic Movies Network where she provided commentary on classic film. She is excited to be a part of the Latinitas team.

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