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When "La Bamba" premiered in the summer of 1987, the expectations for its success were low. The film was based on the life of Ritchie Valens, the Mexican-American teenager (birth name: Richard Steven Valenzuela) who was one of the first Latinos in rock 'n' roll. It covered his beginnings as a farmworker in Delano, Calif., his bond with his contentious big brother, Bob, and the complexities of having to hide his background to make it in the music business with hits like the title tune. At its core, it was the story of two brothers working to achieve the American dream, a dream that was usually reserved for white Americans.
The short-lived career of a Latino teenager didn't exactly bring Hollywood executives running. What were dubbed "ethnic" stories weren't considered box office draws. An early article in The Los Angeles Times paraphrased marketing specialists who privately feared that "La Bamba" — written and directed by a Latino playwright, Luis Valdez, and starring an unknown actor of Filipino descent, Lou Diamond Phillips — would fall "fatally short" of expectations and would "sour" Hollywood on other films about Latinos.
Yet the biopic, made for just $6.5 million, went on to gross more than $54 million. Adjusted for inflation, that's more than $120 million.
"La Bamba became the flagship of what many thought was going to be a Latino wave in Hollywood," Phillips said by video chat. "But it never took hold enough to where it became a mainstay."
Valdez added, "In that sense then, ‘La Bamba' is unique and fresh because not very much has been around to compete with it. It feels both good and bad, in a way. It's good that the movie is relevant, that it's up-to-date and that people can enjoy it because of what it is. At the same time, there should be dozens of movies like "La Bamba" representing the Latino experience. Not just the Latino experience, but the minority experience as a whole in America. Because I think what makes the movie strong is that it references a new consensus in America, what it means to be American. It most definitely has multicultural roots, but it subscribes to the same basic universal concerns in every person's life: the family, work, hope, ambition, dreams, desires, and it's relevant in that sense, because those things never go away. Those are human and eternal."— Yolanda Machado, The New York Times
Sponsored by American Music Research Center
Mon October 23, 7:00 PM, VAC Basement Auditorium (1B20)
United States of America, 1987, in English, 108 min
Director: Luis Valdez, Writer: Luis Valdez, Cast: Lou Diamond Phillips, Danielle von Zerneck, Elizabeth Peña, Rosanna DeSoto, Esai Morales